The story opens with Salvor Hardin thinking about a deputation he's to receive. His thoughts are interrupted by Yohan Lee—remember him from the secret meeting in Part II?—who suggest that Hardin give some guys the cold shoulder.
Hardin comments that Lee never learned the art of sneaking up on someone, which makes Hardin reminisce about past. Hey, he's sixty-two years old; he deserves a little reminiscing.
It's been thirty years since he and Lee went all coup on the Encyclopedists. The Foundation is completely cut off from the Empire to the point where they aren't even sure who the Emperor is anymore.
Won't they be embarrassed when the wrong name is on the birthday cards they're sending?
Now the prefects have started calling themselves Kingdoms complete with kings and peasants. Science has been "fading into mythology," with the Foundation as the only source of nuclear power left in the Periphery (III.1.10).
Whew. Now that we're caught up on three decades of intergalactic social politics, we can move on.
The people Lee warned Hardin to ignore arrive, and Hardin has them sent to his office for some schmoozing.
Lee warns Hardin that the Sermak fellow is dangerous just as he arrives with his posse.
Hardin hands out cigars and mentions off-handedly how he's wanted to meet Sermak since his speech criticizing Foundation's foreign policy. Seems the novel is about to enter West Wingmode.
Sermak, his party, and, as he sees it, the people of Foundation aren't too keen on current foreign policy. They think Hardin has left the Foundation defenseless against foreign attack. So, what are they going to do about it? Kick Hardin out of office, for starters (with the option to resign).
Hardin is pretty sure he'll ignore the generous offer of resignation.
Sermak says that it's all going to go down tomorrow. He offered Hardin the easy way out to clear his conscience and in recognition to the old man's services.
So that's nice of him. Sort of.
The posse stands to leave, but Hardin asks them to stay. He wants to know exactly what's wrong with his foreign policy.
It's the Foundation's policy of appeasement. To keep the Four Kingdoms from attacking, the Foundation has bribed them with weapons, scientific aid, and services. But each bribe only makes the Four Kingdoms stronger while rendering the Foundation's position more dangerous.
Their solution? Attack first. Simple enough, right?
But Hardin just points to a framed statement on his wall, "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent" (III.1.56).
Hm, wonder if that'll be important down the line?
Hardin then goes historian on us. He tells Sermak that Hari Seldon established the Foundation in the Periphery to write the Encyclopedia Galactica.
When communications broke down, they were left alone, surrounded by the barbaric societies of various planets. Then Anacreon wanted to establish a military base…wait, didn't we just read this story? Guess this is for the new viewers.
Anyway, when it came time for Hardin to deal with Anacreon, he could have taken the easy way out and put up a fight, but he chose to do the right thing. He convinced the other three Kingdoms to contest Anacreon's actions, forcing them to stop their plans to make the Foundation a military hub.
Sermak just shrugs. The past situation and the present one, he argues, are apples and oranges.
Okay, he actually uses a much more elaborate metaphor involving insulin, but the gist is apples and oranges.
But Hardin—true old man that he is, although can we agree that 62 is seriously not that old?—is not done with his history lesson.
Once the Anacreons left, all of the Four Kingdoms became the Foundation's enemy. Rather than prepare for war, Hardin offered the Kingdoms science, medicine, education, and, naturally, technology.
He made the Foundation necessary for the Kingdoms' prosperity, in what we're calling the "Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You" policy.
Sermak shrugs off this idea as well. He argues that Hardin had to mock-up science as a religion to accomplish the task. Man, does nothing please this guy?
Hardin shrugs off the shrug-off. If the barbarian planets want to think of science as magic, it still works in their favor.
And who cares if the science priests hold the power in the Kingdoms? The Foundation educates the priests, so in a way, they control them.
During this entire back and forth, Lee rises, leaves the room, and returns with a metal cylinder. When Hardin receives the cylinder, he dismisses Sermak and his party.
Hardin asks Lee how he did, and Lee thinks Sermak is a real opponent, could even win the next election if Hardin isn't careful.
So, what's in that cylinder? It's a message saying a guy named Ambassador Verisof is coming to Terminus to visit Hardin.
What does that mean for Hardin's political battle with Sermak? We'll have to tune into the next chapter to find out, because Hardin and Lee head out to lunch without saying.
Whew. Talk about expository backstory. Let's just take a minute to let all that sink in before we turn the page.