"I can't believe this!" George Haverman tossed his hands into the air. His pacing around the Council chamber increased in tempo along with his mounting agitation. Gannon found himself growing more irritated with each heavy footstep of the balding Council member. He said nothing, however, as he listened to George continue his tirade.
"Ingraham assured us his raid on that convoy would be decisive. He told us there was no doubt the munitions and supplies had been loaded at Madison base. He stated, right here in this chamber," George said, waving his left hand to indicate the wood-paneled room, "that no Gusteenian troops were evident in the area. We only had to intercept the column, snatch the goods intended for storage at Roark, and Tratton would be completely fooled. He'd concentrate on chasing down the raiders and never think of fixing his attention on our activities on the coast."
Tony Roush raised a bushy brow. Smiling wryly, he glanced at Gannon then leaned back in his chair. The springs squeaked at the shifting of his considerable bulk. "Your biting sarcasm offers us a wonderful display of your outstanding wit, George, but it doesn't help us much in dealing with our problem -- or should I say, problems?" Tony scanned the other faces scattered around the oval oak table.
George paused in his circuit and pointed a finger at the high ceiling. "But I believe that --"
Tony snapped forward and raised a restraining hand. "We all know what you believe, George. Those arguments will have to wait for a more appropriate occasion."
George made a move as though he would object. Instead, he thinned his pale lips and dropped into his chair with a loud thud.
Tony eased himself into a more comfortable position and interlaced his fingers behind his neck. "It doesn't take a genius to realize what happened. Ingraham and his soldiers were set up. Betrayed." His causal tone suddenly hardened into brittle dry ice. "Fucked over by one of our own."
Gannon slid his gaze towards the defiant expression compressing Haverman's aquiline features. If he would demonstrate even a scrap of true remorse or concern over what had transpired in that mountain pass...
"Maybe now you'll be ready to listen to me." Even though she sat as the youngest member of the Council, Tatia Sanchez gave no evidence of hesitancy or bashfulness.
Gannon considered her flowing blonde hair, finely formed features, and well-proportioned body. Not for the first time, he wondered what had induced her to actually volunteer to complete her dead father's term.
Sighs escaped the other two Council members, Jim McKenzie and Alice Chang. Tony refrained from any overt displeasure. He had confided in Gannon over more than one beer that he sincerely wished another mind inhabited the luscious body of Tatia Sanchez. That way, he would not feel so repulsed by the idea of actually approaching her and proposing they share a few bodily fluids. For the present, Tony had said wistfully, he would confine himself to worshiping the outward shell of this gorgeous woman and seeking to convert her inner realm into coherence with reality.
If not for the seriousness of the situation and his own fatigue, Gannon would have smiled at the lust wreathing Tony's handsome though pudgy countenance.
Tatia shot dagger-like glances at her audible detractors but did not desist in her determination to make her point.
"For three years now we've had those Gusteenian predators circling our weakening bodies...," she said fervently.
"Speak for yourself," Jim McKenzie muttered.
"...and still you refuse to shift our society onto a full wartime footing."
Tony spread his hands. "But taxes, Tatia? Conscription? Curfews and rationing?" he asked, near pleading.
Tatia nodded decisively. "At a minimum." She ticked off the points on her long, tapered fingers. "We need to take over command of all war related production facilities. Eliminate manufacture of any frivolous consumer goods. Step up our efforts to educate our citizens."
"You mean brainwash people with your propaganda," Alice spat out.
Tatia did not miss a beat. "No, I do not." She bent back another finger. "We should centralize command and control and gather our Warriors into one elite force instead of having them scattered throughout our militia units like raisins in a pudding."
"Now, Tatia, you don't really believe all that, do you?" Tony asked indulgently.
"And I'll thank you not to patronize me, Tony Roush," she said, pounding her small fist against the polished table top.
Gannon grinned at the rosy glow spreading across Tony's cheeks and ears. The smile faded as he glimpsed in Tatia's alluring eyes the true depth of her contempt for the societal rules under which she had grown to adulthood.
With lips pursed, Tony folded his arms across his chest and glared at the beautiful woman sitting across the table from him. "Is there anything else you'd like to add, Councilwoman Sanchez?"
Tatia fingered the stylus she had picked up from the comp-pad opened in front of her. Frowning, she tossed down the implement and half-turned away. "What's the use? You'll never see the truth and vote for what's necessary. We could lose a thousand troops, a hundred Ingrahams, and still you'd insist upon your archaic rules and traditions. You'll either get us all killed or enslaved, but you'll still be able to claim you maintained the precious purity of abstract teachings of men who died a hundred years ago. Those men could not possibly have imagined or foreseen the kind of dangers we face today." Her shapely mouth contorted into a sneer. "You're all hopeless and pathetic." Bitterness seeped from her voice like water from a saturated earthen dam. "You make me sick."
Embarrassed silence stalked the room as Tatia finished her indictment. Bodies shifted. The gentle whoosh of the ventilators became more noticeable with each passing second.
Uncertainly, George cleared his throat. His hands fluttered on his lap as he struggled to phrase his words. "As usual, Tatia overstates her case while simultaneously bringing valuable insights to our attention."
"Oh, George..." Alice said despondently.
George shook his head. "No. It's true. As she says, the status quo is accomplishing nothing, or at least nothing positive. We're practical men and women here on Abelard -- I mean, clearly that's the only way we've managed to survive since the early, rocky days of our colonization -- but, I swear, listening to our deliberations here and to discussions among too many of our constituents, I'm almost persuaded that Abelard is a haven for ivory tower intellectuals."
"And, of course, you would never qualify as one of those, would you, George?" Jim McKenzie asked maliciously.
Gannon observed that George either did not catch the thinly veiled insult or chose to ignore it.
"Tatia has some valid points."
"Such as?" Tony asked coolly.
"We do live in different times now. The original colonists would never recognize the kind of society in which we exist today. What may have been appropriate to a small, tightly knit group of relatively homogeneous individuals located at a single site can hardly be extrapolated to a mixed society of hundreds of thousands of people scattered across half a world." He smiled ingratiatingly. "That just seems so obvious a fact to me that I really cannot fathom why you and so many other people fail -- or refuse -- to acknowledge it. Why should you or I or anyone else," he said, opening his arms expansively, "be straitjacketed by the kinds of outmoded and unrealistic strictures which prevent us from dealing directly with the Gusteenians? We need new ideas which permit us to work out a mutually acceptable agreement, one that would lead to a cessation of such hostilities as Warrior Reeves has described to us." He nodded politely in Gannon's direction. "The key word is 'relevance,' an idea sadly lacking in the ideas bequeathed to us by our ancestors."
"And just what would you have us do, George?" Gannon asked suddenly.
"We don't have time for this, Gannon," Jim said. "We've all heard this before. I don't --"
Gannon held up a hand, palm outward. "No, Jim. I've been out in the field for quite awhile now. I want George to refresh my memory as to just how I might avoid all that...unpleasantness." With a serious expression on his face, he placed his arms on the table and clasped his hands.
George blinked. "Why...thank you, Warrior. Um...that's very kind of you. And very open-minded, too, I might add," he said significantly as he viewed the other Council members.
His brows lowered in thought. "You must realize, of course, that these proposals are only rough approximations of what we would actually do. Since I've been unable to interest very many others in a full debate on these ideas, they have not benefited as yet from the honing they might otherwise have acquired in the fires of public discourse. Please bear that in mind."
Ever so slightly, Gannon inclined his head.
"Well... We must take as a given that the Gusteenians possess technological superiority over us." George chuckled in statement of the obvious. "After all, we no longer hold the power for interstellar flight. Indeed, I always entertained serious doubts as to whether Colonel Ingraham could have fulfilled his promise even to orbit the final shuttle we do possess."
Alice half-rose from her chair. Her white-knuckled fists pressed against the table. "You chicken shit little fucker. I ought to --"
"Let him finish, Alice," Gannon said sharply.
Stung, Alice regarded the Warrior with a puzzled expression. Without retort, she resumed her seat, though she appeared less than happy with the idea.
"Go on, George," Gannon urged softly.
George glanced uncertainly from Gannon to Alice and back again. His furrowed brows mirrored the vague confusion on the other Council members' features.
"I meant to cast no aspersions on Colonel Ingraham," George said slowly. "I'm simply striving for a realistic assessment of our situation. As I would hope we all are." No one offered to rebut him. "In any event, their weapons are obviously superior to ours. Who, of course, could forget Madison?"
George interrupted himself to pour a glass of water from a chrome-covered, insulated pitcher. His reflection spread into a smeared distortion of himself on its curved surface. After sipping from the sweating, blue-tinted glass, he licked his lips. "Additionally, though Warrior Hansen fortunately destroyed three of their air-transports, two are still operational and quite capable of inflicting considerable damage upon us. While we have managed to upgrade our own aircraft since the initiation of this conflict, I still question our capabilities to match the maneuverability and firepower of the aliens. Our production and research have always been concentrated more in the biological than mechanical realm." He gestured in Tony's direction. "And since you have consistently voted down Tatia's proposals to develop biological weapons that would permit us to exploit our natural superiority, I'm afraid our hands will remain tied."
Gannon caught Tony's disgruntled look and lifted his left-index finger in mute warning.
George pulled back one corner of his mouth. "While we don't know the precise number of Gusteenian personnel, we can reasonably guesstimate that there are over three thousand troops on the ground at Madison, Roark, and elsewhere. A few hundred remain aboard the Comtel at any one time. Their shuttle rotates at least one hundred troops back to orbit every month. So -- at least in terms of potential manpower -- we do have a nominal advantage. But, again, a man with a blaster is worth fifty wielding rocks."
"And given those facts, we should...?" Gannon prompted.
"We should recognize that pissing into the wind is not a good idea," George said, grinning. No one else smiled. Coughing, he flattened his expression. "We should bow to the inevitable and do everything within our power to avoid any more tragedies such as the recent massacre suffered by the soldiers under Colonel Ingraham's command."
George placed a fingertip against his lips. "We need to acknowledge that negotiation is the key to a successful society. By opening a dialogue with Prime-leader Tratton as he so frequently urged, we could achieve an immediate cease-fire. We should go into any such discussions firmly and resolutely, of course, knowing that the fate of our world hangs on what we say and do. Integrating the Gusteenians into our society will remove any incentive they have for further combat."
"Integration?" Gannon asked.
George nodded eagerly. "Yes! Let them share in the running of our government, share in conducting our business activities and cultural events. Once they have a stake in our lives, they'll do everything within their power to see that our affairs run smoothly."
"'Smoothly'...," Tony said.
"Of course. And that's just the start. Once we achieve equilibrium here, we will be able to establish trade with Gusteen itself. Perhaps even other worlds under their control! Just think of the possibilities. The aliens have given us back the stars. We should almost be grateful that --"
"'Grateful'?" Like the summit of a swelling volcano, Gannon rose slowly from his seat. Quietly the chair rolled back and away from him. Subdued throughout most of the Council meeting, he let the full force of his personality pour forth.
As the Warrior seemed to expand his presence in the room, George shrank further and further into his chair, cowering before the intensity radiating from Gannon's expression.
"Grateful? You're saying we should be thankful the Comtel came to Abelard? That in the long run the Gusteenians will save us from the provincial world you cannot bear to accept as your own?"
"I never said --"
"You mention Madison. You ask us who could forget it. Apparently you have." Gannon held his voice tightly in check, its softness all the more arresting for the energy seething so closely beneath its fragile surface. "You and too many like you continue to parrot the facts of our history, but you lack any conception of what those facts mean."
Gannon curled his fingers into cages. "When we refused to accept Tratton's initial demands for surrender, he slagged Madison...as a demonstration. Nearly twenty thousand men, women, and children snuffed out in an instant. Hopes, desires, and lives we here on Abelard can never recover no matter how many worlds we or our descendants visit."
"I don't mean --"
"But Tratton miscalculated. All he accomplished was strengthening our resolve to resist him and his kind. The only options we left him were total destruction of our cities or a war fought on our terms. The former course would deprive him of the loot he came here to seize. The latter path meant a conflict he could not possibly win. His only out lies with people who would sell us out to save their own sorry and worthless hides."
George jumped to his feet. "Damn it, Gannon, you're distort--"
Gannon stabbed the air in the Councilman's direction. George backpedaled into his chair and tumbled to the carpeted floor. Like a bolt from a crossbow, Gannon stormed around the end of the table and loomed over the panicking man.
"As disgusting as Sanchez's notions are, they are at least more honest than your mealy-mouthed trash. You use the language of voluntary contracts and pretend it applies to men whose only argument emerges from the barrel of a blaster."
The Warrior stepped forward until his legs straddled the prone object of his exploding wrath. "You prattle about 'negotiation' as though the principles of a just human society were just as fickle as matters of taste. But the truth we live by here on Abelard has not changed since the days of the original colonists any more than the law of gravity has. On the level of an asteroid or a galaxy, it remains the same. The truth is the truth."
Gannon knelt until his face was mere inches from the other man's. "You don't 'compromise' with a poisonous snake or try to 'integrate' it into your family. You either remove it or you kill it. You don't pretend it's amenable to reason and persuasion."
Relentlessly, Gannon bored his gaze into George Haverman's pale blue eyes. "The only thing we can thank the Gusteenians for is bringing living corpses like you to the surface. At least now we can judge just how deeply the rot has penetrated in our society. Sanchez merely wants to transform us into a mirror image of our enemy. You want us to extend our necks to their swords and volunteer to become their slaves. You phrase it to sound 'reasonable,' but that makes you all the more dangerous. Better the open virulence of Tatia and her ilk. She doesn't hide behind the very thing she's trying to destroy."
Grasping Haverman by the front of his tan cotton shirt, Gannon hoisted the Councilman erect. His arms trembled. His flushed face melted into a visage of rage, frustration, and disgust.
The Warrior never discovered what he might have done next. Pudgy fingers dug into the hard muscles of his left arm. "Don't do it, Gannon," Tony said quietly. "Your speech was beautiful. Don't undercut it now by violating the very principles you just defended so eloquently."
The tableau held for a long moment. Wide-eyed, George did not struggle in the grip of the much larger and stronger man who almost literally held his life in his hands. When Gannon squeezed his eyes tightly shut, Haverman sighed a breath of relief.
A shudder shook the Warrior's steel-sprung frame. Bit by bit, he forced his body to relax. In a travesty of tenderness, he released his hold on Haverman. Breathing heavily, his gaze darted from one Council member's face to another.
With a slow beat, McKenzie started to clap. After a moment, Alice and Tony joined him.
The terror in George's eyes melted into murderous hatred.
Tatia's frigid stare never left Gannon's. That, he could handle. The sparks of...something else... lurking behind those blue eyes, however, reawakened that dreaded specter of uncertainty within his soul. It was an uncertainty he almost feared to dispel.