Contact: Book 1: Chapter 5
Webley sat in his office getting his afternoon briefing on Gundarland and the rest of the world.
Across the desk, his Chief-of-Staff, Rodrigs, presented a review of events that he gleaned from newspapers, telegrams and reports from other bureaucrats. Rodrigs, wearing a mustard-colored bow tie, stopped in mid-sentence to listen to screams of terror coming from the secretaries’ area outside the presidential office. The clomping of several pairs of running feet followed the screams.
“I’ll find out what’s going on.” Rodrigs stood and placed his folder of reports on his chair.
“Not yet. It’s almost time for my nap and I don’t want anything to disturb it. You can tell me after I wake up.” Webley yawned, stretched and loosened his orange cummerbund.
Rodrigs sat down and started to read from another report when the office door crashed open and a nightmare creature overflowed the door frame.
Both men gaped at the intruder with its grayish-black skin covered with green, oozing slime. It stood on eight tentacles. Eyestalks bounced around as they inventoried the room. A silver medallion hung from the creature’s neck and a gold metallic belt covered with strange squiggles encircled the middle of its torso. It held a small, black, metallic device in one of its tentacles. The creature’s eyestalks focused on Webley. After a few seconds, it slithered forward and approached the desk. Webley pushed his chair backward until stopped by the wall behind his desk. He had trouble breathing and his gut felt as if it was trying to digest a large rock. A violent urge to vomit seized him. The stench from the squid-like figure reminded him of dead fish baked in the hot sun for a few days.
Rodrigs stared pop-eyed at the apparition. He recovered and pushed his chair away from the desk. He gagged and retched.
“Whoa!” the creature said to Webley. “You are an ugly sucker.”
Webley’s fear morphed into anger. “This monster calls me ugly?” He glared at the stranger while struggling to control his bile.
A sudden aroma of coffee filled his nostrils and delighted his olfactory sense. He glanced at Rodrigs and saw that he too looked more at ease. Obviously, the elf had cast wards to protect them against the stench.
“My name is Shtap. This belt identifies me as the negotiator for the brilliant and beautiful Captain Yunta. Instead of destroying the planet or enslaving you pathetic creatures, she offers to trade with you. You may grovel at my tentacles to show your respect and gratitude.” Squeaks came from the creature’s beak but the words came from the medallion.
“Rodrigs! What is the point of having an appointment calendar if no one follows it. My calendar clearly states that it is now nap time. Why is this . . . this thing in my office?”
“Maybe he doesn’t think he needs an appointment.”
“You’re a wizard. Cast a spell and get it out of here.”
Rodrigs thought that was a very bad idea. It would require a lot of magical power to move a creature that big. The kilo-necromans required to cast such a spell would be more than he had ever used at one time. The recoil from launching such an amount of power would be dangerous.
“Come on. Do your stuff.”
While the creature stared at Webley, Rodrigs gathered ten kilo-necromans of his magical resources, aimed them at the creature and wove his hands in a removal spell. The recoil almost knocked him backwards out of his chair. An opaque cloud of magical particles flew towards the intruder. It rebounded off Shtap, engulfed a potted plant and changed it into a pink dragon puppy. “Uh-oh,” Rodrigs mumbled aloud. The appearance of the dragon pup puzzled him. How had that happened? Shtap didn’t notice the spell. He must have a protective ward, but the ward wouldn’t account for the transformation of the plant into a dragon. Producing a dragon required much more power than the ten kilo-necromans he had used. Somehow the intruder’s ward must have amplified the power of the spell. Was that even possible? He had never heard of such an occurrence.
The pup snorted a puff of steam through one nostril and charged Shtap. It skidded to a halt a few feet away, sniffed and yelped in consternation. It ran two circuits of the office, yapping the entire time. At the end of the second lap, it made a flying leap at Rodrigs’ ankle and clamped down with its needle-sharp puppy teeth.
Shtap’s eye stalks rotated to follow the action.
Rodrigs, howling in pain, jumped up and hopped on one foot with the puppy clinging to his ankle and flapping its tiny wings to maintain its toothy grip. He pried the puppy’s teeth off his ankle and dropped it outside the office until he could think of something to do with it. He walked back to his seat, noticing that Shtap towered over his own six foot height. “Where are you from?”
“We don’t know where that is,” Rodrigs said. “We never heard of it.”
“Never? Your civilization is more ignorant than we thought. You are fortunate we are here. We come from far away. The other side of the galaxy.”
“Galaxy?” Rodrigs frowned at the implications of that statement. “You mean like one of the stars?”
“Well, that’s preposterous,” Webley said. “How could they travel from a star?”
“We came on a ship.”
“You have a ship out in the harbor?” Webley raised an eyebrow. “I think I would have heard about that.”
“You mentioned trade?” Rodrigs changed subjects to get Webley off the ship idea. Letting the creature get a glimpse of Webley’s thought processes wasn’t a good way to start a negotiation.
“We want to explore the land and mine minerals if we find them.”
“You mean like gold and silver?” Rodrigs asked.
“No. We seek minerals your backward civilization will not need for a long time and may never need. Like monazite and gadolinite.”
“I never heard of them,” Webley said. “Have you, Rodrigs?”
“No, I haven’t. Why here? Why not in a different part of our world?”
“This land has the most diverse terrain types giving us the best chance of success.”
“What do we get in return?” Rodrigs asked.
Shtap slithered to the closest window.
Rodrigs noticed the rug smoldered where he had been standing.
Shtap pointed a tentacle at the dirt-colored smog billowing from a nearby factory. “We will teach you how to clean up your pollution. Also how to keep your water clean.”
“How long will you stay?” Webley asked.
“Until our ship is filled. Meanwhile, we will study your pollution problem and teach you what to do before we leave.”
“How many of you will do the exploring?” Rodrigs asked.
“We use robotic explorers.”
“What are robotics?” Rodrigs asked.
“Machines, to your backward civilization.”
“How many?” Rodrigs wondered how folks would react to seeing machines roaming the land.
“Ten should be enough.”
“Then there will be ten machines and ten others like you to operate them?”
“Just the machines. There is no need to send down operators.”
Rodrigs frowned. How could machines work without someone controlling it? Was this magic or technology? He wished he knew. He didn’t like getting in situations where he didn’t understand what was going on. He needed more information. “What about private property?” Rodrigs asked. “Will these machines respect property rights?”
“What are . . . property rights?”
“Homes, farms, gardens, orchards. Land that individual folks own.”
Shtap paused momentarily, then replied, “Ah, land. We will respect property rights.”
“Where will you start?” Rodrigs sensed that Shtap replied to questions in a way that concealed much information. The entire situation made him most uneasy. There were far too many unanswered questions, not to mention the unknown questions.
“We will analyze your land mass to identify the most promising area to find minerals. We will start there. If we find what we need, we will not have to explore further.”
Webley cleared his throat. “We will think about your offer.”
Rodrigs knew the prospect of cleaning up pollution appealed to Webley. It was a major issue with the voters. If Webley received credit for solving the problem, it would help his reelection campaign.
Shtap nodded. At least Rodrigs thought he nodded. It was hard to tell since he didn’t really have a head, just eye stalks on the top part of the torso. “I will return tomorrow for your answer. I will require a large-scale map of your country.” He pointed a tentacle to the wall map. “Like that one.” He tapped the device held by a tentacle.
“Make sure you don’t show up at nap time when you come back.” Webley drummed his fingers on his desk top.
To their amazement, Shtap dissolved in a column of golden air.
Rodrigs shook his head in wonderment at the awesome display of power. “We need to have a cabinet meeting, sir,” he said.
Webley stroked his chin. “I suppose we’ll have to. Set it up for after my nap. And don’t include everyone. Just Treasury, Defense and Interior. We don’t need the rest of the buffoons.”
# # #
When Webley and Rodrigs entered the presidential conference room they found the others already there. Bright afternoon sunlight flooded the window-filled room. A large polished table dominated the room and was surrounded by a dozen heavy, padded chairs. The dragon puppy, now named Pinky, trotted at Rodrigs’s heels. Just to be sure it didn’t get into mischief, he had the puppy on a leash with a collar. Rodrigs’s greatest fear involved Pinky getting loose in the city since dragon pups were notorious troublemakers. Pinky would terrify old folks, stampede horses, start garbage fires and generally raise hell. Rodrigs was responsible for its sudden appearance and he felt an obligation to protect the pup — and the city — from each other.
Owning a dragon pup, especially a rare pink one, was an exotic status symbol. Nobody else had one, but he had another reason for keeping the pup. After pondering the events, he concluded his spell, once it ricocheted from Shtap’s ward, should have removed the potted plant to the waiting room. The spell was, after all, a powerful removal spell so something should have been removed. The alien’s ward somehow altered the spell and that implied that Shtap’s ward used a different type of magic than Gundarland’s wizards used. Rodrigs had trouble accepting that premise. The existence of another type of magic was foreign to every textbook he had ever studied. Perhaps Pinky could help to unlock this mystery.
He tied the leash to a nearby chair leg, sat down and looked around.
Crumlish, the Defense Minister, and Sfiore, the Secretary of Interior, ignored Webley, Rodrigs and Pinky. They stared at each other like they waited for someone to ring a bell to start the fight. Nothing new there, thought Rodrigs. The two hated each other.
Medals festooned Crumlish’s military tunic; all were honorary, none had been earned in battle. His beard braids contained ribbons matching the colors in the medals. The swagger stick under his left arm doubled as his wizard’s wand. As a dwarf, he had to bend his neck backward to scowl up at Sfiore, an elf.
Sfiore wore a gold robe that reflected the sunlight making her appear like an independent light source. She resembled a walking treasure trove with her shoulder-length silver hair and amber eyes.
Boudreau sat with his feet up on the table and groomed his toe hairs with a small comb. He smiled at Webley and pulled his feet down. Boudreau raised an eyebrow to Rodrigs and flicked his head toward Pinky. Rodrigs smiled and shrugged. He’d explain later. Perhaps he’d understand more about the strange situation by then.
Crumlish and Sfiore broke eye contact and nodded at the newcomers.
“Let’s get started,” Webley said without making his usual preamble about how happy he was to see everybody in good health. “As you may have heard, I had a strange visitor earlier today. A really foul-smelling one. He claimed to be from a far-off world and flew here on a ship. Obviously, the creature takes me for a fool. Ships don’t fly, they float.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Rodrigs said. “I understood him to mean a ship that is very different from the ones we are familiar with.”
Webley frowned. “Are you sure?”
Rodrigs nodded and went on to describe what the visitor looked like.
“What did he want?” Boudreau asked. “Not money, I hope.”
“Minerals,” Webley replied. “Although I can’t imagine why they want a pile of our rocks.”
“In return,” Rodrigs said, “they promised to teach us how to clean up the pollution messes. They also promised to respect property rights when they explore and mine the land.”
“We are here to make a decision.” Webley tried to look stern, but his expression came across as a half-smile. “When this rather smelly visitor returns tomorrow, what do I tell him?”
“They expect to land in Gundarland to get rocks?” Crumlish pointed a finger at Webley. “I suspect treachery. They will land under the guise of friendliness and then launch a surprise attack.”
Webley’s mouth fell open.
Sfiore coughed to get everyone’s attention. “If they land here to explore for these rocks, they will come under the jurisdiction of my Interior Department. I will need at least two of Crumlish’s infantry regiments and one cavalry regiment just to keep track of their activities.” She paused and watched Crumlish turn red. “I will also require his funding for these units.” She grinned as Crumlish had a fit of coughing.
Out of the corner of his eye, Rodrigs watched Boudreau struggle to keep from laughing out loud.
“This . . . elf . . . is out of her mind,” Crumlish finally replied. “Not only is she not getting my troops, but I will need to recruit and arm more units to defend the country from these treacherous invaders. I will require additional funding of at least one and a half million silver pennies each quarter from now on just to be prepared to defend Gundarland.”
“Your charge is to defend the country from an external attack.” Sfiore glared at Crumlish. “I am in charge of internal security. If these visitors are perfidious, I will command your troops.”
Crumlish tugged his beard braids in anger.
Boudreau grinned at Crumlish. “To increase your funding that much we will have to raise taxes.”
“What!” Webley almost came out of his seat. “We can’t raise taxes. I’m up for reelection next year. A tax increase is out of the question.” He looked hurt, as if someone had insulted him.
“If I can make an observation?” Rodrigs said.
Everyone turned to look at him.
“We have no reason to suspect that these visitors are treacherous. If they have technology to fly here from other worlds and if they can fix our pollution problems, then we must assume they also have powerful weapons that are beyond our comprehension. We must be very careful to keep from irritating these visitors.”
“Really?” Webley blinked rapidly as he looked at his chief-of-staff.
“So where does that leave us?” Boudreau asked.
Rodrigs heard chewing sounds and looked down at Pinky. A chair tottered on three-and-a-half legs. A pile of wood shavings lay on the floor where Pinky worked on converting the chair leg from solid oak to scrap and sawdust.
“Where it leaves us is right back here.” Webley assumed his stern, half-smile face again. “We need a decision. Do we let them land or do we refuse them? What is your answer?”
“A decision like this is beyond my authority,” Crumlish replied. “You’re the President, you must make this decision. I have no more time to waste on this meeting. I must put my forces on emergency alert.” He jumped up and ran out the door.
“I must send telegrams to all my constables informing them to prepare for unexpected contingencies.” Sfiore stood and walked towards the door. The motion made her gold robe shimmer.
“But what is your decision?” Webley said in a pleading voice.
“Whatever you decide, be assured my constables will be ready for whatever is required of them.” Sfiore swished out the door.
Webley, with panic on his face, asked Boudreau,” And you? Tell me what you think I should do.”
“Do what you always do,” Boudreau replied. “Follow Rodrigs’ advice.”
# # #
After the others left the conference room, Boudreau walked to a window and looked out at Dun Hythe. He loved the city. Besides being the political capital of Gundarland, it was also the cultural and financial capital. He loved going to operas, symphonies and stage plays. He loved sitting in cafes and watching the citizens stroll by. He sighed and broke his gaze from the window. Dun Hythe and Gundarland were in trouble. Deep trouble. While he feared the aliens, they were a secondary worry. Crumlish and Sfiore were his primary concern. They would use the aliens as a cover for increasing their own personal authority. Since both controlled armed forces, an all-out war between them was possible. Nothing was as important to them as protecting their own power and increasing it.
To him, one of the most fascinating historical aspects of governments was their complete disregard for governing. Governments were single-minded and interested only in increasing their control and any governance that come out of the government’s actions was purely coincidental. This aspect of bureaucracy applied to governments as a whole, to the smaller branches within the government and went down to the individuals working in those branches. The lowest flunky as well as the most powerful bureaucrat was more interested in protecting his sinecure than in helping the citizens who coughed up tax money to pay the government workers’ salaries.
While he was not shocked to learn from his studies that this environment applied to kingships and dictatorships, he was surprised to discover that democracies also suffered from the same symptoms. He would have thought that elected officials would give attention to the needs of the voters, but democracy worked exactly the way other types of governments worked. Bureaucrats in all forms of governments were too engrossed in either defending their turfs or attacking other departments to give anything but lip-service to the voters.
He dreamed of serving in a government that placed the needs of the citizens above petty office politics, but he was realist enough to see that his dreams were the stuff of fairy tales.
Boudreau was slender and wore a tan tunic that fell below his waist and black breeches without boots to display a luxurious growth of silky toe hair arranged in curls studded with jeweled pins.
Born to farming parents in northern Gundarland, he had won a scholarship to an exclusive university and graduated with a degree in accounting wizardry. In his first government job, he learned the hard way that introducing new ideas was a sure fire way to become unpopular with both his coworkers and his bosses. Back then, he had yet to discover that bureaucracies defended the status quo the way nobles defended their castles. He soon learned to plant the ideas on his boss and let that unworthy take the credit for it. This practice endeared him to his supervisors and he rose through the ranks. Shocked at the culture in which the organizations expended vast resources attacking other organizations instead of tending to their own affairs, he started delving into history to get a better understanding of how governments worked and how bureaucracies survived.
His appointment as the Treasurer came as a bit of a surprise. His old school chum, Frankie Rodrigs, Webley’s Chief-of-Staff, selected Boudreau and provided Webley with the appropriate rationale. Rodrigs did this one afternoon when Webley was eager to take his nap. Boudreau still had problems grappling with the fact that, constitutionally, he was next in line for the Presidency if something happened to Webley. As interim President, he would have three months to run the country while organizing and holding a new election.
He jerked his mind back to the problem at hand. He identified several important issues in the current crisis. Perhaps most importantly, Webley’s presence in the Presidential Palace represented a power vacuum. Even though Crumlish and Sfiore engaged full time in a power scrum, Webley would never assert his authority to rein in those two egomaniacs. Webley never listened directly to Boudreau. The President considered it a sign of weakness to listen to advice he didn’t ask for. Boudreau also knew it was impossible to get Webley to make a decision. Boudreau saw himself as the principal advisor to Rodrigs who was, in truth, the chief decision-maker in Gundarland.
Boudreau used an extensive network of informants to keep abreast of events throughout Gundarland and within the government branches. He shared this information with Rodrigs. Between the two of them, they kept the country in reasonably good condition, despite the efforts of other bureaucrats.
He paced the conference room for almost an hour before he came up with a plan. Not a very good plan, but the best one he could develop under the circumstances. First, he would have to thwart the power grabs of Crumlish and Sfiore. That aspect sounded like fun, because he loved to screw with those two. Second, he would have to continue to feed Rodrigs plenty of advice and urge him to get Webley to listen to it. If Webley didn’t act, then Rodrigs would have to make decisions for the President. Rodrigs had done it in the past, and now Gundarland’s future depend upon the elf continuing to be the shadow president.