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TEA PARTY

“The Quadrant.”

That was what Gordon had said, all right.  I could tell from the puzzled and somewhat alarmed expressions on everybody’s faces.

As Cal stared back at him in disbelief, I heard Don say, “Ooh!  Brain rabbits, brain rabbits!”

“On the air, Don,” warned Cal, automatically, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“I take it you’re talking to your man in the ship — the one who’s had a lock on me for the last few minutes,” said Gordon, surprising the hell out of us twice in two sentences.  I never did know how he knew that unless he just guessed.  Then, to make it three shockers in a row, he said, “Why don’t you have him come up to the house and join us for a cup of tea?  I’m afraid it’s all I have to offer.”  His manner was still gruff, but beneath that I guessed he was starting to be a little glad to see some other humans.  He probably couldn’t help it much after twelve years.

Cal didn’t answer just then because Mission Control was advising us to take Dr. Gordon into custody for his own safety and the safety of the crew.  Beth interjected, “This is Dr. Charkoy.  I disagree.  The subject is no longer threatening us.  In my professional opinion, we’ll get much more information on what happened if we play along and let the subject tell us in his own way.”  All of this was barely above a whisper, and Beth had turned her head away from Gordon.  Nevertheless, he smirked as though he’d heard or surmised the whole conversation and thought it was pretty stupid.

“The subject invites you all to tea.  Come on,” he said.  He strode by us and through the gate towards the house as though we weren’t five strangers in field uniforms toting automatic weapons.

Again, we all looked to Cal for a cue.  Since Mission Control was cautiously deferring to Dr. Charkoy’s judgment over our helmetcoms, Cal fell in behind Gordon and to one side, where, at our host’s slightest movement, he could have brought his SSR to bear on the situation.  We followed.

Gordon had swung the long gate back on its hinges as he’d gone through, and it clanged against a dusty Takawa airbike that was leaning against the fence.  I’d had an airbike when I was a boy.  Seeing it there gave me an unaccountable pang of nostalgia.  I suddenly felt old and a long way from home.

He had the front door of his cabin open before the gate glided shut behind us.  With a sardonic grin, he offered to let Cal go into the house first.  Cal had his jaw clenched.  He gestured for Gordon to precede him with a small movement of the SSR’s barrel.

You had to get the impression that Gordon was baiting Cal just a little, finding our precautions amusing and seeing how much he could get away with.  Knowing Cal as I did, I wished he would cut it out.

We single filed into the house, rifles up and ready for anything.  I went in last, backwards, scanning the surrounding area for any sign of trouble.  Nothing happened, so I went in.  But I stayed just inside the door, where my little camera and I could see the barnyard, the corral, and the surrounding woods pretty well.

The inside of Gordon’s house took some getting used to.  For one thing, it was kind of dark.  But he bustled around, opening window coverings and letting in as much light and air as the placement of windows would allow.  He had some primitive but, even to my country boy’s eye, beautiful artwork on the walls, as well as photographs and holographs, most of an attractive young woman.  Up around the ceiling were what I took to be his hunting trophies and they were plenty bizarre.

There were racks of some kind of antlers, and a couple of sinister-looking skulls, and, on one wall, dominating the room, there was a crudely taxidermed bird with a wingspan of about twelve feet.  Its feathers glittered like precious metals, all gold and emerald green, with markings of black.  It was positioned so that, as the windows were opened, its feathers flashed fire in the sun and reflected their colors everywhere.  You couldn’t help but look at the damned thing.

He invited us to sit at this long table in the center of the room as he started rummaging through his cupboards and drawers.  Beth was gratefully slumping into a chair when she saw the look Cal was giving her.  She froze, then painfully stood up again with a sick expression on her face.

About this time I realized that Gordon was keeping up a more or less steady stream of conversation — not to us, but to himself.  I don’t think the poor bastard even realized he was doing it.  “Let’s see . . . we haven’t six cups, have we?  But here’s an old mug we havent’s used for quite a while, and with this measuring cup, that makes five, and I really don’t care for any just now anyway, so that should be sufficient.”  He just muttered along like that nonstop, in his rumbling burr of a voice.

I tried to catch somebody’s eye, to see if they found this as amusing as I did, but stopped when I got to Vanessa.  She was biting a fingernail, and looking at Gordon with an expression I’d never seen on her before; just looking him up and down with her eyes wide and her nostrils flaring.  I wondered if she was okay.

Cal breathed, “Read me the file on Gordon,” so quietly I could hardly hear it over my helmetcom — until I turned the volume back up.  Then Don’s voice was in my head, saying “Okay, I read you the scant bio before.  Here’s the long entry.  Let’s see . . . Okay, Gordon would now be fifty-one years old.  Born in a suburb of Glasgow, Scotland, on Old Earth.  Played rugby, soccer, and turfball as a kid . . . from a very poor family . . . got his doctorate in psychology from the University of Edinburgh . . . I’m summarizing some of this stuff . . . uh . . . emigrated to the planet Taurus where he became interested in the Quadrant’s colonization program.  Went back to school and received a Master’s degree in agriculture and another in civil engineering.  Worked as a clinical psychologist in Tariq City . . .”

“Cut to the personality profile,” growled Cal, and despite his clattering and mumbling, Gordon heard it and scowled over at him.

“Were you talking to me?”  He had stopped in the middle of filling a huge tea kettle with water.

“No, Dr. Gordon,” said Cal with a touch of condescension.

“If you’re going to stand there all day carrying on a conversation wi’ somebody who isn’t present, you and I are not going to get on,” Gordon said, in a lecturing tone.  I had to give it to him, he did condescension some better than Cal.

As Gordon turned away, filling the old tea kettle from a spotless chrome faucet, Don resumed talking, but in a hushed tone, as if afraid Gordon might hear him.  “Quote:  ‘Gordon has a keen intellect, and vast powers of concentration.  His sense of humor is well developed, ranging from subtle word play to outrageous practical jokes.  He is an articulate speaker, and expert marksman, a master of psychological manipulation.  He is also physically formidable, having been a lifelong athlete — ‘”  Don broke off because Gordon was asking each of us what kind of tea we wanted; it seems he had eight or ten different kinds, some of them local.

“That’s all right, Don,” said Cal, with his head turned away from Gordon.

“You’re doing it again, Captain Vickrey,” Gordon said, repressing a smile.  “What kind of tea would you like?”

“It’s Vickers,” said Cal.  “I’ll have the same kind you’re having.”

“Actually, I haven’t enough cups for all, so I wasn’t going to have any.”

“Then I think I’ll pass.”  Cal’s voice was dead calm, but his meaning was clear.  Personally, I’d never thought of Gordon putting anything in our tea.  I guess that’s why Cal was the Captain and I wasn’t.

“As you wish,” said Gordon, smiling a little.  He had set the cups around his long table, and invited us to sit once again.  We looked at Cal.  Cal looked at me.

“Stay by the door, Kelly,” he said, as he and the rest slowly took their seats.

Gordon brightened and looked at me.  “A fellow Celt!  Though I hate to admit kinship with an Irishman.”  I must have been looking sort of puzzled.  “Surely you’re Irish, with a name like Kelly?”

“I guess   I’m from a little town called Our Kansas, about 30 miles West of Tariq City, on Taurus.”

He seemed a little disappointed.  “Take my word for it, ye son of the ould sod, ye’re Irish.”  He had mimicked some accent as he said that, almost an exaggeration of his own, and Vanessa actually stifled a giggle.  I’d never heard that accent before either, and I felt appropriately ignorant for being so out of touch with my Old Earth heritage.

Of course I knew, as every educated person knows, that all our ancestors came from Old Earth.  It was common in those days for wealthy people to make pilgrimages to the areas their families had come from.  It’s my understanding that at one time, everybody lived in separate countries there with separate governments.  In a lot of places people did pretty much what they pleased without those governments getting involved at all, except for laws and taxes and such.  Then Quad became God and stayed that way for 200 years.

Gordon turned and surveyed the group, resting his sharp gaze on Cal.  “So, tell me, Captain Vickrey — ”

“Vickers.”

“Whatever it is.  Why did the Quadrant send you here?”

Cal looked at Beth, spread his hands out, and looked back at Gordon.  “Didn’t we just go through that?  Outside, just now?”

Beth said, “You remember, Dr. Gordon, we said –”

“I remember very well what was said.  I was asked to believe that a rescue party of five, plus however many stayed behind in that little hod carrier of a ship, was sent to minister to the needs of at least 120 people.”

“We’re just an advance party, Dr. Gordon,” said Cal.  I could tell from the tight sound of his voice that Gordon’s “hod carrier” dart had drawn some blood.  “There’s going to be some more help on the way.”

“‘More help,’ is it?  Oh, that’s good,” said Gordon.

There was a tense silence.  The only one having a good time was Morris, who was not registering much of what was happening around him.  He was too busy studying Gordon’s hunting trophies with an awed expression on his face.

Beth said, “Dr. Gordon, why do you say the Quadrant killed the other colonists?”

Gordon’s eyes moved around the room, burning guilty complicity into each of us in turn as he spoke.  “Twenty years ago, a crew from the Exploration Force did a quick fly-over here.  Their instruments showed an Earth-like planet, so they landed — in broad daylight — and tramped through the forest for five hours or so.  They took some core samples, prospected a bit, took cuttings from some of the better lumber trees, analyzed the air and water, and filled out the standard forms.  Then they took off.  When word filtered upward to the Quadrant Board about the favorable mineral assays and an endless supply of timber . . . well, this planet had everything they could ask for as a colony site.

“So within a few years, a hundred and twenty men, women and children landed here to start a new life on a planet advertised to be a little more attractive than Heaven.  The pre-colonization report mentioned no particular hazards, so our security contingent from the Intrepid seemed adequate.  We used the tree-mowers to clear the area they’d chosen for us.  We set up our little temporary shelters, and our generators.  We were all happy — exhausted, but happy.  And excited about being alive, about the future, about this new world that was ours to shape, and to make our own.”  He paused.  “Then the sun went down.”

Gordon was staring at the table top like it held a horrible fascination for him.  “I’ll never forget that night as long as I live.”  He snapped out of it, blinked, and walked to the far end of the room.  From its place on a trophy shelf, he reached down a curved, serrated bone, very sharp on one end.  As he carried it back to the table, he handled it with his fingertips; he nver took his eyes off of it, and his face was rigid with distaste.  He put it in the center of the table, where it rocked a little before becoming still.  He sat down, but he never took his eyes off the thing.

“What do you make of that,” he asked.  His voice was husky and strange.

We all looked at it for a moment.  It was about as long as a man’s forearm.  I wasn’t as close as the others, but I saw what looked like a barb just below that wicked point.  Cal shook his head.  “Morris?”  Even before Cal spoke, Morris was reaching for the thing.  Cal pushed it toward him, and he examined it as he made observations into his field jacket computer.

“The object looks like bone, or horn.  It’s a little bit hollow at the broad end, and see here?  There’s some decadent organic material inside.  From the curved shape of it, and this secondary, downward point — almost like the barb of a fish hook — I’d say it’s probably used, or was used I should say, by some predator for catching and holding its prey.  These serrations would also make this inside edge real, real sharp, which may make it an excellent slashing weapon, as well.  And uh — that’s about all I can say for now.”

“You’ll make a fine naturalist,” murmured Gordon absently.  He sat staring at the thing for another moment, then, as before, he snapped out of it and went on in a businesslike tone:  “It’s the sickle claw from an adult tark.  There are some other problems here in paradise, but the tarks . . . That first night, we weren’t expecting them, you see.  People around the periphery began to disappear about an hour after dark.  Sometimes there’d be a scream, but sometimes — they were just not there anymore.  Security finally caught on and herded everyone to the center of the compound, which was brightly lit.  But by this time there was a panic, people running, firing into the shadows.  The tarks were growing quite brazen; they would just stalk in among us and pick somebody out of the crowd.  Children, women, it was all the same to them, of course.  There was a lot of confusion, gunfire, screams . . . God, the screams.  And the smell of blood was in the air.”

“You’re telling me all those people were killed by some kind of animal?”  Cal’s voice held the slightest possible hint of disbelief.

Gordon didn’t answer.  He kept staring at the claw.  Then he went on, as if Cal had never said anything.  “At some point, one of the security contingent must have fired into the outbuilding where the explosives were stored.  There was a blast that knocked us flat.  About a third of the lights went out around the center of the compound, where most of us were huddled.  A huge fire started; in fifteen minutes our long-range communications gear, the livestock cryogenics, most of our medical supplies — all gone.  We couldn’t even fight the fire.  That would have meant leaving our oasis of light, and we couldn’t do that because the tarks were waiting . . . waiting in the darkness, in the shadows . . .”  He looked up, an odd and desolate look on his face.  “There were hundreds of them,,” he said in a tight whisper.

“Okay, but there were over a hundred of you,” said Cal, breaking the spell.  “And you had automatic weapons.”

“You haven’t been listening,” Gordon snapped, instantly back to his tough, arrogant self.  “It was the light that saved us, the light was what kept them away.  Automatic weapons,” he growled.  “Automatic weapons only made them angry.”

There was a brief pause.  “That’s bullshit,” said Cal, shaking his head and looking around at us for confirmation.  “I’m sorry, but that is bullshit.”

Gordon was standing up, slowly, and, their eyes locked on him, everybody else was standing up too.  “Is it, now,” he said, in a low rumble that filled the room.

Cal’s SSR was held casually at the ready.  “Yes, it is.  You’re telling us that some animals came in and wiped everybody out.  Right?”  Gordon was staring at him with a look of such complete and powerful hatred that I think anybody else would have apologized, tried to smooth things over.  But Cal just went on.  “If that’s the case, I can’t help but wonder how you survived and no one else did.”

Gordon spoke through clenched teeth.  “And I can’t help but wonder what you’re doing here, Johnny on the spot, only fifteen years after our distress signal.  Did you come to heap together our moldering bones with your scorn?  Did you come to sweep our lives and our memories aside to make room for the strip mines, and the clear-cutting, and the power plants, so the Quadrant can wade through slaughter to the golden throne of avarice once more?”  As time went on, one began to appreciate that when Gordon got passionate about something, he was likely to start spouting poetry.

“Look,” said Cal, “nobody’s asking you to like the Quadrant –”

“Like it?  Like it?”  Gordon was bellowing so loud they all stepped back from him.  “The Quadrant dumped us here to live or die!  They didn’t tell us about the tarks!  They didn’t tell us about the poisonflies, or those things that live in the trees in the low forest!  They dumped us here like so many janitors to watch their land for them until they could bring in the heavy equipment and ream it out themselves!  And what about the Quadrant Fleet?  Those noble soldiers of the Intrepid who were still in orbit that night?  What Code of Honor has a loophole so big it could let them stand by while all those good people were horribly killed?  Answer me that!”

I think the only thing that kept Cal from jumping Gordon right then was the fact that Mission Control was watching, listening and recording everything.  And it wasn’t Gordon’s hard words about the Quadrant that had enraged Cal; we all knew that stuff was true.

“I’ll answer you,” said Cal, in a voice so low and deadly it made my skin crawl.  “The Intrepid didn’t come to your rescue that night because they got blasted out of the sky.  They were ambushed by the Russ.  They got caught because the Russ forgot to mention anything about a war, they just attacked.  Yes, Gordon, big news flash: there was a war.  It lasted fifteen years and killed upwards of twenty million people, and it’s mostly over now.  But even during the worst of the fighting, over all these years, they never stopped trying to contact you.  As soon as a ship became available, they sent us out here to find out what happened.  I’m real sorry if you think they should have sent half the fleet.  But as far as I’m concerned, the Officer’s Code of Honor is very much intact.”

Gordon was not impressed.  “Tell your story to my wife, who died of pneumonia and despair because there were not any antibiotics left to save her.  Tell it to the baby she was carrying.  Tell it to Nelson, and Fujita, and Hirschenbaum; all the farmers and scientists and carpenters who were left to die because the Quadrant couldn’t spare a ship in time to save them.  I’m sorry for the crew of the Intrepid, but they were soldiers.  They knew their risk.  At least their end was quick.  But this colony died slowly.  I watched it die, year after year.  And then I watched it again in my dreams until I thought I’d go mad.  So it’s a tad difficult to feel any gratitude, now that ‘help’ has come at last, and come fifteen years too late.  Make yourselves at home.”

Gordon stalked past me and out, not looking at anyone.

After he’d banged out the door to the barnyard, Cal growled, “Somebody should keep an eye on that nutcase.”  I was closest to the door, but Vanessa blurted out that she’d go and rushed past me kind of breathless and eager.  I looked at Cal, who was looking at me.  He inclined his head toward the door and then turned his attention to some Q-Fleet psychiatrist who was talking to us from Mission Control about Gordon.

I pushed the door open carefully, so I could look around before I stepped out into any trouble.  I hadn’t made it through a ten year tour of duty by being the heroic, impulsive type.  Vanessa was still standing on the back porch.  She was pretty much blocking my view, but I assumed she was keeping tabs on Gordon.  I just stayed where I was, backing her up.

Then I could see Gordon, carrying a bag of feed from a little shed over to the corral.  Vanessa was keeping tabs on him, all right.  From behind, I could see her head turn as she followed him with her eyes.

The animals we’d seen before were crowding the fence, waiting for him.  He had started dumping feed into the first of a series of troughs when Vanessa leaned her SSR against the wall, took off her helmet and her jacket, and dropped them on the porch.  Then she went down the steps and crossed the barnyard to where Gordon was.

I told myself that it was pretty warm now, with the clouds burning off and the sun high, and that that was the only reason Vanessa had done what I’d just seen.  I told myself that, but even I wasn’t dumb enough to believe it.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that she was primping her hair, fluffing it up a bit on her way over to the corral.  And the fact that, with her field jacket off, her uniform was snug enough to show that she was a girl lieutenant.

I turned the psychiatrist off in my helmetcom and stepped out onto the porch.  They were about thirty feet away.  You have to remember that in this world, there was no machinery, no transportation, no man-made sounds of any kind anywhere.  I could hear what they said fairly well.  However, the body language of people who are interested in each other is forever the same.  I already knew the song; I didn’t need to hear the words.

*                                  *                             *                              *                           *

The following is reprinted from Life Of Legend: The Rise of Charlemagne Gordon, by permission of Quentin LeBris and TwinStar Publishing.  All rights are reserved.

In a recent interview; Vanessa Gold Gordon recalled her first impression of the man whose life would soon be entwined with her own: “It’s hard to describe.  He just fascinated me.  Here was this tough, articulate, passionate, very good-looking man who’d had to carve a life for himself out of a wilderness with almost nothing, for years beyond when he could reasonably expect to be rescued.  I just admired him so much.

“With everything he’d been through, my heart went out to him, on a purely compassionate level, and I thought Cal had been awfully hard on him.  I was also tremendously attracted to him.  There was something about him, something in his eyes.  I’d see a flash of it and then he’d hide it again, put it away somewhere that you couldn’t find it anymore.  But it was always there in him.  It was a kind of pent-up sexual power, a hunger, I guess you’d say.  Sometimes I’d catch him looking at me as though he wanted to eat me alive.  He made me feel very desirable, like I was definitely not one of the guys.  As a woman in the military, you’re always kind of pretending your femininity isn’t a factor somehow.  If you didn’t, it would get in the way of your work.  It would get in the way of your equality.  And that certainly happened with Captain Vickers.  But with this man I could just enjoy being desired and viewed as a purely feminine creature, because he was no part of any organization that I hoped to advance in.

“We talked about the animals.  I tried to break the ice by telling him about the horses I had when I was little, and how they comforted me when I was lonely — which he took very badly.  He took a deep breath and said something like, ‘Oh, my.  And we were getting on so famously.  Oh, well.  Even though I have a Doctorate in Psychology, I refuse to be offended by those patronizing remarks because I know you meant no harm.’  I was so flustered I didn’t know what to say and I was about to go back in the house when he started talking again, very quickly, as though he’d realized I was going to go and he didn’t want me to.  I began to see that, although he was still being tough with me, still keeping up a wall of defense, he was desperately lonely.  How could he not be, after all those years?

“Very subtly, he led the conversation around to where he wanted it.  He’s good at that.  He made a reference to his situation, how when a person wants something, needs something, and that need is unfulfilled for year after year, it takes on the nature of an obsession.  And as he told me that, he let me see the fire in him, full force.

“I didn’t know what to say, but I don’t mind admitting that the idea of being the first recipient of that fire after all those years was getting me pretty aroused.  You have to realize, life was different back then; people were much more open with each other about things like that.  I remember I said something to the effect that we were there to help him in any way he needed, and that I in particular would try to give him whatever it was he’d wanted all those years.

“Then he looked at me very earnestly and said, ‘Then you did bring some tobacco?  Thank Heaven!  I’ll go get my pipe right now!’  My mind was so boggled I couldn’t even react.  I just stood there with my mouth open as he walked away grinning.

“Then the nightmare began.

“Kelly was on the porch laughing his head off.  I don’t know how much he’d heard, but apparently it was enough because he and Gordie exchanged a look and they were obviously laughing at me.  I was staring daggers at Kelly, who was trying to say something to me.  At first, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t hear him.

“Then this black shadow raked across the compound and an aircraft of some kind disappeared over the hills before any of us could get a good look at it.  I don’t know how, but I knew it was a Russ fighter.  And I knew we were in big trouble.”

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