There was a storm rolling from the west. Enormous black thunderheads trailed their long, rainy beards over the hills. The humidity made Siobhan's old wounds itch. The scarred topography of her face, the marks on her shaven scalp, the fingers that didn't heal right, the stump of her leg, all of it. But if it wasn't raining it was oven-dry and that was worse. One of these days she'd retire, she told herself, move up north where there were seasons other than char-broiled and drowned.
One of these days.
But there's always work to be done...
The clock on the wall ticked away as the first raindrops spattered on the window.
Siobhan retreated into her mind. It was an automatic response even now, decades after her time in prison and those endless, mind-deadening days. Keep your mind busy. It is the last thing they can take away. Do puzzles in your head. Recite poetry. Watch the spider crawling across the wall until you know his routine better than your own. She plucked out histories of the Diamedean Wars from her mental library, carefully laying out her imagined soldiers and watching them push back and forth through the ancient valley.
But the blood and bronze of that ancient battlefront could not keep her focused for long. There was too much at stake. Twenty years of work rode on a meeting she was not privy to. She had argued for herself as best as she could in her proposal, but that argument was still only a few sheets of paper and she knew the odds were against her.
She was not a scientist; she had been a schoolteacher once, with a hobbyist's telescope. She had never found religion; she viewed the Priori with the respect and dignity due the greatly accomplished, but no more. She was not even a true member of the Coalition military; her title was a gift, handed out in the postwar years as they folded in the partisans and civilian militias who had seen so much of the fighting. The only legitimacy she could bring to her claim on the program were the favors accrued over decades of service in the Coalition's shadow, all cashed in at once.
She was desperate, and couldn't deny that even to herself. An old professional rival had once told Siobhan that when she died and rotted away, there would be a lump of iron where her heart was. She had meant it as an insult. It wasn't. But that lump of iron still needed something to cling to, something to work towards. Siobhan did not survive the war by falling into idleness. Give yourself a task, no matter now simple, no matter how repetitive, no matter how unpleasant. Fulfill the task. Find a new task. Do not let yourself die while it remains undone.
The last name on the List of 55 had been crossed out four years ago. Her lads had jumped him on his country ranch, brought his remains back in a garbage bag. Last of the Xipharchist party leadership that hadn't already died in the war or been executed during the Trials. And with him dead, there wasn't much use for Siobhan and her lads anymore, least not in the function they had served for decades. The space program had been the job-in-reserve, the break-in-case-of-emergency. One last show. One last hurrah. The demon that drover her ever forward had offered the impossible task, and she'd accepted. Prepared. Waited.
She didn't know what she'd do if it was rejected. If not now, the program would be unlikely to ever emerge again within her lifetime - the world was focused on itself, on surviving the climate catastrophe men has wrought for themselves. Space exploration hardly even appeared in children's comic racks and dime-store pulps anymore, let alone as a serious governmental proposal. Siobhan - and others of her generation - could still remember those excited murmurs of the prewar era, those hopes of a new age of progress and discovery. But those plans had never come to fruition, and their seeds had either been cannibalized or abandoned. Mothballed rockets sat moldering in their hangars.
Maybe, if this failed, she would move up north, buy a lonely house on some lake that still held on to a memory of its pristine history. Curl up with a book and a bottle of whiskey and fade away to nothing.
"Ma'am? Excuse me, Commodore?"
She blinked, slowly, and returned to the damnable waiting room. The storm had reached the city in full force, roaring and pounding at the windows as the trees thrashed in the wind. The secretary - a ruddy-haired, somewhat gormless looking man young enough to be her son - looked concerned. They always did.
"The Minister is ready for you, Ma'am."
Siobhan nodded, slowly stood up. Damnable joints. The cane was useful, though admitting that it was felt like an admission of the victory of old age. What a joke - the fascists never broke her, but arthritis was kicking her ass. She gave the secretary a curt nod and a thank you, and let herself into the minister's office.
Emmanuel Ndola, Minister of Defense. He'd been a marine field officer, got himself a string of promotions thanks to his role in the capture of Hada Gon during the Archipelago Campaign and kept climbing up ranks during the cleanup. Old guard. Siobhan liked him.
"Commodore." He motioned to the chair opposite his desk. Emmanuel's office was like the man himself - neat, nondescript. A handful of personal effects, photographs and the like, a single bookshelf. A constellation of dots the wrong shade of green speckled the wall behind him: wrong paint color when they were plastering over the bullet holes.
"So. What's the news?"
"We were able to get Environment and Interior on our side, and that pushed us over quora. Congratulations; you've got yourself a space program."
Heart of iron or no, those words made Siobhan want to leap from her chair. Damn these joints. Years of endless committee meetings, circular appeals to distant authorities, three different Prime Ministers, all over. No more wandering in the wilderness; now it was time to roll up shirtsleeves.
"That calls for a celebration, I think."
"I was just about to say." Emmanuel pulled a bottle of brandy and two tumblers from a drawer in his desk, the peeling black label still-proudly proclaiming Lostaĉa and Sons. The fascists had put them all against the wall when they found that the company was smuggling folks to neutral territory in barrels.
"To the Program," Emmanuel said, raising his glass. Thunder boomed off in the distance.
"To the future," Siobhan raised hers in turn, took a sip. Smooth as silk, warm like a fireside evening that had not existed since the winters of her parent's generation. Lostaĉa and his boys earned their legacy twice over. "So," she re-positioned herself in the chair. "How the hell were you able to do it?"
"By setting you up as a sacrificial bull, unfortunately. They fully expect this to fail, and were unwilling to entertain the idea of approving an additional budget. So I spun them the option where Science and Defense pay for it out of their own pocket. We take on the responsibility. If it turns into anything, they can pat themselves on the back and say 'I voted for that'. If it fails, they save face. We can push for an independent cabinet seat when we get results."
He was risking career suicide, and Siobhan felt a momentary twinge of guilt for it. But, Emmanuel knew what he was doing. He knew the risks, knew what would happen if it failed, did it of his own will.
And if things went south, he could retire and wipe away the tears of public embarrassment with a fat military pension.
"They'll have their results. Did they go for Fort Ilhabhaza?"
"Still top of the list, no issues there."
The Fort Ilhabhaza aeroforce base was already long in the tooth before the War, and there had been talks of shuttering it for years afterward. It also had the best launch corridor in Coalition territory (at least without building an entirely new facility).
"Good. What about the rockets?"
"The leftovers from the Adipasparan, Elmiric, and Qom Vael programs are yours - whatever's worth salvaging. If we tighten our belts, we might be able to build a single new one."
"Then we'll tighten our belts. I don't expect many, or any, of the old ones will be fit for a human flight in their current condition. We'll find uses for them. What of staff appointments?"
"At your discretion, with my approval and that of the Minister of Science. A preliminary list of candidates has already been put together for you."
Now that was good news. Siobhan had been certain that there would be some oversight from the other ministries, some outside forces pushing this way or that. Handlers for the sacrificial bull. This would put her back in familiar territory; right beside her hand-picked band of lads against the world.
You son of a bitch, Emmanuel, you played them right into my hands.
"I'll keep you abreast of the interviews."
Emmanuel pulled a thick manila folder from his desk.
"So I don't forget. Minutes, notes, amendments to the proposal, and your official papers. All signed and sealed."
Siobhan nodded, sipped another mouthful of brandy. In a few hours, perhaps, the storm will have moved on, and she might see the shattered moon, glowing milk-white rise above the horizon.
They talked for a while more, of things less important to the affairs of state.
Siobhan took the bus home. The moon did not show itself, and the streets were half-flooded. In her bag, she carried the envelope and the last remaining bottle of Lostaĉa and Sons. In her mind, she carried the seed of a plan now blooming.
Land a human on the Potsherd. And then...onward.