BY J.B. TONER
I thank Thee, O Lord, that I am not like this tax collector— Luke 18:11
A dark day on Kenoma IV: consummate redundancy. Two suns abided there, enough to keep the atmosphere alight; but slow-migrating clouds of asteroids had kept the planet dim for nineteen million years. In fifteen million more, the dawn would rise.
Rosemarie Hildegard stepped calmly through the sliding glastic doors. Like the soldiers and the secretaries, she had orange skin and dark thick hair, the product of Primera’s carotene-thick biosphere. And no one was thicker and oranger than Magnifico Javier, Governor of Kenoma.
“Hildegard!” he shouted as she entered. “The Southern Quarter’s tax payments are down by nine percent. Do they not fear us? Do they not dread The Peace’s military might?”
“Do you want a second Internecine War? Is that it?”
“I didn’t really want the first one, sir, but I wasn’t consulted in the matter.”
“Because that’s what we’ll have if these damned greys catch a whiff of weakness from us now. We need revenue, Hildegard, revenue! Above all things, the pomp must be maintained. Put out more flags!”
Javier was a small man behind a gigantic desk. He had some manner of family connection which Rose hadn’t yet bothered to suss out, and it kept him in a chair of leather built on bones. As he spoke, he banged his tiny fist on the desk like a man used to having people pretend to be afraid of him. She smiled thinly and pretended to pretend.
“Sir, I’m doing what I can within the law. But just to clarify, it’s your contention that the greys are kept in line by the appearance of force?”
“Well of course, you buffoon, they’re barbarians. They can hardly comprehend imperial economics and intergalactic troop movements, can they? As long as we commit our funding to keeping the sabers keen for the annual parade, they won’t dare challenge us again.”
Her thin smile thinned. “I can’t quite guarantee a rise in revenue. But I give you my word, sir, the greys won’t challenge us this year.”
“You’d better be right, Hildegard.” He turned his back, muttering audibly, “These damnable imbecile tax collectors.”
She paced back through the doors and rode the elevator down. As she stepped out into the gloom-lit, ghost-lit street, the pupilluminators in her eyeballs came online. The install was a 90-second surgery that anybody’s wristpiece could perform; but when she had first come here, she’d waited over a month in hopes that her vision would naturally adjust. Ah, bright-eyed youth.
She returned to her office to find that Gor awaited her. A native of the benighted Kenoma system, he had grey skin and white hair, and huge glaring eyes. “Rosemarie Hildegard!” he thundered. “You dare increase the tax upon the Southern Quarter!”
She exhaled through her nose. “I carry out the mandates of The Peace, Lord Gor. I beg you to recall your vows of fealty.”
“Fealty commensurate with respect and stewardship, Rosemarie Hildegard. The People of the Dark are no pawns of the oranges to be bilked!”
“Nope,” she said, and caught herself, “no indeed, my lord. But you and I both know your faithful flock is not yet strong enough to push us.”
He smiled a crooked smile. “We are no dullards, my lady. We know your Magnifico Javier spends his money not on power but on trappings, epaulets over bullets, hoping to intimidate where a warrior would seek to fortify.”
“That may be. But you grow old, and beardless fighters sniff about your seat. If you move too boldly, we’ll have no choice but to summon legions from the Inner Galaxies. Javier and I will lose our jobs, but you’ll be slit from crown to crotch and the next generation will whet their daggers on your headstone.”
“We cannot pay these higher rates.”
“You can at least meet last year’s rates, Gor. What inducement can I offer?”
“. . . These younger ones of whom you speak. They vex my rule.”
“Consider them removed.”
“Then consider your quotas met.” He turned on his heel and strode out, growling, “Honorless poltroon tax takers.”
An afternoon of paperwork. Then down the lift to catch a hovercab, and through the nightlike neighborhoods to Dill’s. Some bars still catered only to orange folk or grey; but after twenty years’ occupation, enough grorange children ran loose that official segregation was perfunctory at best. Dill’s tavern was a colorblind establishment, and there Rose went for her final meeting of the day.
“Well you’re nipple-deep in shit, aren’t you, Rosemarie?”
Rose’s almost-friend was a tall grey woman with dark thick hair, the daughter of a tough indigenous barmaid and a good-hearted soldier of The Peace. She ordered a bourbon and slid into the booth across from Rose. “I hear the rates are up in the South. If Javier doesn’t start the fighting, Gor will.”
“Not quite yet. I need a favor.”
“Oh, this should be good.”
Casually, Rose pushed a napkin across the table. Several names were scrawled on it, barely legible. “These guys have to go away. Permanently.”
Nala’s eyebrows went up. “That’s a bit more than a favor, Rosemarie.”
“You want the cops off your organization’s back? The longer Javier stays in office, the weaker our forces here will get. You help Gor, it helps our idiot Governor, and in the long run, that helps you.”
“Gods of the Dark, woman, whose side are you on?”
“The Revenue Service.” She raised her glass and smiled. “Thanks for your contribution.”