Ojos Amarillos: La Defensa de Panama



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Interlude


The outer defenses of the city were crumbling now, Guanamarioch sensed. The sounds of battle—the thunder of railguns, the clash of the boma blades, the cries of the wounded and dying—grew ever closer.

He felt a slight envy for those Kessentai chosen to stay behind and cover the retreat to and loading of the ships that would take the clan to their new home. Their names were recorded in the Scrolls of Remembrance and they would be read off at intervals to remind the People of their sacrifice. That was as much immortality as any of the Po'oslena'ar, the People of the Ships, might aspire to.

Yet instead of leading his oolt into the fight, Guanamarioch on his hovering tenar led them as they marched four abreast and one hundred deep towards the waiting ship. Other oolt'os, similarly, formed long snaking columns from the city's outskirts all the way to the heavily defended spaceport.

Impatiently, the Kenstain in charge of the loading directed Guanamarioch to bring his charges to a particular ship and to load at a particular gate.

"And be quick, you," the Kenstain demanded. "There is little time left before the ships must leave."

Ordinarily the Kessentai would have removed the Kenstain's head for such impertinence. This was, however, a time of desperation, a time when minor infractions had to be overlooked. Obediently, riding his tenar, the God King led his normals to the designated ship.

At the ship another Kenstain directed cosslain, a mutated breed of normals that were nearly sentient, to take Guanamarioch's tenar and stow it. The God King removed his Artificial Sentience from the tenar, hanging it around his neck, as the cosslain took the flying sled away.

"Lord," the castellan said, "your oolt is the last for this ship. The place for you and your band is prepared. Directions have been downloaded to your Artificial Sentience. Just follow it and stow the normals, then report to the captain of the ship."

"Are you loading then?" asked Guanamarioch.

The Kenstain shook his head, perhaps a bit sadly.

"No, lord," he answered, his teeth baring in a sad smile and his yellow eyes looking sadder still. "I will stay here and keep loading ships until there are either no more ships, or no more passengers . . . or until the enemy overrun the last ship we are able to begin loading."

The God King reached out a single grasping member and touched the castellan, warmly, on the shoulder. "Good luck to you, then, Kenstain."

"That, lord, I think I shall not have. Yet there are worse ways to die than saving one's own people."

"It is so," Guanamarioch agreed.


Chapter 2



The United States and Panama are partners in a great work which is now being done here on the Isthmus. We are joint trustees for all the world doing that work.

President Theodore Roosevelt, 1906


Panama


The country lay on its side, more or less, in a feminine S-curve stretching from west to east and joining the continents of North and South America. Beginning at the border with Costa Rica it ran generally east-southeast for a third of the way. Conversely, from its border with Colombia in the thick and nearly impenetrable Darien jungle it ran a third of the way west-northwest. The waist of the country, also feminine and narrow, went from the rump—the Peninsula de Azuero—that jutted out into the Pacific and then east-northeast to meet the land running from Colombia roughly one third of the way from the Colombian border.

Down the center of the country ran a spine of mountains with few passes and fewer roads running across it. North of this spine, the Cordillera Central, was mostly jungle, with a few cities and towns. South was, at least from the Costa Rican border to the narrow waist, mostly farm and pasture. There were two major highways, the Pan-American which ran generally parallel to the Cordillera on the southern side, and the Inter-American which ran the much shorter distance from Panama City in the south to Colon in the north.

More than half of the people of the place lived in the two provinces of Colon (not quite half a million) and Panama (about a million and a half). Of the rest, most lived close to the Pan-American highway where it ran from Panama City to the border with Costa Rica, south of the Cordillera Central.

The highway that joined the cities of Colon and Panama was not the only link between them. Colon fronted on the Caribbean to the north. Panama City edged along the Pacific to the south. Between them, like a narrow belt on a woman's narrow waist, ran an artificial body of water that linked Colon and Panama City, linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and, in the process, linked the world.

This was the Panama Canal.

She'd been carved out of the living rock through an emerald-hued hell. Men had died in droves for every yard of her; died of the fever, of the rockslides, of the malaria, of a dozen tropical diseases to which they had had no cure and, initially, little defense. They'd died, too, of the drink that anesthetized them from the misery of their surroundings.

She'd broken one attempt to tame her; broken the men, chewed them up and spit out their corpses to rot. The skeletal remains of their rusted machines, vine grown and half sunken, still dotted the jungle landscape, here and there. But men were determined beasts and, eventually, had broken her in return.

For generations she had been the single most strategically important ten-mile-wide strip of land in the world. The commerce of all the continents and innumerable lesser islands passed through her, a lifeblood of trade. The nation which had owned her had ruled the seas with the power of commerce and with the power of war.

Two hundred and forty inches of rain a year were just barely enough to slake her thirst. A small fleet of dredgers were just enough to keep her free of the silt those rains washed down. Throughout her heyday the lives and labors of seventy thousand human beings had had no higher purpose than to serve and defend her.

She was the Panama Canal and, though aged and faded, she remained a beauty.

Yet her heyday had passed. The nation which had built her had lost interest as the greatest ships of war and commerce had outgrown her limits, as the people and nation that hosted her had grown to resent the affront to their sovereignty that foreign ownership of the Canal had represented. In truth, though, once the great enemies—Nazism, Fascism and Communism—had fallen, the security the Canal had represented had become, or come to seem, slightly superfluous.

Times change, though. Perceptions change.

The Pentagon


Deep in the bowels of the "Puzzle Palace," in a room few were aware of and fewer still ever visited, a troubled man gazed over the heads of banks of uniformed men and women sitting at computer terminals, onto an electronic map of the world glowing from a large plasma television. That monitor was one of three. To the right was shown a map of the continental United States and North America; to the left, generated by a complex computer program, a spreadsheet marked the anticipated decay of necessary world trade under the impact of Posleen invasion.

"We're just fucked," announced the man, a recalled three star general with vast experience in complex logistics and no little feel for commerce.

He repeated himself, needlessly, "Fucked."

As the general watched, a red stain spread out across the center of the right-hand screen. As it spread, numbers dropped on the spreadsheet, some of the numbers changing color from solid green to blue to red to black. In a few cases those number dropped to zero and began to blink urgently.

"We're going to nearly starve," muttered the general, to no one in particular. "Even with the GalTech food synthesizers, we are still going to be goddamned hungry."

Suddenly—the program was operating at faster than real time—a smaller stain in Central America oozed east- and southward to cut the Panama Canal. Within seconds every category shown on the left-hand spreadsheet plummeted. It became a sort of "Doomsday" Christmas tree of pulsing black numbers and letters.

A finger of red lunged north from Montana, before retreating southward again. "They've just cut the Canadian Transcontinental Railroad," a functionary announced from behind his own computer monitor.

Moments later another notional landing touched down between Belleville and Kingston, Ontario. The mark of that landing spread. More fingers thrust north, east and west. Black dots appeared over critical locks along the canal system there.

Another landing appeared near Saint Catherine, Ontario. The Welland Canal, vital link between the inner Great Lakes and the eastern cities of Canada and the United States, turned black. A Canadian forces liaison officer, on the other hand, turned white as his country's forces—paper thin for decades, the legacy of a mix of neglect, active hostility and eager toadying to the United Nations—turned from translucent to transparent before disappearing altogether.

"Cease work," the general announced. "Reboot. After Action Review in thirty minutes." The screens all went blank.

"Ladies, gentlemen. I am going to go see the chief."

The White House, Washington, DC


"Well, can we hold the Canal then, General?" the President of the United States asked of the gargantuan, shiny-domed, black four-star seated in the leather chair opposite his desk in the Oval Office.

The general was a big man—huge really—with so many medals, badges and campaign ribbons that he left off several rows of ribbons or the fruit salad would not have fit even his massive chest. To the left of General Taylor sat an apparently agitated woman from the Department of State. The woman was dressed . . . severely, the general thought. No other word would quite do.

"Hard to say, Mr. President," the general answered. "We don't have the troops to spare, not enough of them anyway. Nine divisions? Two or Three corps? In the Second World War we stationed seventy thousand troops there and thought we could hold it. But those seventy thousand would have been, at most—absolute worst case—facing a Japanese attack not much greater in size, operating at the ass end of a long and fragile logistic pipeline, and moving in the teeth of one of the greatest concentrations of effective coastal defense artillery and airpower in the world, and with ourselves having a broad material and technological advantage, plus sea, air, rail and road-borne supply. We have few or none of those advantages now."

"What can we do then?" asked the President, his serious, middle-aged face creased with worry. He'd read the reports coming from the simulations conducted in the Pentagon's bowels.

"We can spare maybe one division, Mr. President, some fire support ships, some anti-lander artillery, maybe even a few planetary defense bases. Maybe."

"But that won't be enough?" the President asked wearily. He was always tired, these days. So much to do . . . so much . . . so little time. Shit.

"Nope," the general said with an unaccountable smile. "We need the Panamanians to defend themselves for the most part."

"What do they have?"

The general shrugged calmly. It was his job to radiate calm and he was very good at his job. "Nothing much. A dozen large military police companies. Some veterans of the time they did have something like an army, though even then it was tiny, about a good-sized brigade. A fair number of American vets who have settled there over the last fifty years. But they've no industry to speak of; they're a service economy. No long military tradition and what they do have is not exactly a tradition of success. I think the last battle they won was against Sir Francis Drake. Though, to tell the truth, beating Sir Francis was no small achievement."

Taylor continued. "They grow a lot of food and could grow more. Their women are fertile as hell; half the population is under age twenty-five." The general smiled at some old but very fond memories: Damned beautiful women they are, too, so unlike this poor drab from State. "Literacy rates are excellent, better than our own as a matter of fact. They're hard workers . . . when there is work to be done. Unemployment is high, about fifteen percent, though that is still a lot less than the Latin American norm. On the plus side most of the unemployment is among young men. Plenty of available cannon fodder, in other words. Though they can't hope to be able to train or pay to equip them."

A word popped into the President's mind unbidden: Expensive.

"Government?" the President asked.

The general raised one eyebrow and glanced at the woman to his left. He reconsidered on closer examination, Not a bad looking girl, really. Or she wouldn't be if she dressed more like a woman and paid a little more attention to her face and hair. Maybe a bit thin, though. Does Foggy Bottom's selection process rule out tits?

State answered, somewhat reluctantly, "Latin American normal, Mr. President. It's a kleptocracy run by about one hundred interrelated families. From the outside, it looks democratic enough. And they don't exactly rig their elections. But the government is always dominated by those families and decisions are almost invariably based on bribes and family interests. The only lasting exceptions to this rule was when they had a dictator in charge . . . and that was never more than a partial exception. The dictators have generally been corrupt, too."

"Hah!" exclaimed Taylor, "an honest answer from State. Who woulda thunk it?"

The President ignored the jibe. "How do they feel about us?" he asked the representative from State.

She didn't need to consult her notes; she was, after all, State's desk officer for the Republic of Panama.

"Mixed, Mr. President," she said. "Some of them have some lingering resentment over our occupation of the former Canal Zone. This is often mixed with the more general anti-gringoism you can find anywhere in Latin America. But, on the other hand, they are the most nearly 'gringo' of the Latins, themselves. Many of them speak at least some English. For that matter, many of them speak English as well as you or I. Their laws reflect our influence. Their culture is . . . well, some would say 'heavily contaminated' . . . but, in any case, it is heavily influenced by ours. In some ways Panama is more American than Puerto Rico is."

"Would they object to our return?" the President asked.

"Surely some would, sir." State answered. "Sir . . . could I give you a short history of Panama and the Panama Canal?"

The President nodded his acquiescence; he knew as little of Latin America as virtually any president in United States history was likely to. This was generally very little indeed.

State looked around at the opulent office, collecting her thoughts.

"Panama was once a very rich place," she began. "That wealth came from the same geographic oddity that gives them one of the highest standards of living in Latin America now, the narrowness of the isthmus itself and what it means for trade. In the old days, as the Audencia of Panama, virtually all the gold and silver of Mexico and Peru passed through Panama before being shipped to Spain. It was sent by ship to Panama City, then moved on slave, mule and burro-back to Portobello on the Caribbean. Mr. President, so much treasure passed through that there was only enough storage space for the gold, the silver had to be left in the streets. The Audencia also served as the nexus for the slave cartel."

State hesitated, afraid to offend the general, before continuing, "Most of the blacks in Latin America outside of Brazil and the Caribbean coast could trace ancestors who came through Panama as slaves."

The President raised an uplifted palm and gestured beckoningly with his fingers, twice: Come on? And?

State continued, "The treasure attracted pirates, mostly English speaking and always under English command. Most famous among these: Sir Francis Drake and Sir Henry Morgan, heroes in the Anglosphere but devils incarnate to Panama. Portobello and Panama City were attacked several times. Both were sacked, with everything that a sack means: rape, robbery, arson, torture, murder. It is my impression of the Panamanians that even they are not aware how deeply those long ago events scarred, and continue to scar, their collective psyche. They retain a trace of xenophobia today that is really remarkable in such a generally cosmopolitan and amiable people."

State made a slight slashing motion with her right hand.

"Moving forward a few centuries, Panama became part of Colombia as the Spanish Empire broke up. Yet they never really thought of themselves as Colombians but as Panamanians; different, with different values and interests. While Colombia found its livelihood in mining and farming, Panama always knew that its unique position—the isthmus, again—bound it to commerce. When Colombia was wracked by civil war between liberals and conservatives, late in the nineteenth century, the fighting spread to Panama readily. While the liberals were crushed in Colombia itself, in Panama they won. The general was wrong about the last time the Panamanians won a fight."

The general shrugged, eh?

"In any case, a Colombian expeditionary force was en route to crush the rebellion when we intervened. The details of our intervention, while amusing, are not very important. Suffice to say that we did intervene, that at our urging Panama did declare its independence, and that as an implicit condition of our recognition and protection they agreed to cede us the Canal Zone."

State's face took on a disgusted look. "Mr. President, there's no other word for it, we gave them the shaft. The treaty between us was so patently unfair to Panama that even our own Senate initially was inclined to reject it.

"In any case, we ratified it because it did, at least, give us rights to build the Canal . . . and because no one actually suggested a fairer deal. The Panamanians accepted it, with profound reservations—disgust, really—because we had them over a barrel and they saw no choice."

State shook her head with regret. "I am often amazed by how often in the history of the world a long-term problem could have been headed off before it arose with just a little application of even a minimal generosity. Except for the Versailles treaty there is perhaps no clearer example than the original Panama Canal treaty. Because of it the Panamanians could never be content, part of which is because of that streak of xenophobia they learned from the English pirates. Because of it we never felt quite right with upholding and defending the terms of the treaty; that's how unfair it was. We renegotiated it several times to be more fair to Panama, but no amount of, mostly symbolic, fairness could wipe out the original insult until we agreed to leave, as we did in 1977."

The general harrumphed. "We should have just kept it and to hell with Panama."

This time it was State who shrugged, eh?

"Now, we're almost gone from there," she concluded.

"What's left?" the President queried.

Taylor answered, "We had one airborne infantry battalion we converted to an Armored Combat Suit unit before we sent it off-world. I've already ordered them home; they should fit right in with no real problem, though that battalion had a hard time of it and will have to be rebuilt. There's one company of Special Forces which had mostly been operating the counter-drug mission further south. There is also a small support package for the Green Beanies. We've stopped all but minimal maintenance of the facilities we do retain. We couldn't even put up the troops' families since most of the dependent housing has been sold to Panamanian government functionaries and their connections at pennies on the dollar. This is also true of the civilian housing for the people who run the Canal. We're really starting from less than scratch, Mr. President; even most of the usable, drained land has been taken."

The President sat quietly for a few moments, elbows on desk and cupped hands around his mouth and nose, thinking and digesting. At length he asked, "What's it going to cost?"

The general answered slowly and deliberately, "We're not sure, still working on it. We think, though, that between supporting a division of our own troops, plus some naval support; raising, equipping and training better than three hundred thousand Panamanians; rebuilding our infrastructure and putting up some solid fixed defenses . . . well, something like one-hundred and seventy billion dollars, spread over seven or eight years."

The President sighed. "That's not small change."

Taylor answered, his face growing very serious, "No, Mr. President, it isn't."

"What's that old saying, General? 'It takes millions to win a war; to lose one, it takes all you've got.' Continue your planning; assume we are going to do it. I'll chat with Panama about what they need to do if they want to survive."

"And if they won't go along, Mr. President?" State asked.

"They will," the President answered simply.

Palacio de las Garzas, Presidential Palace,
Panama City, Panama


The American ambassador thought, and not for the first time, that the private office of the President of the Republic was simply . . . tacky. Too much gilt, too many ugly paintings. Blech.

But he was not here to comment on tastes. The ambassador had come to the president's office to deliver an ultimatum. He had delivered it, and with each demand the president's face had grown more set.

Short and round, well-fed and greasy looking, Presidente de la Republica Guillermo Mercedes-Mendoza listened to the United States ambassador with an outward appearance of serenity. Inwardly, however, he seethed.

Goddamned gringos.

The ambassador from the United States was polite, of course, but he was also firm: Panama could either cooperate with the U.S. or they could see the Canal Zone reoccupied and much expanded. Indeed, in that case they could expect fully half the population of the Republic to fall under direct U.S. control.

"So, you are giving us that much choice, are you?" queried Mercedes.

Regretfully, the ambassador answered, "We don't have any choice, Señor Presidente. It is a matter of life and death for us . . . for you, too, for that matter. Together, we have a chance to live. Separately, we can only die. I am sorry, from my heart I am sorry, but there is no choice."

Mercedes let the false serenity escape from his face and scowled at the ambassador, who thought, I can hardly blame the man, being handed an ultimatum like this. What patriot could stomach it?

But it wasn't patriotism that brought the scowl to Mercedes' face. Instead he thought, Just what I need, twenty or thirty thousand gringos here, sniffing into everything, setting an example of—at least, relative—incorruptibility, upsetting my Colombian business "associates," and, worst of all, making us institute conscription, thereby raising up the masses and putting down the good families. I can't possibly officer the kind of army they say we must raise and they will pay for, without letting all kinds of peasants into positions of authority.

"Tell me again the particulars," Mercedes demanded.

The ambassador nodded before answering, "Very well, Señor Presidente. First, you must have the laws passed requesting—no demanding—our assistance in accordance with the Carter-Torrijos Treaty of 1977. We prefer that it come from you for public relations reasons. At the same time you must have the legislature grant us back the use, the temporary use—for the duration of the emergency—of those facilities we need."

"And what am I to do with the people who have already purchased the property? Hmmm?"

Amiably, the ambassador answered, "The United States is willing to pay a reasonable, but not extravagant, rental. But that is only for private individuals. We expect land held by the government of Panama to be granted to us freely for construction, training and operations. We also expect that no more transfers to private hands will take place. Our President was explicit on this point, Mr. President: You're not going to jack the rents up on us through sleight of hand. Moreover, we will expect the government of Panama to take any land needed from corporations that control it and allow us its use. Some of that land will find permanent fortifications built on it. Think of this as a sort of reverse lend-lease, not essentially different from the agreements the United States had with Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand during the Second World War . . . or here in Panama, for that matter, notably on the Isla del Rey, San Jose Island and at Rio Hato."

Mercedes' piggish eyes narrowed further. "And you people will pay our troops and provide for arming and training them?"

"We will pay something . . . much, even. But not all, Señor Presidente," the ambassador answered. "Panama will have to pay its fair share. Don't worry overmuch about the cost, though; your government is going to make a fortune on Canal tolls in the coming years."

Again Mercedes scowled openly. The scowl disappeared as a new thought occurred. The gringos are going to be doing a lot of building. But they are unlikely to have much construction capability they do not need themselves. That is profit to the proper families. And if they do send builders here? My God, what a bounty for both the families and myself in graft: permits, consulting fees . . . come to think of it, I was supposed to provide a sinecure for little cousin Maritza's worthless brat. I could never have made this kind of money, not even laundering funds for the Colombians.

Seeing the scowl and misunderstanding it completely, the ambassador interjected his final selling point, "Rejuvenation for a number of key Panamanians is, of course, offered. There are some unfortunate rules on that, but the rules have a fair amount of leeway to them."

Mercedes pretended that the prospect of renewed youth was a matter of no moment. Mentally el Presidente tallied the likely rake-off and set that against the price he expected to be gouged for off-world asylum for his extended family. Then he calculated the marvelous prospect of another fifty years of enjoying not only his own youth, but a near infinity of young women, and said simply, "I'll make the demand of the legislature in ten days . . . agreed."

David, Chiriqui, Republic of Panama


The sound of the laboring resuscitator was faint over the wailing of half a hundred close relatives. Scores more crowded the hallways outside the antiseptic-smelling, scrub-green intensive care room in which Digna Miranda, tiny and aged one hundred and two, slipped from this world to the next. The tininess was not a result of age. Digna had never been more than four feet ten in her life.

Within the room, by Digna's side, were the thirteen still-living children of the eighteen she had borne, as well as some of their offspring. The oldest of these was, himself, eighty-seven, the youngest a mere stripling of fifty-eight. One toddler, invited into the room as much as anything to remind Digna that her line was secure, was seven year old Iliana, great-great-granddaughter by Digna's oldest, Hector.

Digna herself lay quietly on the bed. Occasionally her eyes opened and scanned the crowd insofar as they could without Digna turning her head. The old woman was too far gone for any such athletics as head turning.

Digna was a rarity in Panama, being of pure European ancestry, a Spanish-French mix, with bright blue eyes. When those blue eyes opened, they were still bright and clear, as her mind remained clear, whatever decay had wracked her body. What a pity, she thought, that I can't slip into the past for one last look at my children as children, or my husband as a young man. Such is life . . . such is death.

Though no near-death dementia brought a false image of her long deceased husband, Digna's mind remained healthy enough to pull up images on her own, images both of her husband riding his bay stallion to claim her from her father just after her fifteenth birthday, and of her husband lying in his bier. See you soon, beloved, I promise.

That happy thought brought a slight smile to her face, a slight smile being all she was capable of. The smile continued as her eyes shifted to the face of her eldest. I bore you in blood and pain, my son, with only your father and an old Indian midwife in attendance. What a fine man you grew to.

Digna closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep and to dream.

Hector sighed, wondering if this trip to the hospital would truly be the last of his mother. It seemed impossible that this unbent old woman should pass on after dominating so much and so many for nearly a century. With thirteen living children, well over one hundred grandchildren, and great- and great-great grandchildren numbering nearly four hundred, so far—and with about a dozen more on the way, she was truly the mother of a race.

"La armada Miranda," Hector smiled at the family joke, before frowning. "Armada" might indeed be the right term if even half of what the president had said was true. Personally, Hector suspected the president's speech had contained much more than half the truth. Why else would he invite the gringos back?

Better you go now, Mother, I think. Or if not now, then soon. You grew up in a cleaner and better world. I would not have what we are about to become blight your last days.

A confused and confusing murmur came from the outside corridor. Hector turned from his mother's deathbed to see a group of five men standing in the doorway. The leading man, deliberately nondescript, wore sunglasses and a suit. Two others, standing just behind, were equally unremarkable medical types. Behind those stood the last pair, wearing the khaki of Panama's Public Force, its combination army and police force.

"Señor Miranda?" asked the foremost intruder.

"Hector Miranda, yes. And before I am polite may I ask what you people are doing here intruding on our grief?" The Mirandas, though only locally powerful, were still—albeit only locally—very powerful. In their own bailiwick they could kill with near impunity, and had. Moreover, while Hector was old, at eighty-seven, like his mother he remained vital, and perhaps a bit fierce, long after most people had slid into decrepitude.

The nondescript suit-wearer answered without the minimal politeness of giving his own name, "I am sorry for that, but orders are orders." He pointed his chin towards the supine and sleeping Digna. "Is that Señora Digna Miranda?"

"She is. And who the hell are you?" Hector demanded.

"My name is unimportant. You may call me 'Inspector,' however. That is close enough."

Hector felt his hackles rise, hand reaching on its own for the machete that would normally hang at his side. "Very well then, Inspector. Let me rephrase: what the fuck are you doing here intruding on our grief?"

The inspector ignored Hector completely, reaching into his pocket and withdrawing a folded paper. From light filtering through the thick parchment-colored sheet Hector thought he saw an official seal affixed to the bottom. The inspector began to read from the sheet.

"Señora Digna Adame-Miranda de Miranda-Montenegro," he used her full, formal name, "in accordance with the recent Public Law for the Defense of the Republic of Panama, you are hereby summoned and required to report to the Public Force Medical Facilities at Ancon Hill, Panama City, Republic of Panama for duty."

The inspector then turned to an aghast Hector and, smiling, continued. "Oh, and you too, Señor Miranda. Would you like me to read you your conscription notice?"

Department of State Building, facing Virginia Avenue, Washington, DC


Even a very junior Darhel rated a great deal of protocol, so powerful were they within the Galactic Federation. The one seated opposite the Undersecretary of State for Extraterrestrial Affairs was very junior indeed within Darhel circles. Even so, the alien had been greeted with deference bordering on, perhaps even crossing over to, obsequiousness. It would have been nauseating to see to anyone not a diplomat born and trained.

"We wish to remind you," stated the elven-faced Darhel in a flat-toned hiss through needle-sharp teeth, "how long thisss department of your government hasss been a client of oursss."

"The Department of State is fully aware of the close and cordial relations we have enjoyed since 1932," the undersecretary answered, noncommittally.

It was, of course, extremely unwise for any Darhel to become agitated. Thus, this one kept a calm demeanor as he asked, "Then why thisss regrettable disssregard of our adviccce and guidanccce? Why thisss wassstage of effort on the part of your military forcesss on what isss, at mossst a sssecondary area, thisss unimportant isthmusss? Don't your people realizzze how much we need the defenssse you can provide? Important considerationsss are at ssstake." Briefly the Darhel let his true feelings show through, "Marginsss are being called; contractsss are being placcced in jeopardy!"

The undersecretary sighed. "Yes, we know this, my lord. We so advised the President. Unfortunately we were overruled."

Intolerable, thought the Darhel. Intolerable that these people insist on the illusion that they are entitled to their own interests and priorities. Why can't they be more pliable, more realistic? Why do they persist in refusing to think and act the way their cousins in Europe do?

The undersecretary picked at a bit of off-color lint on his suit lapel. For a moment the Darhel wondered if the motion was some kind of unspoken signal, some sort of body language for which his briefings had not prepared him.

In fact, the motion meant nothing in itself, though Foreign Service personnel did have an ingrained fetish about neatness, a physical manifestation of the unstated but thoroughly understood diplomatic preference for form over substance: What matter the shit we eat or the shit we serve up, so long as the niceties are observed.

Though it was the Darhel's turn to speak, the undersecretary realized it was waiting for him to speak.

"We cannot stop it, lord, we can only delay it or perhaps sabotage it. There are many ways to sabotage, some quite subtle, you know."


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