Enemy at the Gates
“They want what?” the man exclaimed, jumping up from his desk.
“A small percentage of our raw materials as a gesture of good faith” replied the younger man standing in front of the desk. “Mr. President, would it really be so bad to give in to their demands? The Zer Empire has been expanding rapidly, and their fleet is easily more powerful than ours. Recent estimates indicate that it rivals the combined might of the core systems, and we’re just a border confederation.”
“I know, Jim, I read the reports just like you did,” President Leo Frank said as he ran a hand through his close-cropped graying hair. “Have you told Maria yet?”
Jim Baker shook his head. “I thought you should be the one to tell Madame President, sir.”
“You’re probably right,” Frank agreed. “Did the Zer emissary say how long they would wait for a response?”
“He said he would be on-planet for a week,” Baker said.
Frank sighed. “A week. They’re expecting us to cave. This new emperor of theirs certainly isn’t wasting any time.”
Baker shrugged. “He announced at his coronation that he would expand the Empire by whatever means necessary, and no one believed he’d do it.”
“Well, it helped that his father spent at least the last ten years building up their navy. If Cyrus had inherited then instead of a few months ago, there wouldn’t be anything to worry about,” Frank said, pacing behind the desk. “Call Maria and ask her to meet with me as soon as she can. Tell her that whatever she’s doing, this is more important.”
“Yes, sir,” Baker said as he left the room.
Frank watched the door swing shut. “I should have retired when I had the chance,” he muttered. “Government is no place for an old pilot.”
The sun broke through the clouds, casting long shadows across the room. The president turned to look across the skyline of New Sparta, squinting at the reflective buildings that were the norm.
Frank stood at the window, staring into the distance, until there was a knock at the door.
“Madame President to see you sir,” the muffled voice said.
Frank coughed, clearing his throat, then sat down. “Come in, please,” he said.
The door opened, and a slightly stooped middle-aged woman walked in. “Leo, I’m sure what you have to say is important, but I was in the middle of a meeting with the senior Diet members,” she began.
“Maria, please sit,” Frank interrupted.
President Maria Amintas slumped into the chair. Frank never interrupted anyone, so this had to be important. She beckoned for him to continue.
“An emissary from the Zer arrived today, requesting some of our raw materials as a ‘gesture of good faith,'” Frank began. “They only want a small percentage, but they offered nothing in return, and said nothing about what they would do if we choose not to comply.”
“That’s extortion!” Amintas shouted, her knuckles whitening. “We can’t afford to divert even a fraction of our exports. The core systems would cut traffic out here, and we’re too dependent on what they supply.”
Frank nodded. “I thought that’s what you might say. I wanted to check with you before I started any kind of planning, though. Making policy is your responsibility, after all.”
Amintas nodded. “What do you think they’re going to do when we tell them we won’t pay?”
“If it were me, I would attack. The Zer Empire’s war machine needs the raw materials, and doesn’t have the cash to pay for them. This ‘offer’ just gives them deniability. They can say they offered us a way to avoid conflict,” Frank said.
“How long do we have before they can mobilize to attack us?” Amintas asked.
“The emissary is going to be here for a week, and he’ll probably rendezvous with the fleet a few days after departing. Intelligence indicates that the main force is conducting training exercises a few jumps from here, somewhere in the vicinity of the Gates.”
Amintas frowned. “So they could respond in less than two weeks. Will we be able to defend against that?”
“No. The only forces we have in-system right now are the Presidential Guard. The rest of the navy is escorting convoys and patrolling our border with the Holy Triumvirate,” Frank answered.
“We can’t pull them away,” Amintas said, grimacing. “Those nutjobs will pounce on us the second those ships jump out.”
“Our allies will take at least a week to get here, if we call them now,” Frank said. “The Centauri Pact should respond immediately, and their ships should be enough to turn the tide, if we call the convoys back now and can put their escorts on the front lines as well.”
“You were elected for the military decision making, Leo,” Maria said, smiling. “If you think it needs to be done, do it.”
Frank nodded. “Thanks. I wanted to be sure to get your opinion on the situation before I started issuing orders,” he said.
“I’ll contact the CP and our other allies who should be close enough to help,” Amintas said. “I’ll send word to the core systems as well. They don’t like it when their trade gets interrupted, and if we’re going to be fighting against the Zer Empire, they can expect one hell of an interruption.”
“Be sure to point out that the core would have our undying gratitude, should they decide to help us,” Frank said.
“Don’t worry, I will,” Amintas said with a small grin. “And if they don’t, we’ll remember that, too.”
Amintas rose and started towards the door. Before she made it out of the room, Frank spoke up once more.
“Are we doing the right thing, Maria?”
Amintas paused at the doorway and looked over her shoulder. “I’ve seen videos of what the Zer Empire does once it occupies worlds like those in our confederation. Everyone who can is put to work either collecting raw materials or building new ships, and the rest of the population is left to starve.”
She took a deep breath before continuing. “Once they’ve made enough ships to make up for whatever losses they suffered, they leave the planet behind with only enough people to stockpile materials for resupply. We can’t let that happen here. Billions of people are depending on us, Leo. We have to keep them safe.”
Frank nodded jerkily, and spun his chair towards the window.
“You have to keep them safe,” Amintas said again before letting the door softly close.