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Rated: 13+ · Novella · Sci-fi · #1504509
Political thriller set in the distant future. Humanity still has a fatal flaw.
The long black hovercar landed silently on the roof of the capital offices in the heart of Nu Home. A small party walked over from where they had been waiting, some of them hiding from the drenching rain under umbrellas, and others content to let the cold water pour into their shoes.

When they were all inside, the hovercar took off again and sailed smoothly into the stormy skies. Inside, President Ferab Ak shook out his short curly hair. There was no denying that it was the rainy season again, but he didn't care about the weather today. He had bigger problems to worry about.

"Where did the time go, Chet?" he asked the bald man sitting across from him.

"I beg your pardon, Mr. President?" Chet asked, looking from the speech he was drafting.

"It seems like we were just here," Ak told Chet. He shrugged and looked out the window. "I mean, I feel like we were just campaigning for my first election. Where did the past five years go?"

"Time flies when you're having fun..." Chet mumbled as he returned to the speech. Ak shook his head.

"That's not what I mean. I mean, did I do everything in my first term that I promised? I was going to make a difference. Did I?"

Chet didn't look up. He was busy. Someone had to keep their feet on the ground. "A lot has happened since your election, Mr. President."

Ak pulled at his necktie. It suddenly felt like it was choking him. "Sure, first contact with alien species, expansion beyond our territories, another spike in Rogue activity. Look at you, Chet. You had a full head of hair five years ago."

Chet looked up, clearly not amused. "What do you want me to say, Ferab?" the older man said. "I can't have you getting nervous now, not with the debate tonight."

Ak sighed and leaned back in the leather seats. He returned to watching the traffic outside in the rain. He felt sorry for the poor fool in the convertible below them. "We were going to change the world, Chet. I was going to fight corruption in Congress, fight crime on the streets...but things are just as bad as ever. Worse in some places," he added, gesturing to the newspaper sitting on the seat beside him, where the front page screamed about a torched neighborhood in Oshen City.

Chet looked the president in eye. "No, you didn't get everything done. But, you gave the people hope. You were the first idealist with a real shot at the presidency in decades. The people love you. It's all about hope. Let's keep that as the message, not 'remember all those promises we didn't keep last term?'"

"We have to give them a hell of a lot more than hope, Chet," Ak said. His expression was uncharacteristically grave. "These people deserve results."

"I'm the campaign manager, kid," Chet said, returning once more to the speech. "But I'll see if I can work that in here somewhere."

Ak snatched the speech from Chet's short, fat fingers. "Don't bother. I wrote my own speech." Chet didn't know what to say, and half-heartedly tried to grab the speech back. Ak tucked it under the newspaper. Chet stuttered, but no recognizable words made it out intact.

"Calm down," Ak said. "I didn't have a campaign manager when I ran for mayor of Ad Nomm. I wrote all my speeches. I think I can handle this." He smirked, but the stress this past year was evident in his face.

The hovercar came to a stop down in Memorial Park. Ak gave Chet a confident pat on the shoulder before stepping outside. The gathered crowd, kept behind a police barricade, cheered. Ak smiled and waved, but he was sure that the political commentators would be able to see that the pressures of his job were weighing heavily on the president these days.

Ak was escorted up to the platform. He nearly slipped on the slick stairs, but made it safely up to the podium. Behind him was a banner that read: "Ak '43 - Our Hope for the Future."

Ak cleared his throat and waited for the applause to die down...

*          *          *

Lero kept his head down as the old convertible sped through the chasms between massive skyscrapers. The hovercar ducked through a low cloud and reemerged a moment later with a duffel bag dropped conveniently on Lero's lap.

"Here we go," Resala, the driver said. She smirked and pulled back on the steering wheel, sending the unremarkable vehicle straight up with surprising speed. Lero closed his eyes to protect them from the speeding bullets of rain that were now pelting his face.

"God, I hate this stupid planet," he muttered when Resala leveled off between cloud layers. The traffic up here above the city was calmer and Lero felt far less like a rat in a maze now. He took a deep breath of the thin Dracosian air.

"Then, let's burn it," Resala said. Her dark eyes flashed excitedly. Lero nodded. She saw their job as a fun game; he viewed it as a solemn duty. Without ceremony, he opened the duffel bag. Inside was a jumble of metallic pieces. He had trained for this out in the Asteroids. He could assemble the device in his sleep. It didn't take long to screw it all together.

"It's beautiful," Resala said. She grinned broadly, and then glanced down at her watch. "Five minutes to show time."

Lero nodded and looked away. She was a distraction that he didn't need. He needed to focus. These people had been hunting down his people for generations. This was what they deserved. His people needed a voice and they deserved the power that was rightfully theirs.

Below them was a city so foul and yet so decadent compared to the hardship he had known all his life. It sickened him. He set the device down on his lap for a moment and wiped his sweaty palms off on his shirt. He swallowed. This was the culminating moment of his entire life, his chance to be a hero, and he was scared!

Resala placed a hand on his shoulder. "You're the best there is, Lero," she reassured him, sensing his nervousness. "I believe in you." Then, she leaned over from the driver's seat and kissed him softly on the cheek. He looked back at her and smiled weakly. Her reputation as a dangerous woman proceeded her, and Lero could see how so many men had fallen so easily under her spell. She was beautiful, confident, volatile, deadly - and he was glad to have her with him, even if she was only using him to advance her own position.

She reached over to a button on the dashboard and switched on the live audio feed from the rally while she gazed at him. The words coming over the feed jolted him back to reality, to the task at hand.

"Ladies and gentlemen," a man with a gruff voice said. Lero imagined that he was probably fat and well-dressed. "It is my privilege to introduce to you one of the greatest men I have ever had the honor of working with - President of the Dracosian Confederacy, Ferab Ak!"

Lero imagined the crowd cheering idiotically for the President as he walked up to the podium. He was probably waving to the crowd, putting on a show them. They actually like that man, a man who had done nothing to help them out of their poverty, who had authorized the genocide of thousands with the stroke of a pen. He spat out over the edge of the hovercar. Maybe it would hit Ak in the face.

"Thank you, Mr. Feelds. Thank you, my friends," Ak began. He sounded different. He didn't sound like the bumbling idiot he had heard speak before. But, what did it matter? His crimes were inexcusable. The cheering crowd finally shut up. "Thank you. I stand before you a very changed man. When I was last here five years ago, asking for your vote, you believed in me and my promises to change things around here. As it turned out, the challenge was greater than I had anticipated.

"Corruption had infested deeper into the political structure than I could have ever imagined. Even some members of my own cabinet were bought by organized crime. I was manipulated, but I have seen the truth, now.

"Conditions are worse than ever. It's no secret that you're afraid to leave your homes at night, that gangs continue to sell drugs on the street, that the Brotherhood kills innocent citizens every day in Oshen City, and that we, your elected officials, do nothing. Why? Because no one is brave enough to stand up and fight back."

Lero knitted his eyebrows together. He had never heard such words from a politician before. It almost sounded like Ak was speaking directly to him.

"I'm not claiming to have all the answers. I'm not a savior. If elected to second term as your president, I promise to root out the filth of the Confederacy wherever they hide, whether its behind a gun in the back alleys of Dracosian cities, behind a flag in the Rogue asteroid territories, or behind a desk in the Capital Building. You deserve more from me. You deserve to feel safe. You deserve a decent, honest wage. You deserve--"

Resala switched off the feed and giggled. "Tough talk from the hippie," she said. "But he's never had any teeth." She stroked Lero's face, wet from the steady rain, and gestured to the device in his hands. "This is the only way to change world."

Lero cleared his throat and avoided looking at her. Instead, he stared out at the endless storm clouds above and below them. Lightning flashed nearby and a roll of thunder startled him. He tried to cover up quickly by checking his watch. “One minute, thirty seconds," he said. His voice was shaking, but his resolve was strong. Like Resala said, this was the only way to change the world.

*          *          *

Fleet Captain Demm groaned from under his pillow as the alarm buzzed. "Shut up," he mumbled. The alarm didn't care about his splitting headache. It was eight and he had a meeting at Headquarters to be at in an hour.

He sat up and slammed the alarm clock with the palm of his hand. It fell silent, but the buzzing continued in his head. He hated mornings, but he especially hated hangover mornings. How he had managed to drink so much the night before was nothing short of incredible.

"Ah, you idiot," he told himself as he lumbered into the bathroom. "Is she really worth it?" The bathroom sensors automatically turned the lights on. Demm had to shield his eyes from the painful light. "Lights off! Lights off!"

The computer got the message and lowered the lighting levels. He leaned heavily on the sink and looked blearily at his own reflection in the mirror. His age was definitely starting to show. His hair was starting to thin and his bulky chest and arms were starting to lose their tone. He was getting old, far too old to be drowning himself in cheap zurb until all hours of the night.

He rinsed his face and wandered back into the bedroom, which was still dark thanks to the storm outside. He pulled on his uniform like a zombie and spent several minutes trying to figure out which holes the brass buttons belonged to. Passing his nightstand, he intentionally knocked over a photo of his wife - well, soon-to-be ex-wife. Finally, he walked into the apartment's small kitchen and poured himself a cup of black coffee.

Peering at the clock, he saw that it was now 8:35. He needed to be out the door five minutes ago to catch the maglev train to Headquarters. He downed his coffee, poured another cup, and rushed out the door as fast as his headache would allow him to go.

A minute later, he emerged from the bottom floor of his high rise building. He had forgotten his umbrella, but it was too late for that now. He pushed his way through the throngs of people on their way to work. He had to get to Memorial Station to have any hope of getting to work on time. He was already soaked to the bone.

*          *          *

"You deserve better from this government," Ak said, slamming his fist down on the podium. The crowd was silent, listening. The man they had elected, the innocent fool, was gone, replaced by a man whose resolve to reform the Confederacy was almost frightening.

He paused and scanned the crowd. Many of them were nodding. Someone in the back yelled, "You're damn right we do!" People clapped.

"Thank you, Mr. President," Feelds said, pushing Ak out of the way to get to the microphone. He smiled and clapped half-heartedly.

"With all due respect, Mr. Governor, I'm not quite finished yet," Ak protested. Feelds was one of the politicians that he planned to strip power from.

Feelds smiled at the crowd and put his arm around Ak. He whispered in Ak's ear, saying in a menacing tone, "You've said enough, Mr. President." He released Ak and returned to the microphone.

Chet grabbed Ak's lapel. The little bald man was furious. "What the hell was that all about?" he demanded, yelling over the cheering crowd. "How can you run on a platform of reform as an incumbent?! They're gonna slaughter you, boy! How do you expect me to dig you out of this?"

"There's no going back after this, Chet," Ak said calmly.

"This is political suicide, Ferab!" Chet yelled back. His pale scalp was turning red. "You, you took a shoe-in reelection and you just threw it away!"

"'Threw it away?'" Ak echoed his campaign manager, dumbfounded. Couldn't he see? He gestured over his shoulder at the crowd, still cheering for him. Feelds couldn't make himself heard and had given up. "This is what the people want from their president...If I don't give it to them, then I don't deserve to sit in that office."

*          *          *

Cherra raised an eyebrow in confusion as the president walked away from the podium and stood facing away from the crowd with his campaign manager. The man she had just seen speak was not the Ferab Ak she had reported on before. He had said that he was a changed man, and he was right.

She turned to face the small camera that hovered just above her. She straightened her hair and cleared her throat. Feelds, the governor of Dracosus was speaking, but she could care less. Ak was the real story. "Ready," she said to herself, then looked at the camera lens, which had dropped to film her at eye level. "Roll 'em."

A red light above the lens told her the camera was recording. "Good morning, I'm Cherra Hardish. Just a moment ago, President Ferab Ak spoke at a reelection rally at Memorial Park in the heart of the capital. Clearly weighed down by these hard times, he seemed to be a very different man. His tone was solemn and everything about him indicates that the man who was elected to the presidency five years ago has been hardened and disillusioned by the pressures and realities of his position.

"In a surprising departure from previous campaign speeches, the President outlined a bold new course for a second Ak administration, including aggressive steps to curtail corruption in every level of the government, increased law enforcement in the inner cities, and economic reforms to benefit the working class..."

She trailed off as something caught her attention, a familiar shape out the corner of her eye. She glanced over and saw her ex-husband pushing his way through the morning crowds on the edge of the park. She rolled her eyes. The same old Demm. He was never going to change, never going to learn to control himself. She had put up with his temper and his inflexibility for seventeen years. He'd had his chance to change.

"Um," she had lost her train of thought. She looked back at the camera, hovering nearby, patiently waiting for the rest of her report. "Um...cut. Cut." The red light went off. She rubbed the bridge of her nose. She needed to get all of this behind her.

She knew it was hurting him. She didn't want to hurt him, but when a man went off gallivanting in space for months at a time, he couldn't expect his woman to wait around forever. It was time for a change.

*          *          *

"It's time," Resala said. Her dark eyes flashed again. She was thirsty for Dracosian blood. Gunning the engine, she shoved the controls forward, sending the hovercar into a vertical dive.

Lero was pressed into his seat as the small convertible dove through the clouds. Resala aimed for a dense column of flying vehicles. It was precisely 8:58, the moment their compatriots were supposed to set off an explosion that would shut down the eastern corridor, forcing all downtown traffic flying over Memorial Park to come to a halt.

Dodging the stalled hovercars and cutting in and out of lanes, Resala piloted the convertible straight down. Through the driving rain, they could just make out a small stage in the middle of the park directly below them.

Lero positioned the weapon, a sniper rifle issued only in small quantities to Militia Marines. Peering down the scope, he zeroed in on the President. A fat, bald man was blocking his view, so he would have to take him out first.

They were nearly in free fall, plummeting down, straight as an arrow. Lero took a deep breath of the air as it sped by and squeezed the trigger. The bald man fell. As they drew closer, he shot the fat man at the podium, and the guards who were rushing to his aid. He peppered the crowd that was now screaming and trying to identify the sniper in the heavy traffic above.

The President was dashing for cover. As he leapt off the stage, flanked by his personal guard, Lero lined up the shot and fired a single bolt of deadly charged protons. The great President Ak collapsed.

Resala laughed as she pulled the hovercar up out of its suicidal dive. The engine roared in protest, but in a moment, they had disappeared into the morning traffic.

*          *          *

"You can't do this!" Chet protested, blocking Ak's path as he tried to leave the stage. "You can't just throw away the last five years. You can't abandon our entire platform this close to the election." The bald man was pleading now. He couldn't bear to lose to the likes of someone like that senator from Yusai.

"Your platform, Chet," Ak corrected him. He smirked - the crowd was still cheering his name. "Can't you hear them, Chet?" The campaign manager looked confused. "Everything is going to be alright."

There was a flash of blue light. Chet stumbled into the president. Ak caught him. He was shocked. He looked down and saw a singed spot onthe back of Chet's long overcoat, no more than an inch across. Ak pushed Chet back so that he could see his face. The bald man was even paler than he'd been before. He looked up at the President in shock.

"Ferab," he said weakly. He fell limp in Ak's arms as the spark of life left his beady eyes. Ak couldn't support his weight and had to let his old friend's body fall to the ground.

Vaguely, he heard people screaming. He couldn't really hear it over the frantic pounding of his own heart. He turned to his guards for protection. Bolt after bolt of particle beams were shot. Feelds took a shot directly in back of the head, sending him reeling forward and falling into the crowd. More shots caught his guards in the chest, abdomen, and legs.

Ak turned to run as more weapons fire was targeted at the crowd. It was getting closer; he was surely the target. He didn't know where to go. He was dumbfounded by the attack, frozen to the spot.

"Mr. President!" the captain of the guards yelled from where he lay dying nearby. The brave man had taken shots for Ak before. Drawing his pistol, he fired blindly into the traffic directly above them. "Mr. President, get down!"

Ak turned back to face him, just in time to see another bolt of blue energy strike him in the head. Ak turned away and started to run for the edge of the stage. Maybe if he could get under it.

A flash of bright blue light stunned him and an intense burning sensation spread over his chest and penetrated deep below the skin. Ak couldn't feel anything but the searing pain in his chest, as if someone had lit his ribcage on fire. He kept going for another few steps before his legs gave out and he collapsed onto the stage.

The screaming enveloped him as his vision became blurry. His mind was racing, now it had stalled. He could barely comprehend what had just happened. He had been shot. He was dying. His breathing slowed and faded as the hysterical screaming overwhelmed his senses.

*          *          *

Lero was sat silently as Resala gunned the engine and forced the convertible skyward. He had done it. He had been training for months, but he'd been shooting at holographic targets before. He had just shot at real people for the first time in his life. And not just any people. He had just killed the President of the Dracosian Confederacy.

"You did it!" Resala screamed over the howling wind. She sounded like he had just scored the winning field goal in the last seconds of a game of aepfelball, not as if he had just murdered a dozen people. He had to remember that they were the savages. They had started killing his people first. This was justice.

"Yeah, yeah, I did it," he said to himself. He was a hero. He had to remember that. He would be going on more of these missions. He would be bringing the heads of the Dracosian leaders back to Ariesia for years. He might even rise to lead his people in their coming war with the Confederacy.

Once they broke free of the choking traffic below, Resala leveled off and put the vehicle into hover. Her dark brown eyes were aflame with excitement. She loved death. Lero was surprised that she hadn't insisted on at least one assassination for herself.

"Do you know how long we have waited for this day?" she asked with a smile that outshone the sun. "Soon, our armies will plant our flag in the soil of Dracosus. This is the first step. You have opened the door."

He nodded, but he was still shaken up. It wasn't Ak that bothered him. He had killed civilians. He had orphaned children and torn apart families, not just wounded the government. She leaned in close to him. Running one hand through his short hair, she kissed him. With the other hand, she opened the throttle.

Lero was lost. He felt like he was flying higher than even the hovercar could reach. He felt confident again. Her lips were his reward. He was a hero.

When they parted, Lero slowly readjusted to reality. The wind was whipping over the windshield again. They were descending. Fast. He tried to ask her if there had been a change of plan; if their transporter coordinates had been changed, but he was tongue tied. He could barely think with all the conflicting emotions electrifying the inside of his skull.

"You did it, Lero," Resala said again. She didn't tear her eyes off the traffic this time. She was focused. They had to get out of here before the authorities descended on them. Resala slid down low in her seat. She pushed the throttle forward as far as it would go.

They were hurtling toward Memorial Park faster than before. The skyscrapers around them were a blur and Resala missed the other cars in the air by mere inches. Lero heard sirens behind them, just a whisper above the powerful thundering of the engine.

"Are we making another pass?" he shouted. She nodded.

"We aren't taking any chances!" she yelled in reply. Lero fumbled around for the sniper rifle. Memorial Park was coming up to meet them at a breakneck pace. Resala pressed a button on the dashboard to lock the steering wheel. They were locked into their course - straight down.

Resala didn't explain as she reached under the base of the steering wheel and pulled a few wires loose. She didn't explain as she grabbed his sleeve and pulled him to her for another kiss. She didn't say anything as she shoved him back into his seat and smiled as she disappeared in a shower of silver sparks.

Lero didn't have time to process anything. The sirens blared in his ears as they gained on him. The car shot straight down into the center of Memorial Park and exploded on impact.

Bits of metal and glass flew in every direction, carried by the bomb's shockwave. The fireball engulfed the stage and the crowd as they tried to outrun the blast.

There was silence in its wake, a ghastly quiet punctuated only by the soft patter of rain on the black marble plaza.

*          *          *

Demm stopped in his tracks when he heard the first shots. It was unmistakable, the sound of a particle beam slicing through the air. He was just starting to descend the stairs to the maglev station and rainwater was spilling down the steps.

The shots were coming from Memorial Park. There were supposed to be Militia men covering the buildings from all around the square. He peered up above him. The hovercar traffic was at a standstill, blocking any view the Militia snipers would have of the square.

Before he knew it, he was running back up the street. His weapon was drawn. His feet splashed in the puddles. He yelled at people blocking his path, but most of them were dashing for cover, anyway.

"Rogues," he thought as he neared the stage where the President had been holding a reelection rally. People were screaming; others lay dead. He saw the President laying flat on his face on the ground next to the stage. They couldn't afford to lose him. Of all men in the Confederacy, Ferab Ak could not be allowed to die.

He ran to his side. He checked his pulse before moving him. Slow, but there. He was still alive. Demm slipped his arms under Ak's and pulled him toward the edge of the square. As he passed the crowd, he saw his soon-to-be ex-wife pinned under the limp form of Governor Feelds. Her fiery red hair was flecked with dust from the shots that had hit the stage and the ground around her.

"Cherra!" He nearly dropped the President. She stirred and tried to push the big corpse off of her. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Above them, Demm heard sirens. He looked up and saw a white convertible speeding toward the ground. Demm swore and bent down to pick up Ak and carry him on his shoulders. The sirens became louder as the pursuit closed in on them. They only had a few seconds to get out of Memorial Park.

He had Ak slung over his shoulders and was about to make a break for it. But Cherra was still there. He swore again and ran over to her. He bent down awkwardly and grabbed her hand. Then, with the unconscious President draped over his shoulders and his unconscious wife being dragged along the slick marble ground behind him, Demm tried to run for the cover of a nearby building.

Time seemed to slow down as he tried desperately to escape the coming explosion. He knew it was coming. Suicide missions were a favorite with the Rogues. He tried to gather his strength, but his senses were still numb and his coordination was sloppy. They weren't going to make it.

Everything that Ferab Ak had built, all the progress he had made in five short years were about to be obliterated in one second of mindless hate.

The flash of light behind them was blinding. Demm stumbled and lost his grip on Cherra's hand, slick with rain. The shockwave caught up with them a split second later. Demm flew high in the air. The President disappeared. Fire and smoke and debris exploded in every direction as the bomb detonated.

Demm hit the ground a moment later. Something in his leg cracked and he tumbled a few feet before slamming into the side of a skyscraper. The smoke blew over him...and there was silence.

When Demm managed to pull himself up to look around, it was just as bad as he had feared. Where the stage had been, there was now a small crater. Bits of steaming, blackened metal were littered everywhere. The fireball had brought three more hovercars to the ground. Bodies were everywhere, blackened and smoldering like the metal debris.

The city held its breath.

*          *          *

Senator Pol didn't look forward to delivering this news. He hadn't even had time to digest it himself. He slowed his pace when he glimpsed the door to the office of the Speaker of the Senate. She wasn't going to like this news. He knocked cautiously and fidgeted with his tie. He was convinced that it was perpetually crooked.

"Come in," the speaker said from the other side of the door. It slid aside to admit the Dracosian senator. He stepped inside. Mira Sallas was reclining in her high-backed chair. She was one of the youngest people to ever hold such a high office; not even forty. But, she was shrewd and stuck to her principles, which was more than Pol could say for the majority of the senate.

She was glaring at the thin screen floating in front of her. It was a live news feed from the police line at Memorial Station. "Senator Pol," she said simply, betraying no emotion. "How do you explain this?"

"Madam Speaker, I can assure you--" he stammered. There was no excuse for such a lax in security.

"Dammit," Sallas said, pounding her fist on the desk. She turned away, stood up from her chair and walked over to the window behind her office. "God dammit, Pol! How did this happen? Tell me."

Senator Pol shuffled his feet and pulled at his tie some more. "Security, ma'am...was...well...inadequate."

"You damned right it was inadequate," Sallas growled. "You can't allow the President of the Confederacy to be shot at a rally. Not by Rogues. Not in the capital. Not two days before an election."

"There's no proof it was the Rog--" he stopped when he caught her gaze.

"What do we do now?" she asked, turned back to face the rain dotting her window.

"We concede the election," Pol said, falling into a chair. He sighed. He hated to lose to that stuff-shirt Yusai senator, but he saw no other choice. "We don't even know if he's alive, yet. You'll need to make a statement, Madam Speaker."

"I will," Sallas replied. "But I'm not conceding."

"Are you mad?" Pol asked, standing again and crossing to her. "How do you expect him to run? He's probably dead."

"We tell the public that he's recovering...and we continue to run this campaign for him."

"We can't," the senator protested. "You know what the fallout will be for this kind of cover-up! Do you know how many government transparency acts you'll be breaking?"

"We will be breaking, senator," Sallas corrected him. "Pol, there comes a time, in a crisis, when we have to set aside laws and think of the common good. Do you want riots? Do you want more death?"

There was nothing he could say to that, so the experienced statesman fell silent. She brushed past him to the coat rack near the door. She pulled on a long overcoat. "I'm going to the hospital to see what kind of condition he's in. The news has nothing but speculation for now."

She walked out the door. Pol went to the threshold and called after her. "Madam Speaker, what if Ak dies?"

She stopped and turned back to him. The corridor was silent for a moment except for the distant sound of thunder. Her voice shook just a little. "Then...God help us all."

She turned and continued to the elevator. Pol was frozen to the spot, unable to follow. "But, the Articles," he said. "If he dies...then you would..."

Sallas didn't stop and decided to pretend that she hadn't heard him. She knew what her responsibilities were, but she couldn't even fathom that outcome now. She had only been a senator for a year when she was appointed to the position of Speaker, and only then because of her willingness to tow the party line. She didn't have much in the way of experience. Up to this morning, she had prided herself on her ability to remain outside the elite political circles, but now...

She preferred not to think of what would become of the Confederacy without Ferab Ak. When her elevator reached the bottom floor of the capital building offices, she walked briskly out the front door and was immediately mobbed by reporters.

"Madam Speaker, what is the President's condition?" "Madam Speaker, is the Confederacy going to declare war on the Rogues?" "Mrs. Sallas, are you going to take the oath?" "Is Ak's campaign over?"

She shook them off of her and pressed on through the crowd to the street. She hailed a cab, then turned to face the bloodthirsty journalists. "The President remains as the chief executive of the Confederacy and he has no plans to concede the election or relinquish his office. No more questions, please."

She stepped into the taxi and slammed the door behind her. "Kanti General Hospital," she told the driver. As the cab rose into the air and joined the midday traffic, she hung her head in her hands.

*          *          *

"Let me in!" Dijah Ak yelled at the guard posted at the front entrance of the hospital. As she yelled, tears ran down her face. "He's my husband! You have to let me in!"

"I'm sorry, ma'am," the guard said without bothering to look down at her. "I have my orders. No one sees the president."

"I'm not here to see the president, I'm here to see my husband," Dijah cried. She hit him weakly in the chest. He didn't respond. He had orders and there was no way you could ignore that. Sallas stepped out of her cab and pushed her way through the crowd to the doors of Kanti General Hospital. She showed the guard her congressional pass, the one giving her access to the president.

The guard waved her through. "Wait!" a shrill voice cried. "You let her in! Let me in! I'm family!"

Sallas turned on her heel and spotted Dijah Ak, the first lady, trying to shove the guard aside. Her pale face was red, as were her eyes, from her hysterical screaming. "Let her through!" Sallas yelled to the guard.

"I can't ma'am," the guard replied. He looked confused, now. Sallas seriously doubted that he had even been told was happening. "I have my orders," he added, as if that explained everything.

"You have new orders, soldier," Sallas answered sternly. "She's with me. Let her through."

Dumbfounded, the guard waved Dijah through the barricade. Dijah stumbled through, and Sallas put an arm around her. "Are you alright, Mrs. Ak?"

Dijah nodded vigorously and blew her nose into a wet handkerchief. Sallas just kept quiet and guided her through two more checkpoints. After a few more minutes, they arrived in a large sterile white hallway. At the far end of the highway was a room.

Sallas nodded to Dijah and sent her on first. Cautiously, Dijah stepped into the room. Her husband was stretched out on a bed in the corner. A computer screen above his head provided a grim readout of his vital signs.

"Ferab," Dijah whispered. She brushed her long blond hair out of her face to get a better look at him, except for the strands that were pasted to her cheeks by her tears. Much of Ferab's face was covered in bandages and his chest was enclosed in some kind of cast with a computer screen of its own.

Dijah started crying again. She approached his beside slowly, afraid of what she might see, then ran her fingers through his short, curly hair. He didn't respond. Unable to control herself anymore, she threw her arms over him and held him close to her as she wept.

Outside, Speaker Sallas was talking with Fleet Headquarters. She adjusted the volume of her earpiece when an admiral started yelling about what he thought about the security at the rally.

"Admiral, admiral, please listen," Sallas said, trying to cut into his tirade. "I agree with you, but there's nothing we can do about that now. We have to focus on getting through the next few hours." He was listening now. She continued. "I need a curfew in place over the entire Nu Home metro area. We can't risk this city descending into chaos. These streets need to be cleared in four hours.

"I also need an immediate lock down of the planet. Every ship in orbit must be accounted for. No ship is to leave orbit for any reason. Then, if you can spare the ships, I want a defensive position set up near Rogue space. I want them to be able to see us."

The admiral asked if she had the authority to be giving these orders. "Admiral," she replied. "The president has been shot. For all intents and purposes, he is incapacitated. I am temporarily filling in. Now, get it done. We don't have much time."

She cut the channel. Putting her earpiece back in the pocket of her overcoat, she glanced into the room where the president was laying. His wife was collapsed on top of him and she was shaking as she cried. He was unconscious and possibly careening toward brain death. The next few hours would decide the fate of the Confederacy.

"Why now?" Sallas asked no one in particular. "Why now?"

*          *          *

Ferab Ak was fairly sure that this was death. It reminded him of an old movie theater, with rows and rows of seats, faded red curtains, and a projector. He took a seat and the film started to roll. It was an old memory; one he hadn't thought of in a long time.

Instantly, he was back on the balcony of his parent's apartment, more than thirty years ago. It was the middle of winter. The sky was a dusty blue and the air was bitterly cold, in stark contrast to the shining sun overhead. Ferab was about six or seven. He was playing with a toy car, the kind with wheels that squeak. He was rolling it back and forth along the rusty railing. He wanted to drive a taxi cab when he grew up. He liked to sit out on the balcony at night and watch the traffic zoom by overhead.

"Ferab," his mother called to him. She was standing in the doorway with a suitcase in her hand. Her green eyes were red; she had been crying. His father was inside, packing. "Ferab, it's time to go. Go help Daddy pack your clothes."

"I don't want to go," Ferab replied quietly. He hated moving every few months. He wanted to stay in one place. He wanted to stay here, where he could watch the hovercars speed right over their heads.

"We have to, baby," his mother answered softly. She smiled to comfort him. Her son didn't understand, and she didn't want him to. She never wanted her son to feel the pain of poverty as she and her husband felt it. She never wanted him to feel inferior and helpless.

"Where are we going, mommy?" Ferab asked. He was sad, she could see, but he never cried. He took everything calmly, and with a wisdom and understanding far beyond his years.

"I...I don't know, baby," she said. "But you're gonna like it there. I promise." Her son looked away. She knelt down beside him and stroked his soft curly hair. He was the spitting image of his father, but she had a soul all his own.

"Mommy," he asked, gazing up at the hovercars. "Will we ever ride in a hovercar?"

She started crying, but she managed to do it silently. She leaned her head on his. "Someday, baby. But, we can't afford one right now."

"Why not?" he asked. She had to come clean. She couldn't lie to her boy, as much as she hated to spoil his innocence.

"Well, Ferab...your daddy...he lost his job at the plant. They're using robots now on the assembly line. And I...I didn't want to work at that greasy old restaurant anymore." How could she tell him that his mother had quit because the manager wouldn't stop telling her how pretty she was? How she knew what he wanted and should stop fighting him?

The door burst open and slammed into the wall. Ferab jumped and let go of his toy car, which went tumbling over the railing and down into the alley five stories down.

"Ak!" the big man at the door yelled at Ferab's father. "What the hell are you still doing here?" It was the landlord.

"We were just packing our things, Mr. Conasto," Joral Ak answered. He gestured at the three small suitcases next to the door.

"I want you off my goddamn property, now, you scum!" Conasto bellowed. He had a pistol shoved under his belt. Ferab's mother held her son and covered his ears. "If you can't pay the damn rent, that's your problem, Ak, not mine!"

"I said we were leaving, Mr. Conasto," Joral said, standing up straight and towering eight inches above their landlord. He picked up the suitcases with as much dignity as he could muster. "And we are not scum."

Conasto laughed, then he punched Joral in the jaw. Joral was nearly knocked off his feet and went to hit him back, but Conasto was quick to draw his firearm. Joral looked down at his feet. Ferab's mother went over to her husband and gripped his hand tightly. Ferab started to cry.

"Shut up, you little rat...and get the hell out," Conasto said in a voice so low it was little more than a growl.

The Ak family descended the stairs and walked out of the building. Ferab was still crying. He tried to hide his tears. He wanted to be brave, like his mommy and daddy, but he was scared. His father stopped to pick him up. His mother gently wiped away his tears and whispered that everything was going to turn out alright.

"Everything happens for a reason, baby," she said. They walked all night. Eventually, Ferab fell asleep in his father's arms. It was the first night of many that he and his family spent on the streets...

*          *          *

Cherra woke up and groaned. Every bone in her body ached, as if she had been broadsided by a maglev train. Her vision began to clear. She was laying on a bed in a white room. It was a hospital room, with computers softly humming all around her. An older nurse was standing above her, checking her IV.

"What happened?" Cherra asked. Her memory was drawing a blank after the president's speech.

"There was an attack, honey," the nurse said solemnly.

"An attack?" Cherra echoed. That was right. Shots had been fired. Bolts of energy had peppered the crowd. She had been reaching for her camera when...she didn't know what had happened. She felt her arms, neck, and chest. No serious wounds, just a few cuts. She hadn't been hit.

"That's right. You're one of the lucky ones. You'll be able to go home in the morning," the nurse said. She checked one of the computer panels in the wall next to the bed where her patient lay.

"Is the president safe?" Cherra asked, the journalist in her hungering for details. Surely, he had ample protection. It wasn't as if he was completely unguarded.

"No word, yet, honey. But, from what I hear, he's in bad shape."

Cherra couldn't believe it. Ferab Ak had survived attacks on him before, more than any other president since Rahim. She hadn't been one of the president's biggest fans, but the last thing she wanted to see was news of his assassination in the papers.

"Could you turn of a news feed for me?" Cherra asked. She had to see what was happening out there.

"Absolutely, Mrs. Demm," the nurse said. She tapped a few commands into a computer console on the opposite wall. Senator Pol appeared, speaking on the steps of the Capital Building.

"The name's Hardish," Cherra corrected the nurse.

"What is the president's condition?" a reporter on the feed asked the senator. The old statesman cleared his throat and tried to look confident, but he had always been a terrible liar.

"Well, as you know, President Ak was shot at Memorial Park this morning. He was rushed to Kanti General Hospital where I can tell you he is now in stable condition. He is...conscious and while he regrets not being able to attend tonight's debate with Senator Gettes, he has no intentions of conceding the election."

Pol pulled at his already loose tie and then began to retreat up the steps while one of his aides struggled to keep him covered by an umbrella. The reporters chased him but he would only repeat that he would not be answering any more questions.

Cherra shook her head. Typical political move. This, of course, meant that the president was probably in serious condition, barely hanging on to life. She only hoped that she was wrong and that Pol had been telling the truth.

Demm, with one arm in a sling, was standing just outside the door. He had been about to step inside when he heard Cherra give the nurse her maiden name. He sighed and turned to leave. The whole world was falling apart.

*          *          *

Ferab Ak watched as another memory rolled by in front of him. As before, he was instantly inside it. This time, instead of crushing sadness, he was enveloped in the most intense feeling of happiness he had ever experienced. It was like a warm blanket, wrapping itself snugly around him.

He was dashing from one doorway to the next down the street, trying to avoid the rain. His long jacket flapped behind him and droplets flecked the front of his brown suit - the only one he owned. He gripped the manila folder tightly and tried his best to keep it dry.

He was in his about nineteen, working as a page in the Office of Water Management. After two months of printing, collating, binding, and proofreading reports, he was finally delivering a real message to the mayor. This was the first step. If he did this right - and did it faster than the other pages - than he could finally move up in the office. By this time next year, he could be screening the Secretary's calls.

The sidewalk up ahead was packed with people trying to find refuge in the subway station. He tried to push his way through, but there was no way through this crowd. Searching for another way around, he glimpsed an alley off to his left. He darted down it, splashing through puddles as he went.

He passed a young woman, then a straight through a group of four men without stopping. He didn't have any time to waste. Going this way would add another few minutes to his journey to city hall.

Behind him, he heard a shrill scream. He looked over his shoulder as he ran to see what it was. The men he had just run past where mugging a woman up the alley. He stopped and starting running back without a second thought.

"Hey!" he yelled. "Hey you!" He ran as fast as he could and plowed right into one of them. Another one grabbed his sleeve.

"What're you gonna do about it?" he asked Ak. He shoved the page to the ground and told the third man to hold the young woman. He directed a fourth to start going through her purse. Ak lunged at the second man and wrapped his arms around his legs. The second man fell to his knees. The others rushed to help their fellow hoodlum as the woman kept screaming for help.

Ak started smacking them with the manila folder, which was becoming soggy in the pouring rain. One of them hit Ak on the back of the head with something hard, sending him face-first into a muddy puddle.

People on the street heard the screams and started peering down the alley to see what was happening. The muggers grabbed the woman's purse and took off down the alley before someone called the cops.

Ak groaned and rolled out of the puddle. "Are you alright?" a sweet youthful voice said above him. He blinked his eyes open and squinted up at the young woman. She was a beautiful blond lady about his age with deep, sea green eyes. "That was the stupidest thing I've ever seen," she went on. "You could've been killed."

He smirked and struggled to a standing position. His knees shook and threatened to give out on him. She grabbed his arm to steady him. She was about a head and a half shorter than he was and she had to look up to see his mud-caked face.

"Are you alright?" he asked. His head was throbbing.

"I'm fine...thanks to you," she replied. She looked away shyly. He noticed for the first time that she had a hat on, keeping her golden curls dry.

"It was my pleasure," he replied. He thought he might be sick. A moment later, his pounding skull told his stomach to do a back flip. Ak keeled over and threw up on a nearby wall. She grabbed him before he collapsed.

"Here, let me help you," she said. She led him slowly back to her apartment. He must've blacked out for some point, because the next thing he knew, he was sitting on a sofa in a warm, small room.

The young lady walked into the room with a bag of ice. Gingerly, she placed it on his head. By the glow of the single floor lamp, she looked like an angel.

"Thank you," he said. He tried to sit up straighter, but she pushed him back down to lean on one arm of the sofa.

"It's the least I could do, after what you did for me," she replied. Her sea green eyes turned to meet his. They were intense and fiercely intelligent. She smiled. "So, thank you, sir."

"I'm Ferab," he said softly. The sound of his own voice reverberated in his head and nearly made him sick again.

"I'm Dijah," she replied. "Nice to meet you, Ferab. You stay here, and I'll make us some soup, okay?"

"That sounds perfect," he answered. He watched her as she returned to the apartment's cramped kitchen and he forgot about everything. Somewhere in the street, a very mundane progress report for the mayor of Ad Nomm from the Secretary of Water Management was disintegrating in a puddle. He couldn't care less. He had a feeling about this girl.

When the rain cleared up later, Ferab stood on the steps of Dijah's apartment building. "Is there anything else I can do for you, Ferab?" she asked him before he left.

"Have dinner with me tomorrow night," he answered quickly.

She laughed. He liked her laugh. It was real. She was genuine, unlike most people he had known. "I'd love to," she replied. He smiled and stumbled awkwardly down the stairs and down the empty street. Above them, the clouds cleared enough for some stars to be glimpsed for a moment.

*          *          *

Dijah Ak emerged from the hospital room looking worse than when she went in. She looked as pale as death. Sallas, who had been speaking with a doctor, went over to comfort her.

"Can I get you anything, Mrs. Ak?" Sallas asked, taking the first lady's arm. Dijah shook her head.

"I never wanted all of this," Dijah replied quietly.

"None of us wanted this. Mrs. Ak," Sallas said. She was doing her best to console the president's wife, but what could she possibly say that would help? Words were inadequate.

"Not just this - everything," Dijah said. She broke free of Sallas' grip. "All of it. I didn't want the politics and the late nights, and the constant traveling during an election season." She wiped away a tear. "Ferab said that if he lost the election, he was going to retire. I wanted him to win, of course. No man deserves it more...but, at the same time...I just wanted our life back."

Sallas didn't know what to say. In Ferab Ak's meteoric rise to political prominence, no one had ever considered the strain on his family. In everyone's mind, he was the president first, and a husband and father second.

"Your husband, Mrs. Ak, means a great deal to the people. Everyone is praying for his recovery."

"Recovery? Don't waste your propaganda on me. I'm not an idiot," Dijah said, looking disgusted and offended. "What are the chances that he'll live?"

"Mrs. Ak, the doctors are optimistic about--"

"Tell me the truth," Dijah demanded.

Sallas didn't know what to do. She wiped her sweaty brow and looked the first lady in the eye. "The truth...is that President Ak's injuries..." She had just heard it from the doctor, but it still seemed unreal. "Are most likely fatal."

Dijah lowered her head and held back a sob. She was a strong woman. Ferab had drawn on her for strength in dire situations before. She was determined to be strong for him. "My husband," she said in a voice barely louder than a whisper. "Is a great man. I...I don't know how I'll live without him."

She brushed past Sallas and walked out of the corridor, weeping silently. Sallas was alone in the hallway and now she could hear the sounds of the life support equipment in the next room. Cautiously, she stepped inside.

"Mr. President?" she asked, but she knew of course that she wouldn't get a response. He was in a deep coma; his body had gone into shock and there wasn't much that could be done for him.

"Mr. President, I don't know what to say." She pulled up a chair and sat down beside him. "If everyone had been doing their jobs correctly, this never would've happened."

She was sure that if he was conscious, he wouldn't hold anyone at fault, but it made her feel less helpless to think that someone had been lazy, as opposed to acknowledging that the Rogues were able to breach their security so easily.

"I was reading your profile just now," she went on. She wasn't crazy. She just needed to get some things out in the open. "And it turns out that we have some similarities. My parents abandoned me, though, when the times got tough. But I worked as a page for, what was that office, the Office of Public Transportation. They treated me like dirt, but I felt like I was really a part of the politics that seemed so exciting at the time. And on top of that, it paid my way through college."

She stood up and started to pace up and down the hospital room. For a moment, she could almost fool herself into believing that she was actually having a one-on-one conversation with the President.

"You know, its funny, but I volunteered to distribute fliers for your campaign for mayor of Ad Nomm," she smirked. Those were the days. "You did it the right way. You started small and then worked your way up to the presidency. Me, my first real step into this game was for Planetary Council. Five years later, here I am - Speaker of the Senate."

She stopped and looked directly at him for the first time. The premature gray, like hers, was creeping into his curly hair, and permanent lines were deeply entrenched in his forehead. He was a man who had survived so much and had never lost faith in the decency of people. He truly was a great man. One of the few.

"Mr. President, with all due respect, you can't die," she said. Someone had to say it out loud. "You lead us through alien first contact and set the stage for exploration and trade. Now, we've got poverty on the streets just as bad as we did before the war and now the Rogues are arming themselves for war. Mr. President, we need you. I, I'm not equipped to handle this. I don't have the experience. Besides, the people trust you to get us through this crisis."

Sallas sighed. She didn't know what else to say. There was still a chance that his condition could improve. In the meantime, she would have to begin drafting a speech to inform the planets if the worst happened. If he could just hold out past election day, then the party leaders would have time to figure something out.

She stepped out into the corridor. Before continuing out the doors, she thought of something. Pulling out her earpiece and inserting it into her ear, she called one of her aides. "Tem," she said. "Do we know what was happening at the rally when the attack started?"

"The President had just finished his speech," he replied. "Why?"

"He delivered a speech before the attack?" she asked. His last speech. She had to see it.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Pull up any footage you have of it and have it on my desk in half an hour," she instructed her aide. Quickly, she made her way out of the hospital, pushed her way through the waiting reporters, and hailed a cab.

*          *          *

Four days later, Demm sat in his dark apartment watching the election results. He had a bottle of zurb in one hand and a stout glass in the other. He knew the truth. As the news commentators kept spewing the government's lie about Ak's stable condition. "The capital is confident that he'll be back on his feet soon," one of them reported, as if it were fact. Demm knew the truth.

Sloppily, he poured himself another glass. "Here's to the end of the world," he said to the empty apartment. With Gettes in power, they were only the stroke of a pen away from interstellar isolation and war with the Rogues. He downed the zurb in one gulp.

He'd had good, expensive zurb before. It warmed your throat and soothed it. It was sweet and bitter and complex. His cheap, corner store zurb, on the contrary, burned his throat and while its flavor wasn't bad, the aftertaste could just about make a man quit drinking. Still, the numbing effect was worth the pain. He looked blearily at the bottle for a moment. You could tell how old zurb was by its color. The darker, the better. The best zurb was black. His zurb was a watery amber.

"The eastern precincts are starting to report in, now," the man on the news feed announced. Demm sat up straighter on the couch. "Based on this preliminary data, it appears that Senator Uro Gettes is showing better than expected numbers in Nedj. Still, our projections predict a decisive victory for incumbent President Ak in the western cities. The question remains: will Gettes' last minute push for votes be enough to counter the surge in sympathy for Ak? Only time will tell."

"If only you knew," Demm said. He poured another glass for himself. "Well, there goes the last five years. Gettes'll probably start cutting the Fleet's exploration budget, first. So much for all your work, Ferab. It was a nice try."

*          *          *

In the Capital Building, Mira Sallas was sitting in her office with the lights off, watching the election results. Somehow, the truth about the President's condition had remained under wraps. The people, reassured by their leader's recovery, had flocked to the polls. Record numbers of votes were pouring in from all over the Confederacy.

All that was needed was a majority of the popular vote to win. Even with Ak's excellent poll numbers, Uro Gettes was a threat. He was popular with the people, too, but his solutions to their problems were radical. The race would likely be tight, but it would go on nonetheless.

They were taking an awful gamble, not to mention breaking the highest law in the land. Sallas had her doubts, but when she looked at Gettes, she felt that this was the best option. This was in the people's best interest.

"Incumbent President Ferab Ak is starting to gain some momentum, now, as we're starting to receive numbers from the polls in Nu Home and all along the coast there," a newscaster reported. "If he can get these precincts on Dracosus and hold onto his majority on Beletia, then he may still be able to counter Senator Gettes' impressive lead on Yusai..."

It was going to be close. This would not be a repeat of Ak's historic landslide victory in '38. It was going to come down to individual precincts, individual neighborhoods. Sallas could barely stand the pressure. Normally, she thrived on it, but tonight, the difference between winning and losing was the difference between a bright future and another age of darkness.

"What will you do if Ak wins?" a voice behind her asked. She swiveled in her seat to see Senator Pol silhouetted in the doorway against the harsh lights in the hallway. "We both know his odds of surviving."

"We will deal with that when the time comes, Senator," she replied unemotionally. She turned back to the holographic news feed.

"I didn't say 'we,'" Pol pointed out. he didn't bother stepping inside. Everyone else in the building was downstairs waiting for the results. "I said 'you.'"

Sallas knew exactly what he meant, but she couldn't bring herself to say it. "I will do what is required of me."

"Are you out of your mind?" Pol asked. He charged halfway into the room. "You're breaking the Constitution, for crying out loud! If anyone ever finds out, you'd be facing federal charges, Madam Speaker. And with all due respect, you are not qualified to lead this confederacy if Ak dies."

"When he dies," Sallas said quietly. She looked down at her lap. She did what needed to be done, and now she was in a position to become the President because of her lies. She didn't mean for it to turn out this way. She didn't mean for it to get so out of hand, and she certainly didn't want to be President.

"Madam Speaker, I hope you know what you're doing," Pol said. The old man didn't even know what to say. There weren't words in his vocabulary to express his fear and internal conflict and disgust, and the incessant nagging of his conscience. Throwing up his hands, he left to join the other senators downstairs.

Sallas knew he was right. This had gone too far. Unfortunately, from the moment when that single bolt of particle energy had struck the President in the chest, there was no going back. They were on a collision course with history.

*          *          *

Ferab Ak was slipping further and further away. He was immersed in the past as his life quite literally flashed before his eyes. Concerns about the outside world were gone. The election was lightyears away.

He was sitting in his living room, surrounded by family, friends, and campaigners. The excitement was electric. "This is your big moment, sir," Chet said, patting Ferab on the shoulder. His campaign manager had always been fat, but in '38 he had only been starting to lose his hair.

"Will you pass the hot wings?" Ferab asked calmly from where he sat in his comfortable recliner. Chet handed him one and took one for himself.

"To a well-run campaign," Chet said. They tapped their chicken wings together lightheartedly. The moment of truth was upon them. The votes would start coming in any moment, now. The group was chatting excitedly, so Ferab decided to have a little fun. He stood up and raised his half-eaten wing for silence.

"Everyone, I have a confession to make," he said very seriously. "I think you deserve to know that this morning, I voted for President Harson." Everyone knew not to take him seriously, but there was a moment of hesitation. Dijah hit her husband playfully on the arm.

Everyone laughed, except Chet. He leaned over to speak to Dijah. "Can't Ferab take anything seriously?" he asked, a little annoyed.

"It's just his way, Chet," Dijah explained with a smile. She had always thought that Ferab's ability to take hardship with optimism was extraordinary. "He always said that if he didn't laugh, he'd cry."

Ferab wandered back over to his wife with a broad grin on his face. He had a good feeling about this night. Even if he didn't win, he'd had fun just running for office. If he lost the election, then Dijah would get her wish and he would retire from politics. A part of him already longed for a loss, just so he could be with his family.

He put his arm around Dijah and looked deeply into those sea green eyes he'd fallen so madly in love with all those years ago. They smiled at each other and kissed. The sounds of crying from the next room pulled them apart a few seconds later.

"Duty calls," Ferab explained to his guests as he ducked into the bedroom. Laying on the bed was a beautiful baby girl. She was a perfect blend of her parents, with her mother's bright eyes and her father's wild dark hair. She even had her late grandmother's smile, albeit with fewer teeth. "Shh," he whispered, picking the one year old up the way one would lift a china dish. "What's the matter, Sera? Don't cry, baby. Daddy's here."

He smiled down at child nestled in his arms. This was his daughter. He could still barely believe it. Having her was all he needed, now that he thought of it. He didn't need to win the election, but it would be nice to win, anyway.

He carried Sera out into the living room, where she fell silent as she took in all the new faces and the decorations. Someone gave her a balloon, which she promptly released.

"Quiet, everybody! Quiet!" Dijah called happily. "Here come the results." The room fell nearly silent, except for a few whispered prayers. Ferab was a long shot, that much was certain, and they had no way of knowing if his popularity on the campaign trail would translate into votes at the polls.

"The first numbers are coming in now, from the Dracosian precincts," the news feed reporter said. "It's looking like a sweep for Ak in the north, good news for him, but will he be able to carry his popularity into the bigger districts and to the other planets, where President Harson has double-digit leads?"

The room remained silent. "Don't worry, guys," Ferab said calmly from where he sat on his recliner with his daughter in one arm and his wife perched eagerly on the armrest. "We can still take this thing."

"We're receiving some remarkable numbers from Yusai and Beletia, where polls just closed," the reporter said. He paused while he read the numbers to himself. The look of shock on his face was priceless. Everyone in the room held their breath. This could make or break all their long months of campaigning. "I'm not sure whether these numbers are real, but in drastic departure from its traditional conservative streak, Yusai has voted for Ferab Ak."

Everyone cheered. "Its not over, yet," Ferab reminded them.

A few minutes later, more votes from Dracosus were in. The reporter on the news feed straightened his tie. "Ladies and gentlemen, based on the numbers thus far, we are prepared to make a projection. For the first time in fifty-five years, a sitting president has been defeated in his bid for a second term."

The room exploded with cheering and yelling. Ferab jumped to his feet and hollered at the top of his lungs. Sera started to cry, so he stopped his celebrating to comfort her.

"This is amazing," the reporter went on. "This is the stuff history is made of. By what appears to be an overwhelming, unprecedented majority, Former Secretary of State Ferab Ak will be the 28th President of the Dracosian Confederacy. President Harson, we hear, is not yet ready to concede defeat, but it is clear that he has indeed been defeated by a member of his own cabinet. Ferab Ak, at age 35, will also be the youngest president in history. Just a string of firsts tonight. I, I'm some trouble putting the magnitude of this upset into words. Initial estimates are giving Ak upwards of seventy percent of the vote. The Presidential Election of 2538 will certainly be one for the history books..."

The feed was drowned out by the celebration. Champagne corks were popped and even Chet was smiling. President Ferab Ak. It sounded good. Fera held Sera up over his head. She smiled and clapped. He handed her over to Dijah's mother for a moment to grab a flute of champagne.

"Here's to President-elect Ferab Ak," Chet proposed a toast.

"And to his reelection in '43!" someone yelled. Everyone laughed.

"Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves," Chet reminded the group.

Before Ferab could grab a glass, someone grabbed him by the collar. It was Dijah. She was radiant and at that moment, she looked as if she could outshine the sun. "Congratulations, Mr. President," she said. She draped her arms around his neck. Ferab smiled back and dipped her backwards. They kissed passionately.

It was probably one of the best days of his life.

Soothing warmth spread through his body. Ferab didn't fight it. He finally pushed aside the sense of having unfinished business and let the warmth wash over his like a tropical tide. He was at peace.

*          *          *

Dijah and Sera were sitting in Ak's hospital room, half-listening to the results of the election. The man on the bed was their priority. Sera was six now, just old enough to know that her father was going to leave her, even if she didn't understand why. She was leaning against her mother, who had a tight grip on her husband's hand.

"Mommy, why does Daddy have to go?" Sera sobbed. Little tears ran down her pale face. Dijah pulled her daughter closer.

"I don't know why, baby," she told Sera. She stroked her dark curls, so much like her father's, and prayed for strength.

"But he was going to take me with him to work again," Sera said, almost begging, as if that would convince her father to stay. "I wanted to go again."

"I know, baby. I know. But, things are different now. Your Daddy wanted to take you, but he can't...I don't want him to go, either. She honestly couldn't imagine life without him. They had long since ceased to be separate people. Losing him was like losing half of herself.

"Is it because I didn't eat my vegetables?" Sera asked. Her blue-green eyes were wide with the fear that she was the reason her father was leaving.

"You didn't do anything, Sera," Dijah told her daughter. "You're father and I love you with all our hearts. Somebody else...well, they're taking your Daddy away soon."

Sera started to cry again. Dijah brushed her daughter's tears away, even as her own tears were welling up. "There, there," she tried to comfort Sera and herself at the same time. "Would Daddy want you to cry?"

Sera shook her head, but continued sobbing. The President's closest aide stepped inside. "Would you like me to take her home, now, Mrs. Ak?" she asked.

Dijah couldn't bear to have her daughter taken away from her. Like her father, Sera possessed a special wisdom that defied her six years. Dijah would need some of that wisdom to make it through the night. "No, thank you. I want her to stay with me."

Dijah squeezed Ferab's hand, hoping that he might respond, but there was nothing. The computers started to whine. The gentle beep of the President's heartbeat was replaced by a long, droning tone. He was dying.

"Oh, my God! Doctor!" Dijah yelled. "Doctor! Somebody! Oh, God! No!" She let go of Sera, who stood there, crying and frightened.

Dijah didn't know what to do. She didn't know CPR or any form of resuscitation. Her husband of eighteen years - her soul mate - was dying and there was nothing she could do.

"Ferab, no! No! You can't leave me! Ferab, don't leave me! Ferab, I love you, don't go! Stay with me! Don't leave me!" Her tears overtook her hysterical screaming. Her yells caught in her throat.

A group of doctors rushed in and tried to restart his heart and keep oxygen flowing to his brain. Dijah collapsed on the floor and pounded the cold floor with her fist. Her sobs shook her small body. Sera had retreated quietly into the far corner of the room. "Oh, dear God, how can you take him from me?" she wept.

Somewhere, unheard, the news feed continued to report the results of the election, oblivious to the death of a great man. "We can now report to you that Senator Gettes has picked up several precincts on Beletia, bringing him within 100,000 votes of President Ak's current total. A number of precincts on Dracosus have called for a recount of their results and there are still no definite results from the Asteroid Belt.

"At this time, the election is still too close to call. We will continue to watch the numbers as they are released, but we will most likely have to wait until morning to know who the victor will be..."

*          *          *

Cherra was back at work, covering the election results live from Jenco Square in downtown Nu Home. Her boss had tried to convince her to take a week off after what she had been through, but she would hear nothing of it. She was quite proud of her scars.

All around her were screaming people, waving "Get Well, Mr. President" and other messages of encouragement. She smiled bitterly at them. They wouldn't do much good, if her sources were correct. Something was rotten in the capital. That much was certain.

The square was electric with the excitement. People had turned out in droves to support Ferab Ak's bid for a second term. The glow sticks lit up the square so brightly that it almost seemed like daylight. Unlike Ak's last election, though, there was an equally large party on Yusaisumtin for Senator Gettes. It was going to be tight. A holographic billboard covering the entire side of a massive skyscraper displayed election results in ten story high numbers.

"Alright, we're on in five. Roll 'em," she instructed her hovering camera. The camera provided a quick countdown from five as she quickly fixed her wild red hair. Then, she was live. "Thank you, Daiv. I'm here with a group of Ak supporters watching the tally. Behind me, is the famous Janco billboard, one of the largest holograms in existence. Currently, though, advertisements have been suspended to bring up to the minute counts. As you can see, the vote stands at a statistical dead heat between the two candidates.

"Senator Gettes has pulled out an impressive showing. Only four weeks ago, he was trailing Ak in the polls by a full twelve points, and yesterday, he had narrowed that margin to two points. What he needs to clinch the election is a combination of the Unionists getting overconfident and not showing up to the polls, which does not seem to be the case, and a big push by the Labor Party to drive the conservatives to the polls.

"As you know, there were some issues earlier in the northern precincts which required a recount," she went on, as new information arrived via her earpiece. "But we now have those numbers. In Rol, President Ak appears to have received 51% of the vote. Similar results are now being reported in Nu Manhatun, Oshen City, and Reas.

"Our bureau here in the capital is crunching the numbers as we speak, but until we receive some numbers from the Asteroids, where there are more than nine million registered voters, we can't even make any predictions. Back to you, Daiv."

She exhaled when the red light on the camera turned off. She plucked her earpiece out and turned to face the holographic tally. Ak was now leading by almost 750,000, but that was far from decisive with nine million votes yet to be counted. And Gettes had a strong majority in the Asteroid Belt according recent polls.

It was going to be a long night. Cherra pulled her jacket closed. At least the rain had stopped, for now. She shivered, not just from the cold, but from the prospect of five years of Uro Gettes in the presidency.

*          *          *

Resala's blood boiled when she heard that man's name. How had he managed to survive? She couldn't believe it. She had seen him shot straight in the chest at the rifle's highest power at fairly close range. The man should be dead. It was only fair that he die to repay the deaths of her people.

She paced up and down the length of the dimly lit barge. They had been stuck in orbit around Dracosus for four days now. It was too dangerous to attempt to run the Fleet blockade with this rust bucket. They would wait and blend in with the other mining barges.

Eventually, she sat down in an uncomfortable chair in the crane operation booth which towered twenty meters above the rest of the barge on a spire rising from the aft section of the ship. From there, she had an unparalleled view of the gray planet below. It was night on this part of Dracosus and the lights of their sprawling, bloated cities fanned out along the canals. They burned brightly; leaving the uninhabited deserts between them plunged in darkness. Still, the worst place on Dracosus was paradise compared with the freezing extremes of the Asteroids.

They were crossing into daylight, now. Quarint blazed brighter than she had ever seen it before and shimmered on the ocean below them. The thin atmosphere glowed. Resala was not impressed. She would not be impressed until her people had overrun and killed every leader on Dracosus, and anyone who dared to rise up in thought or deed against them.

She smiled at the thought, but she feared that she would not live to see that glorious day. Her leaders did not tolerate failure. When she delivered the report that she had failed to kill the president, she would, of course, have to be executed for the good of everyone. Perfection would be in their grasp if they weeded out all of the weak.

She was surprised at this turn of events. She was the pinnacle of perfection. Beautiful, intelligent, powerful, and treacherous. It was her destiny to rule over all of this space, not to be killed for incompetence. But, she could find comfort in the fact that it was all for the sake of their cause.

The comm line crackled. "My lady, we are being hailed by a Fleet starship. They say they have orders to board and search every vessel in orbit. Shall we open fire?"

Resala chuckled her cold, sharp laugh. They wouldn't last fifteen seconds against a Fleet starship. They would be nothing more than debris and scattered atoms before they could even raise their shields. Of course, their was the allure of martyrdom, but she preferred to wait for news of the election results and finish the job, if necessary.

"Absolutely not," she replied. "You will invite them aboard and allow them to search where they please. We have nothing to hide."

Resala returned to the lower deck. When the Fleet men arrived with their scanners, she pretended to be a lowly engineer's mate. She scrubbed the deck plates while they walked right by her. It took every ounce of self-control not to rip her dagger out of her boot and slit both of their throats. She held herself back, even as she envisioned their hot red blood spilling down onto the deck and splashing into puddles.

"That's all we need, for now," one of the Fleet officers told the 'captain,' one of Resala's bodyguards.

"Come back any time, we have nothing to hide," the 'captain' replied with a friendly smile. A moment later, as the Fleet men prepared to be transported back to their ship, one of them caught a glimpse of Resala. He looked her over and she reached for the dagger. The transporter engaged and the man dematerialized just before her dagger embedded itself in the wall.

Resala screamed every hateful thing she could think of. She hated the Dracosians. They were subhuman. They thought they were better than her people, but they were the true barbarians. They were the people who bombed their settlements, killing men, women, and children indiscriminately. They were the monsters in this bloody conflict. They had started it all in motion and she would relish their demise and their pitiful screams for mercy when they were slaughtered like animals in the coming war.

"Beras!" she barked orders at her bodyguard. "Warm up the transporters and get in touch with our man in Pol's office. I'm going down."

"My lady, the Fleet ship may still be monitoring--"

"Damn the Fleet ship to hell for all I care!" she roared. "Get me my pistol and prepare to transport me down to the hospital. Now!"

"Yes, my lady," Beras said as he stumbled off to find her gear and contact their spy in the Senator's staff. "My apologies."

Resala was going down to finish the job correctly, the way she had wanted to from the beginning. Lero had been weak. He had been a drag on her. Now, she would do the job correctly. Right was on her side and the glory for the assassination of Ferab Ak would be hers.

*          *          *

Sallas looked over to large document hanging on the wall of her office. It was a copy of the Articles of Confederation, drafted more than two centuries before. In the darkness, she couldn't read it, but her eyes scanned the document, anyway, searching for a specific clause. The Articles were humble, just a simple handwritten document put down in simple language, but it was the most powerful and respected piece of paper in their history.

Her eyes alighted on a clause toward the end of the Seventh Article. She knew it by heart, "In the event of the president's death or incapacitation, the Speaker of the Senate shall succeed to the office, followed by the members of the president's cabinet in turn." One sentence. One fragment of the law that was so often ignored, and now, it stood poised to change her entire life.

She didn't know much about the duties and responsibilities of the president. She had proved to be an effective legislator, as evidenced in her appointment to Speaker of the Senate. The presidency, however, was a whole different animal. While a largely symbolic office, it was much more visible to the public than her own. Not to mention the president's new duties of dealing with interstellar affairs. She had only seen an Arkian once, at a distance.

"We're starting to receive some results from the polls in the Asteroids, now," the news feed reported. Sallas sat at the edge of her seat. Her phone rang.

"Answer," she instructed the computer. The voice of one of Ak's aides came over the speakers in her office.

"Madam Speaker...the President...is dead."

Sallas hung her head. She tapped a button on her desk, ending the call without answering. He was dead, and yet he was still a contender for reelection. This was wrong on so many levels, and Pol had been right. She was breaking the Articles of Confederation if she allowed this election to continue, and pretend that Ak was "making a full recovery."

"Yes, the preliminary numbers are looking good for Ak in the Asteroids. This could be enough to sway the votes in his favor, but we will refrain from making any definite projections until more results are received."

Sallas was young and inexperienced compared to many of the other members of Congress. How could she possibly be expected to lead six billion people? She had enough trouble maintaining order during Senate debates. Now, she was facing the prospect of having to deal with crises affecting millions of Dracosians.

She swiveled in her chair again to face the holographic display. She muted the election coverage for a moment and cued up Ak's final speech, right before he was shot. "It's no secret that you're afraid to leave your homes at night, that gangs continue to sell drugs on the street, that the Brotherhood kills innocent citizens every day in Oshen City, and that we, your elected officials, do nothing. Why? Because no one is brave enough to stand up and fight back."

Those were the words of an experienced leader. She had no idea whether she could live up to that man. In her heart, she was afraid that the task would be too much for her. There was nothing that could be done now. Her path was clear. She would have to go through with the charade.

*          *          *

Resala materialized in a dark room. A dagger shimmered in the pale light of a single strip of light running along the floor. A pistol was gripped tightly in her other hand. The room was long, cold, and reeked of sterilization chemicals. The cold didn't bother her. She had grown up in freezing temperatures on Ariesia.

Lining the wall of the room were gurneys. Blankets were draped over the patients on the gurneys, leaving only their bare feet exposed. There were twelve of them. None of them were breathing.

Resala didn't understand. She ripped the blanket off of the first body, an old woman. Angrily, she stormed over to the next body, and ripped the blanket off of a young boy. She pulled the blankets off of every corpse until she came to the last one. She pulled the blanket down slowly. It was Ferab Ak. His eyes were closed, as if asleep. The skin on his thin face was pale and his expression was serene. He was dead.

In a fit of rage, Resala stabbed his corpse in the chest, in the same spot where he had been shot, and yelled. He had signed the paper ordering the attack on her home when she was a child. He had killed her parents. He was a monster, and these people worshiped him as if he were a hero. He did not react. He was dead. The Dracosians, in typical cowardly fashion, were covering it up. She retrieved her dagger and pulled out a bulky communication device.

"Beras, this is Resala. Transport me back up. He's dead."

Onboard the mining barge, Beras looked at the radio. He was about to press the button to initiate the transporter sequence, then thought better of it.

"Beras, do you read?" she asked. He lowered the volume of the speakers so that the others would not hear her.

Resala hit the side of the comm device. The damn thing had stopped working again. Somebody knocked on the door to the morgue. "Is someone in there?" a voice demanded. Resala looked around to find an escape. There were no other doors, and no windows. The only way out was blocked.

The lock of the door slid open. The door hissed. Resala readied her pistol. Three soldiers burst into the room with rifles raised. "Drop your weapons and put your hands on your head!" one of them yelled.

Resala looked at them defiantly. This was all wrong. The plan to assassinate the president was perfect. Nothing had gone wrong. She was destined for greatness. She was to live to rule over this pathetic planet with an iron fist. She too good to be captured. She was too good to be tried, sentenced, and executed like a common criminal.

With her thumb, she tapped the controls of her pistol. The men raised the rifles higher. She glared at them.

"You barbarians will be destroyed. You will all be slaughtered like the animals you are. You will know our wrath. Your blood will run in the streets and you will pay for what you have done to us," she declared. She stood up straight and regal. Turning her pistol on herself, she fired a single particle beam into her heart. Collapsing onto the cold floor, she only wished she could have been there to see Ak draw his final breath.

*          *          *

Senator Pol was drenched in sweat. A dark spot had been slowly spreading across his white shirt for hours now. It was getting hard to cover it up with his suit jacket, which was only compounding the sweat problem. He was standing in a crowded room. About half of the members of Congress, five hundred men and women, were crammed into the Senate chambers to watch the election results.

"We are now projecting Representative Makal from the 53rd Precinct on Dracosus to retain her seat in the House," the news feed proclaimed. A cheer rose up from the small group of Progressives in the corner. Makal started to deliver a prepared acceptance speech, but was hushed when the feed returned to presidential results. Many seats were being contested in the most powerful branch of the federal government, but the race for the presidency, while largely symbolic, had gripped everyone's attention.

"What's the matter?" Senator Jurason asked Pol. He had also just received word of his reelection. "Surely Ak won't lose to Gettes. Loosen up."

Pol smiled weakly and nodded. "It's just a little much for me to handle at my age, though," he explained to the younger Senator. Jurason patted Pol on the back and wandered off to congratulate his fellow party members.

"Senator," a voice behind him said. It was one of the President's aides. He gestured for the Senator to follow him out of the chamber. Outside in the marble hall, the aide whispered into Pol's ear. "Sir, the President is dead."

Pol swallowed and nearly gagged. President Ak was dead. "Does the Speaker know?" he managed to ask. The aide nodded solemnly. "Thank you," Pol said. The aide left.

Pol returned to the Senate chambers where the celebration was getting into full swing. While the Progressives and the Labor Party, Gettes' party, were reveling in their considerable gains in Congress, the President's own party, the Union Party, were suffering heavy losses.

"Ladies and gentlemen, history is unfolding as we speak," the reporter on the feed announced. On the giant screen hanging in space on one wall of the chamber, the reporter stopped to listen to his earpiece. "The most popular president in our history, President Ferab Ak, has received 55 percent of the vote in the Asteroids. With a narrow 900,000 vote margin, the 28th President of the Dracosian Confederacy has been elected to a second term."

The Unionists and Progressives cheered so loudly that the feed was completely drowned out. The Labor Party members hung their heads quietly at the news that their candidate had been defeated.

Pol was the only Unionist who remained silent. His knees gave out and he sunk to the red-carpeted floor. No one noticed.

Ferab Ak would not be sworn in as president again. Unbeknownst to the rest of the Confederacy, a barely heard-of and relatively unknown woman named Mira Sallas was only days away from becoming their next president. Everything was changing and he didn't know if it was changing for the better.

*          *          *

Sallas wandered upstairs and emerged on the flat roof of the capital building. The wind was calm and only a light sprinkle fell. She walked out from the entrance of the service stairs and made her way to the edge of the roof. Here, at the edge of the building, 170 floors above the ground at the very top of the slender spire, there was a strong updraft, which blew her shoulder-length brown hair out of her face.

Below, the city of Nu Home shone like a gold dust in the sun. The lights of every building were on, and people carried lights in the streets. All different colors of light were represented. Skyscrapers disappeared up into the clouds and fanned out in every direction, not even hindered by the sea, as she could make out several man made peninsulas jutting out into the harbor.

Graceful strands of hovercars glided between the buildings. From up here, they looked like long lines of ants with headlights, lazily moving through the canyons of glass and steel.

Sallas had lived here nearly all her life. Yet, she had never seen it like this before. She had never seen it before as a city looking for a leader. They thought that would be secure with another five years of Ferab Ak at the helm. They didn’t know that they had, in essence, elected her to serve in his place.

Pol had been absolutely right. She had no business running the Confederacy. She didn’t have nearly the experience necessary to assume responsibility for the wellbeing of six billion people.

There was no escaping this fate. Her duties now that the president was dead were clear. She could either accept it and be sworn in as the new commander-in-chief or she could admit the truth about Ak’s condition at the time of the election and go to jail for the rest of her life. There was no way she could resign without explanation now. It would raise too many suspicions.

There was, of course, a third choice.

Sallas stood right up on the edge of the roof. The wind blew her hair all around. The edge of the roof was slick with rainwater and her shoes slipped a little as she inched closer to the edge.

"Don't you dare," Dijah Ak said from where she stood in the doorway. She glared at Sallas, perched up on the edge of the roof. "Is that how you deal with stress? Is that how you cope?"

Sallas didn't know what to say, she just turned away and stared down at the city beneath her feet. "Why not?" she said. "Why not? I can't go through with this."

"If anyone has a right to jump, it's me," Dijah replied. Shaking her head, she walked over and stepped up onto the slick edge. "I've just lost my best friend. You're worried about your political career. I just lost half of myself. I just lost the love of my life. Do you know how that feels? Can you possibly imagine?"

Sallas shook her head. She had never cared for anyone so deeply, not even her parents or her favorite pets. She didn't know quite what to say, but attempted to defend herself anyway. "They'll have my head if anyone ever finds out what I've done."

Dijah grabbed Sallas's arm angrily. The Speaker nearly tumbled over the edge, but managed to regain her balance. "Is that something to die for? My husband died for a dream. He died for a better future. He died fighting for what he believed in, when everyone else tried to run from the problem."

"I'm not Ferab Ak," Sallas answered. She didn't have his strength or his guiding vision. He was a great man; she was an inexperienced senator who wasn't worthy to succeed him.

"You're a coward," Dijah said, narrowing her eyes. In the dim light, they were electric blue and full of anger and deep inexpressible pain that ate at her very soul.

Sallas nodded. "You're right," she moved to step off the edge, but Dijah's grip on her arm was too strong to overcome. "I could never be the same kind of leader that he was."

Dijah smacked her. Sallas didn't really care at this point. "Dammit, Sallas," she said angrily. "You're the least corrupt person in the government, now."

Sallas laughed disarmingly. It was the laugh of someone who knew that their fate was sealed. "I'm covering up an assassination. I'd call that corrupt." She tried to jump again, but Dijah pushed her in the opposite direction. She fell backwards into a puddle that had collected on the flat roof of the capital building.

Sallas was shaking. "I can't do it...I can't do it." She looked up at Dijah, who still stood up on the edge of the roof. She was a woman who had seen a lot of hardship, yet had overcome the obstacles that stood in her way. She was getting into her early forties, and her vibrant blonde hair was probably dyed, and her face was starting to show the wear from her husband's years of public service. Sallas could only dream of having that kind of strength and perseverance.

Dijah's eyes were welling up with tears. She would be mourning him for the rest of her life, but for now, she had to carry out what she was sure would've been his wishes for the Confederacy's well-being.

"Do you believe in what he stood for?"

"Yes, I suppose," Sallas replied.

"Do you truly believe in what my husband stood for?" Dijah pressed. She wouldn't rest until she got the right answer.

"Yes. Yes, I do." Sallas shook herself and stood slowly. She was aware of the sweet smell of the autumn rain for the first time.

"Can you uphold his ideals? Will you protect his vision?" Dijah continued. She was serious, and she did her best to maintain her composure.

"Yes," Sallas replied. Dijah looked down at the traffic below them. Ferab had always enjoyed watching the lights of the evening traffic streak by. It looked like a kaleidoscope of stars. They spent many a summer's night on the balcony of his apartment, watching the cars silhouetted by the sunset. It was so tempting to jump, to be with him again. But she had responsibilities, not just to raise their daughter, but to set an example for the people.

"If you don't do this, then everything my husband fought and died for will be lost," Dijah said quietly. "Gettes would destroy all of that progress. You have to take office."

"I can't live up to him," Sallas protested. She walked back over to the president's widow. "I can't be what he was."

Dijah stepped down from the edge gingerly and laid a hand firmly on Sallas' shoulder. "Nobody's perfect," she said.

"Then...I'll try my best, Mrs. Ak." Sallas tried to look confident, but she was scared out of her wits. She didn't have what it took to be president - she knew she didn't.

"That's all I can ask of you," Dijah said. She nodded approvingly. "Ferab didn't get it right on the first day, you know. He spent all night before his inauguration pacing back in forth in our bedroom, biting his nails. You'll get the hang of it. Just put the needs of the people first, and you'll do fine."

She patted Sallas on the back and returned to the top of the stairs. Before descending, she looked over her shoulder at the Speaker. "You know, Ferab always said to me, 'The only thing you have to remember in my job is that you work for the people, not the other way around.'"

Sallas cracked a small grin. He was a wise man. It was unfortunate how you really didn't recognize the greatness of someone until they were gone.

"You're not gonna jump are you?" Dijah asked.

"No, I don't think so."

Dijah nodded and continued down the stairs. She turned at the landing and disappeared down into the building. Sallas remained on the roof for a while longer, thinking about the challenges ahead.

*          *          *

Cherra stood in the crowd of journalists inside the capital building, waiting to see why she had been called here. It was very unusual for a press conference to be called without any idea as to who would speak or what they would say. The room was buzzing with activity as her colleagues set up their camera equipment. She just stared intently at the Great Seal of the Confederacy emblazoned on the front of the vacant podium.

It had been a week since the election. Ferab Ak hadn't been seen or heard from in all that time, and people were starting to talk. There had been no acceptance speech, no shred of evidence to prove that Ak was even still on Dracosus. The rumor going around was that his injuries from the attack ten days before were more serious than the government was willing to admit.

In the meantime, Uro Gettes, who had given up his seat in the Senate to run for president, had dominated the news feeds. He was outraged by results, and in typical fashion, he was demanding a recount and an investigation into what he called a "rigged farce of an election."

Cherra instructed her camera to begin filming when she glimpsed movement just outside the open door. Senator Pol, clearly disheveled and looking worse than ever, stepped inside. Silence fell over the chattering crowd and the press room waited for whatever announcement was going to be made.

Pol stepped up to the podium directly front of the reporters. He fiddled with his tie and drank from a glass of water that was resting on the podium. He cleared his throat. "Let me first say, before I begin, that I will not be taking any questions at this time. All of your questions will be addressed in due course once we have more information."

The gathered reporters looked at each other. This was highly unusual. Whatever the senior senator was about to say, it was obviously important.

"Ladies and gentlemen, members of the press, my fellow Dracosians, what I am about to say will doubtless come as a shock to you all. Three days ago, President Ferab Ak, who was recovering at Kanti General Hospital, became ill. He went into a comatose state...and this morning, at 4:37 am, President Ak died."

No one knew what to say. A few people gasped in shock. Cherra was sure that her face betrayed her dismay and her fear for the future. Ak was dead? How? What would happen now? Who would lead? Would Gettes be sworn in? What would happen?

"I assure you that the government remains intact and in control. In accordance with the Articles of Confederation...Speaker of the Senate Mira Sallas will be sworn in as president next week. Until then, the members of his cabinet will carry out the duties of the president. President Ak's funeral will be held tomorrow. I urge you to remain calm in this time of grief and pray for the Ak family. Thank you for your time, and good luck to us all."

The room exploded with questions and Pol quickly darted out of the room to avoid them. Cherra still couldn't believe it. First off, the details were rather sketchy. Secondly, it was all too convenient for the Speaker and for the Union Party to retain control. She couldn't form any of the questions. Her head was spinning. It was all too much to process at once. Things would be different now that Ferab Ak was dead.

Outside, Pol rushed up the corridor to a bank of elevators. Once safely inside, he told the computer to take him to the ninety-eighth floor, where his office was located. He leaned against the wood paneled wall of the elevator and groaned. Everything was falling apart, and he realized then that he had sealed his fate if anyone ever found out about the cover-up.

*          *          *

The rain began to fall again in the morning. Dark clouds stretched out of sight in every direction. Lightning cracked its whip in the distance and long peals of thunder mixed with bells rolled over the city. All traffic was grounded, except for a long string of black vehicles that glided slowly down the major streets. Besides the tolling bells and the distant rumbling thunder, Nu Home, and indeed much of Dracosus, was reverently silent.

The motorcade passed by Demm's apartment window as he was straightening his dress uniform. He tried to judge his appearance in his reflection in the window. He double-checked that all six of the brass buttons on his double-breasted navy blue suit. He double-checked that his black necktie was chokingly tight. He double-checked to be sure that his cuff links were fastened. He double-checked that the six silver star-shaped rank insignia on his lapels and the medals pinned to his right chest were straight. Finally, he ran a comb through his thinning gray hair and walked briskly out the door.

Several minutes later, Demm's black hovercar joined the long train of vehicles leaving the city. Sometime later, the hovercars flew out beyond the city limits. Beyond Nu Home, the landscape was desolate. Demm was reminded of the immense age of their adopted homeworld. A few gnarled old trees dotted the banks of the canals. The motorcade continued out over the cold lava plains. When the city dropped out of sight behind them, there was nothing in any direction, just wide plains covered in a thick blanket of gray ash.

A few minutes later, a range of extinct volcanoes rose over the horizon ahead of them. The vehicles slowed and touched down gently at the feet of one of the mountains. Ash billowed out from under the hovercars as they settled to the ground. A casket was lifted out of one of the cars and carried up onto a large wooden platform.

There were no words of parting, no eulogy, as per the president's request in the update of his will made just a week before his assassination. Demm stood at attention at the head of the line of eight Fleet officers who had been invited to the very private ceremony.

On the other side of the platform, Dijah Ak stood as proudly as she could under the circumstances. Demm hadn't seen her in months, since he was last invited to the Ak home for dinner. She had always seemed to be a very alive woman, just as strong as her husband. Now, she seemed to be a dead woman. He could see in her eyes and in her posture that her spirit was broken. Six year-old Sera Ak was buried in her mother's black dress, crying uncontrollably.

That was what Demm was outraged about - the fact that whoever had done this had taken a father away from a little girl. Demm looked back up at the platform, where a simple dark wooden coffin was resting quietly. Demm wondered what Ak would say if he could see them now. What words of guidance would he have for those who had to face the future.

Demm remembered when Ak had been elected five years ago. He had voted for the other guy and he'd had his doubts about the new commander-in-chief. He had seemed so naive and inexperienced. Like many Dracosians, he hadn't taken Ak seriously. He looked like an idealistic fool. But in the turmoil and fear of first contact and its aftermath, Ak had united and reassured the people. He was revealed to be a strong leader. He was the leader they needed right now.

Demm had similar doubts about the Speaker of the Senate. She had even less experience than Ak when he'd become president. No one really knew her. There was no way of knowing how effective she would be as a leader.

A barely noticeable sprinkle of rain started to dot the powdery ash at their feet. A solemn member of the cabinet, Secretary of State Somner, stepped forward silently with a small silver cylinder. He stopped and looked up at the casket sadly, then tossed the cylinder onto the platform. The device began to glow and the platform soon caught fire. The flames spread quickly to engulf the platform and the coffin.

The thirty people present stood silently while the president was cremated. The fire consumed the casket slowly, and a long column of smoke rose into the sky, in a final gesture to the lasting greatness of Ferab Ak, the 28th President of the Dracosian Confederacy.

*          *          *

Mira Sallas looked at herself in the mirror. She looked too young for this job. Despite her professionally short haircut and somber suit, she still looked like the junior senator from Trinom. No one was going to take her seriously. And why should they? She hadn't been elected to the office she was about to assume, and she certainly was no Ferab Ak. That was the real problem. She would be serving in a shadow that she'd never be able to emerge from. And to top it all off, she had just as poor expectations of herself as the people had.

She glanced away from her reflection to the short speech resting innocuously on the white marble counter next to the sink. It wasn't much, just a statement of principles. It wasn't the kind of political poetry that she had heard from Ak. It wasn't groundbreaking, except to her. It was the first speech she had written all by herself. It may not have been very good, but it was hers alone. No one else could be held responsible for its content, and she preferred it that way.

"Madam Speaker, it's about that time," Senator Pol said from the doorway. He was sweating, as was his custom since the assassination. Sallas couldn't blame him for being nervous. If anyone every found out what they had done, it would be the end of their careers. No, worse than that.

"I'm ready," Sallas said. Taking care to keep her head up, she marched resolutely out the door. Pol fell in step behind her. This was it. This was the price they would have to pay for securing the stability of the Confederacy. The secret would haunt them the rest of their lives, but Sallas was steadfast in her conviction that it was for the greater good. It had been the right thing to do.

Uro Gettes, for all his experience was unpredictable and easily swayed by his donors on Yusai. He had become, in recent years, a staunch social conservative and one of the Senate's loudest voices for isolationism. He was not the man that the Confederacy needed. They deserved better. They deserved Ferab Ak, but they would have to settle for Mira Sallas, instead.

A few minutes later, Sallas an Pol emerged from the building and onto the Presidential courtyard, an expansive garden planted atop the president's office building only a few blocks from the capital building. It was raining heavily, so Pol held an umbrella over Sallas as she made her way to the center of the garden, where a Supreme Court Justice (she couldn't remember his name) and a few other officials were gathered.

Sallas knew what was coming next, but she was still shaking. Her nerves couldn't take much more of this. The Justice held out a copy of the Articles of Confederation. She took them and held them close. These were the most sacred legal documents in existence...and she had already shattered a number of their central tenets. It would have to end here, she decided.

"Repeat after me," the Justice began. The wind whipped the steadily dropping rain, soaking the Articles. "I, Mira Sallas..."

"I, Mira Sallas," she echoed quietly. Her courage had failed her.

"With humility and understanding of my duties..."

"With humility and understanding of my duties," she said.

"Do accept the office of the President of the Dracosian Confederacy..."

"Do...accept..." She couldn't get the words out. She knew what they were, but the significance of them was more than she could begin to fathom. The Justice repeated the line for her. The officials exchanged glances. "Do accept...the office of the...the President of the Dracosian Confederacy."

"And do solemnly swear to uphold the Articles of Confederation..."

"And do solemnly...swear to uphold the Articles of Confederation," she said, her voice little more than a whisper. She couldn't get the air out of her lungs. She was afraid that she might drown in the rain if she breathed too deeply.

"And to protect the sovereignty, safety, and freedom of the Dracosian people to the best of my ability."

Sallas took a deep breath, at last. Almost finished. "And to protect the sovereignty, safety, and freedom of the Dracosian people...to the best of my ability."

She handed the copy of the Articles back to the Justice. The papers had been drenched with rain and she realized that she had been gripping them so tightly, that they were starting to fall apart. Bits of wet paper were still plastered to her palms.

Sallas cleared her throat and dug in her pocket for her speech. She knew that she was speaking not only to the people assembled in the rooftop garden, but also to the six billion people listening to her on the news feeds, judging her every word.

"My fellow Dracosians," she began. Her hands were still shaking, as was her voice. "I come to you in a troubled time in our history. What we do now will affect our children, and our children's children. We have lost a leader - a great man whom I cannot live up to. But, you have my assurance that I will try.

"It is my intention to follow the bold new course outlined by President Ak in his last speech. I intend to devote my time improving the lives of Dracosians everywhere. I will combat corruption and crime with all of my strength, and strive for a brighter future.

"I can't pretend that this is my presidency. It isn't. This term belongs to Ferab Ak. I will not forget that. I will not misuse the trust you placed in him nor the power placed in me by the Articles of Confederation."

Sallas looked up for the first time since she had begun reading. Everyone around her was giving her their undivided attention, wondering what she would say next. She took a deep breath and continued. Her voice was louder now, and her resolve was stronger.

"This is a turning point. To weather this storm will require more than promises. It requires leadership and decisive action. I can and will deliver both. We shall overcome the challenges that stand before us. I don't know what President Ak's last words were. I suspect they were not words of hate, but words of consolation. If he were hear to deliver his last wishes, he would want us to continue his mission. And that's exactly what I will do as your President."

She stopped. That was the end of the speech, but she felt that she needed to add something more. Something that Ak would've said to reassure the people.

"Everything is going to be alright," she said simply. Folding her speech up and dropping it back into her pocket. Silently, she walked away from the people there to witness and officiate her inauguration and made her way to the sleek, black limousine that was waiting to take her back to the capital building for her first intelligence briefing as president.

Once President Mira Sallas was inside, the hovercar lifted off of the tarmac and sped off into the pouring rain.

Everything was going to be alright.
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