"In a real sense, Virgon ceased to be an empire the moment that it granted home-rule to Picon. Such a moment of crisis should have broken loose political reform, as it had a century sooner on Canceron. But although the Claire Palace and its court had lost their grasp on other worlds, they retained an iron grip on Virgon itself. Before reform came, Virgon would have to endure four centuries of declining prestige and political influence; it would have to endure the indignity of being culturally and economically eclipsed by its former vassals and rival, and above all by Caprica; it would have to lose its last beachheads in Helios Beta and see its control of Erebos and the moons of Zeus erode. It would have to endure first stasis, then depression, and, ultimately, rot. In a complex, densely-reticulated system, moments when every cog and sinew align to allow for sudden movement are rare and fleeting. Only with the Pican secession and the Ricardian succession would the dam break." –From Bentinck's Fall and Subsequent Decline of the Virgan Empire (1906).
A Racetrack Chronicles one-shot
Simon J. Dodd
Near the coast of Kearvaig, Virgon.
127 years before the Fall.
"Control, SAR-3; we have them in—"
"Watch the crosscurrent, Rick!" Cady yelled to be heard over the wind.
"I'm on it, I've got—whoa!" The coast-guard helicopter leapt twenty feet from the updraft, its computer struggling to keep the spotlights targeted on a fishing-boat foundering below.
"Fra—!" Cady lost her grip and pitched forward through the hatch, her harness yanking her back, breathless.
"I've got it, I've got it..." Rick flipped off the master-alarm's hooted warning that they had been pushed out of trajectory, swearing under his breath; "tell me something I don't know."
"Beautiful night for a walk," Cady shouted with a grin, unwinding the winch and dropping its line toward the pitching sea.
He grimaced and worked them closer; Cady reeled in the line and it came back up with two of the fishermen clinging to it for dear life. They landed in the cabin, coughing up water.
"I don't see the last one… Wait, I've got him. Frak, he's face-down in the water." She swore a string of curses that would make a merchant marine sailor blush. "Paint his vest as the target for the lamps and work us forward ten meters, down another ten!"
"In these conditions, that's awful close to the hard-deck!"
"Well, then don't frak it up!"
"There's a new motto for the family crest!" Even over the wind, he heard a horribly-familiar sound and risked a glance backward; "you—did you just untether?!"
"If he can't grab the collar," she hooked her harness to it, "I'll just have to grab him, the inconsiderate bastard. Like I said—" she shook the line; "beautiful night for a walk!"
"Overcast, chance of drowning, huh?"
"Just be ready to pull me back up when I say!" She swan-dived out of the hatch, and the shortcoming of "when I say" became instantly apparent as the water killed her com.
Manual judgment it is, then; even with the lamps at maximum, it was hard to make out what was happening, but as soon as it looked like the yellow fluorescent blob had wrapped around the orange fluorescent blob, he increased power to the engine, gently at first, then faster, gaining altitude with Cady and the third fisherman trailing behind on the tether. He toggled the winch-retract once they had enough height that the gusts no longer threatened to steal control from him, and after a few more moments, Cady was back in the cabin with the unconscious man and had slammed the hatch behind her.
"Thanks for the ride, mister!" she grinned, reviving the man. "Go team."
"Go team rescue. You're crazy." Rick hauled them onto a course for home. "Let's never do that again."
"Hey, you don't get to boss me around." She flopped down next to him, buckled in, and shot him a sideways glance. "Not yet."
The Claire Palace, Molesham, Virgon.
108 years before the Fall.
The vote in Picon's Assembly-General was not unexpected, but someone had to break the news to Stephen XVI, the Emperor of Virgon. The last emperor, it was to turn out. He was barely into his sixties, but a heart defect and a recent fight with lung cancer had left him frail, and even at his peak he hadn't dealt well with bad news. The consensus at court was that one of his children should do it, and Richard, the heir-apparent, was both on-hand and willing.
"Well?" Stephen's tone was brusque even before Richard had taken his hands from the doorhandles.
"The vote is in. They're breaking ties with us."
"Yes. I've heard." He raised his voice for the benefit of any courtiers who might be listening in: "They all think we hear nothing except what they tell us! But we do hear things!" He receded to a mutter. "I hear everything."
Richard clasped his hands behind his back and shifted his balance. He had his own reasons for going along with the court's invitation to be yelled at. "And how is that sitting with you?"
Stephen shrugged, his face somewhere between angry and weary. "What will they do? Fabricate a king of their own? A queen? Or"—he couldn't keep the distaste out of his voice—"it's to be a republic, I suppose?"
"I don't know. There's to be another vote on that. The latter, I suspect."
"Fools. They don't know what they're throwing away." A bitter snort. "Literally don't even know what they're throwing it away for."
Richard was grateful that his father at least wasn't beating the war-drums; had he tried, they would have crumbled. Virgon's glory-days were long past. "It has, to be fair, been a long time since the crown was at all interventionist in Pican politics. Day-to-day—"
"The point of monarchy isn't to intervene, it's to stabilize. We're a keel. We keep things stable, and even."
The gall of that claim from a man who autocratically and (more than perhaps any emperor in a century) immediately ruled five billion people! But Richard had learned to choose his battles. Today, he had a slightly different one in mind. He cleared his throat; "stability, though, can ossify into rigidity. Father, this is—
"This again?! Richard! We have talked about this, over and again—"
"—it's an opportunity. It's the moment to make changes at home. We have to do it, and this is an ideal pretext."
"Hardly. This is precisely the moment to stand firm, young one."
Young one; Richard was 40 and bridled at the condescension. "To change course under pressure from protest or insurrection… I understand your point. But we can't ignore events! Or, worse yet, dig in our heels, determining that we will adhere to the status quo at all costs, lest we seem to be retreating under fire. I understand the optics. But—"
"To do as you propose, especially now—" Stephen waved a hand dismissively. "It'll seem like capitulation. We would put blood in the water. Show the twelve worlds we can be forced to surrender under political pressure. Constancy! We have promised to be steadfast! If ever there is a moment to change, this is very far from it. Doing so would—at best, it would subvert if not invite destruction of the emperor's authority."
"'The emperor'..." Richard shook his head. "Face facts, father! We haven't been an empire in centuries, and if we retained the facade of one yesterday, today it's gone. Every other monarchy in the colonies has fallen. Every one. We can change; we have to change, or we'll die."
"I swore an oath!" It was the closest to a yell that Stephen could manage with one lung. "The same oath you will swear in good time! We are to preserve the heritage bequeathed to us, not dally with your half-baked, crypto-schoolbook theorizing!"
Richard bit his lip and kept his voice even. "Sometimes preservation requires change."
"Well, when you're emperor, when I've gone to the gods, try it," Stephen spat, still red-faced and breathless. "Let me know how that works out for you."
Richard looked at the floor, swallowed, and gave way. He chuckled to himself quietly and smiled. There would be another chance. Another time. Another day to try changing his mind.
There would not, however, be many more days. By the end of the month, Stephen XVI would suffer a stroke, and scant weeks after that, he died in his sleep, having nodded off as his youngest daughter pushed his wheelchair through the palace gardens under a gorgeous summer sunset.
Richard absent-mindedly pulled a candy from his desk drawer and flicked it into his mouth; it was his only vice, he would tell anyone who would listen. A cigarette smoldered in an ash-tray on the desk; that, too, was his only vice, he would tell anyone who would listen.
Technically, he had been His Royal Highness Prince Richard Granish-Furnival-Mercia, 42nd Archduke of Hibernia, seventeenth Earl of Hadrian, Marquess-in-Abeyance of Pallas, Margrave of the Jovian Possessions, and Heir to the Thæic Throne. In this brief interregnum, a yet-more convoluted titled had descended upon him. He missed the days when he had been simply Lieutenant Rick Granish of His Majesty's Imperial Virgan Coastguard; people spoke plainly to you in the military. Honestly. Directly. In a few days, he would be crowned Richard IX, and having ascended to the throne, he feared that no one would ever be direct with him again. The throne of Virgon. Its name came from an ancient Sæsoneg word for thatch, and the literal throne itself was literally made of thatching in a preposterous affectation of feigned modesty. It had already been ancient a thousand years ago when his predecessors had declared Virgon an empire. At its peak, that empire had ruled not only Virgon itself and its moon Hibernia, but Picon, Pallas, the Erebos belt, and the moons of Zeus, and it had briefly "taken wardship" of (ruled) Tauron and its moon Minos. That had been a mistake. After less than a century, in 1,150 A.E., guerilla fighters had forced Virgon's flag from Tauron, only for Leonis to swoop in. After a century-long cold(ish) war, Leonis, too, would be driven off of Tauron, at the cost of their monarchy, which fell in the first of several convulsive revolutions that began in 1,274. Centuries of inward focus would follow. Not that Virgon long profited from its rival's collapse; at once exhausted and decadent, a slow decline had set in. Picon would regain home-rule in 1,453, albeit subject to the Virgan crown and aristocracy. Now they had fled the coop, and, frankly, who could blame them?
His present office was in the part of the palace that courtiers called, without a whit of irony, the "new" section, even though it was completed two centuries before the oldest of them had been born. Just as his titles and styles had changed the instant that Stephen XVI had died, so also the physical office proper to him; the court had a proper procedure and tradition for everything from interregna down to unclogging the toilet. He marveled that the Claire Palace must be the only place in the twelve worlds more suffocatingly-airless than the vast vacuum of space between them.
There was a tap on the door. "Your eminence?"
Eminence. Such was his current moment; no longer 'your highness,' but not yet 'your majesty.'
"Eminence, the young lady you requested is here."
"Thankyou," he acknowledged.
Cady was ushered in and there was an awkward silence. It had been years, and for a few moments they stared at one another, searching for the proper thing to say. Eventually, he cleared his throat and said "thank you for coming."
"I—well. It's my pleasure, but this is the point at which you can, ehm… Can give me orders, I suppose. Sire."
"Hmm. I'm no one's sire yet. Just—" He clicked his tongue. "You used to call me Rick."
"That was different. It was a different time."
"Does it have to be?" He sighed heavily and pointed to a set of doors leading out to the gardens. "It's good to see you." He held a finger to his lips, and she frowned, puzzled; "it's a lovely day outside. Perhaps we can we walk in the gardens?"
"I'm sorry about your father," she offered on the way out.
"Thankyou. You're well, I trust?"
"I am, yes, thankyou. Term just finished, so the faculty's all just kind of decompressing and glad to be done marking tests. So it's a good time." She froze. "Gods, I'm sorry; that was an awful thing to say. Sorry. Not a good time at all. I mean—"
"You're fine. I've missed that. People who just say what they're thinking. He wasn't a young man."
"Even so. I'm sure you miss him."
They had walked across the southeast parterre and were strolling toward the reflecting pond. 'Lovely' was overstating the day, but not by much; 'impressive' would have understated Cady's impression of the place. Fifty miles upriver of Boskirk, the royal estate sprawled over some 800 acres, bounded by ponds and avenues that radiated out from the palace's southeast face like spokes, cutting the park into four roughly triangular sections of a larger rough triangle with the palace at its apex. At the far end of the largest pond, which ran from the parterre down the larger triangle's median, there was some kind of statuary, but even at its heroic scale, she couldn't make out the figures from a half-mile away.
"The statue?" He caught her eyeline. "'Patron and Founders.' Hestia handing the crown to Ælfred Corrinus as David I watches. After the, ehm, old line went extinct and the dynasties changed, my ancestors were keen to show they belonged on the throne. So, ah... Art, among other things. Lots of it."
"Interesting to put it so far away, then."
"Well, it used to be in the main courtyard. Mary III redesigned the grounds; she had something of an eye for that sort of thing, supposedly. Or a passion, anyway. She didn't like statuary, so it was moved."
"I see." Her voice hardened slightly. "What are we doing here, Rick?"
"Inside, I'm worried the walls have ears."
"No, I mean—I'm sorry, I misspoke. What am I doing here?"
He smiled. "Do you know the difference between a palace and a prison?"
"More cake, fewer bars?"
"Hmn. In a prison, there's no confusion as to who is the warden and who is the inmate." He sighed. "My late father was determined that business must keep running as it always has. The court certainly feels that way. I doubt that it can. I want to do something about it, but there are certain… Challenges."
"Ehm… Alright, I'll play along. So you'd want to do… What?"
"Well, I think that a good first step would be to be crowned simply as King of Virgon. Enough of this sterile pretense that we are still what we once were. And then lay out steps toward real reform. Bolster the civil organs—transfer day-to-day power to elected officials. It has to be a constitutional monarchy or it'll end in a republic. You've studied this, you've taught this, you know the theory."
"Rick, I'm a teacher. Sometimes I write books. That's all. You're talking about—that's really above my pay-grade."
"Is it? I've read your books. And besides, you're not blind. I'm sure you read the papers. If the throne doesn't bend, it will break. Just like it did on Leonis. On Gemenon. On Scorpia. They're all gone; monarchy is fading into history. My task…" He stopped, and chided himself; you're lecturing. Stop with the formal tone and just say what's on your mind. "Cady, I'm here now, in this moment, and it can't be coincidence. I think the gods have a plan. I feel I'm supposed to preserve the best parts of the monarchy. The worthwhile bits. For the future, I mean. And maybe I'm stupid, but I only see one way to do that, and that's to separate the throne from the political fray. I want to convene a parliament, and I want them to meet for regular sessions; maybe even continuously. I can name my Prime Minister from that parliament and let him—ehm, or her—pursue policy more freely, rather than as a vassal to myself. The government can work in my name without involving me in every detail. You see? Not drastic changes, just small changes with large effects."
She was staring at him dubiously. "That's all very nice, but I doubt your court's going to think so. You are, well, playing with fire."
He smiled internally; sometimes the formal tone had its uses, and he summoned all the pomp and circumstance that he could muster. "The fire is already burning. We must tamp it down."
"'We'?" She frowned at him. "The royal 'we,' or—you still haven't answered my question. I mean, not that I don't appreciate getting to hang out with an old friend in his admittedly-modest home."
He chuckled and glanced back toward the palace. "Yeah. It's a bit much, isn't it?"
"Just a bit."
"I need… Counsel. And a confidant. Someone I can trust who's outside of all this"—he waved a hand in the air in the direction of the palace. "Giving power to Boskirk drains it from this place. And most people maybe think that the person who sits on the throne is the powerful one, maybe even you think so, but I've seen first-hand how that really works. It means draining power from the court. They won't cede it without a fight. I need someone I can lean on, someone to be my backbone, someone who can give me… Perspective."
"Cady… I don't have many friends. That goes with the territory. And what's about to happen? After the coronation, the court's going to become my whole life, my whole world. I'll never escape. And I'm anxious; there's a lot at stake and maybe not much time. A downturn in the economy, a political crisis, just a shift in public mood. The throne's more rickety and fragile by the year. You were fearless, back in the day. I need that. I trust you and I think you know what you're talking about; like I said, I read your books. And you'll just come out and say things. I think you can keep me honest."
"So you're, what, you're offering me a job? Counselor or something?"
"Actually, I was thinking queen-consort."
She guffawed. "Good one."
He let her laugh for a few moments. "I'm serious. It's perfect; it would give you unlimited access."
"You're—Rick, unless I'm forgetting something, you prefer men."
"And if this were Caprica or any of nine other colonies, that would be fine. If I were just some shopkeep or talk-show host, no one would care, not really. But I'm to be king. Emperor if I can't avoid it. And Virgon isn't ready for that."
"You shouldn't have to tear off part of who you are. That's insane."
"The crown comes at a personal cost." He shrugged; the formal tone again: "I will do what is necessary for my people."
She scoffed and thought for a moment. "So, this isn't actually the craziest marriage proposal I've ever had, funny story, but… No. Look, I'm not going to do that. You're an idiot. And besides, you don't need me for that."
He looked crestfallen. "I know, but I had thought—"
"Rick—Sire. Look, I'll certainly help you."
"I mean, I'm not going to marry you. Idiot. I really hope your other ideas are better than that one. But I'll help. I appreciate what you're trying to do."
He looked back toward the palace. "Alright. Counselor, then."
"Alright. Go team." She relaxed a little, and giggled at the absurdity of the moment, glancing around the splendor of the gardens and the ancient palace. A few hours ago, her life had been the routine, predictable rhythm of the university year; suddenly, in a few minutes under the midday sun of late summer, her life had changed, slipping into a new phase, and she had no idea what it held. "Go team Virgon."
He snorted. "It was a lot simpler when we were younger, wasn't it?"
"Why'd you join the coastguard, Rick? I know it's expected that the heir will serve, but you could have served in any branch. Could have flown planes, could have ridden ships. Could have fired really big guns. Could have had a lot more fun."
"I don't know, really. I suppose I felt like I was helping people. Like I was making a difference. I wanted to do that."
"Hmn. That," she patted his arm, "that seems like a good instinct for a king to have."
Dedicated to Richard Hatch
Requiescat in pace