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September 5, 387 AS. 1751 hours.


"Here ye go, buddy," said the short, grinning thug with the scarred face. He tapped on the door marked chief of staff. "Mr Brainard'll fix you up just fine, I'll bet."

The Callahan kept his face impassive, though a vein stood out from his neck. He never lost his temper in front of underlings.

The man who had brought him from the guarded entrance to here, when he had demanded to be taken directly to the Wilding, was named Leaf. The Callahan knew him by reputation—rather better than he wished were the case.

The Chief of Staff's office was opened from the inside by another thug. This one was named Caffey, and the Callahan knew of him also.

"Gen'leman to see Mr Brainard, Fish," Leaf said with a broad smile.

He was play-acting; both of them were. This was nothing but a show, with the Callahan forming both the straight man and the audience.

Caffey raised an eyebrow. "Alone?" he said.

He was a marginally smoother character than Leaf. At any rate, the muted beige tunic and trousers affected by all the Association functionaries had a civilian appearance on Caffey, while the garments seemed to be a prison uniform when Leaf wore them.

Looks were immaterial. Leaf and Caffey had equal authority as the Association's Commissioners of Security. They were equally brutal, equally ruthless; and equally dedicated to their job.

"There's half a dozen more come with him," Leaf said, "but one at a time seemed safer. The rest 're cooling their heels in the guardroom. Unless they got smart with Newton, in which case they're just cooling."

Caffey chuckled. "Takes a real direct view of doing his job, that boy. Too dumb to get tricky, I s'pose."

"The men you're talking about are the Council of the Twelve Families," said the Callahan, finally stung to a response. "Not a street gang! We're here to meet with the Wilding."

Leaf grinned. "Not a street gang, I guess," he said. The soft change of emphasis made his words a threat.

Caffey looked over his shoulder. His stocky body still blocked the doorway. "D'ye want to see Mr Callahan, sir?" he called, proving he had known perfectly well from the beginning who he was dealing with.

"Of course, Fish," answered the unseen within. "I'd be delighted."

Caffey stepped aside, gestured the Callahan mockingly forward, and closed the door behind himself.

Brainard sat behind a desk which was large and expensively outfitted, but cluttered with hard copy. He had the tired, worn appearance of a man older than his chronological age. His face and hands was flecked with minute dimples. Plastic surgery had not quite restored the texture Brainard's skin had had before jungle sores ate into it.

The Wilding's chief of staff looked hard and dangerous. The Callahan had reason to know that Brainard was both those things, and more.

"I didn't come to talk with you, Brainard," the Callahan said. "My business—our business—is with the Wilding."

Brainard shrugged. "Have a seat," he said, gesturing the Callahan to one of the comfortable chairs facing the desk. "Since you're going to talk to me anyway."

He smiled at his visitor. The expression was as precise as the click of a gunlock. "And as a suggestion, Mr Callahan . . . unless you refer to him as Director Wilding, I'm the only one you are going to talk to this afternoon."

The walls of the Chief of Staff's office were decorated with holographic projections of the surface of Venus. The images were not retouched for propaganda purposes.

To the Callahan's right, huge land-clearing equipment tore at the jungle. On the wall over the door, other machinery formed barracks blocks and small bungalows from stabilized earth. On the visitor's left, humans of both sexes inspected an experimental plot of vegetables growing beneath an ultraviolet screen.

The wall behind Brainard did not carry a hologram. An automatic rifle hung there in a horizontal rack. To even the Callahan's inexperienced eye, the weapon was in poor condition. The metal surfaces were scarred, and fungus had pitted the plastic stock and fore-end.

The Callahan grimaced, then sat down. Forcing himself to look Brainard in the eyes, he said, "All right. What is it that he really wants?"

Brainard smiled. This time the expression was almost gentle. "Just what he says he wants, Mr Callahan," he said.

The Council had—the Callahan had; he was the Council and they all knew it—offered Brainard a bribe early on in the process. Brainard had sent back a polite note with the money—enough money to have set him up for life in any Keep on Venus.  

The next night, a mob of thousands of Association supporters had sacked and burned Callahan House. A Patrol detachment stood by and watched. They were outnumbered fifty to one by the rioters.  

Patrol Headquarters directed the detachment to open fire. The on-site Patrol commander countermanded the order immediately. He realized that the men on the mob's fringes had the deeply-tanned skin of Free Companions—and that the objects outlined against their cloaks were surely automatic weapons.  

"Listen, Brainard," the Callahan snarled, "the time for playing games is over! You're a practical man. You know that the notion is impossibly expensive."

"Expensive, of course," Brainard said. "And while we pay Free Companions to defend large surface settlements, neighboring Keeps will raid our fishing grounds." He leaned forward. His tunic touched the papers on his desk and made them rustle. "But the fishing grounds are played out, and the settlements will be exporting protein in a few years." Brainard's eyes were hard and empty, like a pair of gun muzzles.

"It's not impossible, Mr Callahan," he said. "And it's not expensive at all, compared to the centuries of phony war that you and yours have kept going!"

The Council made approaches to Leaf and Caffey after the attempt to subvert Brainard failed. This time the money did not come back—but neither did the agents carrying it.  

Three days later, one male member of each of the Twelve Families was kidnapped. The operations were simultaneous and went off flawlessly, though several guards were killed in vain attempts to interfere.  

The victims were dumped in front of the Council Building the next morning. They were alive, but they had been shaved bald and their skin was dyed a bright blue.  

After that debacle, the Callahan shelved what he had thought of as his final contingency plan. He was afraid to think about what would happen if he attempted assassination—and failed.  

"Phony wars, Brainard?" the Callahan sneered. "It's real lives your master's scheme will cost, and there'll be a lot of them. Has he thought of that?"

Brainard's fingers gently explored the dimples on his cheek. It was a habitual gesture, an unconscious one. "We've seen death before, Mr Callahan," he said tonelessly. "People die no matter what. This way—" His eyes had gone unfocused. Now they locked on the Callahan. "This way they have a chance to die for something. And they're willing to. By God they're willing to!"

"Yes, because you've stirred them up!" the Callahan shouted. He gripped the arms of his chair fiercely, as if to hold himself down.

Brainard chuckled unexpectedly. He slid his chair back and stood up with an easy motion. "That's right, Mr Callahan," he said. "Because we stirred them up. Because we're leading them. But—" The relaxed voice and posture vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. Brainard pointed his index finger at his visitor and went on, "—the common people are willing to go. And they're going to go. The only choice the Twelve Families have now is to support the process." Brainard's features changed. For the first time, the the Callahan saw the face of the man who directed the activities of killers like Lea and Caffey. "Or be burned out of the way," Brainard said, voice husky. "Like so much honeysuckle."

The Callahan stared across the desk at Brainard. He had never before in his life hated a human being as much as he hated this one—and his master.

But he had not ruled Wyoming Keep for twenty years by being a fool.

The Callahan stood up. "All right," he said quietly. "Then I suppose we'd better support the process, hadn't we? May I see Director Wilding now?"

The two men walked down the hallway together, toward the office of the Director of the Surface Settlement Association.

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