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By Tom Beck
Page 3 of 31

Chapter Two

The universe will not miss Servalan when she is gone. She has ruled with too iron a fist, shattered too many lives and dreams, to evoke any pity now that her reign is suddenly shaky. She knows all this, and yet cannot help feeling that it is unfair that she, she of all beings, Supreme Commander and now President Servalan, should face such a challenge.

After all, what has she really done, other than to defend the established order, to keep things going, to maintain the way things were and should be? Her critics know nothing of the dangers she has faced, the threats she has overcome, the enemies she has put down. It is only thanks to her that they are even around to badger her with their petty, puling complaints. For a second, the ingratitude of it all grips her and she begins to burn in a second, she may actually erupt in fury. Her innate dignity and sense of control assert themselves, though, and she avoids the embarrassment. Suddenly, she recalls where she is and what she should be paying attention to.

"What were you saying, Councillor Chritas?" she asks coyly, as if awakened from a reverie" which, in fact, she has been. She smiles benignly on the younger man, a smile that does not quite conceal her teeth.

It is the Chamber of the High Council of the Federation on Earth. Servalan and Chritas sit at opposite ends of a long table, girding two rows of lesser, and therefore inconsequential, Councillors. Whose heads, as if observing a tennis match, swing toward Servalan's opponent. Chritas, younger than Servalan, sighs. He recognizes, of course, her rhetorical trick, but also knows that he has her on the defensive.

He is a handsome man, slim, tall, well proportioned. Pleasant to look at, without seeming unimportant or too pretty to be smart. He is plenty smart, of course, or he'd never have gotten where he is. And he is more than smart, too, or he'd never have stayed there. But there is always higher to climb, always more power to gamer. Always more opponents to best. And they only get more dangerous and treacherous the higher you ascend.

Chritas begins, carefully. Diminished as Servalan may be, she is still tremendously formidable, fantastically dangerous. "I said, Madame President, that, with all due respect, I do not see how your policy of placating the Lost Worlds is aiding our rebuilding of the Federation. Rather, it is actually encouraging them to hold on to their ridiculous dreams of permanent independence. Only force can refederate the galaxy. And I am sure that I speak for many on the Council when I say that." Chritas smiles, with no more humor than Servalan did. His smile grows as he sees some of the intervening heads nodding, slightly but clearly.

With renewed confidence, Chritas rises. He starts to pace, turns his back on the table, strides away a few yards, then turns and faces the Council. "Madame President, we all recognize, no one more than I, your services to the Federation during and after the Andromedan War. Only you could have brought the Fleet through that cataclysm, only you could have held the Federation together after that terrible period. Your call to the Council to refederate the Federation was a stirring battle cry, giving us purpose when we needed it." He pauses for breath. His face grows harder.

"But time passes, Madame President. What is past may be valued, but it must also be past. I hope I will not be accused of disloyalty or of ingratitude when I ask you, plainly but respectfully, how your recent actions have contributed either to restoring the Federation to its rightful place as the shaper of humanity's destiny or to dealing with the pitiful but dangerous remnants of the unrest that preceded the Andromedan invasion." Another pause. He lets his question sink in. Servalan's face is frozen, and not in a beatific or benevolent pose.

His voice loses its lulling softness. "What benefit came from your presence during the Teal-Vandor 'war'?" he barks, sounding eerily like Servalan's first drill sergeant. "How did that major embarrassment contribute to our strategies, our goals? Did provoking the Pyroans into committing mass suicide bring us any gain? Is there any decrease in rebel outrages? Has the Liberator and its cargo of terrorists been captured?" He pauses for breath.

"Above all, where are we going?" he resumes. "What plans do you have? What proposals? Other than that you should remain President because you should remain President? Why should that persuade us? Why should the Federation listen?"

Chritas again strides away from the table, his back to all. "You have held your post for some time now, a very long time, in fact. Any lengthy tenure can grow stale. Perhaps you grow tired. Perhaps you wish to lay down the crushing burdens of your office. It would surprise none of us if you did indeed feel that way. If that is the case, I know I for one will be honored to help lighten your load." The false sincerity of his words amazes even her. She must force herself to listen.

Chritas pivots, facing the table, hands folded against his chest. "It goes without saying that you will step down with the thanks of not only this Council but of the entire Federation. And even, perhaps, from beyond. I hope that you will not let your tremendous sense of duty force you to prolong your stay in power against your own desires or the needs of your people." He sits, his face stony. There is a scattering of applause. Not much, just enough.

There it is, she thinks. A way out if she wants it. And why not? She has blundered badly in recent months. The Teal-Vandor catastrophe was only the latest misjudgment on her part. It is her obsession with Avon, with the Liberator, that has pushed her. Until she can rule him, command his ship, she cannot rest.

But it is that obsession, she realizes, that has brought her to this ugly pass. To where Chritas, the merest boy when she first took over Space Command, can challenge her - politely, but nevertheless a deadly challenge. Can he muster the votes on the Council to force her to step down? Dare she risk a direct vote? In times past she has known that her loyal forces will never let her be deposed. But she has been too long absent from Space Headquarters the last few months, and the new trainees are distant from her. And here at Federation Central she is not as secure.

Suddenly Servalan feels a tremor of something unfamiliar. It resonates in her memory with a sharp throb. It feels feels like the flush of heat she felt when that miserable tramp, Dayna Mellanby, forced a gun against her throat in the referees' room at the Teal-Vandor Convention.

Servalan realizes she is afraid. Chritas is young, but he is shrewd and almost as ruthless as she is. He has much support on the Council and in the bureaucracy. And he wants her job as strongly as she once wanted it. A formidable enemy.

Afraid. The word has been buried, expunged. Years have gone by without the word or the emotion impinging on her consciousness. She was one of the most highly decorated troopers in Federation Space Command history. She was so brave that the psychotechs thought she might be dangerously unstable. She has seen their evaluations: "Subject shows lack of usual battlefield caution. Extremely reckless. Dedication profile is almost off the scale. Exceptional leader of short-term assaults, but too careless of force survival to command in longer duration situations. Recommend against promotion to higher positions of authority. Lack of sufficient self-preservation motivation may be symptomatic of a greater underlying psychological problem that could surface during excessive stress."

Insufficient self-preservation. Hah! she thinks. How little they really knew. Whatever her weaknesses as a trooper, she has been the world champion of self-preservation as a commander and ruler. Her dedication has always been total and absolute. She has been willing to sacrifice anything and everything to carry out her orders or to fulfil her own ambitions, ambitions she has always identified with the needs of the Federation.

She knows what the psychologists said. One of her first acts as Supreme Commander was to deal with them. She hopes they have found interesting subjects to profile on Cygnus Alpha.

Nevertheless, she has paid attention to what they said. What was a strength as a trooper could be a weakness as a commander. She quickly realized that physical bravery as a trooper was a great way to get recognized and decorated. And a great way to get dead. She wised up and got rid of that weakness. She hasn't risked her life in years. Not willingly, anyway. The one or two times it has happened recently...she thinks of one such situation, when he almost cost her her life...

She feels that hot flush again. It angers her, almost infuriates her, in fact. Her life is the most important thing in the cosmos, and the idea that someone inferior, as all are, would dare threaten it, provokes outrage in her. A threat to her political power and position is also a source of indignation. She resents the weakness that has brought her to this, the mistakes she has made that have given her enemies an opportunity to outflank her. All this flashes through her mind in a second.

But Chritas has his weaknesses, too. He has little sense of strategy, and can be out-thought and out¬fought if only she can get away from here, get out of the Council Chamber with her power intact. She has a plan, after all. She has known of Chritas's hopes to replace her. She hasn't come in here unprepared, unarmed.

Rising, she stares regally at every face in the Chamber. Slowly she begins to speak. "I thank Councillor Chritas for his concern. I appreciate it greatly and accept it in the spirit in which it was given." She smiles at him. A smile that can make grown men quake. It does no less to Chritas.

"He speaks of my sense of duty. Duty. The most important word in my vocabulary. My duty to the Federation, that concept that gives meaning to all our lives. The Federation means more to me than any of you can possibly know. It is and has been for many years my entire life. My duty to the Federation has consumed me, governed me, transformed me. I could no more neglect my duty to the Federation than I could willingly stop breathing." A pause for effect.

Just long enough. She goes on, "That duty is something I cannot pass off to anyone else. Not while there is work still to complete. As much as I may wish to turn over the Presidency of the Council to someone younger, someone stronger and fresher, I cannot allow myself that luxury. I became President during a terrible and desperate war. After that war, I dedicated myself to restoring the Federation to its position of power and greatness. That task is not yet complete. Until it is, I must do my duty as I see it, and that is to sacrifice myself by continuing to guide the affairs of state, with, of course, the approval and guidance of the Council."

She pauses, pleased with her response. It has just that touch of nobility that will make it difficult for anyone to vote her out just now. Chritas recognizes it, too. He is looking around the table for support, but no one will meet his gaze. Servalan smiles. She is about to crush him with some veiled putdown when her hidden earpiece buzzes. Concealing her annoyance, she listens to the voice in her ear.

"He's been found," it says. "On the planet Fontina, as predicted. Your agents are in place there. A ship is being prepared now and will be ready to leave within the hour." Servalan takes a big breath. She is about to gamble her career on a very risky chance. But if she can find him, it will make the rest of it so much easier...

"Members of the Council, I must declare this meeting adjourned. I have just been informed that a dangerous situation is threatening our control of a distant sector. I must return to Space Command to take charge of our response. I will be in the War Room, where, of course, I will be unreachable. We will reconvene here when the emergency is over. I thank you for you presence today. The guards will escort you out."

At least she can still count on her personal Security retinue. Fifteen tall, well-armed praetorians enter the Chamber. Without a backward look, Servalan stalks out, leaving a flustered Chritas behind. She has no time for him, or for fear, anymore. She is the decisive, imperious Servalan of old, now. She will win, this time. She knows it.

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Tom Beck

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