Monday, November 14, 2011

Land of the Blind (Chapter 2 -- Part I)

Recap: In Chapter One, the Praetorians celebrated the death of Devereaux Marshall Fox at their heavily-fortified underground headquarters. In the midst of a toast, Fox waltzed in, seemingly past tight security, and almost completely annihilated one the strongest military special operations forces in the world.

By Gregory Marshall Smith

Chapter 2

Eight years later

Blah, blah, blah, budget limits.”
Colonel Nia Mavromichalis sat silently, listening to the Federation parliamentarians drone on about the budget. She’d always hated these meetings because it meant civilians with no idea of what the Praetorians experienced on a daily basis got to scrutinize her budget requests. They didn’t know that it cost a lot to keep them safe and comfortable.
“Why should we fund all of this blah, blah, blah,” another voice seemed to say, as the colonel barely refrained from rolling her eyes and tried to look somewhat interested.
This time around, however, Mavromichalis was not the one being grilled. Up until the previous week, she had been commanding officer of the Praetorian Guard. Despite her reservations, she'd done an excellent job rebuilding the ranks by recruiting new soldiers out of the ranks of the Federation’s regular Special Forces. She’d accomplished a lot in only five years, vastly increasing the force’s morale and professionalism to the point that other countries began to take notice of it again.
Fortunately, just as the command threatened to put more wrinkles around her eyes and gray hairs in her 43-year old head, she was replaced. The Joint Chiefs had finally found someone to willing to take over and, strangely enough, she was actually glad. She’d wanted to make flag rank, just to have the accomplishment on her record. If, however, making flag rank meant she’d have to continue with such a grueling chore as running the Praetorians, then she wasn’t quite sure she was up to the task anymore.
“I would also like to thank Colonel Mavromichalis for her patience in enduring these budget meetings for the past few years,” one of the parliamentarians announced, forcing the colonel to look up and fake a smile.
At more than six feet in height, Mavromichalis sported a muscular figure that, coupled with an authoritative demeanor completely foreign to the innocence of her beauty, made her well-respected among her peers. She had many friends among the Federation’s law enforcement and military groups. However, her political skills were about as real as her smiles.
No, she had to admit to herself, she was actually ready for a change. Too bad her bosses were not. For reasons still not fully explained by the Joint Chiefs, she had been retained within the unit as its executive officer. She couldn't imagine a worse scenario than a new commander having the old one looking over his shoulder. She'd heard plenty of rumors about the man who had replaced her and she knew that, at some levels, internal politics within the Pentagon had played a role in her retention.
“I, too, have acknowledged the valuable contributions Colonel Mavromichalis has made in rebuilding the Praetorians,” a rather professional and stern voice cut in. “Though it was an unusual move for her to stay on, I do believe that she and I can work together for a more effective unit.”
Mavromichalis looked to her left for the source of the obvious lie and saw a man in full Praetorian dress uniform sitting behind a table, looking right at the parliamentarians. He was not even six feet tall, but he more than made up for his short stature with an overwhelmingly confident demeanor. His features were Chinese, which was a rarity in a world where mixing of the races was the rule. His hair had only just started to turn gray, but Mavromichalis knew that, just like herself, the gray had come from stress, not age. He was only three months shy of 55.
Mavromichalis had only met Brigadier General Kober Chiang once prior to his appointment as her successor and that had been enough. He had a forceful presence that told everyone, with a single glance, exactly who was in command. He also had mysterious eyes and the colonel shivered slightly at the memory of seeing them for the first time. The man hid a powerful agenda behind those eyes and she didn’t doubt his ability to carry through with that agenda.  
Whatever that plan was, the man had begun making immediate changes. He’d brought in many of his own people from outside the force to help him run things. Mavromichalis knew a few of them and she didn’t like what she saw. A part of her said it was beginning to look more like the Praetorians were a special bodyguard for the Federation’s secret forces and not for its citizens.
“So, General Chiang, can you tell us why we need to spend so much of the Federation’s hard-earned credits on your budget?” Parliamentarian chief Annabeth Lawrence inquired. “Do we have enemies you have not yet seen fit to warn us about?”
“The budget is needed to keep the Federation safe, Madam Parliamentarian,” Chiang said, after a short pause, his voice strong, deep and purposeful. “We do have many who would wish us either harm or to replace us in the hierarchy of world power.”
“I understand that, General,” Lawrence countered, but without too much concern. “But, this budget has figures that would seem to say that you’re going on the offensive. And I don’t mean going out after designer drug dealers or trying to be proactive in the espionage arena. You seem to have some grandiose plans.”
“Madam Parliamentarian, I only seek to ensure that my…excuse me…our beloved Federation does not fall from the ranks of world power,” Chiang replied, unfazed by Lawrence’s insinuations. “I see many old problems resurfacing because of some huge setbacks we’ve had over the years. This has manifested itself into some possible scenarios.”
“Okay, I’ll give you some leeway on this, General,” Lawrence stated, leaning back in her ergonomic chair. “What are the scenarios?”
“First of all, Madam Parliamentarian,” Chiang began, “let us look at some hard, fast facts of this world and, I may point out, the worlds beyond Earth. In this year of our Lord, 2150, eighty-three percent of the nations are democratic and practice free trade and open markets, although some are now trying to restrict that fact.
“Hunger and poverty are virtually non-existent, have been for decades. Yet, the World Health Organization has warned that these blights are beginning to reappear in some parts of the planet. Innovation drives the world economy, but the seven-percent annual growth of the gross domestic product has slowed to four percent. In the last Federation budget, it was actually suggested that education, which has been free online since 2040, might be taxed to offset deficits. Only a decade ago, ninety-three percent of the nations were democratic, so we have lost 10 percent to anarchy. I won’t belabor the point, but we are in real danger of reversing the trends that have helped run the world successfully for the last 100 or so years.”
Mavromichalis was impressed. The general had done his homework. She could see that the Parliamentarians, many of whom had been on the verge of dozing off, were suddenly alert and listening intently to Chiang. Then again, she thought, the way their parliamentary leader was questioning Chiang, it was no wonder that the junior members were bored. Mavromichalis could picture Lawrence rubber-stamping the entire budget and wondered if the Parliamentarian chief had had a private conversation with the Joint Chiefs before this meeting. She knew that she’d never had any budget meeting this easy when she found herself before Lawrence and her predecessors.
“In the early years of the 21st century, we had three possible scenarios,” Chiang continued. “They were ‘Prosperity, ‘catch-up’ and ‘nation in decline.’ Right now, we need to maintain prosperous sustainability. Innovation must remain highly integrated into our economy. Our education system must keep producing the men and women necessary to keep our way of life going. We must maintain or re-obtain leadership roles in production, global trade, economic growth, patents, industrial competitiveness, scientific research and development, and low unemployment. We must also continue our highly successful and profitable collaboration with industry.
“In the second scenario, we give up the leadership role and fall back on our heels. We begin funding science less, thus harming ourselves financially and health-wise. The economy slows even more and a trade deficit blossoms. In the 20th century, we experienced massive trade deficits with China, Japan and Mexico. By 2015, we had let India join that undistinguished group. Half of the fantastic growth we experienced for the first 50 years of this present growth cycle went to pay off those debts and remove the swords from our throat. But, we have had trade deficits for the third time in the last seven years and for the second straight year.”
“So, to avoid the third scenario of abject failure, poverty and loss of not only prestige, but real power, we need to become more viable,” Chiang went on, matter-of-factly. “That means we must know what our enemies and our competitors are doing. We must protect ourselves against threats that would destroy us. People must have the time and feeling of safety to take full advantage of education, technology and innovation. Crime and terrorism cannot be allowed to interfere and neither can corruption.”
The room was silent for a few moments. If Chiang thought he’d convinced the Parliamentarians, he did not show it on his face. He was always noncommittal with his emotions.
Mavromichalis thought it wise not to challenge him to a game of hi-tech poker. Still, it seemed odd of him to mention the need to root out corruption. She doubted he could have risen through the ranks so fast without accepting that human failing as part of politics.
“Okay, General, I’ll acquiesce on that point,” Lawrence agreed. “Wow, look at the time. I think I speak for the entire Parliament when I say I see no problems approving your budget. Unless there are any other questions – oh, the distinguished gentleman from Stone Mountain has a question. Go ahead, Mr. Ayodeji.”
An elderly man leaned forward in his seat and fixed his eyes upon Lawrence. He seemed more than a bit annoyed that she was going to dismiss the rest of her compatriots and approve the budget without asking for any input. After a few seconds, he moved his gaze over to Chiang.
“While I appreciate my colleague’s zeal to get a budget in place,” Astin Ayodeji began, “there is one thing that has been bothering me. It has been the so-called eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room. If we give you this increased budget, what guarantees can you give me that you will be able to finally put an end to Devereaux Marshall Fox?”
At the mention of Fox’s name, Chiang became visibly moved. It was little better for Mavromichalis, whose one glaring failure had been Fox. Still, the colonel had only been fighting Fox for a decade, not thirty years as Chiang had been, thus far. His fight had begun shortly after the massacre of a village in Mexico. She could only wonder what Chiang would do, now that he had gained control of a force that, on paper, was more than capable of dealing with the Fox.
“Devereaux Marshall Fox or, as the media refer to him, the ‘Adventurer,’ is really the main reason for the budget increase,” Chiang replied, trying to maintain a calm visage. “He is an anarchist of the worst order. Yet, to believe he is merely some crackpot with an inferiority complex would be to commit a grave blunder, much as some of my Praetorian forebears once did. He is one of the most capable, most technologically savvy and most dangerous men alive today. And I don’t think I would be out of line by saying that he may be one of the most dangerous men who ever lived.”
Mavromichalis couldn’t argue against Chiang’s assertions. She’d gone up against Fox on two occasions, springing what should have been textbook ambushes on him. But, it appeared Fox had the same textbook for he managed to spring the traps early and shoot his way clear. For reasons not even the Federation's best intelligence and scientific minds could figure, Fox had taken a lot of punishment and had given nothing but grief in return.
She had made locating Fox a major priority during her time in command, though finding him was one thing. Stopping him was an entirely different ball of wax. She still shivered at the memories of all those funerals she'd attended back in Fort Worth when the Praetorians' greatest achievement had come smashing back in their faces.
“Does this man hate his own country so much?” Ayodeji asked. “I know that he has helped many in my mother continent, but my people have paid a high price for it. What exactly does he hope to gain by his actions?”
“Despite all of our best intelligence and our best psychological profiling, we really do not know that much about the man and what his motivations truly are,” Chiang replied, coolly. “Even after thirty years, I feel that he is still a complete stranger to me.”
Mavromichalis cringed at her new boss’ use of the word “intelligence.” Intelligence had failed miserably in just about every action to hunt down Fox. It had failed abysmally eight years when Anna Velasquez had gunned down a former Federation Marine named Charles Bedard, having mistaken the man for Fox. That he had been secretly working in Africa in some of the same areas as Fox was what put Anna on to him, but, as an investigatory committee had later learned, the man had been helping deliver badly needed food and medicinal aid to villagers affected by a civil war.
Mavromichalis realized that glitch had been bad enough. What happened afterward was worse, for Marshall Fox had simply walked right past the main gate of the naval air station in Fort Worth without anyone even sensing something was out of place. He'd used some unknown device to knock out mansion security, allowing him free access to more than 200 unarmed men and women. She still hadn't figured out how to guard against someone who could do all that.
“Well, General,” Lawrence concluded, “it seems that this will be all. We thank you for your cooperation. We will discuss the budget, but I think I would not be showing favoritism by saying that I foresee no special obstructions. Now, I’m sure we’re all starving and, if you and your staff will join us in the dining room, I can promise you something much more delicious and filling than RDA shakes.”

To be continued Nov. 21, 2011. For more exciting tales, check out the latest issues of Digital Digest at Amazon.

Gregory Marshall Smith
Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror author

Copyright © 2011 Gregory Marshall Smith
All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.

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