Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.
A long shaft of light slid across the room when Reed opened the door, scattering new angular shadows across the space. God-Speaker could see that Cain was indeed waiting outside. He was a big man, both rotund and taller than Reed. His shadow stepped out of view as he made space for Reed to exit. The two men exchanged perfunctory greetings; God-Speaker couldn’t make out Reed’s whispery voice, but Cain’s jovial response was clear.
“You look tired. Better get some rest.”
The big man entered and closed the door behind him, shutting out the external light and plunging the room into half-darkness again.
“You certainly do like to lurk in the shadows, don’t you?” Cain asked as he approached, his shoes tapping across the stone floor until he reached the island of the huge plush rug that encompassed the desk and chairs.
God-Speaker smiled. “I was thinking earlier this evening that there’s something about the campfire aesthetic that appeals to me.”
“The light is only beautiful in its contrast with the darkness,” Cain said. “And vice-versa, of course. I know I’m in charge of keeping the lights on, but I think both have their allure.”
Where Reed was dapper in an old-fashioned way, Cain was much more casual, wearing a work coat and jeans that wouldn’t be out of place at a construction site. He carried a small leather satchel with a shoulder strap. As he sat, he adjusted it to sit on his lap and opened the flap.
For a moment, God-Speaker couldn’t see what was in the satchel. His thoughts flashed to the pistol under his desk and the small knife concealed on his belt. He remained still in his seat, his elbows on the desk, his fingers steepled in front of his face.
Cain took out a tablet and a folder of papers, setting them on the desk while he closed the satchel, unslung it, and set it next to his chair. Then he picked up the tablet and began tapping the screen.
“The agenda for this meeting was a little unclear,” God-Speaker said. “Did you have something in particular you wanted to discuss?”
Cain had been scheduling more meetings recently, and the topics were beginning to range far beyond the projects he had inherited from his predecessor just two years earlier. God-Speaker had known when he appointed the man that he was more of an ambitious and energetic personality than God-Speaker would typically appoint to a cabinet position. He had to ride the knife’s edge to find those who would do their jobs competently, but not overstep their bounds and start thinking too much for themselves.
“I wanted to talk about the new high-efficiency geothermal plans,” Cain said. “I know the initial proposal was for a pilot plant that would run alongside existing generation. But I’ve been running numbers. We set up a miniaturized version in one of the unused expansion chambers, and it’s already looking like it’s a good fifteen or twenty percent better than we anticipated.”
God-Speaker frowned. “Where did this miniaturized version come from? I don’t remember seeing any budget with something like that in it.”
Cain’s smile faltered only for a fraction of a second. He shifted in his seat.
“It was manufactured under the R&D budget. It’s only something like two percent of the total outlay. I thought it prudent to investigate the construction and maintenance process before we got to the pilot plant. Now, though, I’m thinking this could be the future of all our generation going forward. It could be a huge savings. It could pay for itself in a matter of a few years.”
“The pilot plant isn’t even scheduled yet.”
“Yes, and I’d like to discuss that, too.”
God-Speaker held up his hands to stop Cain before he continued.
“The numbers are interesting, and I think it is quite possible that you are right about the technology. It probably deserves more investigation, and it may very well be revolutionary. But I am concerned about the reallocation of funds without any sort of accounting crossing my desk.”
“I think this is the most important thing my department can work on right now.”
God-Speaker rubbed his eyes. “You have made that abundantly clear.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that you are acting unilaterally. I expect my cabinet to work together to look at all aspects of any major projects. That includes handling budgets and accounting with the Treasury, it includes scheduling the working time with Labor, it includes coordinating the manufacturing with Science and Technology. Most importantly, I expect to be included in the decision-making process for any major project, because I have the final say as to whether or not it goes forward.”
Cain clenched his jaw. “Do you think I’m incorrect in my assessments of this technology?”
“It’s not simply a yes-or-no, stop-or-go question,” God-Speaker said. “It is a matter of scheduling and budgets and resources. You have jumped into this position with both feet, and I appreciate your passion for the job. But you are only one member of the cabinet, and even if you have complete understanding of the concerns under your purview, you have relatively little experience, your department is only one slice of the pie, and you need to consider all of the other concerns that the other secretaries and myself must take into account. Every one of them was appointed because they’re competent, but it’s not enough to simply be effective in your particular area. You need to collaborate as well.”
Cain looked down at his tablet screen, shaking his head slowly.
“Is there any schedule for when these projects might move forward? What are other people working on that justifies the budget more than this?”
“I think that’s a bigger topic than I want to address this evening,” God-Speaker said. “If you’d like, we can do a round-table overview of everyone’s major projects at a full cabinet meeting. But that’s not something I’m going to throw at everyone last-minute. I’d need to give everyone time to prepare for a presentation like that.”
“And then we could discuss adjusting budgets?” Cain asked.
God-Speaker shook his head. “There are procedures for setting budgets. Is this an emergency? Because I’m not inclined to spend a huge amount of time rearranging budgets mid-year for something that isn’t extremely pressing.”
“It will pay for itself.”
The two men sat and stared at one another.
“As I said,” God-Speaker continued, “I appreciate your passion. But I also need to know that you can work within the system and you can collaborate and make compromises. Sometimes that will be frustrating, but it is a necessity.”
Cain stood abruptly.
“I think you’re wrong. You’re not giving this due consideration.”
“You’re welcome to your opinion,” God-Speaker said. “As you might expect, I disagree with your assessment. I have to balance a great many things to keep this place running smoothly.”
“Fine,” Cain said, turning on his heel and heading toward the door. “I look forward to that cabinet meeting where we can see all these other vital projects.”
God-Speaker cleared his throat.
Cain turned, walked back, and picked up the satchel, shoving his tablet and papers into it. Without looking at God-Speaker, he turned again and left the office, closing the door hard behind him.
God-Speaker took a deep breath and let it out slowly. For a moment, he had thought that Reed might have been right in his misgivings about this meeting, but there was no bloodshed. His Secretary of Energy appeared to wear his heart on his sleeve, but God-Speaker sensed that he was holding something back. For some reason, despite his apparent openness, there was something hard to read about him. God-Speaker wondered if he was reading too much into Cain’s motivations, or not enough.
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