Pierce Cassidy, 49

Secretary of State

The traffic out of the Capitol is one-of-a-kind. Truly. You won't find it anywhere else in Westam, not even in Vegas, despite their larger population. Nearly everyone in the Wasatch region works for the government in some way, and every morning at 8 am, hundreds of thousands of us schlep into the city to earn a day's living. The traffic eases a little in the afternoon, since some start leaving as early as 3 pm while some might stay as late as 1 or 2 in the morning, but when I leave around 7, the afternoon crush hasn't quite eased up.

It's okay though, I'm used to it. At this point, I have a routine. Once I pull out of the garage and onto Warren Boulevard, it's a straight shot for several miles, at least until I cross the bridge, and the stop-and-go pattern will ensure I have some time to kill before I really have to pay attention to where I'm going. This time of year, I always end up leaving the office just as the sun sinks low enough to cast a blinding glare, yet I always forget to grab my sunglasses before I need them. Fumbling around in the center console, I find them eventually and clumsily slide them on, and then it's time for the radio. Apparently I left it on music this morning, which would normally be fine, but considering recent events, I really should be checking the news first.

"...update today, Aaron Windham, a spokesperson for the Intelligence Bureau, stated, 'At this time, we have no new information to report. As I stated in our earlier update, the cause of death has been identified and will be revealed to the public following the completion of an independent autopsy and full investigation.' To summarize, we don't know anything new today, and probably won't for a few weeks, so sit tight and stay informed. And now, traffic-"

At this point, I leave the news and switch to the classical station. I don't need the radio to tell me the gridlock won't be clearing up anytime soon, and nothing else is worth listening to. The classical music is familiar, predictable, and I find my thoughts drifting with the melody. But the news report sticks in my mind, and unsurprisingly, as I have every day since the initial report last week, I find myself unable to keep from obsessing over it.

Clyde Emerson, the former Governor of Wasatch (and thereby the Commander of the Westam Coalition), is dead. I don't know who killed him – no one does, although plenty of people are trying to find out – but I wouldn't be surprised if it was his own party. Frankly, I don't much care. Treason, assassination, a coup, it doesn't really matter. He's dead and gone, but his numerous mistakes and their devastating consequences remain. That's where my attention truly lies.

To say I'm being dealt a shit hand is the understatement of the century. None of the previous Commanders faced anything similar when entering office.

First came my own father, Adrian Cassidy. The 12th Governor of Wasatch, 1st Commander of the Westam Coalition, before it was even called the Coalition. A paradigm of leadership, a brilliant orator, he was the most skilled diplomat I ever knew. He had vision, the kind that's given to only a few men each generation.

Westam's previous leaders were varied: some great, some mediocre, a few disgraceful, but none like my father. Before him, Westam was insular, isolationist; there was never any interest in venturing east and finding the other half of the continent. The settlements had built an interdependent trade network wherein each settlement specialized in an industry and exported most of their products with the knowledge that imports from the other settlements would cover their remaining needs. Cascadia produced and exported lumber for the entirety of Westam; in exchange they received crops from Pocatello, animal products from Portón, and power from Vegas.

This system worked fine, but my father knew that if we could find the eastern survivors and trade with them as well, everyone could benefit. He knew what was possible, if only we were willing to work for it. It was he who pushed for all the settlements to subsidize renewable energy vehicles in Portón, eliminating our dependence on scavenged fossil fuels and finally making it possible to expand east of the Rockies. It was he who formed the Coalition, with Wasatch at the center, in the hopes that a central government could strengthen our ties and persuade newcomers that our methods really worked. It was he who knew that stability was not the same as prosperity.

He knew what we were, and he saw what we could become – and he was right.

When I was young, I could count the number of friends with cars on my fingers, but today, more than half of all Westam families own a car. Forty years ago, a child could only dream of having any career besides that assigned by his legislators, and now, Francisco's downtown has a budding arts sector while Vegas is beginning to educate teachers to send to other settlements and improve education across the continent. Pocatello used to be an entirely agricultural region, but with most of our food now grown in the eastern settlements, they've quickly become our largest resource for all things military (at least, they were, before the uprising).

All thanks to my father.

The piece I've been listening to is over, having played through the entire sonata, but it seems the cars have barely moved fifteen feet. Up next is an exquisite performance of Schubert's Ave Maria; this specific recording is new to me, but the piece is all too familiar. It's ironic, really, to be thinking of my father as this song comes up. I'll never again be able to hear this piece without picturing my father's casket. He died just two years into his fourth term, having dedicated 17 years of his life in service to the Coalition.

The official cause was a heart attack, but I've never believed it. He had power, he had presence, he was a force to be reckoned with. Anyone who tries to change the status quo is guaranteed to make enemies, and my father had them in droves. With his charisma, his charm, his skill with diplomacy, the success of his plans was all but guaranteed; the only thing that could have stopped it was his death. I would be a fool to believe that a man of his fortitude would drop dead of natural causes just as he sees the beginnings of real progress.

What else might he have done for Westam? How might Westam look today had he been given the time to realize his vision in full? The world will never know; when he died, we lost our best chance at a unified continent.

And for what? What good came out of his death? Certainly not his successor. After he passed, there was a frantic scramble to determine exactly who would take charge and the decision fell to his advisory committee, who chose Francis Hutchings, former security advisor and senior member of my father's staff.

Compared to his predecessor, Hutchings was a disgrace. It wasn't so much that he lacked my father's skill with diplomacy as it was that he lacked even the most basic ability to forge new alliances or uphold existing ones. The trust my father had painstakingly built between Wasatch and the eastern settlements disintegrated almost immediately under Hutchings' watch, and for the first time in over a century, inter-settlement trade saw major disruptions as multiple eastern settlements withdrew their support and willingness to rely on others for food and supplies.

At this point, any sane leader would likely backtrack and try to patch the relationships, but not Hutchings. Instead, Hutchings instituted the insanely popular but poorly implemented Resource Distribution Initiative, colloquially known as the tribute system.

Where my father saw an opportunity for cooperation and codependency, Hutchings practiced exploitation and subjugation. Under the tribute system, the eastern settlements (those not officially recognized as part of the Westam Coalition) are required to meet export quotas for agriculture, livestock, and other raw materials. These quotas are termed "tributes" to the Coalition, hence the nickname "tribute system." In exchange for their tribute, we promised not to blow them off the face of the earth, because apparently the human race hasn't started enough wars already.

Of course, the Initiative was immensely unpopular in the east, but in the short term it served Westam citizens well. With the east providing the basic necessities like food and fuel, Westam was freer than ever to explore literature, science, the arts, politics, and all other manner of culture and expression, making possible developments like the theatre scene in Francisco and the teacher exchange in Vegas. However, despite the Initiative's popularity, his ineptitude for national leadership meant Hutchings quickly fell out of favor and was replaced by our recently deceased Commander Emerson.

Hutchings may have been a disappointment, but Emerson was an abject failure. Now, to be fair, Emerson inherited Hutching's shitty patchwork of policies and virtually nonexistent diplomatic network, but at least the Coalition was still whole. The east was agitated and hostile, but not yet unreasonable. Many in the east believed that with Hutchings gone, Emerson would eliminate the Initiative and return to my father's approach. Perhaps this was naïve, considering the Initiative's approval rating of 71%, but those in the highest echelons of politics know this belief wasn't actually far from the truth; Emerson personally opposed the tribute system, but to say so was political suicide, so he ran on the platform and planned to dismantle it once elected. And after he won, he tried to do just that, but he had little success with supporters and opponents alike. Many easterners wouldn't trust a Commander who had run on the platform and refused to make a public commitment, and most legislators weren't interested in pissing off 71% of their constituents.

While Emerson scavenged and begged for political allies in the Assembly, the easterners grew tired of waiting for a savior and took their liberation upon themselves. Small bursts of anti-Westam activity meant supply lines were disrupted and railways destroyed, but initially these acts were few and far between, their effects barely felt in Westam. That all changed with the Dakota Burning, when treasonous easterners in Dakota set fire to over 200 acres of crops and murdered a large number of the Westam peacekeeping force attempting to put out the fire and salvage the harvest. Many of those responsible were caught and executed, but that event sparked a rebellion that Emerson was never quite able to stamp out.

The destruction of shipping lines and refusals to meet quotas continued, but with a new common trend: violence against any and all Westam citizens. Ambassadors were evacuated back to Westam after one of the Sioux ambassador's daughters was murdered in a terrorist attack. Peacekeeping forces tripled in size, most of the new recruits being young men from Pocatello and Yellowstone; in response, the number of deaths in the line of duty doubled.

Before, when it was just the easterners, we had a chance, but once the uprisings blocked supply lines and the shortages began, public favor turned against Emerson, and that's when everything really fell apart. What's the best way to unite people who have nothing in common? Give them a common enemy.

Emerson lost the war the moment he lost the Coalition's goodwill. It was only a matter of time before someone took him out, so I'll say again: I don't care who killed him. I care what comes next.

Technically, I'm getting ahead of myself. I suppose the one good thing to come from my father's death was an established process for replacing a dead Commander. Candidates have five days to submit their names to the list for consideration, after which the Assembly spends two days narrowing it down. The list is published and the remaining candidates have one week to compose and submit a rough 30-day plan: what would you do during your first 30 days in office? The Assembly reviews the facts for three days, and the singular winner is chosen by popular vote on the third evening.

The Assembly's list is published tonight – in fact, I'm expecting a call about the results shortly – and in theory, they could pick anyone. I'm just one of the many, many candidates vying for the position. Perhaps it's presumptuous to assume they'll choose me, to assume I'm next. I'm not naïve, I know the odds and I know there are obstacles and I know the deal's not sealed yet. But with my experience, my patriotism, my fidelity, my lineage, I don't think my expectations are unreasonable.

The Coalition is fractured and exists only in name. Even our staunchest allies are unable or unwilling to help us. We're fighting a war on 15 different fronts. And when I lead us to victory, I'll be leading and protecting the very people that killed my father. The Coalition that murdered him for the crime of serving his country, for daring to dream that we could someday be more than a handful of bombed out cities and destitute villages.

Despite all this, I have few doubts. This is still salvageable. There's still a way for us to win, if I become Commander. The Coalition needs a real leader. Not someone like Hutchings, qualified to lead a military but not a country, incapable of filling the shoes of his predecessor. Definitely not like Emerson, too occupied with protecting his political future to take the risks necessary for greatness. These men, these flawed failed men, won't be a tough act to follow. They had potential, but they weren't born for it; they were always destined to fall short. They weren't heavyweights.

I've long since tuned out the radio and I honestly forgot I was listening at all, but it's suddenly interrupted by an incoming call from my secretary, Talia. I quickly answer, and as always, she cuts straight to the point, with a crisp, "Mr. Secretary? The list?...It's out."

I know what it is, I know what she'll say, and yet, the suspense is suddenly unbearable. For the first time since I heard the report of Emerson's death, I find myself unsure. I want to hang up, tell her to wait, anything to avoid hearing the devastating news. What if...?

No. I know I'm next. It's inevitable; it's the service destiny demands of me. I shake off the apprehension and respond with a steady voice, "And?"

Talia pauses for a second; it seems an eternity. "You're on it."

I'm not surprised, though I do feel the tiniest sense of relief. Was there ever really any alternative? I listen as she reads out the other names, but none are serious competitors. There's still work to be done, but it's work I can do. I always knew I'd be here someday. Maybe it's happening a little sooner than I would have expected; after all, I'm not even 50, younger than my father and most of my competition. But why should I let that stop me? Most men, lesser men, would probably leave these problems to other, more qualified thinkers. Most men would say, "What do I owe my country? What do I owe to the people that killed my father?" But I am not most men. I was born for greatness; it was only a matter of time. I won't wait for an opportunity to present itself, I will grab power with both hands and hold on tight. After all, I'm a heavyweight.

A/N (Shocker – it's long):

Wow! I cannot believe we are finally here! I joined FFN and the SYOT community in May, and started planning this story in the very beginning of October, and now here we are, National SYOT Day, and I'm ready to begin. Many of you have already heard snippets of the ideas I have for this verse, but there's so much I haven't shared and I'm so excited to finally be able to talk about some of it!

This story is a prequel to my upcoming SYOT, the title and opening date of which is being kept secret until the release. I hope to use this story to provide a good foundation of the verse I've developed over the past two months. Please let me know, either in reviews or PMs, if something doesn't make sense or if there's something you think I can improve on. I'm very open to criticism and would always like to be learning and growing. If you are confused, know that I am holding some things for future chapters, so some of your questions might be answered (please still ask them, that way I know if something wasn't as clear as I wanted it to be). A link to my verse map will be uploaded to my profile shortly, I just have to figure out how/where to post it. Also, I've taken some liberties with world-building, and as such, you should know that this story is nowhere near canon-compliant.

Last important point: This isn't how I planned to start my first story. My lovely friend Remus (remus98) and I are both writing prequels to our SYOTs, and we decided to release all of our chapters together. We had a whole plan for a surprise release time and publishing while on voice call, but as many of you know, earlier today I was involved in a minor hit-and-run accident that ended up taking 5 hours. (Also, thank you so much to each and every one of you who checked up on me during that ordeal, I was honestly kind of overwhelmed by your kindness.) I was still determined to release it today, so it's late, and it's not as polished as I maybe would've liked, but it's here. Things may not have gone as planned, but I'm still so excited to sort-of collab with Remus as we lay the foundations for our verses. You should go check out his story, Echos Between Worlds, on his FFN profile (remus98). His story is also a verse-collab with the wonderful My-Mental-Mind, whose SYOT Borrowed Time also dropped today. Please go check them both out; it's going to be one hell of a ride!

Thanks to a few people:

General shoutout to my discord peeps - you already know how I feel about you. Discord is one of the best parts of my life. This community is one of the reasons I'm able to say that I'm starting my own verse today. Thank you so much for all the friends I have met and all the relationships I've built.

Ben (My-Mental-Mind) - until we talked about it, I still didn't have solid plans for when this would be happening. Thanks for helping my ADHD self actually set down deadlines, even if they changed, and for helping me choose the ~~secret project~~ title.

Goldie (goldie031) - you were the one to suggest I write a prequel, and it was a fantastic suggestion. Plus you are just an amazing friend and spoiler-buddy. Thank you so much!

Remus (remus98) - without your plans and offer to semi-collab/release chapters together, I don't know if I would've taken the leap to write a prequel. The idea of writing more than 2 or 3 chapters was daunting, but the prospect of getting to do something with you was too fun to pass up. It was so sweet of you to keep tabs on me and keep checking in during the accident today, I really appreciate your concern and assurances. Thanks for tolerating my bad Swedish!

Ali (sock-feet-and-stirring-sand) - we joke that we have no clue how we became friends, and I still don't know, but I am so glad that we did. You have introduced me to great music, I am still crying about Detroit, and there's nothing that makes me happier than seeing a DM from you. I'm so excited to be your beta for AGL! You truly light my life.

David (david12341) - omg David, what can I even say to express my love for you? I had read SYOTs before yours, and even submitted to a few, but you are the one who brought me into the community. It began with Ainsley and the infamous day of No Apologies (I still have whiplash), but it's become so much more than that. You got me on Discord, which brought me to Verses, and I definitely would not be here today if that hadn't happened. You went to so much extra effort just to make sure my first character intro was special and unforgettable. Your constant encouragement, your willingness to educate me on everything I still don't know, your input on my world-building and my writing, your support of everything I do, all of it has made me a better writer and a better person. I don't think I would have the confidence to begin this story without your friendship. I cannot thank you enough for how you have changed my life for the better over these past four months. Thank you so much for proving that you can meet your heroes.

And with that, we are off! I hope this chapter has convinced you to stick around for a little while and learn more about my plans! Please leave a review, if you feel so inclined! Love you all,