Ace sniffed his steak with a dreamy expression on his face. He took a bite and carefully chewed the thick, juicy slice.
“You know,” finally said Ace, “I almost forgot what a nice cut of meat actually tastes like. A thousand years of eating alien protein and genetically engineered tissue… It’s just not the same.”
Christine and Steve were also enjoying their dinner which, just as Ace promised, was exquisitely prepared and served in stellar themed forms. Perfect hemispheres of rice became stars, steaks were cut into the shape of a spiral galaxy with side dishes and garnishes piled on the center of the construction to create the galactic bulge. Inside the restaurant it was warm and the air felt fresh, just like in Ace’s destroyer, thanks to specialized bacterial colonies in the air ducts.
“Genetically engineered meat tissue?” asked Steve. “How does it taste?”
“About as good as it sounds,” frowned Ace. “Very average and somewhat interestingly.”
“What is it made of? Just meat tissue?”
“Yes. We just take preserved DNA of livestock and create the muscle tissue in an incubator. It’s all right and it does have tons of animal protein but…”
“It’s just not quite right?”
“Exactly. It’s just not the proper texture and it doesn’t have that flavor.”
“And what about alien meat?”
“Depends on the aliens. The creatures from Theta 88G are pretty tasty if you cook them just right.”
“How do they taste?” wondered Christine.
“Like chicken,” deadpanned Ace.
Steve snorted from trying to laugh under his breath. A hint of a smile crossed Christine’s lips.
“Do you farm animals for food?” asked Steve.
“Sometimes,” replied Dot. “But we’re not good farmers. We tend to roam around too much for that and the logistics of delivering the food get complicated throughout the Carina-Sagittarius arm.”
“But how can you eat alien meat? What about pathogens?”
“We’re immune to them. As long as the aliens have protein and phosphorus, we can eat them.”
“Speaking which, why do you physically eat in the first place?” asked Christine.
“It’s either that or get our nutrients from pills and injections. Our organs can’t run on electricity,” replied Ace. “We figured that eating would be a lot more enjoyable than needles and capsules.”
“And how does the food taste to you? Is it different from how it tasted to you when you were still human?”
“I am still human,” corrected Ace.
“Oh, I’m sorry… I’m just… I didn’t want to offend.”
“It’s ok, I understand. To answer your question, my taste buds work just like yours, but I can also tell you the chemical makeup of what’s in my mouth. If somebody tried to slip some arsenic or worse into my food, I’ll detect it and won’t absorb it into my bloodstream. And I can tell what’s safe to eat.”
Steve raised his brow.
“A little lab in your mouth,” he chuckled. “The Dark Gods sound pretty thorough.”
“When they start something, they never do it halfway,” Ace nodded in agreement.
Suddenly the entire restaurant grew anxious as something started happening on the holographic TVs placed around the main room. Random cheering began to erupt as electronic music started to grow loud enough to hear.
“What’s going on?” asked Steve.
“Hockey!” excitedly laughed Ace. “Holy crap, I forgot about the game tonight!”
“Really?” asked Dot. “You forgot the Dark Knights were playing?”
“I know, I know, just lost track of the day.”
On the TVs, hockey players in a vast, aggressively curved rink wearing colorful uniforms that looked like sleek, padded space suits, floating slightly above the ice on magnetic skates squared off as heavily padded goalies anchored themselves in the paint around their goals. A horn blared, the puck dropped, and the players immediately began to collide as they chased the puck to the cheers of the crowd in the stadium and the entire restaurant.
And so the crew ate and bonded over the Nation’s version of hockey in a restaurant thousands of light years away from Earth; two cyborgs who finally had a taste of fresh food after a thousand years spent many quadrillions of miles away from Earth and two humans trying to understand their place in the bizarre world of these alien humans.
Back on Earth, Councilor Newman was fuming in his office. With a savage expression on his face, he slammed an empty glass with ice and a faint trace of whiskey on his table. The ice threatened to jump out of the glass before gravity pulled it back to the bottom where the cubes hit with a loud clank. Newman hit a button on his intercom.
“Get Gene in here,” he barked into the receiver.
A few minutes later, a thin, athletic, middle aged man in a formal, exceptionally well-tailored suit and a crisp, chrome colored shirt with a stiff collar, walked into Newman’s office. He was a consultant for many politicians in his long career, and he helped Newman climb to the top with a promise to return to tradition and family across the globe. Suffice it to say that the minute Newman was elected, it was the last time anyone heard about tradition and family from him.
Gene Harding knew that campaign promises were often a farce. He knew it so well because he was the one who came up with them. Late at night he toiled on the perfect speech with focus groups, polls and media talking points. Next day, he would hand the candidate a sheet of thin plastic with the perfect speech and the perfect platform which would either be forgotten the second the candidate got elected, or just dropped in a few years as no longer relevant. Generations ago, politicians who got into office did try to fulfil most of their promises, but now, they were overpowered by the whims of the economy and public opinion that strongly favored the status quo on far too many things for the Council and municipal officials to be effective as anything more than routine caretakers and enforcers.
Gene and his colleagues became a necessity to help market and differentiate candidates who found their hands tied by a system that didn’t much care for their input in day to day affairs. And so they very quickly began to see themselves as indispensable parts of the political system and their work as slowly but surely remaking the world in their mage by playing chess with their candidates against each other. This is what he was here to do today: remake the world to adjust to the new, alien presence that almost instantly upended the old order and needed to be quickly tamed for the public.
“Gene, we have a problem,” scowled Newman.
“Really?” Gene asked with a hollow smile.
“You know about the Shadow Nation of course.”
“Yeah, hard to miss it. They’re all over the news.”
Gene sat down in front of Newman’s desk and stole a glance at the opulent office around him. Brushed aluminum, light wood and a set of three sumptuous leather chairs stood in the back of the office. The big window took up most of the wall on his right side, ending at a bookcase behind him which displayed countless plaques, statuettes and other awards. Since all books were now on reusable plastic sheets linked to the ubiquitous internet, holding decorations and awards was the only job a bookcase could do now.
“So what’s the problem Councilor?” asked Gene. “You were on the panel that made the trade agreement with the Nation, soon we’ll be flooded with alien goodies from across the galaxy, and all we have to do is send them some heavy water and cattle. I can’t find anything not to like about this.”
“Well it’s what you don’t hear on TV,” replied Newman. “They also asked us for human blood.”
“Oh?” incredulously shook his head Gene.
“Human blood. Asked us to keep this little payment arrangement confidential.”
“Yes, I caught that. Why would they want human blood?”
“They say it’s for some sort of research.”
“They wouldn’t specify, but they said that they’ll share any new discoveries with us. Even put a clause in the agreement for it.”
“Maybe they’re just going to sell medicine to us.”
“Wait. I’m not done yet. They don’t want just any old humans to give them a few pints of blood. They want blood cells from kids.”
“Makes perfect sense to me.”
It was Newman’s turn to be surprised.
“How does that make sense to you?” he jumped.
“Everybody knows that you need undamaged DNA for research. We have a lot of damage to our DNA by adulthood. They just want a batch of fresh genetic material for study.”
“Ah that’s what they want you to believe,” said Newman with an insane grin on his face. He hit his desk with open palms and jumped up, darting around the desk. “I have an idea what they really want to do with that DNA. It’s definitely research all right, but it’s not for new medicine or anything like that, it’s for something else entirely.”
“So what is it for?” Gene rolled his eyes.
Newman turned to him with an even more insane grin.
“They want to create humans subservient to them, then place them on Earth and get them into the power system. That way, they’ll have complete control of the planet in just a few generations. Soon, every kid on Earth is going to be chanting their pledge of allegiance. Our government will be destroyed, we’ll be silenced, and these subservient agents of the Nation will surrender us to the aliens.”
Gene looked at Newman with the corner of his mouth twitching. He heard plenty of conspiracy theories in his day but not from one of his highest profile clients.
“Umm… Councilor Newman,” cautiously started Gene, “I think you’re overreacting just a little bit here…”
“Why are they so interested in Earth?” demanded Newman.
“Well as long as we make money who gives a shit?”
“I give a shit. Apparently I’m the only one who does.”
“You don’t know anything about these aliens…” tried Gene.
“Exactly!” bellowed Newman. “But I do know that instead of coming back to Earth, they had to start shit out in space and put us out there for target practice. They’re reckless, senseless, and they’re either going to sacrifice the Earth, or they’re going to try and rule us. I don’t buy this ‘mutual economic benefit’ and ‘we’re here to defend the Earth’ bullshit for a second.”
Gene tried to reason with Newman again.
“I think…” was all he managed to let out.
“I don’t pay you to think. I’m not going to retire. Get me a brand new platform. Threatened tradition, our kids in danger, you know the usual sentimental bullshit. Just keep me on that fucking Council of Drooling Morons.”
Gene sighed and took out his phone. He started jotting notes on it while he shook his head. This was the first time he felt compelled to say something, but Newman’s checks were too fat to refuse.
“Well ok… I’ll see what I can get working. How much time do I have to get this wrapped up?”
Newman took his glass and walked over to the bookcase. He tapped a cabinet and it opened, displaying an assortment of hard liquor. With a deft and practiced move, Newman poured himself more whisky and took a swig. He made a sour face and exhaled with an odd quacking noise. He turned around to the window and looked out at the city.
“They’ll take a little while to finish their war with those Rexx things. You have two months.”
“Got it,” confirmed Gene.
He put away his phone and left the office with an uneasy feeling. He thought that this feeling must be the conscience those Janes and Joes mention so often. But never mind. He had a job to do.
Across town, Councilor Grey ate supper with his friend and advisor, Tina. They ate at one of the nine apartments slated for Councilors, this one occupied by Grey for decades. It spanned 5,000 square feet, with large rooms, wide hallways, and vast windows looking at the city that was some 30 stories below, decorated with lots of light wood and brushed metal, as was the current trend. Abstract artwork hung on the walls with a very special piece hanging in the dining room. It depicted an alien solar system, a favorite topic for pop artists of the 25th century, and was one of the few things that wasn’t changed when this apartment was renovated during Gray’s last re-election.
Grey sat in front of this drawing eating broiled fish from a square plate. The table itself was made out of a thick plastic that looked like glass suspended over thin, twisting metal legs which ended in a wide, short, cone shaped foot.
“So here’s your angle,” Tina was saying as she took a bite of her vegetable medley. “You secured advanced alien technology for all of humankind. Your trade agreement will propel Earth into a new era.”
“Yes, that sounds pretty good,” nodded Grey. “What about my long standing as Senior Councilor? Somebody’s bound to whip out a ‘we need fresh blood’ campaign to mute my endorsements.”
“Experience is everything. Do you really trust amateurs to deal with a little known alien race?”
“Not bad… But they’re technically humans. I’m sure that people would be far more comfortable knowing that we’re working with very advanced humans rather than alien monsters who might do God knows what out of the blue.”
“I think I can make it work. Now as for the public image part…”
“Is something wrong with my public image?”
“No, no… Not yet. But I would rather try to keep Ace out of the public’s view.”
Grey frowned and put down his fork.
“Tina! I can’t do that! You might as well have me stick Hertz in the closet while you’re at it. He looks like a mutant toad, but he has an important job. Looks is not a valid reason to start offending a trading partner.”
“What role does he play in his government?” asked Tina.
“You know,” started Grey, “I’m not quite sure. I know that he’s an advisor to the Children of the Stars and he’s got to be pretty damn high on the food chain if they’re letting him make first contact.”
“Wasn’t he one of the founders of the Shadow Nation?”
“Yes, he was, but you know how founders are. In a hundred years’ time they become nothing more than symbolic figureheads and someone younger and more ambitious does all the work.”
“Well if he’s functionally immortal, isn’t he? That would change the power dynamics,” noted Tina, meaningfully raising her brow.
Grey listed through his plastic sheets until he found the right one. He looked at it intently and turned to Tina.
“That was a classified report so what I’m going tell you now it not to leave this room, got it?” warned Grey.
“Yeah, of course,” agreed Tina.
“I don’t know Ace’s official title, but he definitely runs things. He may talk about the High Council of this and the High Command of that, but he’s the head honcho and everybody dances to his tune either because they’re scared of him, or because his word is law across the Nation. Notice how everything he says he’ll ‘bring up with the Councilors and Commanders’ gets done right away.”
Tina paused for a minute.
“What bugs me,” continued Grey, “is that it’s so hard to figure out who does what in the Nation. It’s like the military is supremely organized, ran like a finely tuned machine. But the civilian functions feel a little… tacked on. Kind of like someone with not much idea past the basics of civics put it together on the fly, as he needed new parts. And because the military is so organized and seems to have final say in how all the money gets used, they have absolutely inordinate weight in every decision being made behind the scenes. It’s the classic behavior of a praetorian state in a shiny new wrapper, and Ace is definitely one of the people who actually put it together. Whatever his official title, just by virtue of who he is and what he’s done so far, he has a ridiculous amount of pull.”
“I see what you’re talking about Councilor,” she finally said. “I certainly don’t want the aliens’ head honcho pissed off at you…”
“Cyborg head honcho,” corrected Grey.
“People are going to refer to them as aliens anyway.”
“Well we don’t need that.”
“Councilor, all I wanted to say is that the traditionalists are going to look at him and say that he’s demonic. They’re going to hammer that adjective until its fused to his forehead.”
“Well then Tina, we could counter-attack with something noble. Say… ancient warrior.”
Tina thought about it for a moment.
“A bit of a stretch but maybe a starting point for something good,” she agreed.
“Now then,” continued Grey, “what other credentials should I be working on?”
“I’d say defense. Secure some big guns, something like that. It’ll get the hawks’ votes.”
“There are limits on what I can and can’t do there.”
“Well, if you get one of those IGFs…”
“Will not happen,” frowned Grey.
“They’re not going to sell us IGFs. Those things have a lower bound of 10 gigaton. That’s ten billion tons of high explosives. We could easily wipe out a major hyper-city by accident and crack the planet’s crust. I know that the hawks get mad every time we say that there’s a weapon too powerful for us, but in the interests of sanity, I’d rather leave those with Ace.”
“I’ll think about how to frame it properly on talk shows.”
Grey finished his fish just as Tina finished her vegetables. They took their deserts and went into the vast, sparsely decorated living room, sat down at the opposite ends of a large couch and continued their strategy session.
“I’m worried that Newman won’t retire,” said Grey. “I know he’s probably scheming something.”
“How do you figure?” asked Tina.
“He almost flipped out during the negotiations. He hated Nelson. I heard him call the man a traitor to one of his cronies.”
“Well that’s not good.”
“I need him out of the way. If Ace turns Earth into the promised land, I could relax for the next twenty years or so and retire in peace, doing some consulting work on the side. If Newman manages to tear the trade deal apart and antagonize Ace by getting re-elected and replacing my partners, the biggest accomplishment of my career will be flushed down the toilet because some old twit feels threatened by change and new technology.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Tina finished her small desert and looked at her watch.
“Well Councilor, I’ll let you know what I can come up with. But in the meantime, I must be going,” she said.
“Working late tonight?”
Grey walked her out and returned to the living room. He plopped on the couch and snapped his fingers. A holographic TV screen rose out of the floor. It was tuned to a news channel where the trade deal was being dissected for the tenth hour by now. Grey listened for any critiques, trying to find the latest keywords for future talking points. By the time he became Senior Councilor he knew how this game was played and he played it very well.
The next day, Tina was sitting in an outdoor café, waiting for her lunch date to show up. He was fifteen minutes overdue. Odd. It wasn’t like him to be late. She looked around and noticed him crossing the street. He jogged over to her with an apologetic look on his face and sat down in the chair she was saving for him.
“So sorry Tina,” apologized Gene as he sat down. “I hate it when those meetings run over like this.”
“It’s all right, it’s just fifteen minutes,” accepted Tina. “So what got you so worked up lately?”
“Ah, that old nut job, Newman,” frowned Gene. “He’s convinced that it’s ‘his duty to protect humanity from the Shadow Nation.’”
“Oh really?” laughed Tina.
“Yeah. My diagnosis? Paranoid schizophrenia.”
“He’s not the only one who’s paranoid.”
“Oh? Don’t tell me Grey feels threatened. The guy could survive a nuclear blast. He’s been on the Council for what? A billion years?”
“Believe it or not, he’s not fond of Newman.”
“Nobody’s fond of Newman.”
“Well, he wants Newman out of the way. Says that the trade deal could make him rich and famous and if Newman tries to poison it… and so on and so forth.”
Gene considered her words for a minute. Grey is a heavyweight, always was. If he decided to block Newman, Gene would have a real fight on his hands. Newman couldn’t survive a round with a political equivalent of a 900 pound gorilla.
As Gene thought, their sandwiches and drinks arrived. He raised his glass of soda. Tina raised her glass as well.
“This is going to be a very interesting election season. Newman, the crusader for neo-traditionalists of the Traditional Values Group and Grey, the luminary of the Progressive Global Movement…” purred Gene with a sadistic note in his voice. “This is going to be a match-up for the history books.”
“Definitely,” agreed Tina. “Cheers Gene.”
The soda glasses clanked and the strategists ate their sandwiches, focusing on small talk. In their minds they were no longer concerned about their clients. They were concerned about each other. To every seasoned political strategist of the 36th century, even the most powerful politicians were just tools, no different than the public they regarded as little more than voting machines. The real and only opponent of a political strategist was a fellow political strategist. The heated insults their clients would hurl at each other and at them during the campaign were nothing personal, just business.