Snippet – Cry Wolf (The Empire’s Corps 15)

9 Dec

Formerly The Pen and the Sword

Prologue I

From: The Death Agonies of Empire. Professor Leo Caesius, Avalon University, 46PE.

As we have seen in previous volumes, the Fall of Earth managed to surprise nearly everyone within the Core Worlds, save for a handful of far-sighted visionaries. Earth had been the centre of human civilisation for centuries, the cradle of the human race and the heart of the Empire itself, that there was a permanence about Earth that seemed … well, permanent. It was almost impossible to grasp the fact, intellectually as well as emotionally, that Earth was gone. The core of the Empire could not be gone.

But it was.

Earth’s significance did not just lie in sentiment alone. Earth was the home of the Grand Senate and, thanks to the presence of hundreds of interstellar corporations, the heart of the Empire’s economy. It is literally impossible to estimate just how many billions of credits passed through the Solar System each day, nor how many trillions had been spent on the system’s vast industrial base. Nor was Earth insignificant in other ways. The naval presence alone – and its support system – cost millions of credits every year. Every element of the Empire’s military might had its HQ on Earth – even the Imperial Marines were formally based on Earth – and no officer could be truly said to be going places unless he’d served a term on the homeworld. And, of course, the endless stream of immigrants to newly-settled colony worlds came, by and large, from Earth.

And now it was gone.

It took time, perhaps longer than many people realise, for word to spread. When it did, when it reached the rest of the Core Worlds, people were disbelieving. Earth could not be gone, they told themselves. It took time for understanding to arrive and, when it did, it brought terror in its wake. Love it or hate it, Earth was gone. And it had taken the core of the Empire with it. Planetary governments – and governors – awoke to the fact that they were on their own, corporations realised that vast amounts of money and assets had simply vanished, naval units realised they would never get orders from home – they would never get orders again – and independence movements across what had once been the Empire took heart. Their prospects for gaining their freedom had never been better.

The chaos was not long in following. A handful of unpopular governors fell, only to be replaced by governors who could no more handle the crisis and calm the chaos than their predecessors. A handful of ambitious naval officers declared themselves warlords, only to discover that ruling a vest-pocket empire was nowhere near as easy as they’d believed. And others, seeking stability, found that there was none to be found in the ruins of empire. It truly seemed like the end of times. It was no surprise that radical religious factions, some old and some new, spread like wildfire. The people wanted hope. It was hard to find as the madness gripped the remnants of a once-great civilisation.

But, even during the darkest days of the Fall, there were some who were trying to bring back the light …

Prologue II

Tarsus was dying.

It was not, the man in the dark suit mused, a quick death. There was no fleet of angry starships preparing to scorch the entire planet, no giant asteroid on its way to strike the surface with the force of a million nukes, no dread disease steadily working its way through the population and killing everyone it touched … no, it was the slow death of economic collapse. The men and women below didn’t realise it, not yet, but the Fall of Earth had done immense harm to Tarsus and the remainder of the sector. They simply couldn’t grasp that things had changed. How could they? There had been economic downturns before – the man in the dark suit owed his position to the previous downturn – but nothing so drastic. The Empire had seemed immortal …

… Until it was gone.

He stood at the window and peered at the streets below. It was near midnight, but the city was still humming with life. The men and women hurrying up and down the streets didn’t understand the new reality, not yet. They didn’t believe what had happened. Earth was hundreds of light years away. They didn’t understand that Earth was – that Earth had been – the core of an economic system that covered thousands of light years, nor did they realise that its absence meant utter chaos. The man had seen the reports, the ones his political enemies had tried to hush up. No one really knew what would happen when reality finally hit the population. It was so utterly unprecedented.

And yet, there was a twinge of fear running through the air. People knew that something was wrong, even if they couldn’t put a name to it. The smarter ones were already hoarding food and fuel, something that was technically illegal … the dumber ones were flocking to the entertainment complexes, trying to forget about the shadow looming over the city. They tried to close their eyes to the steadily-growing signs of decline – businesses closing, banks calling in loans, hundreds of thousands already out of work as the economy contracted – even though it was an exercise in futility. If a rising tide lifted all boats, as the finest economic theorists asserted, what happened when the tide was receding? The man didn’t want to admit it, not even in the privacy of his own head, but he knew the truth. There was nothing to be gained by trying to hide from it. The wealthy and powerful would be the last to fall, perhaps … but they would fall. It was the end of the world.

He turned his eyes towards the distant Government House, where the First Citizen and his cronies were trying to find something – anything – that would save their bacon when the population realised just how thoroughly screwed they were. The man admired their determination to blind themselves to inconvenient facts, even as he held them in utter contempt for their failure. They’d built their system on the assumption that nothing would ever change, although everyone knew that change was the only universal constant. They simply didn’t have the determination to do what needed to be done. They were weak when they needed to be strong and strong when they needed to be weak. The man rolled his eyes in disgust. They gave the population what they wanted, but not what they needed.

His eyes sought out the distant spaceport, half-hidden in the darkness. The police and security forces were already rounding up the Forsakers, preparing to deport them to … the man didn’t know where they were going, let alone when. No one did. All that mattered was getting rid of them. But the man knew it was an exercise in populist pointlessness. The Forsakers might be a drain on society, but deporting them wouldn’t solve anything. They weren’t that big a drain on society. The whole thing was nothing more than a desperate bid to win approval from a population that was about to discover that it had bigger things to worry about than the wretched Forsakers. The government might see a blip in its approval ratings, for a day or two, and then reality would assert itself once again. And Tarsus would continue her slow slide into chaos.

But chaos brings opportunities, the man thought. Who knows what the future may hold?

He smiled, coldly. He was a popular man – and his party was a popular party – but they had been deprived of real power. They’d won enough of the popular vote to be included in government, yet the governing coalition had successfully blocked any of their proposed legislation. It was maddening – the man knew his party would share the blame for mistakes that were none of their doing – but it could not be helped. The party structure that had governed Tarsus for over two thousand years was almost impossible to change. And yet, it was based on an economic system that no longer existed. It was dead. It just didn’t know it.

Not yet, the man told himself. In some ways, the government’s refusal to face up to facts worked in his favour. Let them exchange worthless favours for a few more weeks. Let their promises be exposed as worthless. Let them thoroughly discredit themselves. And then, we can take over and put the world to rights.

He poured himself a drink, then turned back to the window. A shuttle was taking off from the spaceport, the twinkling lights vanishing in the cloudy skies. A storm was brewing. The man could feel it in his bones. He raised his glass in a silent toast to the future and took a single sip. The wine was worth savouring. He had a handful of bottles, locked away for special occasions, but once they were gone they were gone. There would be no more scotch from New Aberdeen until someone rebuilt the interstellar economy from scratch. The man doubted he’d live to see it. His projected lifespan was over two hundred years, but rebuilding the Empire would take thousands.

But I can start the process, he thought. Tarsus wasn’t a bad place to be, if one happened to have ambition. The planet was close enough to Earth to maintain valuable links, both with the homeworld and the other important worlds, yet far enough from the centre of power to be relatively safe. There is opportunity here, for the man who dares to reach out and take it.

His intercom pinged. “Mr. Secretary, the First Citizen requests your presence at the cabinet meeting tomorrow.”

The man smiled. “Does he indeed? How nice of him.”

It was not, he knew, a request. He’d be expected to rubber-stamp a decision made by the First Citizen’s inner circle. There was no point in trying to object, not now. But – in time – he would avenge every humiliation the wretched ruling class had inflicted upon him and his supporters. The rulers had thought their position unchallengeable. They’d certainly sealed up all the normal avenues to power. But the Empire was gone. Who knew how far an ambitious man could go?

He took another sip of his wine. “Inform the First Citizen that I would be deeply honoured to attend his meeting,” he ordered, dryly. “And tell my wife I will be leaving the house early tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.”

The man finished his drink, then took one last look at the streets below. They were still brightly lit … that was going to change. The man had no illusions about just what would happen when the truth finally slammed home. Tarsus, one of the most stable worlds in the sector, was about to undergo a massive shock. The wildfire sweeping over the once-great Empire would burn the planet to ashes.

But we will rise from the ashes, he told himself. He silently catalogued his plans and preparations, reassuring himself that he’d covered all the bases. There was a certain element of risk, of course, but he’d minimised it as much as possible. And we will build a better world.

Chapter One

It will come as no surprise that the single most distrusted entity within the Empire, from the moment the decline began to Earth’s finally collapse into madness, was the media. It is difficult to say for sure, but it seems unlikely that many people believed what they were being told.

– Professor Leo Caesius. Crying Wolf: The Media and the Fall of the Empire.

It was a dark and stormy night, Clarence Esperanza narrated to himself, as he surveyed the chain-link fence between him and the dark industrial estate. It was a dark and stormy night, damn it!

He smiled – white teeth flashing in a dark face – as he looked for an easy way to get over the fence. He’d always enjoyed adding little flourishes to his work, even if half of them were gleefully stolen from ancient writers hardly anyone – and certainly none of his readers – had heard of. It wasn’t theft, not really. It was … all right, maybe it was a kind of theft, but it was in a good cause. Clarence knew, without false modesty, that he was no writer. He lacked the skill to string words together in a manner that would comfort the powerless and afflict the powerful. Whatever skill he’d had in writing, once upon a time, had been ground out of him by a creative writing course and ten years as a reporter. It was no comfort to know that everyone else had the same problem.

An aircar flew overhead, heading north towards the spaceport. Clarence glanced up at it, then returned his attention to the fence. The estate had been abandoned two years ago, according to the city files, but someone had taken precautions to make sure that no one could get in or out of the massive complex without going through the gates. Clarence had expected to find a whole string of holes in the wire – cut by the homeless, looking desperately for somewhere to sleep that wasn’t damp and cold – but there was nothing. Gritting his teeth, he checked his gloves and started to scramble over the fence. It was harder than it looked and he nearly fell twice before he got over the wire and landed on the far side. The sound of his feet hitting the ground was terrifyingly loud in the silent night air. He ducked down, expecting to see a night-watchman heading towards him. The estate was certainly large enough to merit someone on duty at all times.

And my press pass probably won’t be enough to spare me a night in jail, Clarence thought, as he listened for the sound of approaching footsteps. The watchman might show him the door or he might call the cops. There was no way to know how the cops would react. They wouldn’t risk abusing a journalist, but a night in the cells was hardly abuse. And the editor will give me hell for being caught.

He smiled at the thought. The tip-off had been vague, but it had come from a trustworthy source. Something was going to happen tonight, in the vast industrial estate. Clarence would have preferred more details, particularly a clear idea of precisely what was going to happen, but his source had gone silent. That wasn’t uncommon, in a world where talking to the media could get a source fired and blacklisted … he shook his head. The risk of getting caught was high – press pass or no press pass – but it had been a long time since he’d done anything worthy of the great reporters of the distant past. He’d spent the last five years taking official statements and trying, desperately, to put his own spin on bland pap. One might as well add spice to fried mush. No matter how much spice one used, it was still mush.

His smile grew wider as he stood and slipped further into the industrial estate. A chunk of it, according to the files, had been turned into living space for the Forsakers, but the remainder was still empty and cold. He glanced into a giant warehouse as he passed the door, seeing absolutely nothing inside. The building itself was designed to survive everything the planet could throw at it, but the owners had declined to turn it into a homeless shelter. Clarence snorted in disgust as he took a quick snap of the interior, then resumed his walk into the estate. It hadn’t escaped his notice that the number of homeless camps – and beggars on the streets – had been increasing recently. There was probably a good human interest story in there, somewhere. And perhaps a story asking precisely why the estate had been abandoned when it could be turned into a homeless shelter.

He walked around another warehouse and stopped, dead, as he saw the second fence. The owners might have deeded part of their territory to the Forsakers, willingly or not, but they’d clearly been determined that the Forsakers would not leave the handful of warehouses that had been put aside for them. This fence was even newer than the last one, with barbed wire on the top. Clarence wouldn’t have cared to bet that it hadn’t been electrified, if not alarmed. The owners looked to be selfish bastards. They probably wouldn’t give a damn if some poor hobo touched the fence and got a nasty shock …

Wankers, Clarence thought.

He put the thought aside as he peered into the semi-darkness. Nothing was happening, as far as he could tell. A small fire burned merrily outside one of the closer warehouses – a handful of people clearly visible in the light – but little else. It looked like a homeless camp, not … he shook his head. It didn’t look as if anything important was happening within the darkness, certainly nothing demanding his attention. Shaking his head, he walked over to the nearest abandoned warehouse and scrambled up a ladder onto the roof. The air felt colder, somehow, as he lay on the rooftop and looked towards the Forsaker camp. Nothing was happening.

Waste of time, he thought, as the cold started to seep into his bones. I should have stayed in bed with my wife.

He allowed himself a moment of irritation, then reminded himself to be patience. The really great reporters didn’t sit in their offices and wait for someone to bring them the news. No, they went out and got the news. Sometimes, it went badly wrong and then they were the news … Clarence shook his head, again. Nothing was going to go wrong. He was just going to wait a few hours and see what happened, then sneak back over the fence, call a hovercab and go home. His editor would have a few nasty things to say if Clarence turned up at the office without a story – or hopped up on stims – but he’d understand. It wouldn’t be the first time a tip had turned into a giant waste of time. Clarence reached into his pocket, produced his recording spectacles and placed them on his nose. They were a pain in the ass to wear, but their recordings had saved his bacon more than once. If nothing else, they’d prove he hadn’t been doing nothing at the dead of night.

Although I am doing nothing, he thought, silently starting to compose his latest story for the newspaper. I’m lying on my chest on a freezing cold rooftop when I could be having naked time with my wife.

Another aircar flew overhead, lights flickering in the darkness. Clarence did his best to ignore it, telling himself that the aircar wasn’t looking for him. It wouldn’t take military-grade sensors to pick him out on the rooftop, but who would give a damn? He looked like a hobo himself – he’d been careful to dress as a dockyard worker, rather than a flashy reporter – and it was unlikely that anyone would care about a hobo in an abandoned estate. It wasn’t as if there was anything worth stealing … not really. The only thing of any value within the estate was the buildings themselves. It wasn’t as if a small army of hobos could pick them up and carry them away.

Which won’t stop the police chasing the hobos out if someone makes a fuss, he thought, grimly. There was another human interest story there, he was sure. The homeless simply want a roof over their heads when they sleep, just like the rest of it.

It was nearly an hour – and he was on the verge of giving up – when he heard the faint sound of engines. He tensed, peering into the darkness. A small handful of trucks were pulling up at the distant gate. Were they coming for him? He silently calculated a handful of ways to get out of the estate in a hurry, although – as policemen started spilling out of the trucks – he had a nasty feeling that there would be no way out. It looked as if the police had arrived in force, ready for war. He could see men wearing helmets and body armour, carrying shockrods and neural whips in the foreground, with others – armed with real weapons – hung back. They looked ready to intervene at any moment.

His blood ran cold. This was wrong. The police did not come at the dead of night, certainly not to a harmless estate. It was hard enough to get them to come out when one lived in a middle-class estate in the heart of the city, let alone the homeless camps and ghettos along the edge. But now … a shiver ran down his spine as the policemen moved forward in eerie silence. He tapped his spectacles, making sure they were recording the scene. The policemen moved through the gates and straight towards the warehouses …

Someone shouted. A handful of men appeared, carrying makeshift weapons. Clarence winced, unsure if he should laugh or cry. The Forsakers were carrying baseball bats and iron rods, nothing really dangerous to a man in body armour. They didn’t even have a chance to try before a flurry of stun bolts left them lying on the ground, twitching helplessly. The policemen marched over them, abandoning all pretence at stealth. Clarence covered his eyes as the policemen turned on the lights. The estate was suddenly bathed in brilliant white light.

“ATTENTION,” a voice boomed. The warehouse seemed to shake with every word. “COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!”

Clarence covered his ears, a fraction of a second too late. He couldn’t help thinking, as he turned his head to capture as many details as possible, that half the city had been awoken by the racket. The warehouse district was large, but it wasn’t that large. He watched, feeling a twinge of sympathy, as dazed Forsakers stumbled out of the warehouses. The policemen grabbed them, male and female alike, and snapped on the cuffs before forcing them to lie on the ground and wait. Clarence made sure to record it all. The public wouldn’t be sorry for the Forsakers unless they saw the poor bastards being made to suffer.

And it is so pointless, he thought, as a crying child was made to sit next to her mother. What does it matter?

He shuddered, helplessly. The Forsakers had a bad reputation. They were lazy and arrogant beggars, walking around in their traditional clothes as if the world owed them a living, utterly unwilling to abandon their primitive culture and join the mainstream. Everyone knew the Forsakers were a drain on the planet’s public funds … until they actually ran the figures for themselves. Clarence had, more out of curiosity than anything else. The Forsakers weren’t draining the planet dry. They weren’t even claiming a percentage point of a percentage point of the government’s budget. The government spent more on bureaucracy than it did on public aid.

A scream rent the night air. Clarence scanned the scene before him, then zoomed in on a young girl who was being harassed by two policemen. One of them was holding her, the other had his hand up her dress … Clarence shuddered again, as a senior officer marched over and rebuked the two coppers, who didn’t look remotely repentant. Clarence wasn’t really surprised. The news file in the office contained lots of stories about policemen who abused their powers, stories that the editor had killed on the grounds they’d incite social unrest. And some of the stories had been a little hard to believe … Clarence swallowed. It was clear, now, that the stories had some basis in truth.

But that doesn’t mean they’re true, he thought. The poor girl, crying silently, had been dumped with her fellows. Just that they could have happened.

The dreadful night wore on. Clarence watched, helplessly, as the policemen stripped everything out of the warehouses and piled them up in the trucks, then marched the prisoners to the gate. He filmed everything, from the crying children to the broken spindles and other primitive tools that were part of the Forsaker heritage. The policemen seemed to take an unholy delight in breaking things, although it was nothing but spite. There was certainly nothing to be gained by smashing tools the Forsakers would need …

It hit him in a moment of insight. Dear God, he thought. They’re deporting the bastards!

Clarence swallowed, hard. It couldn’t be true, could it? There was nothing to be gained by shoving the Forsakers on a starship and tell them never to come back. He ran the calculations in his head and scowled. It would probably cost the government more, in the long run, to deport the Forsakers than to keep them. Hell, there was no reason the Forsakers couldn’t be given land and told to farm it if they wanted to stay alive. But they’d already been evicted from lands they’d held for generations. The big farming corporations had wanted the land for themselves and the government hadn’t had the will to say no. Who cared about a bunch of weirdoes in outdated clothes when there was money to be made?

Not that the price of food went down, Clarence thought, coldly. He made a decent living, but even he had noticed that the cost of living was steadily inching upwards. God alone knew what was really happening in the countryside. The Forsakers were evicted for nothing.

He looked towards the spaceport in the distance as the rest of the pieces fell into place. The Forsakers were easy targets. Harmless, by and large; unarmed, certainly. And easily demonised by radical politicians. The pressure to do something about them was overwhelming … no, had been overwhelming. It was clear the government had decided that deporting the Forsakers was a concession they could afford to make, although it was pointless. Clarence hoped, in a moment of naked horror, that the government actually was deporting the Forsakers. There were nastier things that could happen …

This will not stand, he promised himself, as the police started to drive away with their prisoners. They were heading towards the spaceport, at least, although he knew that proved nothing. There was plenty of room for a mass grave in the wastelands beyond the spaceport complex. I’ll tell the world.

Clarence rolled over and stood, hurrying back towards the ladder. The show was over, as far as he could tell. He had to get his story out before the Forsakers were actually loaded onto a starship – or sold into slavery or whatever other horrible fate the government might have in mind for them – and deported forever. He’d make sure the people knew what was being done in their name. He silently reviewed the footage he’d recorded as he slipped down the ladder and ran towards the fence. The Forsakers weren’t popular, but the right footage – carefully chosen – would change that. He’d have the entire population shouting in outrage by the time he was done.

Scrambling over the fence, he fled into the darkness. There was no sign of anyone on the streets, not even a handful of homeless or a patrolling police car. It was easy to believe that he’d imagined everything, he thought, as he reached a diner and called a hovercab. If he hadn’t had the footage, it would have been hard to convince anyone that it had really happened. It was so unthinkable that … it was unthinkable. The government was harsh, at times, but it wasn’t monstrous …

Hard times make people do monstrous things, he thought, as the hovercab dropped him off outside his apartment. And people who think they cannot be called to account can be the worst of all.

Clarence allowed himself a tight smile as he sat down in front of his terminal – his wife had long since gone to bed – and started to review the footage and write the story. It would make his career, he was sure. Every reporter yearned for something that would make him famous, something that would change the world. The truly great reporters had been household names, once upon a time. They’d exposed corruption, they’d caught criminals … a couple had even had flicks made of their lives. Clarence wanted that kind of fame for himself. And he would have it …

He finished writing the story, uploading it and the footage to the newspaper’s server, then went to bed. His wife shifted uncomfortably as he climbed under the sheets, but otherwise didn’t moved. Clarence didn’t really blame her. She’d been up for most of the day, first taking their son to nursery and then handling her job. Clarence would have liked to be the sole breadwinner – he didn’t like the tired look in his wife’s eyes – but there was no alternative. He simply didn’t bring in enough money to ensure a good start in life for his son.

Things will be different, he silently promised his wife. And they start from tomorrow.

And he was right. The following morning, he received an email that told him he’d been fired.

6 Responses to “Snippet – Cry Wolf (The Empire’s Corps 15)”

  1. David Graf December 9, 2018 at 2:40 pm #

    Wow! I can’t wait to read the rest when it comes out.

  2. Anthony Perkins December 9, 2018 at 8:17 pm #

    YAAAAAAY a new Empire’s Corp finally. CANNOT wait 😀

  3. sam57l0 December 12, 2018 at 3:36 am #

    Who or what are the Foresakers?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard December 12, 2018 at 3:59 am #

      A religious cult that had forsaken technology, generally peaceful but after they lost a world of their own had been refugees on various worlds including the one this story is set on.

      The story of what happens to the ones expelled from Tarsus was told in Culture Shock (The Empire’s Corps 13).

  4. patdailey December 13, 2018 at 1:29 am #

    More importantly.?….. how are you doing? You are more important to us than your stories. Please get better.

    • chrishanger December 15, 2018 at 4:18 pm #

      At the moment? Not great. Chemo brain finally caught up with me.

      Chris

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