Desperate Measures Snippet #1
Are you ready for the 9th Opus X book? I can’t believe we’re getting so close to the end! This one starts out very exciting, and very deviously! Don’t miss it! Desperate times call for Desperate Measures!
July 3, 2230, En Route to Earth Aboard Modified Space Yacht Beidou
Mistakes killed. Julia knew that all too well. She often punished others by taking their lives when they failed her. Sophia’s failure of imagination had led to mistakes that cost her life.
Unfortunately, knowing that fundamental truth about mistakes wasn’t the same thing as avoiding them. Julia had been forced to accept that harsh lesson.
There had been far too many mistakes in recent years, errors that threatened decades—arguably centuries—of planning, both on her behalf and that of the Core more broadly.
Was she making a mistake now, remaining on Earth with the Last Soldier and the Warrior Princess on the hunt? Julia bit her lip.
She’d intended to leave much sooner, but she had convinced herself that there was a difference between caution and paranoid terror. Small problems and issues lingered for her to resolve here, but it had become obvious she needed to leave soon, or she would likely experience the kind of lethal mistake defined by hubris.
Opportunity remained to salvage her position despite her reversals.
The loss of the Hunter ship had been a devastating blow. She couldn’t deny that, though she couldn’t admit the ship existed to the rest of the Core.
It had been the key to her goal—the goal of the entire Core really—that required them to maintain technological superiority over all other humans, and eventually over all other races. Oh, the others could benefit from their scraps, but only they should possess the wisdom for full, unfettered control of advanced alien technology, Hunter or Navigator.
Fate intended the Core to rule. That’s what Sophia had argued about the discovery of the original Hunter technology on the moon, which had been found by private parties—those who knew how to keep their mouths shut, unlike the team who’d discovered the Navigator tech on Mars.
That same technology had allowed a small circle of like-minded people to live far beyond the known limits of human science and expand their influence. There would be no Core without alien tech.
The ultimate humans were the product of the ultimate alien technology.
The Core was supposed to be leading humanity to greatness, a perfect empire ruled by the perfect rulers—leaders to take the human race into complete dominion over the entire galaxy. Only they could do it because only they were capable of the necessary long-term vision.
Mortality stared down all lifeforms and instilled them with fear. The breadth of humanity’s philosophy and religion was devoted to quelling the terror of death, but a true immortal could operate without the ever-present whispers of darkness in the back of their mind.
Who needed gods when the Core could become gods? They had only to seize the necessary power.
Julia raised her hand, so pale, so delicate. It gave no hint of her true age, but she understood there was damage she couldn’t see, genetic problems accumulating. Every survivor in the Core had lived over a century and a half, granting them many more decades than the most advanced technologies of other humans. But if their researchers were correct, the Core members had only a decade left to live.
Goddesses didn’t die. She couldn’t die.
Not yet. Not ever.
The problem with relying on advanced ancient technology was never having more than a partial understanding of the tools it depended upon. The Core didn’t mind the cost of using the technology, which included the necessary sacrifice of other people.
History was replete with the expenditure of the lower order to serve the higher order, but their old artifacts had now failed them and were nothing more than inert museum pieces. For the first time in decades, they felt the shadow of death hanging over them.
Even though they had foreseen this issue, they had tried to not worry. The Core had been confident they’d find what they needed at each checkpoint in their existence. Based on what their researchers had said, the artifacts recovered from Molino held the greatest promise for further rejuvenation of any discovered in recent years.
True immortality had been within their grasp. They wouldn’t have to worry about death’s shadow creeping up on them. They would slay death and take dominion over his domain, but only for them.
Julia curled her hand into a fist and sneered. So close, but now their plans were threatened by upstarts. Insects, really. Men and women of no vision who gave their petty support to the pathetic UTC. They’d delayed the ascension of the Core.
The destroyed Hunter ship had been filled with lost technology. It had still been operational. The Core could have harvested it unlike any of the leftover, half-rotted scraps they’d been forced to examine.
The ship would have set them ahead centuries and accelerated their final advance into divinity. They could have been freed of their incessant need to seek out replacements for their failing artifacts and technology. They would have had an easier time reverse-engineering both structure and function.
No, not they. She.
Julia needed to remember that. Her ancient allies shared a vision, but it was one she no longer subscribed to. She needed to remove any vestige of implied friendship and focus on her future only.
The other members of the Core didn’t realize how many of the Molino artifacts she now controlled. They might suspect, but they couldn’t know they hadn’t been lost in the destruction of Sophia’s ship near Venus.
Julia took a deep breath and settled into her chair, folding her hands in her lap. They must all be thinking what she was thinking.
The Core was too large and too dominated by factions. The interference in her plans was proof of that, as was hers in Sophia’s works.
The only way to maintain control over humanity was by decreasing the points of failure and reducing the inherent complexity of politics. This needed to be done in the appropriate way, taking stability into account.
Unfortunately for others, the filtering and attrition of leaders were inevitable.
She chuckled, thinking about the past. In ancient imperial China, the way of the world had been clear. Subjects obeyed rulers because their rulers were granted the Mandate of Heaven. The system was superior as long as the rulers possessed both talent and vision.
It was hard to argue that quibbling, mewling masses could make better decisions than those with power, intelligence, and education. Rebellions were an expression of the ruler failing his or her subjects.
The ancients had understood that.
When the empire suffered, a clever and well-prepared ruler could deal with it, whether it was providing strength to protect the land from barbarians or stored food to deal with natural disasters.
An ill-prepared ruler made his people suffer, which in turn allowed them to justify rebellion by claiming the natural disasters and barbarians were the result of him or her losing the mandate. The ranks of the insurrectionists would swell, and the empire would be toppled without the fundamental belief in the superiority of imperial rule being questioned.
In all dynasties, decline was inevitable. Good rulers would give way to poor rulers with the passing of decades. The mandate would always be lost and a new dynasty would arise, more responsive to the subjects if only because of the simplest and basest of desires: self-preservation.
Thus, the empire would be strong again.
But Julia was different. All members of the Core were different. They could achieve something physically impossible before: a perfect and lasting rule.
Monarchy was only flawed because the skilled ruler would always perish, leaving (eventually) inept offspring. No matter how well-educated a prince or princess might be, the inevitable machinations of chance would ensure an ill-suited ruler would rise.
The reality was that people needed central control.
The Core was leaving humanity and the petty pretensions of morality accompanying it behind to make a better, stronger race.
Humanity was a divided, pathetic species, one still contending with pointless rebellions while aliens circled their systems, plotting and preparing to destroy them. As the Hunters had consumed the Navigators, the Local Neighborhood races could set themselves on the UTC and obliterate humanity down to the last man, woman, and child.
True leadership was the answer to the question of the future. That was what humanity required—a perfect ruler who would never age, never risk the fall of her empire by bequeathing it to incompetent children.
The ruler would fuse with the UTC and become its brain and heart.
It didn’t matter if the Immortal Empress would inhabit the shadows and use puppets. In the beginning, they would be necessary, and as the decades passed and firmer control was established, the illusion of self-rule could be wiped away until there was only a United Human Empire that stretched into the future, with humanity pushing back against the Leems, Zitarks, and all other creatures who thought they deserved to exist in the galaxy.
If necessary, they could be wiped out. Countless humans had been sacrificed for the species’ perfect future, so why not aliens? Humanity would become the new Hunters.
But the empire wouldn’t come without struggle. A proper ruler always used subordinates, and it was the nature of humanity to fight for control when there wasn’t a single clear ruler controlling everything.
As long as the other members of the Core existed, they would represent a threat to her future rule and thus a threat to the United Human Empire and the future of the species.
There was only one good choice left. To protect the human race, Julia needed to eliminate the rest of the Core. However, she would have to step lightly lest they figure it out and target her, or she would wreak more chaos and disrupt her long-term plan. That didn’t change what she had to do.
“What I do, I do for humanity,” she murmured quietly.
It was time to take the first steps and rely on powerful allies, including the very Core she would eliminate. As long as certain people and organizations continued their hunt, her plans would never come to fruition.
Julia tapped her PNIU and made a couple of quick motions to initiate a call. She needed to preserve resources before they were lost. She could use them as both sword and shield.
A data window appeared, displaying a smiling Shoji. The man was always unflappable, so collected in his own way. Julia appreciated the honest rages of some of the other members of the Core, if only because it made them more predictable. The only member of the Core worse than Shoji was Constance, whose quiet nature concealed a woman who might be even more ruthless than Sophia or Julia.
“It’s been a while,” Shoji offered, his smile brightening. “Not that I haven’t been expecting your call.”
“I wanted to speak to you before I leave the system in the next week or two,” Julia replied with a slight frown. “I wanted to make certain things clear.”
Shoji raised an eyebrow. “You mentioned leaving the Solar System, but when you didn’t immediately do so, I presumed it was more whim than plan.” He waited for a second. “Are you still holding such angst over our losses?”
“It’s not just me. It’s dangerous for all of us.” Julia frowned. “Our enemies have momentum in their campaign against us, even if they don’t understand who they are fighting. The Last Soldier and the Warrior Princess are very resourceful and effective. Too much so, if you ask me. Ignoring this will only lead to death, as Sophia found out.”
Shoji looked bored. “They have the backing of powerful elements in the intelligence community, and it’s not as if you haven’t taken advantage of them in your plans. Even though we have much control over the government, it’s hard to stop everything. I’ve complained about that in the past, but alas, some lack my foresight.”
“It goes beyond the government.” Julia shook her head. “If it were just them, things wouldn’t have become so desperate. There’s a deeper concern here.”
“Would you care to provide a specific accusation?” Shoji asked. “Because that’s what your tone suggests.”
“We can’t be the only ones in the Core playing such games,” Julia replied. “The other members might know what’s happening. They might have chosen to use our greatest threat as their weapon.”
“You did suggest that.”
“I suggested coopting them.”
She watched him carefully, half-suspecting Shoji of being responsible for some of her recent failures. Julia maintained no illusions that the man wouldn’t betray her if it was to his advantage. She calculated they hadn’t yet reached that point, but there might be some hidden variable confounding her conclusion.
Even a goddess made mistakes.
“Perhaps.” Shoji unfolded a fan and waved it in front of him with a smile. “Or perhaps vengeance provides a divine focus all its own, and we were foolish to wipe out the Last Soldier’s friends on Molino. In either event, our enemies have had some spectacular successes. I acknowledge that. I always have, but that’s not the same thing as fearing them.”
“I think they’re getting too close. I believe Sophia wasn’t the only one who might fall. Now that they are creatures of the government’s ghosts, it’s more difficult to strike at them without risk. We have time, especially because of the Molino artifacts. We should retreat, let the trail grow cold, and make preparations for other plans, including further artifact research and recovery. Even after some of our losses, we’re not without resources.”
“You want to flee and go where?” Shoji melodramatically fluttered his fan. “Our influence might reach everywhere, but our power is stronger here in the heart of humanity. My opinion? To travel away from Earth makes us more vulnerable, not less. They’ll still pick away at our power base, and we’ll be weaker once we return.”
“I intend to stay close to Earth. I’m not going to the frontier.”
Shoji closed the fan with a snap of his wrist. “Is this about the incident on the edge of the Solar System?”
Julia kept her face placid despite her quickening heart. “What are you talking about?”
“There was something unusual at the edge of the Solar System, an explosion associated with a comet of all things. What’s more curious is that military and intel communities have made obvious movements to conceal data about the incident, and have succeeded so thoroughly that even my people are having trouble determining what happened other than that there might be something odd with a comet. Given that our enemies now have access to a jump drive, that might explain it.”
Julia nodded slowly. “My people have mentioned it as well and are looking into it. And that jumpship is all the more reason why we should put some distance between the Earth and us.”
She wasn’t sure how much the rest of the Core knew about the jumpship, but she wasn’t prepared to try to argue against its existence.
Someone in the Core had sent the other ship before the arrival of the Last Soldier and his little friends. Given the length of time involved, she’d suspected it was Sophia, but she couldn’t rule out Shoji. The man was nothing if not patient, even by the standards of the Core.
Desperation crept in. She could use the Last Soldier and the Warrior Princess against Shoji and the Core to destroy them immediately. She could push forward and do it herself with reckless abandon. It was her long-term plan.
Would a delay end in her death?
She tossed the thought to the side. Unfortunately, it couldn’t happen quickly. The balance of control needed to be carefully reconstructed with the loss of any member of the Core, just as it had been after the loss of Sophia. Destroying the other long-term members with careful planning would offer her what she needed for success, but a rapid collapse of the Core risked discovery of the remaining members and the loss of their accumulated power.
Subtle, slow destruction was required. However, she wasn’t going to go out of her way to protect other members of the Core if they refused to accept the obvious.
Shoji let out a quiet titter. “It’s only two people, and we’re acting as if they are an entire empire.”
“They have been effective, though,” Julia replied. “And they are a threat because they have far more than the resources of two people backing them, including the AI and the ship. We know that now. We should have killed them when we had the chance.” She thought for a moment. “Okay, an easier chance.”
“Why not kill them now?” Shoji shrugged, a bored look on his face. “Feel free to leave if you want. I’ll be more than happy to handle it. It’s only fitting, considering how much I contributed to the Molino incident.”
Julia scoffed. “How are you going to succeed where I failed?”
“By doing something you don’t always understand. Sometimes the best way to handle someone is by giving them exactly what they want.” Shoji flicked his wrist dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of them, and the less you know, the less it will lead back to you.”
“Shoji, it could lead back to you.”
“Perhaps.” He smiled. “But if that happens, I know you’ll mourn me for at least five minutes before devouring my resources.” His smile dimmed but didn’t disappear. “Since we’re talking about killing people, I find I already miss the Ascended Brotherhood. They were ever-so-useful tools.”
“I can’t deny that. Our yaoguai-heavy strategy could use improvement. It’s difficult to fully control such creatures, even with implants.”
“That’s true,” Shoji replied. “But they’re cheaper overall to produce, and we don’t have to worry about them being captured and interrogated.” He tilted his head. “That gives me an idea.”
She waited for a moment before asking, “An idea about what?”
“A specific way to take care of our nemeses. It will be costly.”
“You can do what you want. I’m departing for New Pacifica. If you can eliminate them with such ease, you deserve the glory and power that comes with it.”
Shoji stuck out his lip and let out a long, sad sigh. “New Pacifica? That’s a long trip. Two months, last time I went there.”
“Yes,” Julia replied. “It also means I’ll be flying away from Earth in case your plan fails. I’ll send you a transmission before my final departure, but it’ll be soon.”
“Then if we don’t talk directly again, let me wish you a good trip and a safe, happy eventual return.”
A faint hint of mockery colored his tone. Julia didn’t care. Her ascension to the divine wouldn’t be stopped.
Something tells me that Shoji is going to be in for a very rude awakening, if he survives long enough.
Come back in a few days for Snippet #2!
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