“The key is loyalty,” boasted the Supreme General, his chest swelled so far with pride it seemed liable to burst. The military parade, an elaborate sabre-rattling to display the military and industrial power of his new empire, crawled past below.
Gray said nothing, merely thinking how much easier it would make his job if that muscled torso would explode.
“The people, they love me. And I, in return, love and protect them.” The Supreme General saluted, and a cheer rose into the chilly morning air.
McTavish-Smithsonian-Chang-Winston the Fifth was surprised that Gray arrived alone: the Supreme General was even now flanked by two bodyguards with the size and personality of trees, as well as his four favourite wives, three colonels, their wives, their aides, the aides’ wives, and a handful of lackeys. Gray had smiled politely, locked his private shuttle behind himself, and asked to speak with the Supreme General with some urgency.
Apparently watching the parade inch past for an hour was an acceptable use of everyone’s time.
“Very impressive.” Gray expertly stifled a yawn before it could erupt. “Is there much more?”
“Ah, a pity your ancient collection of worlds boasts no military so fine as this!” responded the general, his arm sweeping across the massive eight-lane avenue leading from the giant concrete plateau of the spaceport straight to the palace at the centre of the capital city. “I thought it only appropriate to show you the splendour of true fighting men, preparing to board our transports to kill or die upon my whim.”
“Yes, well,” Gray nodded once. “Very impressive.” There didn’t seem to be much else to say.
The Supreme General barked a short laugh. “Very well! Let us talk, you and I.”
They held the meeting in a large, open-sided tent a few steps from the parade itself. The general dismissed his wives and entered a few steps before his aides huddled in.
Gray noted that the circular table that dominated the tent had a single chair and was covered in starcharts and jump lane diagrams. The general loomed over the table, both hands firmly on its surface.
Gray examined several portable displays that had been set up around the edge of the tent, each showing nearby stars or further afield Commonwealth systems. He found Sol and thought to himself how fragile Earth seemed.
The general took a glass of brandy from one of his guards and jabbed a massive finger on a report. “Send the first fleet, but keep the second fleet in reserve. I want those jump lanes cleared by the end of the week!”
A chorus of enthusiastic assent arose from the officers present and Gray resisted rolling his eyes. The Supreme General dismissed his aides with a wave, leaving just him, Gray, and a dozen of his most trusted bodyguards.
“Unconditional surrender, then?” asked the Supreme General with a grin. He settled his girth into the chair with a satisfied slap on the table and a delicate sip of brandy.
Gray raised an eyebrow. “That would be one of the wisest things you’ve done since I arrived,” he admitted. “I’m surprised you were willing to suggest it.”
There was a heartbeat pause before McTavish-Smithsonian-Chang-Winston the Fifth erupted in laughter. “Ha! And they say you Commonwealthers have no sense of humour!”
Gray nodded once. “So they tell me.”
“Come, ambassador. My scouts have been to your worlds. Three dozen systems, and barely a dozen ships between them?” The general made his contempt obvious. “No standing army, no orbital defences. More troops marched past you in an hour than the Commonwealth has armed in a hundred years!” The Supreme General leaned forward, his smile full of teeth. “Surrender now. I am a merciful and just ruler.”
Gray’s smile was thin and showed no teeth whatsoever. “Supreme General,” he stated carefully. “How long has your… empire… existed?”
“Two decades!” boasted the general, although they both knew it was shy of eighteen years.
“Two decades, and three worlds.” Gray nodded slowly. “Are you aware how old the Commonwealth is?”
“Far too old for a government with no military!” chuckled the Supreme General.
“One hundred, fifty seven Earth-standard years.” Gray cracked his neck by twisting his head side to side. “Do you think that, in all that time, nobody else noticed a lack of military?” His thin smile vanished. “Do you honestly think you’re the first to think our ‘undefended’ worlds would be better under other ownership?”
The Supreme General laughed. “I have the largest-“
“Are you familiar with Admiral Shun-li Tsang?” Gray interrupted, examining the nails on his right hand. “Claimed he had a navy large enough to blot out the sun?” Gray paused, thinking. “I suppose for a specific solid-angle from a particular spot on his planet, he was right.”
“Are you going to tell me tales of the Commonwealth navy of old?” the general scoffed.
“No? What about Grand Inquisitor Addalleus Pious? An army with more rifles than there are stars? His empire had seven worlds, although between you and me,” Gray leaned forward slightly, a gesture of mocking camaraderie, “There were seven habitable worlds in his home system. A bit of cosmic cheating for the history books.”
“No.” The Supreme General’s smile was shrinking.
“Pirate Queen Svalatoth? Perhaps High Magistrate Urahahaha?”
“Bah.” The general waved his hand at Gray. “Is there a point to this, ambassador? I care not for how your crumbling Commonwealth defeated ancient enemies.”
“Ancient?” Gray pulled back, standing ramrod straight with his hands clasped behind his back. “My dear general, those were all people I met on my way here.”
McTavish-Smithsonian-Chang-Winston the Fifth paused as he attempted to parse this information.
“Very well, Supreme General, let me demonstrate the Commonwealth’s military.” Gray coughed gently.
The guard who had been warming the general’s brandy stepped forward. “Sir?”
“If you would be so kind to stand over here,” the ambassador gestured to the square of floor next to him. He turned to face the aghast expression of the general. “This is one of ours.”
“Traitor!” the general snarled. “I’ll kill you both!”
“Hmm. Yes.” Gray shrugged ever so slightly. “So, here’s the question, Supreme General. If we went to all the trouble of sneaking an agent into your hand-picked, most-loyal, elite personal guard,” Gray shrugged again. “Why wouldn’t we sneak in two?”
The general was inhaling to laugh as another of his personal guard walked over to stand next to Gray.
Gray smiled his thin, dangerous smile. “Of course, no point in putting all of them in your personal guard. How well do you know your wives, Max?” There was a pause. “Can I call you Max? I’m going to call you Max. How well do you know your aides? How well do you know your forty-two colonels?” Gray leaned, gently, against the display of the Sol system.
The Supreme General scowled darkly. “You’re bluffing.”
“Oh? Besides these two fine specimens?” Gray looked to his left and right at the calm soldiers-nee-agents standing next to him. “Not impossible, I suppose. So let me say this: the Commonwealth sends six ships long before any menace becomes an actual, credible threat.” Gray held up four fingers. “Four of these arrive years or months in advance. Simple traders, unloading cargo full of mundane trade goods and spies. I’m the fifth. I negotiate a vassal-state situation with would-be conquerors, help them solidify their borders and make sure they live long, healthy, safe lives.”
Gray recognized the slump of the shoulders and strode toward the table with swift, confident strides. He pulled a small document tube out of his inner coat pocket and deposited it over the crushed dreams of conquest scattered across the table. “The sixth ship carries only a charismatic leader. Sometimes a religious figure, more often a politician or revolutionary. They wait a few months, long enough for the chain of command to be completely obliterated by assassins, purges, and mass hysteria. They show up, offering the olive branch of peace and stability, and poof, problem solved.” Gray smiled. “By then, the population is willing to accept just about anyone who can bring stability.”
There was another heartbeat of silence.
“So, general, tell me.” Gray looked at the thoroughly crushed man. “Will you sign, or do we need to call in the sixth ship?”