Ellie dragged her amused eyes away from where Poppy was dipping her finger into the chalice, then sticking it in her mouth.
"No. Spivey is the excuse. It's all about political manoeuvring, with some legal wrangling thrown in." Ellie took a drink from her beer, wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and continued.
"Our war and disease ravaged little planet is apparently in an area of space that is subject to a thousand-year treaty between the Machiavellian, slave-holding,
expansionist 'Empire' and the militaristic, might-makes-right and equally expansionist corporatocracy that is the 'Federation'.
That treaty is coming to an end very soon and having a citizen of one of the disputed planets in your faction gives you some kind of a legal edge in whatever court system decides
these things out there in space."
Bodil's imagination turned Ellie's words into vivid scenes from a movie space opera. Empire, Federation, treaties.
Her mind conjured up impossible battle-fleets in space with Earth being the spoils of victory.
Then reality crashed in as the scene suggested by Ellie's connection of the Empire to slaves loomed centre stage.
Ellie went back to playing with her beer glass.
"These people. These..." Bodil used both arms outspread to take in the whole vista of the mountain top complex. "Aliens. They have slaves?!"
Ellie looked up into the astounded face of the woman sitting opposite her.
Bodil stared back. Not for the first time she wanted to reach across and snatch those sunglasses away and actually see the person behind them, hiding behind them. But then, Gregor.
A cold chill grew from the inside and surfaced on Bodil's skin as goose-bumps. She swallowed so that she could speak.
Ellie nodded just once.
"And her parents. And probably dozens more on that ship. Imperial society is built on a form of indentured servitude."
"But, Poppy seemed happy. And you said her father is like you, your opposite number. I'm assuming you mean as in, Head of Security."
"That's right. Kratsix is Admiral Backstrom's security chief, personal bodyguard and second in command.
Deafixha, Kratsix's mate and Ebaxjapopa's mother is his financial advisor and court liaison officer. And yes, Poppy is very happy. Why wouldn't she be?"
"By the Mo... She's a slave!"
"But not the kind of slave you're thinking of Professor. Poppy and her parents remain indentured only until the terms of the parents' indenture are fulfilled.
In the meantime, they have status, which is very important in Imperial society, and they have business interests.
They also have a very comfortable lifestyle, and Poppy is getting an education the like of which her parents would be unlikely to be able to afford for years to come.
And all of this is paid for by the one they are indentured to."
Bodil's eyes narrowed.
"That's just bullshit, Ellie."
"Oh, absolutely, Professor. But a choice had to be made and our leaders chose the Empire over the Federation."
"And do you think they were right?"
Ellie drained her glass and immediately signalled for another.
"Given the other option, yes, I do."
"What other option?"
"Well, The Federation people called it a marvellous opportunity for our little world to become a significant player in the competitive field of agro-pharmaceutical production.
What that turns out to mean is that, for as far as the eye can see, what isn't field is factory. They also promised 'good deals' for those in government to make the 'right choices'."
Ellie's beer arrived, and so did another whiskey for Bodil. Her two whiskies became one and the conversation continued.
"Well, surely that's better than condoning slavery."
The president's speechifying came to an end and, with rising applause from the crowds,
Alicia Troy rose from her chair and began to descend the steps towards where her soon to be husband waited on his side of the little podium. Ellie watched while still talking conversationally.
Bodil listened while adjusting the settings on her binoculars for a better view.
"Of course it is."
"So what do you want to be then Professor Hill? A farmer or a factory worker?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you can't be an archaeologist. All your archaeology will either be under some field or under a chemical plant so they won't let you dig because that will affect the profit margin.
There's no money to be made from digging up broken pots."
The two women watched Alicia step up onto the little stage. As she did so, the dignitaries seated behind the admiral rose to their feet.
"That sounds like propaganda from your Empire friends."
Poppy stepped forward with her chalice to stand between the couple so that all three now stood facing the podium.
"Not my Empire, Professor. Not my friends, well, except for Poppy and her family. And Backstrom is actually quite a nice guy when he's not being all admirally.
But anyway, it's not anyone's propaganda. It is the Federation's own words as stated in their proposal."
Admiral Backstrom and Alicia joined hands across the podium, and the admiral began what sounded like, and probably was, a well-rehearsed and long-winded proposal of his own.
The crowd fell silent and listened respectfully. Ellie and Bodil didn't.
"In their proposal, the Federation offers that all inhabitants, and that includes infants over seven, by the way,
will be given full-time employment in one of the many interesting fields of agriculture or pharmaceuticals.
If they don't fancy that then they get to work in the essential service industries required by these enterprises. Full employment for all, by law" Ellie paused.
"Then they go on to mention the actual terms of the employment contracts.
Believe me, Professor, the indentured servitude used in the Empire beats what the Federation corporate bosses offered us hands down."
Backstrom droned on. Alicia started to look bored. Poppy definitely looked bored. The dignitaries stood stoically, trying not to look bored.
"So what was the Federation offering in return?"
"Nothing! That was it. In their view, they were offering us a good deal, a golden opportunity!"
"So what was the deal with the Empire?"
Admiral Backstrom finally came to the end of offering his worldly blah blah blah to Alicia if only she would lower herself to be his life partner, his soulmate his blah blah blah.
Everyone on the little stage perked up for a moment, but then Alicia started her response, and there was a collective slumping of shoulders.
However, a few rehearsed lines into the speech, Ellie and Bodil, and probably the assembled crowds and all the buzzing cameras noticed Poppy start to fidget.
Ellie allowed herself the smallest of fist-pumps.
"Yes! That's my girl." She coughed. "Sorry what? The Empire? With the Empire, it's all politics and manoeuvring for the throne. It's a bit of a game really, but deadly serious.
" Ellie watched Poppy's strange gyrations with a growing smile on her lips. "Now then, our little admiral out there does his admiraling for a certain Senator Patreus.
This Senator Patreus really really REALLY wants to be the next Emperor.
If he can offer something to the voting families to get them on his side, he will have a significant advantage over the other wannabe Emperors and Empresses. Soooooo..."
Bodil took up the line.
"So he offers them eternal life."
"Yup. Well, their descendants anyway."
On the platform Poppy continued to fidget. Backstrom ignored it, maybe he'd have a quiet word with Kratsix later.
Alicia, though, watched the little cat girl closely for a few moments while expertly managing to not miss a beat in her speech.
Then she looked up and straight towards where Ellie and Bodil were watching.
From the look on Alicia's face, Bodil was quite glad that they were separated by fifty metres of runway and years of Alicia's finishing school restraint.
"And what do we get in return?"
There was mirth in Ellie's voice as she replied.
"Oh, security. That's for now. In future, when our people get over the culture shock, we'll be drip-fed technological advances.
We'll also get access to the galaxy itself, to travel in, to trade in. Even explore and do alien archaeology in, if anyone would want to do that."
Bodil sounded sceptical.
"But in the meantime, we have an alien base up sitting here in the Alps. Watching us, interfering with us."
"No, Professor. They leave us alone. This base is ours, for us to protect ourselves. The Empire will have a base of course. They're building it now in orbit around Mars.
Eventually, it will become the trade hub between ourselves and the whole Empire."
Bodil was silent.