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Marines Print Edition
The Cost of Victory Print Edition
Western Alliance Intelligence Directorate HQ
Wash-Balt Metroplex, Earth
Gavin Stark’s office was palatial, a testament to the immense power wielded by its occupant. It offered a kilometer high view of the Washbalt skyline, and while it was equipped with a sophisticated technology suite through which he practiced his trade, in many ways it was a look into the past. Stark favored antiques, the more priceless the better, and the exquisite wood paneling and furniture created an interesting anomaly in the ultramodern setting.
The head of Alliance security leaned back in his giant desk chair, a painstakingly restored relic that allegedly had belonged to a pre-Alliance British head of state. It had cost a fortune, but Stark didn’t care. His position gave him access to virtually unlimited funds, and the fact that almost none of it was actually his amused him. He had gotten to where he was by taking what he wanted, and he didn’t intend to stop now. Not with so much work left to do.
There was a Directorate meeting scheduled later that afternoon, but Stark generally made the decisions beforehand, sometimes allowing the others to feel that they had participated, but rarely listening much to what they had to say. The previous Number One had been weak, at least to Stark’s way of thinking. He’d delegated considerable power to the others, having decided the job was just too big for one man. In the end he had been destroyed by a cabal of those he’d included in his decision making, those he had trusted. Few people knew for sure where he was, though Stark himself did – it was Stark who’d chopped him up and fed the pieces into the power plant of one of Washbalt’s nondescript apartment blocks.
Unlike his predecessor, Stark wasn’t willing to concede that anything was too much for him to handle, and his pathological paranoia wouldn’t allow him to share authority even if he thought he needed the backup. He would never put too much power into another’s hands, thinking they would only use it later to destroy him. He’d seen it happen, and he was determined it wouldn’t happen to him.
The Directorate consisted of the coldest, most ambitious, and least morally constrained operatives in the Alliance, but Stark was a breed apart and ruled them all with sheer terror. None of the others could match his utter brilliance or reptilian coldness. Among a nest of amoral vipers, Gavin Stark had no equal. None dared challenge him and, since the war, he’d cemented his already almost-total control over the entire Directorate.
He’d even used the defection of the former Number Three, a near disaster that had almost slipped past him, to instill greater terror in his subordinates. Andres Carillon had been feared almost as much as Stark, and only a few people in Alliance Intelligence knew the real reason Carillon had been killed. Stark allowed the others to assume he’d done away with him in a power struggle, sending a message to anyone else who might harbor unhealthy ambitions.
Stark had one confidante, a friend even, if true friendship was possible for a creature like him. Jack Dutton was Number Two on the Directorate. The Chair had been in his grasp, but old and tired, he’d stepped aside for his younger, stronger protégé. Dutton was a trusted and valued counselor to Stark, a relationship made possible by the old man’s long years of mentorship and his lack of ambition to move up the chain.
The two sat together now, discussing the status of a number of projects. Stark had poured himself a drink from a bottle of single malt Scotch so expensive it could have paid 100 Cogs for a month. He’d started to pour one for Dutton, but the old man waved him off, taking only a cup of black coffee. Number Two had been a respectable drinker in his day, but age was finally catching him. He had to cut back somewhere, so he couldn’t start with the Scotch, at least not at 11am.
“The colonial situation is deteriorating more quickly than we’d originally anticipated.” Stark looked over at his friend as he spoke. The old man had really aged since the end of the war. The rejuvs weren’t working anymore, and despite the best that modern medicine could do, it was obvious Dutton was down to his last year or two. Stark would miss him; when the old man was gone he’d be truly alone. Always cold blooded, he thought, I’m going to miss his knowledge too. Dutton knew where the bodies were buried, probably because he’d put most of them there himself…or at least provided the shovel.
“Yes.” Dutton’s voice was weak, but it was obvious his mind was as sharp as ever. “There are too many retired military settled on the frontier, especially with the recent demobilizations. Even lacking weaponry and support, they think they can beat anything we throw at them.” He paused, clearing his throat. “We shouldn’t be surprised; we taught them to think that way. And they just won the biggest war ever fought in space.”
“They did. With 140 trillion credits and the productive capacity of the entire Alliance behind them.” Stark’s voice was superficially emotionless, but Dutton could detect the undercurrent of derision.
Stark tended to view the colonials as idealistic fools who would quickly cave when pressured. Dutton was less sure of that; he was afraid they were going to prove to be a much more formidable adversary than anyone expected. “Don’t underestimate these people, Gavin. If it comes to open rebellion, we’re going to have our hands full dealing with it, especially if it spreads. It’s not going to be easy to control a hundred worlds if all of them are fighting us.”
“I understand what you’re saying, old friend.” Stark never discounted Dutton’s take on anything, but he was convinced he could handle whatever the colonies threw at him. “But we’ve been working on this for years, now. We’ve subverted the Marine Corps. Indeed, one of our own is now the Commandant. We’ve assembled dossiers on the problem officers; when it is time for the purge we will be ready.” Stark tried to suppress a self-satisfied smile. Flipping one of the of the Marines’ top commanders was an achievement of such magnitude he still had to remind himself he’d managed it. The deed had required a carefully constructed combination of blackmail and bribery, but in the end he’d seen it done. Soon he would see the fruit of that effort. Those pompous Marines would never see it coming.
Stark leaned back and took a drink. Dutton looked over at him thoughtfully but said nothing, so he continued. “We have stripped ships from the navy and created our own Directorate force, answerable to this Chair only.” He paused. “And shortly we will move against the naval command, securing our control over it as well.” He grinned evilly. “And that will be that.”
Dutton frowned. “I like the naval plan. I helped you create it, but don’t assume that it is fullproof. There are many senior naval officers out there, and not many of them will gracefully accept orders to bombard Alliance worlds or fight other Alliance forces.” He was been losing his voice, and he paused to clear his throat. “Civil wars and rebellions are unpredictable things. Unrest can be sporadic or it can spread rapidly. The military’s response is also difficult to determine.” He took a sip from his coffee, still trying to sooth his dry throat. “You must look to history here. We have not had to deal with significant unrest in well over a century. The middle classes are too terrorized of losing what they have, and the Cogs are so beaten down they have no capacity to rise up.”
“You think the people on the frontier are different.” Stark’s response was immediate, a statement, not a question. Stark knew what Dutton thought of the colonists. He even agreed, but only to a point. “I know they are not the same as the people here, but how much different are they? Fiery speeches and revolutionary slogans are one thing, but risking everything they have, putting their families’ lives on the line…that is quite another. We have seen how people on Earth react…they sell their freedoms cheaply.”
There was a momentary pause as both men thought quietly. Dutton broke the silence. “Gavin, the realities of early colonization forced a break with our usual ways of dealing with the masses. In many ways, we encouraged in space what we stamped out on Earth. Government dependency works well to control the population at home, but it wasn’t much use when sending 200 adventurers to colonize a new world where there was no higher authority. The colonists are a different breed and now, on many worlds, the culture they created is a century old and deeply rooted. I think it is dangerous to compare them to the middle classes and Cogs on Earth.” He paused, looking down at the desk. “I think they are going to fight a lot harder than we have planned for, and I think it will take one hell of a lot more to break their will than you are expecting.”
Stark looked down at his hands and rubbed his palms together. “Well, we’re going to find out one way or another. Confrontation is inevitable. We are too dependent on the resources produced by the colonies, and it will only get worse the longer they are unrestrained. What would happen to our economy without the resources from the frontier?” He didn’t wait for an answer; he supplied his own. “The Alliance would collapse.” He looked up at Dutton. “We have to do this now.”
The old man sighed and returned his younger friend’s gaze. “I agree.” He swallowed hard. “I don’t like it, and I think it’s going to be a lot worse than you imagine. But it is necessary, and it will only be harder if we wait.”
“So you agree, then? We move on Garret immediately?”
Dutton had tried to think of a way to avoid the disaster he saw coming, but for all his experience and wily intellect, he came up with nothing. He said nothing; he just nodded his assent.
“Good. I will advise Number Three to commence End Game at once.” Alex Linden had been Number Six, and she’d coveted the third chair since it was left vacant by Andres Carillon’s abrupt departure from the scene. Stark left it empty for some time, but finally Alex had convinced him to name her the new Number Three. That convincing had been partly the result of her competence as an operative and partly her other, more intriguing, methods of persuasion. But the promotion came with a mission of extreme importance, one for which Alex was ideally suited.
“I am sure Number Three will complete the mission with her usual success.” Dutton managed a smile. “She’s been waiting some time for my exit; I doubt she will fail now that the vacancy she seeks is so close at hand. Don’t forget, my friend, that when I am gone and she is Number Two there will be nothing left for our pretty little flower to crave other than your seat.”
Stark cut short a laugh. “I am quite aware that our beautiful Alex has an expiration date, though in the interim she is both useful and entertaining. And you have been warning me of your imminent death for quite some time, my friend. I maintain that you are too mean to die.”
“This time I fear I shall be right. I will help you start this operation to restructure the colonies, but I think you will have to finish it alone.” There was no sadness in the old man’s voice when he spoke of his own death, only aching fatigue.
Stark just grunted. For as many people as he’d killed without remorse, either directly or by his orders, he was uncomfortable discussing Dutton’s impending mortality. Even a soulless viper takes pause at the notion of being totally, utterly alone.
“The matter of Epsilon Eridani IV is also of considerable concern. We were correct that keeping the discovery there secret was an impossibility.” Stark looked right at Dutton. “Your suggestion that we announce it was wise. I resisted at first, but I was wrong. We have gained, if not trust, at least the avoidance of the deep suspicion that would have resulted if it had been discovered despite our efforts to maintain the secrecy.”
Dutton smiled weakly. “Yes, a total secret would have been preferable, but under the circumstances, the announcement bought us time. It also allowed us to propagate the suggestion that the site appears to be a religious shrine of some sort. If the other Powers discover the true purpose of the facility, I suspect we would soon find hands forced.” Dutton paused. “If we are ever able to decipher its technology and replicate it, the consequences on human history and the balance of power are incalculable.”
Stark nodded. “That’s an understatement. If the relic is truly what we suspect, the Powers would destroy each other to control it. I doubt even the Treaty of Paris would prevent war on Earth itself.” He paused, considering the implications of what he had just said. The Treaty of Paris had ended the Unification Wars, and its primary provision was an absolute prohibition against war on Earth. Man had come close to destroying himself utterly, and the treaty created a flawed but lasting truce, at least on Earth itself. The Powers took their wars to space, to the systems beyond Alpha Centauri, which were not covered by the treaty provisions. But at least entire civilizations were no longer being wiped off the map by nuclear and bacteriological warfare.
Stark’s demeanor was almost always calm, but he was visibly nervous when he spoke of the ancient alien artifact that had been found on Epsilon Eridani IV. The greatest battle of the last war had been fought there, largely for control of the astonishing discovery that lay deep in a remote cave accidently uncovered by prospectors searching for heavy metals. The Alliance had been victorious, though not before fighting one of the most brutal battles in modern history.
“We have been quite successful in wasting time assembling the College of Scientists to research the facility.” The Alliance had proposed that an international council be established to research the artifact. It was a ruse – Stark, at least, had no intention of letting any of the other Powers get a look at the alien device. “Fortunately, the bureaucrats seem perfectly willing to allow the greatest discovery in history to sit idle while they argue about who will sit in what chair.” He gave Dutton a wicked grin. “Of course, they only think it is idle.” He paused, the concerned look returning to his face. “I only hope we are able to utilize the technology before we expend the effectiveness of our delaying tactics.”
“You may have a difficult choice to make, Gavin. You will be able to delay a few years more, most likely, but sooner or later we will have to share or fight.” Dutton wasn’t as sure as Stark that the Alliance would be able to avoid allowing the other Powers access to the new technology. “It is too alien, too far ahead of our own science. I fear you are overly optimistic about how quickly our research can be put to practical use.” He hesitated for a few seconds and added, “After all, we have been there for almost two decades already, and we have precious little of practical use to show for it. The machine extends to the very core of the planet. It is thousands of years beyond our technology.”
Stark frowned, but didn’t argue. Dutton was right, and he knew it. “All the more reason to deal with the colonies now. If we face the prospect of a showdown with the other Powers, we have to have our own house in order. We can’t deal with rebellious rimworlders and the rest of Earth at the same time.”
“This is our opportunity.” Dutton was still uncomfortable with the whole thing, but it was undeniable that if there was to be a showdown, now was the time. “We are in a strong position. The Caliphate and CAC are still recovering from their defeat, and it will be some time before either will be ready to resume hostilities. The Caliphate, in particular, is struggling to overcome the loss of so many vital systems.” The Alliance had captured the Gliese 250 system, a major nexus leading to a number of rich mining worlds, and the Treaty of Mars had confirmed its possession of the conquered systems. The effect on the Caliphate was devastating, and the Alliance’s former rival was now struggling to remain in the top tier of Powers. It was a treaty that virtually guaranteed another war, but after fifteen years of bitter fighting, a victorious Alliance had dictated harsh terms.
“I agree. It will be three more years, at least, before the CAC gets back on its feet, and longer for the Caliphate.” Stark reached for the flask of Scotch as he spoke, but changed his mind and poured himself some water instead. “And Europa Federalis and the CEL just declared a truce. They fought each other to exhaustion, and both are going to have to rebuild.” He leaned back and sighed heavily. “It is now or never.”
Dutton nodded his reluctant agreement. “I wonder how many secret discussions like this are going on right now out there somewhere?” His voice was thoughtful and a little sad. “How many plans are being made even as we make our own?”
Both men considered the question, but neither offered an answer.