Laren entered the massive underground Territorial coliseum and palmed the attendees roll, noting the location of the finder light that marked his seat. It was in the second row of Delta section, surrounded on three sides by fellow dignitaries and advisors, the front reserved for bodyguards. He glanced around, uncomfortable, too aware of security, both human and electronic. Territorial facilities were supposedly neutral ground but obeying such dictates was more option than edict given that they were seldom enforced by any more than a token fine. The right bribe at the territorial level could buy a lot of forgiveness for a major infraction. Knowing Troy’s tactics, Sigma troops could mean trouble. Big trouble.
He glanced around the circumference of each deck, then to the platform below. Several guards. All Territorial, no Regionals. Good. The arrest, no matter how contrived, of a regional diplomatic official would not be good for Delta’s image.
He descended toward the front via the nearest aisle, nodding politely past several others already seated in his row. He deactivated the finder light, collapsed in his seat, then stared unseeingly toward the front, trying to shake the jitters. It was only a Territorial Caucus, a gathering of presiding rulers. An agenda had been posted and he wasn’t on it. So why was he so nervous? Why was his every instinct on full alert?
The stage shone with regional flags, twenty-four diverse holographic representations dazzling with a multitude of colors. Sigma’s jumped out unbidden, taunting him. A sick, heavy lump of remembrance formed in his gut. The last one had been on the back of a uniformed prison guard. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, annoyed at his reaction. That was over. Another part of the past best forgotten.
He jumped when the cushions shifted beneath him, molding to his form. Sensors detected tensed muscles, responding within moments with targeted countermeasures. His neck, shoulders, lower back. He closed his eyes, relaxing, as the ultrasonic enhanced massage had its effect. His heart settled slowly to normal rhythm but true relaxation never came.
He really didn’t have time for this. He opened his eyes and straightened, alert once more as the floor shifted. The rows cranked to a steeper formation, aisles previously sloped rising to a higher pitch notched by stairs. Apparently everyone was there and it was time to start.
Bryl had insisted he be there and he could see her point, but wasting an hour or more being seen in the political arena was not how he preferred to spend his time. His duties as Minister for Regional Development were demanding enough, given he was the first to hold that position in a region languishing in deplorable shape.
How Delta survived with off-world trading alone was a monument to Bryl’s business savvy. It would only last so long, however, before the counterfeit economy collapsed, unless he found mineral wealth or some other natural means to generate income. Soon. Once Up Opps, the brief post-Opposition growing season, was over a long, dark and severe winter lay ahead, not just for months but the equivalent of nearly four galactic standard years. Power was another issue. When Zeta and Zinni retreated, energy sources would be hard to find. Storing enough for such a lengthy cold season with their current resources was unthinkable. Planetary energy sources beyond their host suns needed to be identified and harnessed soon.
Bodyguards were taking their places in front, but the seats beside and directly behind him were empty. He logged into the comcon on the seat’s arm, adjusted its screen, then read his mail and brought up the day’s concurrency review summaries. He seldom watched CRs, skimming bulletins when he could, but usually too engrossed in work. Most public news releases were too sanitized to do him any good, anyway. The day’s intelligence crop yielded more in a second than these did in an hour’s worth of deep discernment and follow-up research.
He switched restlessly to his own channel, reviewing atmospheric sounding data he’d downloaded earlier from the S3s. Having access was a lifesaver, perhaps literally. He’d deleted the portion that showed his family’s fortuitous migration to the caverns, preserving the assumption they’d perished in the PV, but he still had some checking to do on any evidence relative to the Think Tank, especially during use.
He was in the process of gathering what the current resources were for the other regions, especially Neutrals. If the Clique didn’t increase membership soon it would die. Its members were sincere enough, but without sufficient momentum or benefit each would move on to more pressing activities. Such as keeping their constituents from starving. What it really needed was something that inspired more commitment than a friendly alliance of on-world traders. So far, the group’s resources were frighteningly thin.
Deep within his soul he knew the only reason his life had been spared was to benefit the Clique. This was the vehicle to accomplish what he’d been instructed to do on Esheron, fight the encroaching forces of Integration. Random ideas sparked from time to time, but no clear picture or sense of direction had appeared. He’d run a few covert ops, mainly intelligence gathering, some of which had required intervention. All had been nonviolent, little more than delaying one shipment, sanctioning another. Strategists understood hindrance well, but it was still little more than a pin fly buzzing the opposition’s ear.
Instinct told him to build a sound foundation and organize against the Integrator on a global scale. The question was how. The Clique was growing, true, but not as fast as their opponent. And time was not on their side.
He thought of all he had to do, impatient to get at it, yet simultaneously knew Bryl was right to make him attend. He could meet potential members. Build relationships, check them out, identify concerns. The main problem was that, like most scientists, he was a poor diplomat. Military officers tended that way, too. Protocol was not his element, yet without it he’d fail. The ability to live in that world comfortably could mean the difference between success and failure.
His thoughts drifted to Dirck and Win, their plans to return to Mira III. If anything went awry next time he’d be breaking them out of prison. If they survived. Their methods and intended actions were high treason. Integrator law was not tolerant of traitors, their usual sentence swift and permanent. Whether they’d find Creena was another unknown. Arrival too soon or too late could entirely destroy the mission and they had no idea when that would be. Meanwhile, Sharra and Deven would be alone. Again.
Besieged by escalating worries he turned back to the comcon and imported the atmospheric data into an analysis algorithm in his c-com, optimized the parameters, then logged out when the seats filled around him. He knew most, at least casually, greeted them with a nod then shifted his attention to the RGs assembling on the stand. Past training in situational awareness flared, prompting him to position the comcon’s screen as a rear reflector, centered on the control booth in the deck above and behind. If security moved he wanted to know, still less than confident with his supposed diplomatic immunity. Not that it would do much against lasomag fire.
Bryl came in, took her seat on the stand’s second row and cast him an approving smile that blared with the notion she hadn’t expected him to show up. Again he acknowledged, at least to himself, how right she’d been. If he was this nervous simply being there, what would it be like when he had to address an audience? Ridiculous. He’d never been like this in his life. Never. An opposing voice reminded him that neither had he ever faced such formidable opposition. Or odds.
The RGs’ seats on the stand continued to fill, his heart pounding erratically when the man he least wanted to see in the entire universe stepped to his place and sat down. Troy was on the Integrated side of the podium, Bryl on the other with the Neutrals and Clique members, the territorial general and his deputy to be positioned on the rise between them, dead center. Whether it was hatred or fear he didn’t know, only that he hadn’t been the same since prison. Jen said he was fine, physically. No more than overly responsive adrenal glands. Flight or fight. No physical cause. Admitting it was emotional was unthinkable. No matter the trigger, flash adrenaline fires were getting downright annoying.
The discipline it required to look at Troy surprised him, yet he did, relieved the Sigma RG’s own gaze was directed toward the upper deck. If Troy knew he was there it didn’t show, his attention far removed from those with lesser rank than himself. The RG’s image wavered when the field train activated, the energy weapon shield accentuating each person’s movements with a fluid-like blur until it stabilized. In the aisle beside him the security chief, identifiable as such by the stripes on his sleeves, signaled all was well to an unseen cohort above then disappeared behind the stand. The man looked familiar, from where he couldn’t recall. Probably the Tower, where thousands came and went daily.
Bryl was watching again, this time without a smile. Probably wondering if he’d leave, now that Troy was there. He set his jaw and folded his arms, looked her in the eye. She relaxed and turned away, dark hair sweeping the shoulders of her ivory suit. Her hair looked good, down like that. Better than those awful Pleidonian braids she usually wore to official functions. Those things were hideous, reminded him of tentacles. He laughed to himself, wondering what they’d look like on Sharra. Then saddened, missing her. At least in another day he could go home for a quick break.
He looked back at Troy, the glare coming more easily. The RG’s gaze still swept the upper deck, as if watching for someone. Who in general seating would he care about? Anger and determination swelled, followed by another acknowledgement that Bryl was right. Nothing could motivate him more to firm up the Clique than wanting to squelch that man, and everyone like him, once and for all. He reminded himself that the Integrated side had thirteen members, over half of Epsilon’s twenty-four regions, while so far the Clique had five, the remaining six still Neutrals. If the other side gained three more they were in deep trouble. That they had work to do against formidable odds was a blatant understatement.
Rohtik Spoigan, the Deputy Territorial General, took his place on the rise, Epsilon’s Territorial General, Krai Laitselec, coming in behind. Krai greeted each RG, smiled and waved at the other attendees, then ascended to his seat beside Spoigan. Recent votes indicated his popularity was waning, yet Bryl had nothing but praises for the man. No wonder. He consulted her more than Spoigan, an overt Integration sympathizer, who’d found his way to office via votes from the growing Integrator contingent. Laitselec had led her through the throes of the Clique’s birth, unable to admit involvement for political reasons, though his participation was common knowledge and supposedly based on the premise they needed political balance.
Spoigan was first on the agenda, his report on the progress made when Integrated regions pooled their resources. Laren set his jaw, rejecting his words as pure propaganda then noted with alarm that many heads in his section were nodding agreement. More damage control, another task for the Clique, get them educated what being Integrated really meant to their autonomy.
Movement in the comcon screen caught his peripheral vision. Not station-keeping, but motion, smooth and deliberate, outside the control center. He swiveled the screen as subtly as possible, moving it slowly to one side with his fingers. Others were moving in. Back at the front, the field train quivered like a liquid wall, failing. Spoigan kept talking, seemingly or perhaps deliberately unawares. It bulged and blurred, atomic membrane agonizing like a blister ready to burst. He flinched, spontaneously reliving his journey back to mortality, the ensuing pain.
The shield went down for such a brief moment that, when it sealed again, the tail of the lasomag charge deflected wildly. Adrenaline fired, he dove for the floor, heart racing, as the flash burst backwards, striking someone in Theta’s section. Panic swelled in a shrieking roar, front to back, some scattering, others frozen in place. At first the fact someone was hit on the dais went unnoticed.
Bryl screamed. Laren shot to his feet. Krai was down.
The others on the stand were flat on the floor, arms covering their heads, as the front row scrambled for the exits. In an instant Bryl was beside their TG, efforts to resuscitate the still form vain. She got to her feet and turned his way, blood defiling her ivory jacket. Her eyes met his. In what would appear no more than a flutter of fear and frustration to the uninitiated, she signed “He’s dead. Get out!” in mutogueronian, Esheron’s silent language devised specifically to evade audio and most visual surveillance.
Thrown by the direct order, he turned to obey. Then stopped. Both were civilians in a civilian organization. His experience for such events far exceeded hers. He bounded defiantly for the stand, pushed his way to her side through the startled and rising crowd. Her arm linked in his, trembling, dark eyes wide but dry, face flushed.
“I thought I told you to get out,” she said lowly.
“You did,” he whispered back
“You don’t follow orders very well, do you?”
“Not when they conflict with what needs to be done.”
He felt her sigh, tried not to smile at her next words.
“Thanks. I needed someone like you. Someone who can make his own decisions.”
Deep crimson seeped from Krai’s mouth, its pool smeared and tracked to the exit as bodyguards escorted their respective charges away. Bryl’s guard stood at ease on her other side, waiting. A Territorial guard blocked the door. As expected, no one was allowed to leave anyway.
The security chief arrived, surveyed the scene, called for assistance on his headset. Whether his calm was callous or professional was indiscernible. Maybe he was Miran. He directed everyone to register on a palm board. Warned them to expect interrogation. Dismissed them without further comment.
Recognition struck like a laser and adrenaline fired again. The man had been one of Troy’s lackeys on the Aquarius.
The floor hummed as it flattened to exit configuration, steps collapsing to their former slope. Laren placed a protective arm around Bryl’s shoulders and guided her toward a side exit, more answers than questions besieging his mind. The finer points of how the assassination would affect Delta were as yet unknown.
The Clique’s fate was sealed, however, its time as an economic support organization fulfilled. Indeed, its future was manifesting itself with clarity so striking it took his breath away. By the time they left the coliseum its military structure had formed in his mind. Then staffing and charters, finding qualified and trustworthy leaders, even the color of their uniforms. Its emblem and flag. Indeed, the Clique’s noble founder, betrayed and martyred, had yielded that final notion, a detail they were wont to belabor at a time like this. Again, his mind surged forward, envisioning units and divisions, their appearance disciplined and invariable, their resistance formidable.
And like the coliseum’s floor, they, too, would be seen as the color of spilt blood.
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