"You would ask of us then, my lord... a mass genocide?"
Though Cronon spoke softly he projected his voice throughout the chamber, coyly lacing accusation through a cadence of wonder, and Lord Kal stiffened visibly. Lord Kal saín Alar, Zemplar of the House Alliance, stood at the viewing portal, his black mood reflected clearly in the sweeping pane of glass. Chancellor Cronon, second of the Council, stood high center of the loggia, while the quorum of Advisors sat throughout the curved tiers of the gallery; fidgeting, posturing, or brooding disconsolate.
A secret smile twitched at Crononís lips as he regarded Lord Kalís rigid pose, and while the Zemplar stood silent he allowed his gaze to drift to the landscape visible through the clouded portal. Scattered clusters of trees crouched in a grimy shroud of haze, stunted and misshapen. A single moon festered dirty-grey on the horizon-somewhat mindful of a necrotic cyst. The moonís dull aura faded fast across the murky night sky, and just as quickly Crononís perverse amusement fell away.
The poisoned landscape beyond called a stark reminder to the Councilís purpose in meeting tonight.
Kal turned to face the assembly, and his gaze came to rest upon Cronon. A fleeting shadow, near indiscernible, crossed Kalís face. The Zemplarís veiled contempt certainly came as no surprise to Cronon.
"Council Advisors..." Lord Kal drew his words out long and weighty. "The time for vacillation is long past. Tonight we must agree upon some means to salvage whatever remains of our future. Simply put; today we take aggressive action to reclaim our home world, or we do nothing-and leave ourselves less than that." His eyes came round to lock on Cronon. "You have heard the Chancellor condemn my tactic. He labels it barbaric; he would have you quail from it." Kal pressed his lips thin. "It is no surprise that the Chancellor exaggerates his point, but I will concede some merit to his warning, if not to his purpose."
Crononís eyes widened and he leaned forward to study Kal, combing knobby fingers through his scraggly beard. The thick-skulled Zemplar openly acknowledges my dire omen? What gambit does he play tonight?
Kal released Crononís gaze to sweep the Council with his own. "We have no choice, gathered Advisors, but to come to terms with reality. Our harsh and cruel actuality is that severe casualties are inevitable. But then..." he shrugged; an oddly dismissive gesture, "is that not already the case? We-our families, our friends-continue to fall like so many splintered trunks in a freeze-broken forest."
Kal extended a culpatory finger toward Cronon. "The Chancellor casts his sage wisdom-he advises that we merely decree additional, more severe, restrictions by which the lunar depots must abide. Surely you see the futility in that? What might we expect should the Council simply advise the lunar colonies that, from this day forward, all Harvest is forbidden? Current allotments are ignored, and so we would further restrict them?"
Kal began his agitated pace. "Some of the lunar collectives are little more than loosely-bound gangs. Misfits; pirates even-those who follow no code of ethic. Many have developed an exceptional talent for misappropriating resource to suit their purpose." He stopped to face the quorum, nodding grimly. "The sad truth of it is this: the coloniesí need for water is as desperate as our need to deny them. One faction must fail. I would sacrifice the lunar territories, to spare the home world!"
Cronon turned to watch the Council stir. This was the crux of it; whatever decision was made, some harsh consequence would ensue.
Kal resumed his pace, the thud of his heels echoing through the half-empty chamber. "Know this, Advisors. Once apprised of our intentions the colonists would scatter like leaves on the wind, their Harvest fleets secreted away beyond our grasp. The vessels would be fitted with armor and armament, and the colonies would become the dire enemy that we have not the time, nor the resource, to endure. I see no option but to destroy as much of their fleet as we are able-and with no warning."
Cronon swiveled to watch short, bulbous Pakat come to his feet, and he nodded encouragement to the Advisor.
"But what of our recent findings, my lord?" said Pakat. "Do they not suggest a plausible alternative?"
Kal clicked his tongue. "I have read your studies, Pakat; I understand what this theoretical purification procedure would entail. How can we believe that such an improbable process has even the slightest chance of proving viable?" He stared blankly at the squat advisor. "What I believe, Pakat, is that yours is simply one more diversion-a seductive veil of misdirection tailored for no purpose but to forestall action."
Pakat spluttered. "N... Now see here! We are well beyond the theoretical stage! Weíve conducted innumerable simulations, and weíve actually performed the Rejen procedure in a controlled environment!"
"Your simulation is an artificial contrivance, fully contained. There are no complicating variables extant, and your model is a fraction of a fraction in size. How comparable to the full planet and its biosphere might that be?"
Pakat huffed. "We can hardly conduct the procedure in planetary proportion before weíve proven it on a lesser scale," he replied stiffly. "That is scientific procedure."
Kal sighed. "And that is all well and good, but we have no time for your group of learned men to ramp up their science project." His voice took a steeled edge. "Who among us would be so willing to give over the planet? With every passing day the blight tightens its coil, claiming our habitat as its own." He slammed a palm on the podium. "The pestilence must be purged, now! The Chancellor warns of genocide, I warn of extinction in a biosphere forever ruined!" Kal took a deep breath and calmed his voice.
"We have launched genetic and biological attacks on the microbe, but it always proves capable of sufficient mutation to survive our efforts. It recovers, ever more resilient. Does it not go without saying that before we can reverse the blightís incursion, we must first halt its growth? We know that a drying atmosphere, resulting from excessive Harvest, contributes greatly to the microbeís ability to propagate. I daresay that our course of action is plainly writ-we must stop the pillaging of the planetís atmospheric moisture. We must halt... all... Harvest."
Pakat opened his mouth, and Kal raised both hands.
"Enough. As mediator of the Council, I call for a binding vote on my resolution."
Bloody mothers! Cronon smacked his palms against the forward railing, shaking his head angrily.
Kal opened his arms to the gathering. "At first light on the morrow, we meet here to cast lots. Take time now to argue your points, to resolve your concerns as best youíre able. I will take my leave; youíve heard my arguments oft enough. My vote will be needed only in the case of a locked quorum."
Kal turned and strode for the door, and Cronon sank back into his chair, his squinted eyes scanning the assembly. Which way would the vote go? Truthfully, he could not say. Kal wielded considerable influence-some would follow him because he was Zemplar, others because he was Elder of House Alar. Many actually agreed with him on principal. Cronon exhaled a deep breath, his eyes fixed, unseeing, on the dais.
Kal must believe that he has the tally to prevail, else heíd not have called the vote.
He sat frowning. Cronon had separate issues with the colonies, issues related to the Harvest only by circumstance. If the Zemplar were to prevail tomorrow, Cronon was sure that his lifeís work would be finished. He harbored little doubt that the fledgling Guild situated on Suaron would be quashed; trampled over incidentally-like a grub under a footmanís boot. The Suaron settlements were, after all, the most developed of the lunar depots. They would surely be primary targets in a military purge of the Harvest fleet, and that would destroy all that Cronon had labored so long to achieve.
And that simply would not do...
Intent upon displaying no emotion, Cronon fumbled furtively within the loose folds of his robe. He found the small emitter located there and he turned it in his fingers, seeking the recessed trigger. His forefinger idly circled the button as he sat frowning some moments, and then an odd smile crossed his face. With the release of a breath unknowingly held long, Cronon pressed the button.
He sat a few minutes; silent, introspective, and then his communicator buzzed. With a puzzled expression he drew it out and held it to his ear, and his eyes went very wide.
Guronís eyes darted to the receiver in his palm-a faint light flashed there, its green throb vivid in the dark. He cursed silently, stifling a grunt as he pushed up from his squat position. He slipped forward through the chill shadows to peer round the corner of the alcove. A string of bulbs spaced widely down the center of the corridor cast a spotted pattern, and Guron squinted down the fading trail of light. In short time he became aware of faint footsteps approaching. Soon he was able to pick a vague figure out from the darkness, and he took note of the golden skullcap.
Lord Kal saín Alar strode past at a brisk pace and Guron began to move in his wake, shielded from view by the thick columns lining the shadowy corridor. Suddenly Zalar, the short, rotund scientist who was Prime on the Rejen project, rounded the corner in front of Lord Kal. Guron faded into deeper shadow as the scientist bustled purposefully forward, his billowing lab coat flapping wide with each waddling stride. He carried a large green folder under one arm.
"My Lord! I must speak with you!" Zalar exclaimed breathlessly. "Weíve recorded a significant success today-a major breakthrough!" Zalar stopped a few paces away from Kal, his expression of exuberance fading to puzzlement. "Zemplar? You are not attending the Council? I must present my findings to the gathered Advisors."
Taken aback by the appearance of Zalar, Guron wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead. Could this be a chance foul-up? Heíd expected another of his allegiance-Crononís deep-cover Security Guard-to be his foil on this blind-operations action. Certainly not the pompous and bungling Zalar. Unsure of himself, Guron listened carefully.
"The Council is formally adjourned for the evening, Zalar." The Zemplarís tone suggested distracted impatience. "Many of the Advisors have likely departed by now. What is it that you wish to present?"
"I must present to the entire council, my Lord." Zalar spoke warily, and Guron nodded to himself-it was no secret that the Zemplar was no ally of the Rejen project.
"Ahh, Zalar. I suspect that you exaggerate? Iíll not reconvene the Council without good cause." From the shadows Guron watched the large man straighten to his full height as he spoke in an officious tone. "I should advise you, Zalar, that a vote will take place at first light. It is my intent that our decision will mark the end of your project."
Zalarís eyes widened and his jaw dropped a full span. "M... my Lord!" he spluttered. "No! What I say is true-a breakthrough! I must present to the Council! Look! I will show you a summary!" Zalar motioned frantically for the Zemplar to join him under the modest light of a hanging bulb.
This is it!Guron was suddenly sure. There was to be a diversion to allow me to close unnoticed. Even inept Zalar is capable of diversion.
Zalar began to scrabble with his paperwork while Kal bent forward to look on, and Guron surged forward from his spot in the dark shadows. As he closed swiftly, silently, Zalar chanced to glance up. Realization dawned in his eyes, and he screamed "No!" just as Guron pounced.
The Zemplar had started to turn just as Guron slammed the injector against his neck and triggered it. Kal stiffened immediately, but still managed to catch Guronís right arm in both hands. Guron stifled a cry of pain as the larger man fell to his knees, fingers tightening like bands of steel around his wrist and forearm. Guronís mind reeled.
How can this be?No man can withstand such a toxin!
Lord Kalís grip forced Guron to his knees, hunched over, his right arm pressed awkwardly to the floor. Guron fought to keep balance while scrabbling at his right side with his free hand, and he snatched free the díarkblade sheathed there and thrust sideways in a gawky lunge at the Zemplar. Zalar who stood frozen with a horrified expression, chose just that moment to intercede. The scientist darted in, shouting "Itís OFF! I-" but his words choked off as Guronís clumsily thrust blade sank deep into his lower belly. Guron spat out a curse as Zalar peered down at the protruding weapon, his eyes wide in astonishment.
With his arms windmilling to either side Zalar screeched and fell backwards as Guron wrenched the blade free. A terrible weight pinned Guronís arm to the floor at an excruciating angle, and there was a distinct snap as the bone finally yielded. Guron screamed and again thrust the díarkblade.
The blade sunk deep, and with a spastic muscle contraction Lord Kal dragged Guron inward. Now face to face on their knees Guron saw the briefest glimmer of understanding in the Zemplarís eyes, and then Lord Kalís head wrenched forward like a steam-driven piston. Guronís nose burst in a spray of blood and his head snapped backwards, his vision flashing dark and bright. He collapsed limp to the stone floor, only vaguely aware of the single hand still clamped around his ruined arm.
From where he lay, dazed, Guron willed his fluttering eyes to see, and through blurred vision and a film of blood he saw the Zemplar tottering, head drooped forward, blood coursing around the slender dagger lodged in his chest. And then Guron felt the living strength of the manís grip go limp as he toppled forward. Guron screamed as the hilt of the díarkblade jammed into his pelvis and the fallen deadweight shoved the blade on through the Zemplarís torso. Struggling to draw breath, Guron raised his head to peer fuzzily over the lifeless bulk that pinned him. He blinked senselessly at the shiv, gleaming dull red, which protruded from the dead manís back.
Guronís vision faded from grey to black and the corridor fell silent, save the faint hammering of boots approaching at a dead run and the soft blubbering of Zalar, who lay splayed against the wall in a spreading pool of blood.
"I... I thought you were told." Zalar gurgled softly as he sobbed. "It.... the plan... it was changed.... Rejen................"