Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 22

Chapter 7 – Old Times and New Beginnings

Allenson toyed with his lunch. He regretted choosing a dish that turned out to be bacon wrapped around some sort of spiced herbal stuffing. Hawthorn eagerly cut his double-sized steak into large chunks. He pushed them greedily into his mouth, swallowing each morsel before it was properly chewed.

They chose to patronize a modest chophouse some way from the Assembly Hall and the prying eyes of other delegates. Allenson studied his friend. Hawthorn had filled out but looked solid rather than fat.

He waited until the man satisfied his immediate hunger before starting a conversation. He wasn’t sure what to say. He and Hawthorn had once been as close as brothers having grown up together and fighting side by side in the Terran War. But the man had disappeared decades ago after becoming more and more withdrawn. Hawthorn had always been something of a loner who needed time on his own but he never vanished for more than a few weeks.

“You were ravenous,” Allenson said, embarrassed at the banality of the comment but unable to do better.

Hawthorn grinned and paused, waving a chunk of meat on his fork for emphasis.

“If you’d nothing between your teeth for two days but a tart’s tongue then you’d be pretty hungry as well.”

Allenson couldn’t help but smile back despite his disapproval. He knew other gentlemen would consider him a prude because of his opinion on the use of prostitutes. And what consenting adults chose to do in their private life was hardly his business. Hawthorn had the gift of drawing Allenson out of his shell. He had missed that intimacy. He realized for the first time in a sudden burst of self-awareness how much Destry’s emigration had affected him. Allenson was a man with many acquaintances but few friends.

“You never answered my question back at the Assembly Hall. Where the hell have you been?”

Hawthorn chewed and swallowed before replying.

“Oh, on some mud ball way out in the Hinterland running a one-man trading station. You won’t have heard of it. There was no way of sending a message home and I guess I had nothing to say.  I tried to contact you when I got in this morning but the Nortanians had you all incommunicado in your meeting.”

“They are understandably worried about security. No doubt they half expect or maybe hope that the meeting will come to nothing. In that case they don’t want to be left holding the political baby if Brasilia found out and demanded explanations.”

Hawthorn laughed and shook his head before cutting off another generous piece of steak and consuming it.

“What’s so funny?” Allenson asked, slightly nettled.

Hawthorn wiped his lips on his napkin.

“It’s the naivety of you gentlemen that always astonishes me. You are like children compared to the political nouse of the average parlor maid.”

“And you aren’t a gentleman?” Allenson asked, rhetorically.

“I suppose so,” Hawthorn conceded, “by birth at least but I consort with low folk and it must have rubbed off or perhaps I just have a nasty mind.”

He laid down his utensils.

“I would bet you any odds that the head of Brasilian intelligence will have half a dozen independent transcripts of what was discussed this morning before the Paxton clerks have finished drafting the minutes. Terran Security will have copies a month later. At least three of your delegates will be Brasilian double agents. Another three will sell you out simply as insurance in case your plot fails.”

“That could help our case,” Allenson said. “Once Brasilia sees that we are serious it may bring them to serious negotiations. War’s to no one’s benefit so, logically, compromise is in all our interests.”

“There’s going to be a war,” Hawthorn said with the air of a man stating the sheer bleeding obvious.

Allenson opened his mouth to protest but Hawthorn held up a hand to check him.

“When have human beings ever chosen the sensible and logical course simply because it is in their interests. Something will go wrong or some hot-headed fool will start shooting on some imagined point of principle…”

Here Hawthorn’s lips curled displaying what he felt about those who stood on points of principle.

“and the fight will be on. When war starts it takes on a life all of its own. Who precisely did Old Earth’s Biowars benefit pray tell? They destroyed civilization and damn near caused human extinction but did that stop the ancients fighting them? Did it hell!”

There was a break in the conversation while Hawthorn polished off his meal. Allenson pushed his food around the plate some more. Hawthorn was always unsettlingly frank with his friends. He had a habit of telling truths people did not always want to hear.

“Why did you leave the ‘Stream?” Allenson asked, carefully keeping his tone flat and unemotional to disguise the hurt. “You took off without so much as a goodbye and I thought we were close friends. I thought you could confide in me.”

“We were – are – close friends, you, me and Destry,” Hawthorn replied. “That’s why I had to leave.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Destry had his societal commitments and you were building the estate and a career but after the end of the Terran Wars I had no purpose. My drinking got worse and the scrapes I got into became more embarrassing.”

He shrugged.

“It wouldn’t have ended well.”

“If you think I or Destry would abandon a friend simply because he caused us embarrassment then you didn’t know us at all,” Allenson said, hotly.

“Of course you wouldn’t abandon me. That’s the point,” Hawthorn replied. “Don’t you see? That’s why I had to leave before I did your reputations real harm by association. I had to go somewhere far away where you couldn’t find me and talk me into coming back.”

There was another pause while Allenson digested that information. Actually looked at in a certain way it made a sort of sense.

Hawthorn turned the conversation away from himself.

“So tell me about your life while I’ve been gone. I guess you and Trina are still married?”

Allenson smiled.

“One of my more successful decisions.”

“Then I suppose you have raised a brood of young Allensons. I know you always wanted children.”

Allenson lowered his head but there was no avoiding the issue.

“No, we haven’t children.”

“But Trina is fertile. As I recall she already has…”

Hawthorn firmly shut his mouth before continuing.

“Sorry, living in the back of beyond has eroded my manners.”

Allenson lifted his head and looked his friend in the eye.

“You recall there was always a puzzle about where my brother Todd had come into contact with the bioweapon residues that eventually killed him.”

“Yes,” Hawthorn said sharply.

“I believe the mystery is solved. It wasn’t Todd who was exposed to molecular damage but our father or even someone further back in our shared heritage.”

There was a deadly silence. Allenson forced himself to smile.

“Don’t look so concerned. There’s no evidence that the problem will manifest itself in me as a wasting disease like Todd. In my case the effect is more subtle.”

“I’m sorry,” Hawthorn said.

“No matter, what can’t be cured and all that, so tell me why’ve you returned now?”

Hawthorn seized gratefully on the change of subject.

“Because there’s going to be another war and you being a damned fool man of principle will be in it up to your neck. Someone has to protect your back while you strike noble poses.”

“Indeed,” Allenson laughed.

Now it was Hawthorn’s turn to reveal private matters.

“Actually I’m still drinking heavily but not so much that a course of genosurgery can’t fix any issues. And I reckon that the drinking will take care of itself with some activity to occupy my time more meaningful than measuring out cloth for clan chief’s wives.”