“Are you willing to take the oath?”
“I am willing,” replied Sakhr.
He stood before the Lakiran minister of Justice, Leonard Finman. The ancient man was orating his way through vows that Sakhr had okayed an hour beforehand.
Crowded around them was Sibyl, Christof, a few selected press members, and whatever of Victoria’s legislative cabinet could arrive on such short notice. The others were regional ministers from around South America, and the ministers of agriculture, public health, and defense.
No more than a dozen people were there, cramped into a tiny room in Sakhr’s new “Imperial Spire”.
“Do you solemnly swear to govern the Peoples of the Lakiran empire, the Peoples of Europe, South Africa, of the Middle Eastern Unification Party, the Peoples of…”
Finman continued listing territories. Sakhr had asked why the minister didn’t just say “the world” if Victoria had recently managed to conquer everything, to which the minister of defense clarified that her domination wasn’t as true as people believed. Telling the public that the empire owned the world was a stretched truth for the sake of appearances. However, saying so during the coronation could cause upset during an already turbulent time.
And so everyone stood silently while Finman rattled off every political entity that could safely be labeled part of the empire, substituting in political parties instead of countries when appropriate.
“I solemnly swear,” Sakhr replied when the old man finished. He held his hand upon a bible Finman held out. That had been the public health minister’s idea at the last moment, though it might as well have been a comic book for all the weight it held with Sakhr. He suspected the vows Finman read were cribbed from the internet. This entire affair was a farce. This empire had never seen a coronation before.
“Will you do your utmost to maintain the laws of God?”
Another religious remark. Sakhr had noted all those references earlier. But why? Had Victoria convinced the people that she was queen through divine right? Were her laws actually God’s laws? It baffled Sakhr how anyone could believe that given the corporate nature of Victoria’s rise to power. It might have made sense given how her government made use of supernatural abilities… except she had carefully hidden that fact.
Sakhr agreed to more vows, then Finman wrapped it up by declaring him queen. Cameras clicked as everyone bowed. Sakhr stood before the audience as the supreme ruler. He possessed the body of a sixteen year old girl, and these generals and admirals and politicians waited for him to tell them what to do. They expected words, and even though Sakhr hadn’t yet tracked down Victoria’s speech writers, he knew his part. He’d been in positions like this many times before.
“Citizens of the Lakiran Empire. Let’s not pretend that today is a day of celebration. It’s a day of perseverance. In the wake of this national tragedy, we must maintain hope. My mother accomplished so much during her short reign. She brought this empire together and delivered us from hard times. I promise I will finish what she started, despite what our enemies would wish. We will find the people who stole our beloved queen from us. But above all, we will show them that they cannot stagger us with their senseless acts of terrorism. We are stronger than they can possibly imagine. We persevere. Thank you.”
Sakhr unceremoniously left as the small crowd murmured. Sibyl followed. Alex was waiting for him in the back hall, sitting on a bench with his feet swinging. He somehow made a young teenager look younger. For whatever reason, he was wearing the garb of an exemplar, though it had a frill on it that Sibyl’s uniform lacked.
“Interesting speech, Your Majesty,” Alex said. “Short and to the point.”
“Thanks! The queen just promoted me to high exemplar.”
“Did I now?”
“Don’t worry. Nepotism is your style. Besides, you seem to be in short supply of high exemplars now.”
Before he could say anything else, Defense Minister Lowden came from the conference room and caught Sakhr’s attention.
“Your Majesty, something has come up.”
“…by now we’ve lost ground as far south as Mumbai,” the Defense minister said. He had led Sakhr and Sibyl to a private room where he already had a tablet screen showing a map of India. “At this point, the only place we have retained any presence is on the peninsula. If we lose hold there, our repulse lines will go with it. If that happens, our only connection between China and the middle east will be our ocean grid.”
“Why is this still happening?” Sakhr posed it as a simple inquiry. “Yesterday you told me we were evacuating civilian personnel from New Delhi. That’s it. Now you’re telling me we’ve lost hold over nearly all of India? It’s been forty-eight hours since my mother died. How is so much ground lost?”
“Our hold on Asia and the middle east has always been frail,” explained Lowden. “All it took was one sign of weakness like an attack on the capital. Now every rebel group across the world has taken it as a sign to strike.”
“You’ll need to pardon me, Prime minister, but I don’t have any background on our military situation.” According to Alexander, Sakhr was always safe to admit ignorance. Apparently, Princess Helena’s knowledge about the empire’s operations was famously appalling. “I thought our military is superior to anything our enemies had to offer.”
“That’s not as true as it used to be, Your Majesty. When this war started, the other nations were using ordinary explosive-propellant weaponry, no problem for our reflex shields. But they’ve caught up. For the last few years, our resistance usually matches us in technology.”
“Okay, but they don’t have flying fortresses, do they?”
“No ma’am, they don’t.”
“Then how can we possibly be having trouble?”
“The rioters outnumber us, ma’am.”
“How many soldiers do we have in India?”
“We currently have eight hundred active on the ground. Our Air Force adds another four fifty.”
“Eight… hundred? You must—must—mean eight hundred thousand.”
“I’m afraid not, ma’am.”
Shutting his eyes, Sakhr pinched the bridge of his nose—a gesture any from his coven would recognize. He was mustering the strength to tolerate the imbeciles the world has inflicted upon him.
“We were holding onto the country of India—the entire country,” he indicated to the map, “with less people than we’d need to fill a highschool? How the hell could we possibly believe we had occupied the territory?”
“Well, we did have several thousand civilians out there.”
“To how many locals?”
“About thirty million. But again, that’s considering the entire Indian region. The country itself only exists on maps, ma’am. Like the rest of the world, it’s broken down into small splinters of self-regulated communities. We’re only policing select communities, the rest are left to their own devices.”
Lowden shrugged. “Because we don’t have the manpower to occupy them. Lakira’s active military population numbers near forty thousand, and we occupy land across the entire globe.”
Sakhr indicated the map on the display before them. “Are we this thinly spread everywhere?”
“Just about, ma’am. The North Americas have a stronger presence, as do Europe and South Africa. The rest are more like India.”
“Are we seeing any signs of rebellion?”
“I’m afraid so. Locals are holding rallies in China and the middle east. Those places may get worse, especially once word reaches them about our failure in India.”
“And I assume if that happens, we’ll have to pull out of those territories as well?”
“Most likely, ma’am.”
“Why? Why would we spread ourselves this thin?”
“Your mother’s goal was to unite the world. The famine caused by the nuclear winter undermined the infrastructure of most countries. In the first years, all we had to do was offer countries food and supplies in exchange for capitulation. Hardly any military presence was required since we had monopoly on Food Ready assembler technology. The only resistance we encountered was the People’s Republic of China. Because of their greenhouse initiatives, they maintained some level of independence. But now that the effects of the global winter are lessening, crops are growing again… in some places. Your mother pushed for our occupation to be complete before countries could ‘get back on their feet’, so to speak.”
“We’ve been getting away with it because of our technological edge. Assembler tech has allowed our few soldiers go the extra mile. With citadels and orbital deployment, we can have our troops where we need them, when we need them.”
“But it’s failing now?”
“Too many situations have come up at once. We can’t be everywhere.”
“So what it sounds like you’re saying, Minister, is that it’s all an elaborate bluff.”
“We have ships large enough to blot out the sun, and repulse grids that float thousands of shuttles at once, but just like our boast that we own the world, it’s all for presentation. We’ve been holding these territories because we’ve created the illusion that our armies are more all-encompassing than they actually are. Now that people have seen that we can be hurt, they’re rising up, and our scary ships are flying away. The only real leverage we hold over these countries is our control over their food sources, which you’re saying won’t be for much longer.”
“That’s about the heart of it, ma’am.”
It was all coming clear for Sakhr—not just the political atmosphere, but the truth about this rulership. He spent years sitting in that cage watching Victoria work. She’d take him on trips sometimes so he could see how far she was coming. On late nights when she would personally clean his cage, she’d lament about her problems as world ruler. It was her way of gloating. She’d accomplished what he himself had dismissed as impossible centuries ago. The world was hers.
And now that chance had given him everything she’d worked to create, it had seemed too good to be true. Two days into his new life, he saw that it was. Conquering the world was still just as difficult as he had always known it would be. Victoria had destroyed everything in order to claim it, and even then—even with her supernatural advantage, her ruthless strategy, and her cunning—even with her armies and technology and her media which touted her as ruler of the free world—she had been far from done.
And Sakhr had taken the reigns.
A common daydream found its way into his head. He could escape. All he’d need to do was excuse himself from the defense minister, find some body he wanted to take over—someone who wouldn’t attract attention—and disappear. He wouldn’t even tell the other witches he was leaving. No more Christof, Sibyl, and certainly no more Alexander. They were luggage. It’d be just himself drifting the world, free to do as he pleased and be who he wanted. How many centuries had it been since he’d truly been free?
There would be complications. He’d have to avoid exemplars, and he’d have to kill Helena’s body to cover his tracks, and he’d have to find some place safe while the world sorted out the resulting political turmoil.
The more he thought about it, the more “ands” that kept popping up. Running wouldn’t work. This rulership had fallen into his lap, and now he was stuck with it. It wasn’t done, but he could finish it. He deserved this. After decades of being that woman’s hostage, he would take from her what she so longed to have, and he would make it his own. In a way, it always was his. Victoria existed because of the actions he took so long ago, and it was his power she used to instrument everything. She had accused him of never succeeding in ruling the world, but she was wrong. He had made her. And now here he was.
“We still supply them with food, don’t we?” asked Sakhr.
“Yes, we have assembler stations in all the major cities. We ship food to the less populated districts. Unfortunately, we’ve had to evacuate many of our stations along the north, but many are still operational.”
“Evacuate them all. Remove the equipment. Isn’t that something my mother would have done?”
“Cut them off? No. She’d control the food supplies and imports of luxury food items, but she never cut off the food supply entirely. Experience has shown us that food will find its way in somehow, usually they smuggle it from somewhere we’re still supplying.”
“So we shut it all down, the entire region. There won’t be an alternate supply.”
Lowden fidgeted. “You’re suggesting that we starve the riots out?”
“Yes. Exactly. It sounds to me that these people have to remember who it is that keeps them alive. We’ll give them a few weeks to remember.”
“Your mother… used the food lines as a means of earning other country’s cooperation as part of her unification, but at its heart, it is a humanitarian project. We helped people who were starving. We never intentionally starved people.”
The remark nearly made Sakhr laugh. “Do you actually believe that? If Victoria were being a humanitarian, she would have made the assembler tech available to the public.”
“She was going to… in the beginning. In the aftermath of the Collapse. Her first priority was to create as many of the Food Ready assemblers as possible to feed the world, but then the world governments started collapsing. Smaller groups arose to take control. Those sorts were inevitably opportunists… warlords and despots. When we tried releasing assemblers to cooperative groups, these warlords would invade and seize the assemblers for themselves. They’d supply food to their own soldiers while letting the people they oppressed go hungry. That’s why we’ve had to police the technology. But believe me, your mother has been working from the beginning to produce as many of the machines as she can. Yes, we do use food to manage control, but it’s simply a sad reality that we haven’t the manpower to maintain order otherwise. Your mother never withdrew humanitarian aid as a means of punishing the population.”
From the urgency of Lowden’s words, Sakhr could tell that, yes, he actually did believe it. Did it never occur to him that Victoria was just another one of those despots taking advantage of the situation? How fascinating. Was her entire military cabinet this naive?
“Well perhaps, Minister, that is part of our problem. We’ve been helping all these countries for years, and they turn around and launch an attack on our capital. They kill my mother. Perhaps our reluctance to punish has made them forget that we give them our food in exchange for their loyalty.”
“We don’t know who invaded the Capital Tower, ma’am. We’re still carrying out an—”
“Who else could it have been, Minister? Locals? No. It was either a remnant of the European Democratic Alliance or some terrorist group. And now they’re taking advantage of our weakness. Withdraw the food.”
“Ma’am. That could backfire. Like I said, the land is starting to support crops again. This may force them to become independent of our supplies.”
“Then locate any crops and burn them.”
Lowden recoiled. “Ma’am? Surely not.”
Did Victoria tolerate this much backtalk? “Yes. Burn them. They’re taking advantage of us during our crisis, so we must show them that will not stand.”
“But, ma’am. That flies in the face of our restoration initiative. We’ve been helping our more settled territories to repair the environment and agriculture. What message would it send if we’re reconstructing agriculture in the Americas while burning fields in Asia?”
“We’re helping countries plant crops?”
“North America and Western Europe have been fully cooperative. Their place in the empire is secure. Your mother’s ultimate intent has always been to undo the damage of the winter.”
“If they’re cooperating, then they don’t need punishing.” Sakhr accentuated the words of that sentence. It had the desired effect. Any arguments Lowden had got lost before finding their way out his mouth.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll pass along your orders.”
“Good. Is there anything else?”
“Not at the moment, ma’am. I’ll keep you updated.”
Lowden left. Outside would be Sakhr’s security, ready to show him to whatever emergency beckoned next, but he lingered. After fiddling with the map display, he figured out how to zoom out until the entire world showed. It still only showed information about the Indian region, and Sakhr didn’t know enough about the software to change that. He’d have a lot of learning to do—seventeen years of modern technology and politics, but he’d get there. Right now, all he wanted was a satellite view of the world, and that’s what this showed.
The world was not as green as he remembered. A lot of brown and gray. And stretches of white where it had no right to be. He supposed the “environment initiatives” were a necessity; this world certainly needed fixing. But it seemed counter-intuitive to him to actively encourage farming, even if only in places not prone to protests. Victoria had been right. Controlling the food was effective. So why ruin that edge with environmentalism? If she’d actually cared, she wouldn’t have caused the winter in the first place. As far as Sakhr was concerned: the world was a mess, and it would always be a mess. The advantage must be maintained.
When the time came, Sakhr would readdress this initiative, once he knew more. There’d be time to readdress everything.
He and Sibyl left the small office. Alexander was right outside, sitting on a different bench, as though he’d wait all day. Again he smiled. This time there was no one to stop him.
“Hi, Your Majesty.”
“What is it?”
In answer, Alex looked at Sibyl, who still wore the body of an exemplar. “Have you read your email today? Someone wrote a story about us.”