Authors: William C. Dietz
Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy
The other man nodded wordlessly. Stell swore under his breath. The bastard. He'd had his mini-beacon removed and inserted in the girl. That way the beacon had continued to function and had misled his pursuers. He'd done it this way knowing that the needless cruelty of it would make Stell furious.
“That isn't all, Colonel,” the Sergeant Major said with disgust. “Come take a look at this.” Stell stood and walked over to the girl. He saw she was shaking with fear. He touched her shoulder gently, as Como used a clean dressing from his own med kit to wipe the bloody drainage away. And there, carved into her flesh, was a message: “Dear Stell, I've decided to resign my commission in order to pursue other interests. Too bad the ambush didn't work, but I'm sure we'll meet again. Peter Malik.”
The Senate chambers were spacious and cool, a relief after the searing heat of Freehold's noonday sun. Built deep underground, they could withstand anything up to a direct hit from a hell bomb, and Stell's military eye approved. However, the decor was anything but Spartan. Freehold might not be a wealthy planet, but the pride of its citizens was visible in the colorful murals covering the walls, and their hopes for the future could be seen in the holo that covered the ceiling. Clever artwork had been combined with electronic wizardry to show Freehold as it might be, hundreds of years in the future. The planet depicted in the holo was crisscrossed by a network of irrigation canals fed by the underground rivers. Green forests covered hundreds of square miles, giving way to carefully tended farms, and grassy plains dotted with thousands of grazing animals. Hovering as it did over the Senate, this vision of what Freehold could become was more than art—it was an affirmation, a unifying purpose.
Physical comfort had not been neglected, either. Tiers of comfortable chairs rose in orderly progression toward the rear of the room. The front seats formed a gentle curve facing a low stage and a transparent wall. Beyond the armored plastic flowed a huge underground river. Its power and purpose dominated the room. Cleverly placed lights made it seem as though sunlight was filtering down through its mighty currents, creating an endless dance of light and dark. Against such a backdrop, man's affairs would always seem puny and insignificant, Stell mused. For while men might argue and debate, the rivers ruled Freehold. From them came life-giving water, power to run man's machines, and the tiny bits of mineral matter over which they were willing to fight and die. “And that's where I come in,” Stell thought, settling back in his seat. He watched curiously as Freehold's Senators filed in singly and in small groups. Most were still dressed in the pressurized sand suits that were a necessity outside. Stell noted that most were armed. This was no gathering of a privileged elite. These people were used to danger and hard work, things that Stell understood. Many glanced his way as they entered, talking softly with those around them. The debate was already underway.
Kasten had met him at First Hole's small spaceport, and from his comments, Stell knew the chances weren't very good. Roop was fully recovered and working hard to organize opinion against hiring the brigade. Kasten had been equally active since they'd parted company a week earlier, but feared Roop's party was making inroads with the independents. And, since the two political parties were roughly equal in size, the independents would very likely settle the issue.
Once again Stell went over his plan, searching for flaws or acceptable alternatives. But no matter how many times he did so, and regardless of logic, it felt good in his gut. He remembered the orderly rows of alert faces. The backdrop of scorched duracrete. And the sickly sweet smell of death that surrounded the brigade as they listened to him speak. They stood at ease, listening attentively, smiling and nodding their encouragement, as though listening to a favorite child recite his lessons. They admired and respected him, but, with the natural cynicism of the lower ranks, they also thought him a bit naive, and maybe a little crazy. He, in turn, admired and respected them, but couldn't understand how they could accept his idea so passively, so unemotionally. They didn't scream objections or cheer with enthusiasm; they simply accepted his suggestion like they had accepted a thousand orders, with cheerful acquiescence. So when he was finished, they voted their approval, and climbed aboard the transports that would take them to the spaceport. But among their ranks there were some with whom his words and ideas hit home, expressing feelings they'd had but couldn't find words for. One was Sergeant Flynn, who stood watching as he stepped down off the ammo case, looking at him almost the way the devout would regard a saint. But she was toward the rear of the milling crowd, so he didn't see her.
Stell's thoughts were interrupted as a tall, thin man with thick black hair mounted the stage and called the session to order. Glancing around, Stell thought there were a surprising number of empty seats, until he realized they weren't actually empty. Each was filled with a faint, almost transparent, holo of the Senator to whom it was assigned. As the lights were dimmed, the holo took on more substance, until it was difficult to tell them from their flesh-and-blood neighbors. Evidently, some of the more distant Senators chose to remain at home rather than travel to the capital.
As the man with the black hair droned through the minutes of the last meeting, Stell's eyes were drawn again to the powerful flow of the river. He allowed his mind to merge with the peaceful blueness, releasing all tension and gathering strength for the coming battle. Although it would be fought with words rather than weapons, it would be a battle nonetheless, and maybe the most important in the brigade's history. The opposition would bring superior numbers to the conflict, and they would be armed with fear and greed. Stell felt sure that Roop's actions were somehow linked to thermium. But Roop had been present during the Zonie attack. And he'd been wounded to boot. So it seemed unlikely that he'd arranged for the attack. Anyway, Stell's strategy depended on surprise, compassion, courage, and the desperation of the planet's citizens. “Remember son, timing is everything,” Strom had counseled him many times. “The power of a secret weapon lies in the timing with which you use or reveal it. So don't let ’em know what you've got till the last second, and then use it to the limit.” With that in mind, Stell forced himself to wait patiently.
With routine matters finally out of the way, the black-haired man introduced Kasten, and as the President mounted the dais, Stell admired his poise and presence. Kasten appeared relaxed and seemed to be enjoying himself. There was a spring in his step and a gleam in his eye. As the polite applause died down, Kasten's eyes swept the audience, gauging the Senate's mood. He chose his words carefully.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, fellow citizens of Freehold, thank you. The matter before us today is serious indeed. How we deal with it will determine our future, and that of our children's children. We are deciding nothing less than our collective destinies. There are few among you who haven't already shed tears for friends or loved ones lost to the violence of the past few months—violence that threatens our lives, our homes, and our freedom. Some here believe the violence can be ended by peaceful means ... that we can buy off the pirates. Nothing could be further from the truth. The price for cooperation with the pirates is slavery. Not just for us, but for all future generations as well. A poor legacy for our children. What's more, such payments would ignore the real source of our problems, the true reason why the pirates continue to attack, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the avarice of Intersystems Incorporated.”
There was much more. Kasten did a skillful job of arguing his case, laying out each point in logical sequence, wrapping it up with the inescapable conclusion that, lacking sufficient strength to defend themselves, they should hire a force that could. There was, however, no mention of Intersystem's real motive—thermium. Kasten didn't bring it up, even though he could have used it to strengthen his arguments. Did the assembled Senators know about the precious mineral being filtered out of the underground rivers? Surely they must. But did the general population? Given a system of competitive co-ops it seemed likely, though not certain. In any case, there was apparently some kind of unwritten agreement between the parties not to mention thermium publicly. They evidently feared that publicity would bring even more trouble their way; and they might be right, but the secrecy was distorting the decision-making process while benefiting the pirates and Intersystems. So how would they react when Stell brought it all out into the open? He couldn't tell, but it had to be done.
Kasten sat down and Roop took the stage. He had an oversized white bandage wrapped dramatically around his head, serving to remind all present of the wound he'd suffered in their service. His eyes burned brightly as he accepted his applause and nodded indulgently to his supporters. When the applause died down and he spoke, it was with the patient conviction of a parent lecturing an errant child.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate. The President has stated his case most eloquently. In fact, I agree with most of what he said. Everything, in fact, except his conclusion. Stated simply, President Kasten suggests that the pirates, or Intersystems Incorporated, want our planet. He goes on to say they are determined to take it by force. Never mind the lack of proof of such a conspiracy, he suggests that since we're not able to effectively defend ourselves, we should hire others to do so. He even goes so far as to suggest that any other solution will result in de facto slavery; Well my friends, I suggest our money is better spent on peace than war, and that the only person likely to enslave us sits right here in these chambers!” With that, Roop pointed a quivering finger at Stell. His supporters applauded loudly, and all turned to look curiously in Stell's direction.
Roop snorted in derision to bring their attention back to him. “But let's ignore all that for a moment and just look at practicalities. Even if Colonel Stell and his brigade were a band of angels, we couldn't afford them. Not at the usurious rates they're accustomed to receiving. I remind you that we are in danger of missing our next payment to Intersystems Incorporated. Clearly a plan to spend more money than we have on mercenaries isn't going to help us make that payment.” Roop paused, a smirk touching his lips as he allowed the silence to grow, enjoying the power it gave him. “With that in mind, and considering that President Kasten has seen fit to break precedent and introduce an outsider into the affairs of the Senate,” Roop again glanced meaningfully in Stell's direction, “I think it only fair that my party be allowed the same freedom. So it's with great pleasure that I introduce gentlebeing Lady Almanda Kance-Jones. She currently serves Intersystems Incorporated as the Planetary Account Executive for Freehold. Since her company has been the subject of no small amount of suspicion in these matters, it seems only right to allow Intersystems the right to reply through Executive Kance-Jones.”
There were more than a few gasps of amazement and muttered objections from members of Kasten's party. Those were quickly drowned out by the applause generated by Roop and his cronies. Stell's mind raced, trying to calculate the impact of Roop's move. But his attention quickly shifted as Almanda Kance-Jones ascended the dais. To say she was beautiful would be an understatement. She was without a doubt the single most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Her beauty burned like a flame, but to his eyes it was a cold flame, for as she faced the audience her eyes were like ice. He knew such flawless beauty could not possibly be natural and testified to the work of the empire's most skilled biosculpters. Long, jet-black hair fell in gentle cascades to frame a perfectly proportioned oval face. She wore a unisuit, which molded to her perfect figure and shimmered softly in the light. She was fascinating, but in the same way a snake about to strike is fascinating, and, like every other man in the room, Stell couldn't take his eyes off her.
Her voice was smooth and modulated, touched with just a hint of huskiness, yet very feminine nonetheless. She spoke with a disarming directness. “Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, thank you for allowing me to speak. I fully realize how unusual this opportunity is and promise not to abuse it. With that in mind, I'll keep my comments brief. First, let me assure you Intersystems is not behind any plot to steal what's rightfully yours. Nothing could be further from the truth. I cannot explain why the pirates have chosen this time to increase their raids on your planet, except to say you're not alone. Since the empire's well-known military cutbacks, all the frontier planets have come under more pressure from both the pirates and the Il Ronn. But to suggest that Intersystems is in league with the pirates is ... well ... misguided.” At this point, her expression made it clear that she would have preferred to use stronger language than “misguided.” “While I admit that if the attacks prevent you from fulfilling your contractual obligations, Intersystems might benefit, I assure you we would rather have you succeed under the original terms of our agreement, and thereby have you as customers in the future. As an outsider, it would be presumptuous of me to advise you on how to run your government, but I must say that Senator Roop has impressed me with his good judgment and concern for your affairs. Thank you.”
As she stepped down and disappeared toward the rear of the room, there was only a flutter of applause. No matter whose side they were on, representatives of Intersystems Incorporated would have only limited appeal to the majority of Freehold's Senate. Nevertheless, there was no denying the impact of her words. For those already inclined toward Roop her comments could be decisive.
Then Roop took the floor again, clutching a sheaf of printouts in his hand and holding them aloft like some sort of trophy. “Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, I'd like to thank Executive Kance-Jones for her comments, and bring your attention to the petition I hold in my hand. It is addressed to the Emperor, and has been signed by all the members of my party; it asks him to prohibit the brigade in question from meddling in our affairs. It may interest you to know that since these mercenaries were ‘authorized’ by the Emperor, he has the power to redirect their activities! I urge each of you to sign. The petition will be sent to Earth by message torp immediately after this session is adjourned.” With a smile of triumph, he marched off the stage to loud applause.