Gislain Rendau's visual world split in two from the force of the blow glancing against his skull. Staggering to maintain his balance in the surging sea of Draft protesters, the reluctant tri-dee cameraman fluttered his lids and fought to clear the star-studded darkness irising in upon him.
In electronic confusion, the borrowed camera mounted on Gislain's shoulder zipped through its recognition protocols in a vain attempt to decipher the random movements of its operator's eyes. The image it projected onto Gislain's clear viewer fluctuated wildly from a close-up of the club-wielding Security officers to a wide-angle shot of the escaping crowd. Finally surrendering to its simple-minded bewilderment regarding Gislain's true desires, the camera beeped its frustration, blanked the screen positioned in front of Gislain's right eye, and ceased recording the rippling chaos before it.
Rubbing viciously at the erupting bump on the left side of his unprotected head, Gislain grunted his pain and exasperation. "Damn it, Jaleene," he swore under his breath. Why had he ever agreed to assist with her documentary?
Angling sharply away from the still advancing line of the flailing Security detail, Gislain shook off the last of the muzziness from his head. With little hope, he scanned the rapidly dispersing men and women who had assembled that morning to voice their displeasure with the upcoming Draft Screening. No sign of Jaleene. Of course...
Collapsing the conspicuous camera assembly that labeled him a prime target, Gislain shoved the cube into his forest-green backpack and numbly threaded through the shifting nodes of near-panicking Meylan citizens. A brief glance at the now-abandoned staged hastily erected in front of the Draft Center told him that Branson, too, had abruptly decided that valor consisted more of discretion than confrontation.
"Figures...," Gislain muttered sourly. The screams of fear and distress ebbing and flowing around him failed to penetrate his peripheral awareness. Concern for his own safety occupied the center stage of his attention for the moment.
A stumbling woman with blood streaking her wild-eyed expression collided with Gislain. Reflexively, he reached out to steady her. For an intense instant, her startlingly blue eyes locked with his, seeking answers he knew did not exist in her rescuer's face. A sad moment passed before those wide-rimmed pupils broke away in disappointment and resentment. Pushing away from Gislain's grasp, she shoved a path through the compressed, sheltering bodies.
Ill-defined anger suffused through Gislain as he tried to absorb the meaning of the woman's puzzled reaction. What precisely had she expected him to do for her in the midst of this milling Brownian motion? More to the point, what justified in that stranger's mind a duty he did not care to accept?
Contemplation of such an unfathomable mystery dissipated as the conflict's boiling current shifted once more in his direction. Hugging the pack and the university camera it contained close to his chest, Gislain took advantage of a temporary crack in the human wall before him and sprinted toward a side street offering him a modicum of freedom.
As the sounds of the lopsided battle faded behind him, he knew he might as easily penetrate a Shield alone as unravel the bizarre net of ideas, desires, and whims motivating so many of his homeworld's inhabitants. For too long, they had huddled in the relative obscurity of their minor planet status in the amorphous realm of the Federation. The Silence Wars had been no business of theirs as long as the Central Security Command and the Silence Corps focussed their primary efforts elsewhere for suitable subjects to fill their Silence Teams and to man their armies. No Meylan citizen cared to hear or heed the early warnings of the coming storm issued by such activists as Branson and Jaleene. Even the establishment of the Meylan Draft Center had served merely to harden the resolve of the general populace to resist the resisters. To do otherwise would have been labeled unpatriotic.
Slowing his pace lest he attract unwanted scrutiny, Gislain gulped down lungfuls of air to ease the burning in his chest. Amazing in comparison to the melee surging only blocks away, the restrained bustle of the financial district might as readily have existed a galaxy away from the wedge of dissent stubbornly seeking to bury itself into the cultural consciousness of Meylan society. Singly and in small groups, business-attired men and women scurried in and out of the heavy-jowled stone buildings housing some of the most respected organizations on the planet. Humming autotransports filtered through the crowded streets carrying cargo, goods, and passengers towards equally diverse destinations.
Through the closed window of one transport waiting its turn to proceed, Gislain saw a pair of gray-haired men leaning towards one another, engaged in a silent yet earnest conversation. For them, the blood and broken bones Gislain had witnessed mere minutes ago would enter their awareness -- if at all -- as a momentary, neutral blip during that evening's newsnet update.
Pushing his dishevelled hair into some semblance of order, Gislain glanced at his data bracelet then squinted at the pale-yellow sun as it inched is patient way toward the zenith.
"Watch it!" a gruff voice barked in front of him.
Startled, Gislain danced around the frowning man into whom he had nearly collided. Mumbling an embarrassed apology, the college student concentrated on the matter at hand. An hour remained before his pre-planned rendezvous with Jaleene and Branson at the Steele Door Cafe. Though Gislain had thought the contingency plan typically melodramatic when Jaleene announced it that morning in her graduate student office, he reluctantly had to admit its foresight.
A walk to kill the time would do him good anyway, he decided. The tide of adrenaline that had first risen in him after the appearance of the helmeted Security men at the rally had yet to fully recede. Slipping his arms through the straps of his pack, he detoured long enough to purchase a bottle of iced tea then meandered from street to street, absent-mindedly evaluating the landscape for possible inspiration in planning his senior art portfolio. Though Jaleene continually goaded him to adopt an approach conforming to the prejudices of the graduate selection committee, Gislain had yet to decide if he would even apply for admission. While his friend praised the fun and excitement of advanced studies, he viewed it primarily as yet another series of hoops his family and society expected him to jump through.
He winced. Elanna's insistent pressure made the decision no easier to approach. His mother and his oldest friend agreed on little, but his career course brought them together as did nothing else. In fact --
A pair of vertical lines furrowed Gislain's brow. The crawling sensation progressing along his spine suddenly crossed the invisible threshold of consciousness. Slowing his already leisurely pace, he hooked his thumbs into the straps of his pack and surreptitiously scanned the pocket park through which he strolled.
One of many such refuges scattered about the city, the mini-park provided a hint of greenery and openness for the daytime denizens of the stone, brick, and concrete structures housing the commercial interests of Meylan city. Clumps of trees -- both native and imported -- sheltered from the late-spring sun those enjoying a quick repast. One corner of the park held a pint-sized playground where knots of toddlers caroused together under the watchful gazes of their fathers, mothers, or sitters.
As Gislain perused his surroundings for whatever had provoked the uncanny shudder that had disturbed and alerted him, a blond girl barely able to walk swung a tiny fist with all her childish might and connected with the chest of a slightly taller dark-haired boy whose condescending sneer suddenly transformed into shocked pain. Plopping down hard onto his well-padded bottom, the bully-turned-victim unleashed a screeching wail that sliced remorselessly through the tranquil atmosphere.
Instantly, heads snapped up to locate the source of the disturbance. Some of those seated on grass or bench or wall frowned at the intrusion. Others laughed at the tiny drama playing out before them. A few scowled while still more returned to their books or companions or lunch, indifferent to the conflict that had interrupted their activities.
While a harried-looking young man rushed forward and seized the pudgy arms of both combatants, Gislain felt that inexplicable sense of being watched fading from his mind.
Licking his lips, he inhaled a ragged breath. "Damn it..." Not bothering to check the time again, he altered direction and strode rapidly away.
Branson delighted in saying that in his line of work, paranoia was not a good thing...it was a great thing.
Still wondering what had triggered his earlier unpleasant reaction, Gislain hoped this time, at least, Branson would be proved wrong. For if the leader of the Meylan anti-Draft movement was not, all of them could be in very big trouble, indeed.
With practiced ease, Dr. Venical Rendau erased the scowl from his lips and smoothed his wrinkled brow. An instant to close his eyes and inhale a deep breath further prepared him to greet his unannounced visitor from the Central Security Command. His secretary could delay the head of the Department of Scientific Affairs only so long.
As the office door sighed open, Vendical glanced up from the spiral-bound report he had carefully arranged before him on his imported desk. The lush cherry wood usually served to awe any who came to disturb him in his inner sanctuary. Unfortunately, Minister Dall Colm would be unimpressed by such opulence. Vendical entertained no doubt that the minister's private quarters would put his own polished desk, costly artwork, and thick carpeting to shame.
"Ah, Minister!" Vendical said brightly, rising from his chair and extending a hand.
Colm nodded perfunctorily and limply squeezed the scientist's smooth palm. "Vendical," he said coolly, plopping himself unbidden into the stuffed leather chair facing Vendical's desk at a cozy angle.
Before his faltering smile collapsed entirely at the omission of his honorific, Vendical suppressed his bristling irritation and slowly resumed his seat. If the minister noticed his underling's displeasure, he gave no sign.
A savage sneeze scrunched Colm's rounded features into a parody of his personality. "This Shield-forsaken planet!" he said, rubbing his nose with a blue silk handerchief he snatched from a jacket pocket. "I would have to arrive during the height of pollination season."
"I take it your last series of treatments failed?" Vendical asked, injecting a tone of deep sympathy into his resonant voice.
Sniffling, Colm waved a pale-skinned hand. "Ah! You medical types never bother to plan for contingencies. On my previous visit, they included only currently producing plants. This time of year, there's an entirely different set of irritants to annoy me."
Carefully, Vendical eased the pressure of his tightened jaws. One tooth had already cracked from that subconscious response to tension...and growing a new replacement presented its own set of complications.
"I must remind you again, Minister," he said, laughing lightly, "I'm not a medical doctor."
Stuffing his handerchief back into a pocket, Colm wrinkled his nose. "Medical doctor, xenoneurologist... Same difference."
Vendical's left brow arched a fraction. So...this bothersome man did know his area of specialty, after all.
Ostentatiously reaching for the call pad, Vendical said, "Why don't I have my secretary guide you over to the health unit and get your new treatment before we --"
A quiver of distaste danced across the minister's expression. "I've had the treatments, damn it. They simply haven't taken hold yet."
"Ah!" Pulling back his arm and folding his long-fingered hands atop the unread financial report, Vendical smiled blandly and cocked his head in polite attention.
A beat of silence passed before Colm settled back into his chair and crossed his short legs. "Your monthly progress report is overdue," he said with deceptive mildness.
Despite his inner preparation for the broaching of that subject, Vendical could not control the acceleration of his pulse or the increased dampness of his hidden palms.
"I'm afraid I'm a better scientist than administrator," he said, grinning crookedly.
"I see." Colm pursed his lips. "Perhaps I should relieve you of the burdens of redtape and paperwork. If your research would progress more quickly with someone else in charge of all the bureaucratic nonsense, I can arrange someone to move into this office by the first of the month."
Ruthlessly, Vendical clamped down on the panic fountaining upward from his inner caverns of insecurity. He could not permit his fear to pass beyond the barrier he had so carefully erected to protect himself. At the first scent of blood, Colm would be tearing at his figurative flesh and uncovering the current reality of the project rather than the truth Vendical knew he could create if only he had the time necessary to bring his frustrating efforts to fruition. The consequences of failure loomed too catastrophically to contemplate. For the sake of his own career and reputation, for the lives of his wife and son, for the men and women laboring under his direction...for the survival of the Federation, he could not permit himself to be dismissed from this project. He knew only too well that Colm's overtly helpful suggestions masked the threatened demise of all his dreams. Meaningless blather aside, he had no recourse but to claim a success that so far had eluded him.
"Come now, Minister," he said, leaning comfortably into his chair. "Don't overreact to an innocent complaint. In the overall scheme of things, our explorations into the psychic abilities of the neuter Sandalians is more important than sending out one more of an endless series of reports which no one reads."
Drumming the arm of his chair, Colm narrowed his eyes. "Don't be so certain that we at the CSC so lightly overlook our responsibilities."
Inwardly, Vendical winced at the rebuke. Rumors circulated that the official word regarding the Silence Wars did not quite coincide with the actuality of combat. Still, conditions surely had not deteriorated so rapidly that the Consortium presented an imminent threat. Yet if not that, why this increased scrutiny of the neuter project?
"No slight intended, Minister," Vendical said placatingly. "I simply wanted to reinforce what my focus as head of this project should be. My goal is to present the CSC, the Silence Corps, and the Federation with the secret of the neuter's role in creating our Silence Teams. Once I've accomplished that, progress reports will become superfluous."
Colm grunted noncommittally. "Just see that you complete your report by next week. The message has been sent out to redouble our efforts in all areas: research, training, and combat. One way or another, the Federation wants an end to these wars scattered all along our border with the Consortium. Who knows when or where the breakthrough will come? But we need to beat our enemy to the punch. If you and your crew can eliminate the neuters from the loop, we can greatly expand the numbers of our Teams and perhaps overwhelm those of the Consortium still dependent upon aid from the Sandalians. We are spread too thinly now to do more than confront them a Team at a time. Accomplish your miracle, Doctor, and you won't long remain stuck here on this backwater planet."
Though Vendical eagerly and greedily prayed for just such an advancement -- perhaps even to Federation headquarters? -- still he felt obliged to defend his homeworld. "Meylan has its charms, Minister," he said with a touch of wounded pride mellowed by a wry smile of understanding. "It's quite beautiful, is expanding its role in the financial affairs of this sector, and possesses sufficient free space for the establishment of a secret facility such as this."
Nodding, Colm steepled his fingers. "Yes. Premature disclosure of our work here to either the Consortium or the Sandalians could set us back years."
Discretely checking the time on his desk server, Vendical considered the implications of the minister's words. "Have there been...problems...securing more neuters for our research?"
Shifting position, Colm cleared his throat. "We dare not divert too many neuters from Team training at any one time or in any particular sector. Consortium agents are no fools. The faintest whiff of weakness can alert them to redouble their efforts against us. Even Meylan's relative isolation won't protect you or these laboratories if they decide the rewards are worth the risks and effort of destroying this project."
"More security would --"
"Would only mark you brighter on their radar. More security equals greater importance. Providing you more than a minimal force would only serve to endanger your safety."
"The irony of that paradox is amusing if not very comforting."
"Then see to it you kill fewer neuters. Replacements are straining the system."
Permitting his expression to darken, Vendical said, "Probing the brain and mind of a neuter requires more than remote scanning. Direct, mechanical examination of the suspected active regions must follow the less intrusive explorations."
"I understand: omelettes and eggs," Colm said. "Just don't break too many of those shells before you finish cooking that dish we're searching for. Such resources are not free goods."
"Understood, Minister." Taking a chance, Vendical stood. "I'm glad you could visit us here and clarify matters. I'll correct any deficiencies slowing down our report schedule and emphasize to my staff that urgency is as important as diligence."
Minister Colm stared up at Vendical for a long moment. To the scientist's relief, the man seemed willing to accept Vendical's reassurances at face value. "Very well," he said, shoving himself erect. "I leave this affair in your capable hands." He paused and poked Vendical rather painfully in the chest. "Just see to it that you don't disappoint me."
Resisting the temptation to rub his chest -- or worse, to stab the minister with his own finger -- Vendical escorted the CSC agent to the door. "Have a quick and pleasant trip home," he said cheerily. "I believe you'll be pleasantly surprised at the numbers we'll be sending you."
In unison with the closing door, Vendical felt his posture sag. That fat little runt did not deserve a minute of his precious day. Unfortunately, a single word from that drell-head could send them all packing...or to jail.
Returning to his desk, Vendical activated his server. "Display the data and graphic summaries from the latest test run on neuter number seventeen."
A river of numbers flowed along the left side of the screen in counterpoint to the holographic displays marching down the right half of the monitor in a multi-hued proclamation of their lack of progress. However neuters managed to bind humans and Anjehnians into Silence Teams capable of using their boosted and directed telekinetic powers to penetrate Shields and disable their generators, Vendical and his fellow scientists had a long way yet to travel before they could reproduce that process independently of the neuter's presence. While the overall location of the neural generator responsible for both Team formation and Sandalian sexual union had been located and mapped, precisely how that organic engine accomplished its task remained a mystery yet to be unravelled.
Given years more and a ceaseless supply of neuters and resources, Vendical knew the answer would be theirs. Those conditions, however, appeared less and less likely to be met. Pressures from myriad nodes of power were fast converging. If he could not withstand those forces long enough to transform his "pre-truths" into indisputable facts, he would be tossed aside and forgotten as readily as those neuter subjects which had died in the earlier phases of this project.
Time...just a bit more. He knew he could win through with just a brief reprieve. He knew he could.
With renewed confidence, he bent closer to the screen. First, identify the crucial fulcrums controlling the nature of their findings. Alter them -- just slightly -- here, here, and here. Then...ah, yes! Much better. The upward trending lines of their simulations increased at a much steeper rate now. Minister Dall Colm -- or whoever actually read these reports -- would now be pleasantly surprised when he checked the work of the Meylan scientists.
A few minutes more revising the discussion sections to match the new results completed his work. Transferring the original report (delivered to him three days before) to an encrypted and secure data cube, he erased the less optimistic file and its invisible markers from his server. Pleased, he tucked the small, ebony block in his wall safe.
Pausing beside his desk, he stared at his still active server. It was still not too late to change his mind. No one but he had access to these files. A few words and this "pre-truth" report would vanish forever. Eventually he would be replaced for his "incompetence," of course, yet he would...
"In two days, send report number A73 to Minister Dall Colm, Department of Scientific Affairs, CSC headquarters," he told the server.
As the screen blanked, Vendical balled his fingers into fists, ignoring as best he could the faint trembling abruptly infecting his hands.
No, that report was not accurate, he admitted to himself. It would be, though. It had to be. He would make it so.
Swallowing dryly, he stepped from his office and closed the door behind him. A warm smile to his secretary, Darci Helms, and he proceeded unhurriedly towards the main laboratory.
As he walked down the long hallway, Vendical realized his wife, Elanna, would have urged him to make the very decision he had. For that he was grateful. When Elanna became unhappy, no one remained happy for long.