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The Long Way Back

By Melody Clark
Page 2 of 51

      No other recourse, no second option. The border young were first conscripted, lifted out of peace-time industry to fill the ranks of the Refederation Trainband. They were bred to battle, for there was always some off-world malcontent, some Terran industrialist, ready to make of them a race of slaves.

      But the Refederation Trainband was few in number and shackled by ethics, doing battle with Taro's newly self-righteous, crimo-laden maquisard. And they had little in the way of artillery to strike at the Emperor's Galacticrafts, for which there always seemed to be more able pilots to replace the dead.

      The Refederation dead climbed as well, high enough that the border worlds cried out at the inequity, that the Terran young had not been first to fight.

      And so, the Terran young were sent.

      But Taro never gave an inch. He never faltered. Somehow. Inexplicably. With all the intellects of their strategists and all the artillery of Earth, Terra stumbled. Taro's maquisard, untrained, with makeshift weapons, and one distorted vision, was holding His own.

      Finally, word came from Leusip - one modest hand of friendship. It told Change where he might leave word where Sen might receive it. It made no promises. It said only he would make contact with conditions, at Change's invitation.

      And Steavn let it remain there, in the thrall of war, the information unused. Bad enough he was forced to do battle with crimos and malcontent Federation Space Commanders. But to do a deal with Blake and Avon would take the eradication of all other options.

      But then the death tally, which had hovered at three hundred and four, became three hundred and five.

      The final death was a young Refederation Section Leader shot down in field battle over Outpost Terminal.

      He had died bravely, to save his men. He had been the finest of the Trainband - and a husband, father, and son.

      Section Leader Jorj Change had been all of twenty-six years old.

      With a glass of lager in one hand, his father sat down with a Stellar Intellpost to Sen Leusip in the other, placing it into the Metafax, sending it through. This one requested Sen come at once - and come vested with the power to discuss Blake's conditions for return. As the signal tone sounded to register its claim, Change sighed audibly.

      The sun was sent down in fire over the horizon, setting on the day his son had died. The dark found Change still sitting there, staring into the glass, refusing to turn in the direction of the image disc of Jorj, then aged 17, smiling in his brand new uniform. He had joined the Trainband to please his father, to barter for that currency with which Steavn Change was most conservative, his love, his admiration, his respect, knowing it would speed Jorj on towards its promise. Make him go on scrambling for the crumbs of acceptance his father had tithed to him.

      "What the hell is the point in going on?" he asked the silence of the room.

      "Going on is the point, Steavn, not the question," Leusip said, his form defining itself, with the hum of an electronic swarm, across from Change's desk.

      Change gave him a broken smile. "You make a fast reply, my friend."

      Sen Leusip did not smile in return. "The matter was urgent, or so your Intellpost said. I have told you I would be here for you, when you needed me, Steav. Not that you seem particularly in need of redemption, Mr. President Pro Tem."

      "Appearances are deceiving," Change said, staring dully into his empty glass. "You have not seen the recent viscasts. I have been compared to everyone from Julius Caesar to Rathji the Infidel, and Blake consistently to every martyred hero and murdered redeemer in planetary civilization."

      "What did you expect, Steavn?" Leusip said, lowering himself into a chair.

      "Not this," he said. "Not..."

      A moment passed between them, Leusip's expression softening. "Words have always failed the two of us at times such as these," he said. "We have that trait in common."

      "What is there to be said? He was my only son."

      "Your younger son," said Leusip, as if it was necessary to remind him.

      "My only son." Change shook his head. "At very least, he died a hero. May that be some, small comfort to his mother, to his wife and son, at the services tomorrow." He paused a long moment, as if trying to make sense of it, but failing. "I am not a soldier, damn it; I am a statesman. I know nothing of waging war."

      "There is another way, Steavn."

      "That is why I brought you here."

      Leusip nodded. "I thought as much."

      Change rose labouredly from the chair, passing his hand across a sensor to darken the window. He then as labouredly returned to his chair, lifting a gaze without compromise to the other man.

      "How are they?" he said.

      "I don't suppose you mean the royal they."

      "How are they?" Change merely said again, with impatient eyes.

      Leusip nodded in concession. "One is in mourning for his life, I rather suspect. The other?" Leusip sighed. "He is difficult to read on his best days, but then second-guessing his moods has always been an arcane science to me. To everyone, I suspect. Everyone but Blake anyway."

      Change took it all in, decoding it, absorbing. He took a deep breath, as if afraid of his own next words.

      "And do they remember?" he asked, looking away.

      "I don't know."

      "There should be signs!"

      "Who knows how it would express itself, Steavn? What would you look for? One is always sullen of late and the other never speaks to me anyway. I am more enemy than confidant, to them. Blake only tolerates me because I aided their escape and Avon simply because I know the infrastructure of Areopagus."

      "But they will remember? Remember everything?"

      "In time? Of course. With the modifiers removed, there is nothing preventing it."

      Change shook his head vigorously, surrendering to the arms of the chair. "Dear Fate take pity on us all. How are we to deal with this?"

      "We can't, Steavn."

      "We must."

      "We both agreed: in the event of the modification failure, we would simply endure the consequences. We both took an oath. We swore."

      "We were young, Sentya. Children. Children nourished on all that idealistic pablum that Foster and Carn and their like fed us." He raised both hands to his face, making of them a mask, his voice distorted, his words unpunctuated and fumbling out into the air. "Free will is an illusion. A false unknown. The spontaneous effect of the convergence of tens of thousands of neurons in the cortex and lower brain. Nothing more."

      Leusip's expression caved in, horror festering in his eyes. "Finish the quotation, Steavn. 'Cure of social deviations must be regarded as one of the priorities of Applied Brain Research'."

      "I no longer consider Professor Taylor the mutant monster we once thought him."

      "'Shadow of the Mind' was the treatise Preston based his Psychotherapeutic Mandate on! The father of mind-wipes and Federation processing, Steavn."

      "The friend of your enemy is not necessarily your enemy as well."

      "Nor proven your friend. This isn't you speaking, Steavn."

      He considered the empty vessel around which his fist was embedded. "My brain is in the trust of a non-nutritive fermented beverage." He moved forward in the chair. "At any rate, what would be Blake's conditions for... handling this madness?"

      "I think you can interpret them yourself. It would mean some accommodation. I wonder if you are motivated to peace enough to risk the disgrace, old friend."

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Melody Clark

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