Jaleene Henderson glanced at Branson Texal's minute smile then resumed her interrogation of her long-time friend, Gislain Rendau. "Why did you leave? The rally finally gained some momentum, and you vanish at the first sign of difficulty." Shoving aside her half-finished beer, she concentrated her displeasure into a severe frown.
Slouched back in the wooden bench, Gislain returned Jaleene's accusing stare, his pale-green eyes narrowing beneath his lowered brow. "I agreed to help with your assignment," he said in a voice brittle with angry resentment, "because you begged me to."
Straightening, Jaleene said, "I most certainly did not 'beg' you. I --"
Ignoring her indignation, Gislain said sharply, "I did not agree to get my head bashed in or to get arrested." He paused as a new thought occurred to him. "And where in new hell did you and Branson go?" he asked, waving at the still-silent activist. "When that Security line swept through, I noted a distinct emptiness on the stage."
Primly, Jaleene pressed her lips together. "Surely you didn't expect us to submit ourselves voluntarily to arrest? After all, Branson and I and the others had to be their primary targets. Without us, the protest movement would collapse."
Barely shaking his head, Branson touched Jaleene's bare arm with his long fingers. "Please, Jaleene," he said softly. "Don't overstate our case." As Jaleene swivelled to face him, he said, "I'd like to think the movement possesses enough power and vitality of its own to survive our absence. If not, our hope of ending the Draft and the Silence Wars is much more tenuous then I feared."
Exhaling a breath, Jaleene studied Gislain's tense face. Reluctantly, she tossed up her hands. "Well... Fine then. But our arrest would definitely blunt all the progress we've achieved to date. Besides, they wouldn't have arrested you anyway, Gislain."
Sitting up, Gislain sputtered an incredulous laugh. "Oh, no? Maybe you didn't have a clear view from your oh-so-precarious position up there behind the podium, but from where I stood in the square when that club slapped against the side of my head, getting taken into custody loomed as a distinct probability." With a sweeping gesture, he indicated the camera resting on the table. "You're lucky to get your damn camera back without owing the university a hefty repair fee."
Jaleene tapped the tabletop. "That's another thing. How am I supposed to complete this assignment without sufficient footage?" Though physical film had long been surpassed by digital technology, much of the original terminology lingered. "The documentary is due in three weeks."
"I don't know," Gislain said, exasperated. Abruptly he slid toward the end of the bench. "I also don't care. I should have remembered that no good deed goes unpunished. You two and the whole protest movement have me imagining enemies."
Leaning heavily on Jaleene, Branson darted out a hand and snagged Gislain's sleeve. "What do you mean?"
Yanking his arm free, Gislain said, "What do you mean, what do I mean?"
"You said, 'enemies,'" Branson said calmly and evenly. "Has someone contacted you?"
Gislain slipped his now empty pack over one shoulder and rolled his eyes. "It's nothing. I just... On the way here, I simply had the odd impression that someone was observing or following me." He shrugged. "I know it's silly. I just --"
Jaleene blinked, startled, as Branson shoved her forcefully into the aisle. "Come on. Move it," he said. "Let's get out of here."
Ready to object, Jaleene stilled her tongue at sight of the concern drawing Branson's handsome face into a taut mask. Complying with his insistent urging, she headed for the rear exit, tugging at Gislain to follow.
As the trio burst into the mid-afternoon sunshine outside the Steele Door Cafe, Gislain grabbed a handful of Branson's shirt. "Where are you going?"
Scanning the otherwise empty alley in which they stood, Branson whispered harshly, "Thanks for leading them right to me, Gislain. We're lucky the place isn't already surrounded."
"Who is 'they'?" Gislain asked in irritated puzzlement.
"The CSC," Branson hissed. "They don't take kindly to dissenters to the official line."
Gislain barked a laugh. "I knew you've always had a big ego, Branson. But this...," he said, struggling for the proper words. "Excuse my bluntness, but you are a small-time activist on a tiny, half-forgotten world for a group whose total 'organization' consists of, what? Twenty or thirty tops. I hardly believe the CSC would waste resources keeping tabs on someone such as you."
Jaleene stiffened. "We're one of the latest worlds to be brought under the Draft," she said fiercely. "As they expand the Screening to more and more systems, they can't afford to tolerate even a seemingly minor opposition movement. They need to eliminate any spark that may flare into a conflagration. They have to do that precisely because their resources are stretched to the limit by these incessant Silence Wars. Delay too long in crushing an enemy, and they'd have to commit a far greater number of agents to wipe out a stronger and more widespread organization."
Gislain shook his head in something akin to pity. "If you feel better believing those delusions of grandeur, then go right ahead. At worst, though, Security might track you down and fine you for staging a rally without a permit or toss you in detention for a few days for disorderly conduct. Promise to obey their rules next time and they'd most likely suspend even that punishment."
"Damn it, Gislain," Jaleene snapped. "You don't even know what you're talking about. Why do you always have to be such a cynical pessimist?" Laying a palm on Branson's muscular forearm, she said, "Branson has sacrificed so much for the people of Meylan." Ignoring the retort quivering on Gislain's lips, she said, "He's dropped out of school with only a single term to go. He can't stay with his parents any longer but has to move constantly from safe house to safe house. He's practically penniless since his father cut off his funds. And for what? For his own sake? No! Because he wants to end the Draft and our participation in an insane conflict."
"Thank you, Jaleene," Branson said, smiling gently into her tear-filled eyes. "You know how much I've appreciated your support."
Jaleene beamed her appreciation of his thanks then looked defiantly at Gislain, daring him to defy her logic.
"I don't disagree with those goals," Gislain said. "I sincerely wish Embehloh had never created its impromptu Team on the Kendall and ended the Shield Peace by penetrating that ship's shield. Perhaps someday we'll surpass the fifty years of the Peace and achieve the kind of lasting decency Dr. Ching envisioned when he first invented shields. But we can't alter the Kendall incident or pretend the Consortium didn't use that information to conquer the base on Kaven's World. We can't ignore the past or the present in making our plans. We can't evade reality."
"Then don't criticize us," Jaleene said, reaching out a hand. "Help us."
"I've known you nearly all my life," Gislain said. "I've admired your fiery spirit and willingness to take risks. I've been less enthralled by your excesses, especially when you've listened to Branson's various outlandish schemes."
Jaleene's eyes widened at the insult, but Branson merely sighed wearily.
"You run from the imaginary danger of the CSC," Gislain said darkly, "and the very real threat of Security will trip you up. You complain about your documentary now, but what will your graduate committee say if you spend the rest of the semester behind bars? Work within the system as long as you can, Jaleene. You say Branson isn't in this for himself. If he were, I could at least admire that. If his own interests aren't involved in the equation, however, then he's a fool. For your own sake, Jaleene, don't toss aside your career in a fruitless gesture."
Balling her hands, Jaleene took a determined step towards her friend and stopped inches away. "Fine. If you won't stand with us, then run back to the safety of Elanna's little nest," she said, sneering. "I'm sure she'll protect you from the nasty ol' river dragons."
Gislain's face reddened. "Leave my mother out of this," he warned.
"If you enjoy playing by the rules so much," Jaleene said, shouting, "then your mother should prove to be your perfect companion!"
Gently, Branson drew Jaleene closer. "Come on. If Gislain chooses not to believe us, then that's his problem. Even if he's right, we need to be away from here. Detention by Security would be no better than arrest by the CSC."
Branson cocked his head to the side. "We'll discuss this all later. After you've calmed down."
For a recalcitrant moment more, Jaleene resisted both the activist's physical and psychological pressure. Half stumbling, she finally abandoned her position and followed Branson down the alley.
"Take care, Gislain," Branson said. "Watch your back."
As the duo rounded the nearest corner, Jaleene thought she heard Gislain's mumbled reply. At her hesitation, Branson clasped her hand tightly in his and continued on his way.
"This situation must be very hard on you, Elanna," Mrs. Jonson said, clucking her sympathy. "Having to maintain your household alone while your husband disappears half a world away to conduct his research on chen beast nervous systems. Of all things!" At the thought of what her hostess courageously endured, Mrs. Jonson's ample bosom rose and fell like a pair of pulsing balloons.
Nodding slowly, Elanna Rendau stared distantly into the glimmering golden surface of the plated teapot resting on the serving tray. Her reflection-distorted features peered at her in a comically tragic, long-suffering expression. Idly she wondered how she might best exploit Mrs. Jonson's frequently expressed sympathy. Setting aside such pleasant speculation, however, she lifted her gaze, batted away twin drops of moisture poised delicately in her grey eyes, and offered her bravest smile to the half dozen women seated comfortably around her favorite living room chair.
"My dearest, dearest friends," she said warmly. "You can't possibly imagine how much your weekly visits truly mean to me. While Vendical has struggled in his unpleasant surroundings to advance the cause of science, your support here in Meylan has served to ease my long, lonely days. The lightening of my burden is a gift I can never fully repay."
"Tell me, Elanna," Mrs. Smyth said, sipping gingerly at her steaming tea, "how has your son, Gislain, taken this extended absence of his father?"
"Oh, thank you so much for asking, Melanie." You bitch! "Gislain is such a quiet boy that it's a constant struggle to convince him to open up to me. You all know, of course, how close he's always been to his father?" She paused long enough to elicit the necessary nods...except from Melanie. "I'm afraid he's buried himself in his painting. He's always locked away in that silly guest cottage we converted at his insistence into a studio."
"'Locked'?" Vera Gwenn asked, arching a thin brow.
Elanna tilted her head. "Figuratively speaking, of course, my dear Vera." Waiting for the twitter of laughter to subside, Elanna gauged the split among her guests. Four had expressed sufficiently positive sentiment to place them solidly in her camp...at least for now. That left two who opposed her bid for social ascendancy. Unfortunately, one of those reluctant two was Melanie Smyth. Despite Elanna's increased visibility in charity work for the Meylan poor and the Silence Wars Survivors Fund, Melanie refused to proffer her endorsement of Elanna's quest to chair both fund raisers during the upcoming social season. Whether her recalcitrance rose from resentment of Elanna's recently expanded popularity or from some darker well, Elanna could not say. The insufferable woman certainly never vied for such obvious symbols of acceptance as committee chairs. This red-haired maven of Meylan's social hierarchy much preferred weaving her webs behind the scenes, binding and manipulating her prey towards goals only she fully understood.
Did she seek such advantage for herself from Elanna's desire for advancement? Or had Elanna somehow unwittingly transgressed a boundary only Melanie perceived? More than once over the years, Elanna had witnessed the status of an aspiring woman plummet after blinding tripping a landmill Melanie had cleverly camoflauged as a test of her implicit rival's perspicacity and skill at handling the unexpected.
"Gislain has always been a rather moody child," Elanna said woefully. "We do the best we can with him, but..." She shrugged her loss for an answer to her sorrowful dilemma.
"So you simply indulge his whims?" Melanie asked with deceptive innocence.
A tingling alarm flashed through Elanna. Did the crux of this issue rest on her answer to that question?
"Hardly 'indulge,' Melanie, my dear," she said. "As anyone knows, one cannot simply --"
The slamming of the front door brought Elanna up short. An expectant hush draped itself over the half-dozen women in the room. Elanna could not decide whether to be disappointed or relieved at the interruption.
Leaning forward to peer through the arched doorway and into the hall, Elanna caught a flash of blue and white clothes and unfashionably straight hair.
"Gislain?" she called out. A long moment passed with no response. Gamefully, she continued. "Do come in and greet our guests before you begin your work." Uncomfortable seconds slipped past. Anger at the stubbornness of her only child warred with fear that he would ignore her totally. How her cronies would judge her lack of influence in that case...
Rapidly considering and rejecting possibilities of how best to handle Gislain's aberrant behavior, she studiously avoided eye contact with her friends. Fortunately her quandary resolved itself when her wayward offspring stepped into the room. Almost diffidently, he held a chocolate brownie in one hand and a tall glass of amber tea in the other.
"Hello, Elanna," he said sullenly. Sipping at his drink, he nodded politely to the others arrayed about his mother.
Despite her best intentions, Elanna could not suppress the warmth flooding her face. The half-hidden smiles and whispered comments at Gislain's use of his mother's first name did nothing to ease the embarrassment her son seemed so adept at eliciting.
Stoically, Elanna forged ahead, a weak smile her only shield. "Did school go well today?"
A corner of Gislain's mouth drooped at that question. He covered the expression by consuming half of his treat in a single bite. "No school today." He nodded again and headed toward the hallway.
"Then what did you do?" Elanna asked, aware of the hardening sharp edge to her voice yet momentarily ignoring it.
Gislain paused, his gaze sliding across the women assembled before him as though they formed a panel of stylish though somewhat over-dressed judges in some kangaroo court. "I...met some friends of mine."
Elanna's fine-boned features seemed to push against her translucent skin. "Not that lovely Jaleene and handsome Branson?" she asked, forgetting to smile.
Gulping down a mouthful of tea, Gislain shrugged. "For a little while." Before his mother could continue her interrogation, he said, "If you ladies will excuse me, I have some projects I need to finish in my studio."
Folded demurely in her lap, Elanna's hands curled briefly into hard-knuckled fists. Forcing her fingers to relax, she chuckled indulgently. "A perfect illustration of my earlier description," she said wistfully. Freed from the tense tableau, her guests added understanding laughter of their own. To Elanna's attuned ears, however, Melanie Smyth's amusement sounded far too heart-felt.
Steeling herself to the reality of the spoiled opportunity, Elanna gracefully shifted the conversation towards more innocuous realms of discourse. Her infuriating child's inconcionable behavior had destroyed any reasonable chance to broach the issue of the positions she sought. Her careful build-up to that afternoon's gathering of the social elite had been for naught. How many weeks Gislain's thoughtless rudeness had cost her, she could not guess. Already, though, a corner of her mind weighed how best to repair the inevitable damage and when next to target her push for control of Meylan culture.
In any event, she promised herself that Gislain would pay dearly for his transgression of those unspoken rules by which she lived. He would soon learn to heel to her invisible leash or he would suffer the consequences of his rebellious impudence. His lack of respect for her authority and guidance was thoroughly unsatisfactory. Not satisfactory, at all.