The sound of his footsteps echoed hollowly off the gray granite walls of the splendiferous palace and raced fleetly ahead of his shadow as he walked in determined silence. Magnificently attired potentates and prime ministers eyed him jealously from oversized portraits that lined the hallways. Their time had faded, and Nadeil Marueck now held the high office of Prime Minister on Arrosa. He had steadily climbed, some would say clawed, his way up during decades of government service, and he now stood at the pinnacle of political accomplishment on his home world. The planet still supported a royal family, but the King and Queen functioned merely as figureheads to an adoring populace. Marueck held the real strings of power, and he held them tightly, lest someone as ambitious as he try to wrest control from his vise-like grip.
As he entered the large outer office with his usual arrogant gait, the people hoping for an audience rose quickly from their seats. Without so much as a glance in their direction, he crossed the room and disappeared into his large and lavishly appointed inner office. Stopping briefly to prepare a steaming cup of Gyxorna from a beverage synthesizer, he continued on to his desk and sat down in the ostentatious chair that was just one more symbol of his supreme power. The seat back rose at least two feet above his head, strongly but silently proclaiming its occupant to be a person of unparalleled importance. It’s not that the sixty-three-year-old ruler was short, because at four-foot five-inches he was actually taller than ninety-seven percent of a planetary population where the average height for males was three-foot one-inch. Arrosian women averaged three-foot five-inches. Marueck just felt that the stately chair made him seem even taller and more imposing to the people that were privileged enough to visit his office.
Marueck prepared his mind for the day ahead while he sipped at his Gyxorna and listened attentively to his computer as it read off his appointments. Suddenly he yelled at the computer to stop, put his cup down so quickly and forcefully that the beverage splashed over onto his desk, and jumped to his feet.
“Mirva,” he said in a loud and angry voice as he strode purposefully into the outer office to confront his secretary. “I told you that I didn’t want to see that idiot Tiksetti under any circumstances. Why is he listed on my appointments schedule?”
“I’m sorry, Prime Minister, but the King made the appointment for Professor Tiksetti. I couldn’t very well say no to His Majesty.”
“You can and will when I’ve given you instructions contrary to one of his eccentric whims. Now contact Tiksetti immediately and inform him that the appointment has been cancelled.”
“Yes sir. Right away, Prime Minister.”
As she stretched out a hand towards the com unit on her desk, the entire room suddenly shook violently! Plaster dust fell thickly from newly opened cracks in the ceiling and filled the office with a dense, choking, white cloud that all but obscured visibility in the room while decorative objects fell from the walls and crashed to the floor. People in the outer office, having again jumped to their feet in the presence of the Prime Minister, went stumbling into one another before falling. Marueck, himself thrown to the floor, got up and staggered to the doorway leading to his inner office. Pushing open the door, he saw that his magnificent chair had been pushed into his massive desk with sufficient force to smash the chair to kindling, and the room was in total disarray. The heavy desk was now a dozen feet closer to the door than it had been just minutes earlier, and the wall immediately behind his desk was completely gone. Large chunks of masonry, wood, and plaster covered the floor and everything else in the room. A slight breeze, flowing in through a floor-to-ceiling hole, kept loose papers swirling about the office. All color drained from his face as he stared at the carnage. If he hadn’t lost his temper and hurriedly rushed to the outer office, he’d have been killed for sure.
Several bodyguards brandishing laser weapons burst into the outer office from the corridor and ran to the Prime Minister, identifying the choking, plaster-dust covered ghost-like figure solely by his height. Two of them grabbed his arms and pulled him away from his position by the inner office door. Fearing there might be additional danger, one guard cleared the way ahead as the others half-pushed and half-dragged Marueck down to a secure room in a bunker deep beneath the palace. A number of other ministers and deputies were likewise collected and brought down to the War Situation Room in the minutes following the explosion.
“What’s happened?” Marueck demanded of the young officer in charge of securing the room as he shook his head to dislodge some of the plaster dust that caked his hair and made him seem older than his years by turning the brown to white.
“We don’t exactly know yet, Prime Minister. We know that there was a large explosion outside the building in the vicinity of your office, but we don’t know what exploded. It could have been a missile, a mortar round, or a transport bomb. The matter is being investigated. Colonel Dejemnik immediately ordered that you and the other ministers in the palace be brought here until we can determine if there’s any additional threat.”
Marueck paced the underground room restlessly until word came that there didn’t appear to be any additional danger, then walked from the room with a trail of ministers behind him. The lift only accommodated six at a time, leaving room for just two ministers in addition to Marueck and his three main bodyguards for the first trip. Pulling his Minister of State Security and the Minister of Intelligence into the car, he nodded to a bodyguard to close the door.
“Listen to me, both of you!” he said as the lift began to rise from the underground cavern. “I want to know who is responsible for this within one hour! I’ll expect you to report to me by then! Understand?”
Both men nodded vigorously. You didn’t say no to Prime Minister Marueck when he was in this kind of mood, regardless of how absurd his command. As the lift stopped spasmodically at the main floor of the palace, Marueck stepped out, followed by his three guards. Walking directly to his offices, and finding only his secretary in the outer office, he said, “Cancel all my regular appointments for the rest of the day.”
“Yes sir. I reached Professor Tiksetti and told him that his appointment has been canceled. He said that he had just heard about the explosion on the news, and asked when he might reschedule. I told him that I would call when you found time to see him.”
“Good. Of course I don’t expect to ever find the time.”
The door to his inner office suddenly opened and several maintenance workers came out pulling ‘oh-gee’ dump carts loaded with pieces of broken building materials. Several others were still sweeping up, and filling more carts. Marueck walked into the office and watched as they cleaned. Other maintenance workers arrived and began covering the hole with temporary, prefabricated panels. Marueck, still covered in white, plaster dust, quickly tired of watching the banal activity and walked to his quarters in the palace to take another shower and change into clean clothes.
When Marueck returned to his office an hour later, the maintenance people were just finishing up and his Security and Intelligence ministers were waiting nervously to give their reports. He motioned to them to follow him into his office and take seats in his informal conference area. He paced the floor in silence until the last of the maintenance people had gone, and the door to the outer office was closed.
“Well, Minister Lisaul?” he said, looking at the Minister of State Security.
“Excellency, the blast was caused by a ground transport filled with explosives. The explosion left a crater over two meters deep. The transport had been painted to look like one of our own grounds maintenance vehicles. We found the real transport parked at the recycling plant, and the driver’s body was discovered beneath a tarp in the rear of the vehicle. He’d been killed several hours earlier. Whoever took his place was an exact duplicate. He even knew the names of the guards on duty at the gate and joked with them before driving to a place opposite your office. He must have known that you were in the building and normally at your desk at that hour. It appears that he was able to walk off the grounds in all the confusion. That’s all we’ve been able to learn so far. My people are continuing to follow up leads.”
Marueck nodded and looked at the other man. “Anything to add, Minister Deruuw?”
“My people are tracking down all known and suspected dissidents. No one has claimed credit for the attack yet, but as soon as they do, we’ll move in and arrest everyone associated with that group. We’ll find out who perpetrated this attack, but it will take some time. In the meantime, security has been doubled and everyone entering the grounds must now submit to the retinal test that we’ve only required of people entering the palace.”
“A little late for beefing up security.”
“We’ve never had an attack on the palace grounds before, and the ID badge was always adequate. I apologize and offer my resignation, Excellency.”
“Stop resigning all the time, Deruuw! I’ll tell you when to submit your resignation! Right now all I want is the head of the individual or individuals behind this attack on my person. But make sure that we’ve drained every last bit of useful knowledge from the head before separating it from the body. Understand?”
Both men nodded and replied, “Yes, Excellency.”