"How long before you have the necessary repairs completed, Sub-group-leader Bronnam?" Prime-leader Adrall Tratton leaned back in his black chair and regarded the young soldier standing before him in rigid attention. The sub-group-leader's dark eyes, however, roamed with the restless energy of a trapped mell.
"They should have the air-transport operational within three days, sir." The words dropped into the air like separate bits of wood chopped from a stick.
"'They'?" Tratton asked mildly, steepling his fingertips.
Tratton raised a brow.
"I will. Sir. I believe I should have the work done in three days."
Oily drops sheened the youth's scaled forehead. "Will, sir. I will be finished in three days."
Tratton nodded. "Dismissed."
Sub-group-leader Bronnam snapped a shoulder salute, spun smartly, and rushed from Tratton's office with the speed of that proverbial mell fleeing the extended claws of a tail-twitching des.
With a disgruntled, strangled sigh, the alien leader lowered his clenched hands to his lap.
Save me from conscripts, he thought sourly. What he needed on Abelard were more career officers and enlisted soldiers, not these basic training graduates he had been assigned to accomplish what was already a difficult enough mission. They came to him lucky if they had learned which end of a blaster to point at whom.
Rocking forward, he picked up the report delivered by Bronnam as though it were a particularly odious piece of excrement. As he studied the stark facts detailed on the sheet, he rubbed absently at his left temple.
"May they all wander the stars," he said to the room. The curse could apply equally well to a large number of recipients. At the moment, his concern fell on the fact that at present, the Gusteenians had no air power to call upon should the need arise. None.
Soon after he had returned to Roark with Colonel Ingraham, the mechanics had reported that a worn control mechanism in the repulsers would undoubtedly fail in the near future if the air-transport continued to fly. If it locked on takeoff, the transport would be fine...as long as the pilot need never make a landing. A rather unlikely prospect, Tratton thought ruefully.
Disgusted, he tossed the paper away. Fluttering indecisively, it seesawed to the cluttered desktop. The mechanics "assured" him the only viable option for repairing the problem required further cannibalization of their remaining air-transport: a secret he hoped the Abelardans had not yet learned. At this rate, even that craft would soon vanish as surely as had the others from that accursed Abelardan raid on Madison so long ago.
"Damn." Sometimes he envied the humans' proficiency for profanity.
He half-suspected that the mechanics' "only viable option" veiled a lazy unwillingness to engage in the truly hard work of engineering a suitable substitute. Such an option would not consume more of their already diminishing resource base, yet the common soldier seemed incapable of grasping that fact, of envisioning any contingency beyond the range of the current crisis.
The other half of Tratton, however, knew better. The Comtel simply did not possess any great capacity for manufacturing artifacts of great sophistication. And the Abelardan facilities they captured rarely survived the sabotage of the retreating enemy. In the Gusteenian army of today, "highly honed skills" did not rank very highly in the criteria for service. Sad to say, computers could shoulder only so much of the burden.
Pensively, the general gazed at the wall opposite him. The flattering -- and obligatory -- portrait of the Gusteenian Supreme-leader and titular head of the military, Kalil Barboon -- hung there. Like an unwanted guest snooping in every corner of your house for evidence of ineptitude and moral corruption, that unsmiling visage haunted Tratton's increasingly disturbing dreams.
No need for such frivolities as complete machining capabilities, the overseer committees had assured him. Or for such luxuries as an extensive replacement inventory, more troops and firepower, or medical and food supplies that would render his forces independent of local Abelardan caches. Barboon, himself, had planned this mission, they had confided to him. Just follow Barboon's plans with such glorious alacrity that the industrial base of Abelard would be begging to serve him and thereby gain his favor.
Tratton rose and walked to the wet bar built into a rear corner of the office. As the ice crackled beneath the splash of amber whiskey -- another lovely human invention -- he surveyed the quarters he had commandeered after the Madison raid had so disrupted their plans. Small enough compensation for the destruction of those oh-so-precious and oh-so-few air-transports.
If nothing else, he thought wryly, these recalcitrant citizens of Abelard knew how to relax. The finely fabricated and decadently comfortable furniture; the richly waxed wooden paneling; the elegant decorations and sculptures which added to the esthetic appeal of his surroundings; the wet bar, sound and video system, not to mention the private bath: all bespoke a level of commitment to individual enjoyment experienced by none on Gusteen except the elite leaders of society and their favorites. Here on Abelard, however, even the owner of a common resort devoted to the yearnings and leisure desires of the average working drone lived under conditions the normal Abelardan considered little better than his own.
Tratton sipped the whisky. So smooth... How long would such delicacies remain available after the Gusteenian occupation was complete? For a delicious minute, he stood there savoring the full flavor of his confiscated libation and submerged weighty affairs of state under the gossamer web of bodily sensations too frequently denied.
Tilting back his head, he dripped out the last of the single drink per day he permitted himself. From his own recent personal experience, Tratton did not find that alcohol and martial prowess possessed any particularly positive correlation.
Besides, too many issues clamored for his constant attention. Indulging in one of his favorite pastimes would serve only to mire him even deeper in the morass of Abelard. If he were ever going to fulfill his mission of transferring essential personnel, technology, and material resources back to Gusteen, he first had to unravel the knot of what powered Abelardan resistance. If the obliteration of their largest city, Madison, did not suffice to break their will, what conceivable motivation might he bring to bear that would make his adversaries more amenable to achieving his goals.
All of which made the conundrum of this latest confrontation even more important to understand. His desire to peek behind the curtains flowed least of all from Barboon's increasingly dire threats to replace him -- dispatching the Comtel, even with its truncated capabilities, had strained the Gusteenian economy more than Barboon would admit. Sending a replacement vessel or recalling the Comtel sans compensating Abelardan wealth in its holds could only be termed ridiculous. No. The unusual had always intrigued him, and it existed here in depth.
Why had Colonel Ingraham personally led what by any normal standards qualified as nothing more than a straightforward raid for supplies? Important, perhaps, in replenishing diminished military goods, but hardly a major undertaking necessitating the presence of someone Tratton had recently learned ranked highly in Abelardan military affairs.
That oddity led to an even more fascinating question: who had betrayed his -- or her (her: peculiar notions of soldiery these Abelardans promoted) -- his fellow soldiers? Apparently not all inhabitants of this exasperating planet were enamored of the society that had evolved here -- or should that be, devolved here? -- since its promising inception.
The cryptic message had arrived via the extraordinarily mundane channel of an encoded data stick left at the civilian liaison center he had established in Machanville. The small munitions factory there perched as the "jewel" in the meager Gusteenian crown of conquests. Few civilians remained in the town, but he had not yet abandoned his tarnished hope that one of his olive branches might yet bear fruit. While his media broadcasts had accomplished nothing, at least this one experiment had led to useful intelligence.
Though suspicious of that tempting tidbit, Tratton had willingly placed men and equipment at risk on the slim chance of ending the stalemate between his forces and the Abelardans. That precarious balance threatened to drag on into the foreseeable future if he did not soon take bold measures to tip it in his favor.
The counter-trap he had sprung had worked beautifully. Not only had the Abelardans been routed, he had managed to capture Colonel Ingraham. His source -- who called himself "Alex Hamilton" -- had insisted Ingraham was vital to a near future ploy of the Abelardans designed to gain ascendancy over the Gusteenians once and for all.
Tratton approached his desk and manually activated the intercom, leaving the visual blank.
"Have Colonel Ingraham brought to my office."
Glancing in a wood-framed wall mirror, Tratton checked his appearance. Scales growing more brittle with age...and stress. Uniform tapered and crisp over a flat-bellied body. Dark, intense eyes and sharp features arranged in a firm yet unthreatening expression. He needed to project unbending authority without suggesting any hint of fanaticism or cruelty. Whether Colonel Ingraham liked him could not be of less importance. His respect, however...
A discrete knock at the door caught his attention. Resuming his seat, Tratton closed his eyes a moment then cleared his throat.
"Yes." It was not a question.
Almost deferentially, the door swung inward. Colonel Ingraham stood rigidly between a pair of burly, well-armed guards. The Abelardan soldier was dressed in ill-fitting Gusteenian fatigues.
"You two may wait outside," Tratton said, waving to the prisoner's escort.
The soldiers exchanged wary glances but said nothing. Nodding, they backed away, easing the door shut behind them.
"Please, Colonel. Have a seat." Tratton indicated an overstuffed chair situated to face the desk at an angle.
Ingraham gave no indication he had heard the request. "Have my troops received the care I demanded? How will you dispose of the bodies? I'd also like to speak to Corporal Rodriguez."
"Yes. Any way you want. In good time," Tratton said smoothly. "Please. You can speak to me just as well sitting as standing. Plus, you do me the favor of not risking a crick in my neck."
Ingraham hesitated a moment as though considering options. Without comment, he perched himself on the edge of the chair.
"Have my soldiers been treating you satisfactorily?" Tratton asked.
"Yes, of course," he snapped. "Look, I know you're trying to put me at ease, become my 'friend,' and induce me to reveal information you can use against my own people. I'd appreciate it if you'd forego all such pointless effort and discuss a prisoner exchange with my superiors in Jefferson City."
Tratton lowered his pale palms onto the desk. "Yes. Of course. I'd forgotten how much you Abelardans despise ceremony or such things as diplomatic niceties."
Before Ingraham could react to the thinly disguised sarcasm, Tratton shifted gears and tone of voice. "I am happy to abandon this bantering. I've never been particularly fond of either des or mells...cats or mice, in your vernacular." Hardening his expression, he locked eyes with his opponent. "I know about the plan you have in the works to end this conflict. I intend to ensure it fails."
At this revelation, a brief yet definite spasm shook Colonel Ingraham's bruised body. Though he attempted to disguise his reaction by shifting position, the gesture came too late.
Barely, Prime-leader Tratton suppressed a grin. Volunteer part-time soldiers... Nearly as bad as conscripts.
Settling back into the chair, Ingraham waved a hand in negation. "You can't possibly know such a thing. No campaign like that exists."
With sharp-nailed index finger on cheek and blunt thumb under chin, Tratton allowed himself a small smile at last: a grim one. "Oh, no? Yet I have the information from a very reliable source."
The colonel harrumphed his opinion of that statement.
"Indeed," Tratton said, slowly leaning over his desk, "I received such confirmation from the very individual who revealed your puny raid against my convoy. This person made it possible for me to engulf you in a trap of my own devising. A trap which led to your capture, the capture of twelve others, and the destruction of over fifty of your most highly trained and specialized troops."
"Why you bloody bastard!" Ingraham spanned the distance from his chair to the desk in an instant. "How dare you sit there so smug, complacent, and condescending while discussing the deaths of my soldiers, my friends. Any one of them is worth a dozen of you."
Like a startled statue, Tratton sat frozen in position. Reflexes learned on Gusteen screamed that he pull his laser pistol from its molded holster and sear a hole through the brow of the man looming so closely before him.
Fighting that automatic reaction were the few insights he had achieved over the years into the Abelardan soul, in general, and the impressions he had gained into Colonel Ingraham's psyche, in particular, during their brief flight to Roark.
Instead of blasting the belligerent soldier or calling for assistance from his troops in the outer office, Tratton purposefully forced his body to relax. Though it ran counter to his training and inclinations, he let the hurricane of Ingraham's outburst wash over him uncontested.
With his pulse throbbing in his throat, Tratton waited until his bodily response subsided to a controllable level before replying.
"As I stated before, Colonel," he said in measured tones, "your loyalty to your troops is a mark of your good leadership. But this is war --"
"Started by you!"
"Yet capable of cessation at any moment by you," he said sternly. "We came here to invite Abelard to rejoin the galaxy. Trade between us would prove beneficial --"
"To whom?" Ingraham demanded.
"-- and permit us both to achieve more fruitful societies. You refused us. Yet we have much new to give each other."
Ingraham stepped back, fists riveted to his sides. "Do you mean like you gave us a 'new' Madison? One fused into a crater of glass? A vibrant city whose unsuspecting citizens vanished in a millisecond, crisped into dust along with their lives, their hopes, their happiness? Is that the nature of the 'benefits' you seek to bestow upon us?"
Tratton's lips compressed. "That...incident... Mmm... I was not entirely free in my decision making at that time."
"So. You were 'just following orders.' Is that it? Is that your excuse? The favorite rationalization of tyrannical butchers throughout history, whether human or alien."
Despite himself, Tratton felt Ingraham's accusations dig into him like razor-edged bekkle barbs into flesh. They elicited an emotional up-welling he did not care to contemplate or to reveal. Inexorably, his control began to slip away like the scrabbling grip of a sweating climber clinging to an icy rope. That chaotic fog of spiraling feeling held the thing he most hated and despised...and feared.
"Colonel Ingraham," he ground out between tightened jaws, "sit down."
When the prisoner remained rooted before the desk, Prime-leader Tratton rose like a demon from the nether realms of legend and planted his fists firmly on the desk. "Sit down," he said in a subdued voice. "Now. Before I do something we will both regret."
The brooding undercurrent in Tratton's voice -- or perhaps the flashing lightning in his piercing gaze -- finally penetrated Ingraham's self-absorption. Stiffly, he backed up and carefully lowered himself to the plush cushion.
Mirroring that action, Tratton resumed his seat. His mouth felt as dry as Rost Desert sands, his lungs aching like balloons ready to burst.
"We can discuss such philosophical points another time," he said matter-of-factly. "The issue at hand is this mission you have planned against us. You can save lives on both sides by realizing now that your struggle to resist our presence here is futile. Work with me as an intermediary between your people and mine. Together we can negotiate a reasonable conclusion to this conflict. There's no justification for avoiding compromise once we each --"
"You don't know," Ingraham whispered, wide-eyed. "You have no clue in hell what we have planned." He brayed unsteady laughter. "You were bluffing the whole time."
Angrily, Tratton stared at his counterpart. "And yet your men are still dead." He regretted the slip as soon as the words hit the air. But something once said cannot be unsaid.
Immediately Ingraham sobered from his near hysterical state. "Yes. Yes, they are. And I have you and your 'friend' to thank for that. So. I overstated the situation. We do have a traitor rotting in our ranks. He sold us out to you. How much did you pay him?"
"Nothing. He delivered the information anonymously."
The colonel winced. "Bad enough to betray your self and your world for a price. What horror could possible have befallen him that he would do so gratis?"
Ingraham's gaze dropped wearily to his lap. After a space, his expression brightened. "He sent you a free meal to whet your appetite then revealed a new temptation. For that one, he'll make you pay." Suddenly he spat on the carpet. "I hope he bleeds you dry," he said bitterly. "When we catch him, he'll wish he had never been born. I hope he finds your lucre and gratitude worth the risk."
Tratton regarded the anguished, defiant features of the man he had now lost as a potential ally or source of voluntary information. Perhaps he would have to turn him over to Group Intelligence, after all. What a waste of a good human...
Instantly, the two soldiers burst into the room. Quickly they scanned the room, their needler rifles held at the ready.
At least some things still work right.
"Take him back to his cell. I'll finish with him later."
With stiff dignity, Ingraham allowed himself to be hauled away.
Fuming at his own clumsiness, Tratton smashed a fist against the arm of his chair. "Damn it! Damn it all to vacuum." Unaccustomed as he was to having his desires thwarted, he found the Abelardan's obstinance even more exasperating.
Yet the meeting with Ingraham had not resulted in a complete fiasco. Despite his resolve to the contrary, the colonel had essentially confirmed that a mission of some type -- a major undertaking, in fact -- did lay in the near-completion stages. Tratton's pseudonymous source had once more proven his reliability.
If only the stupid fellow had the brains to contact him soon and in a more direct fashion...he might yet forge plans to forestall any foolishness on the part of Colonel Ingraham's gang of conspirators. Enough humans...and Gusteenians...had been killed already.
The Abelardans did have the correct idea: a death's blow had to be delivered, and soon; one which would irrevocably alter the matrix of power. As a soldier in the service of the Supreme-leader, Tratton's duty lay in crystal clarity before him. He must ensure that when the fatal stroke fell, the neck under the blade must belong to Abelard and not to Gusteen.
Gazing at the video-window, he surveyed the vast wilderness dropping away so precipitously from Roark.
One way or another, he vowed, I'll bring peace to this world. Of that, at least, he was certain.