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Echoes of an Alien Sky
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For the first few seconds, all Lorili could do was stand there, fighting the surge of adrenaline that turned her into a wound spring ready to fly at him or back out the door. The reflexes subsided slowly.

"How did you get in?" she heard herself whispering. It was a pointless question; more a mechanical reaction while she was still striving to bring herself under control.

"Oh, come on. You know I have my ways." Jenyn's eyes were mocking, enjoying his moment of domination.

Lorili braced herself. "I don't care. . . ." Coherent words refused to form. She shook her head violently. "I don't want to know what it's about. Just . . . get out."

"Hey, aren't we being just a little bit hasty? I mean, do I look threatening or something? And this a long way from home. Don't you even want to know what I'm doing out here?"

"No. It's not my concern anymore. Please . . . just leave."

Jenyn shook his head as if disappointed. "That's not really called for, you know. We had a great thing going back there . . . at one time. It's not good to throw it all away the first time there's a problem." He raised a hand and motioned to indicate both of them. "You and me . . . we were never quitters. Remember all those good times? There were a lot of them too." He bunched his face in the kind of expression that says everyone regrets things. "Oh, okay . . . I know I can be a bit overbearing at times. I admit it. But knowing something like that is the first part of fixing it. You get older. Being out here at a place like this makes people see things differently. I've changed now."

For a moment Lorili felt herself falling under the same charm that had captivated her before. Somewhere inside here there was still a vestige of the raw student who wanted to believe it. Jenyn could cast the kind of spells that on Earth had moved armies. He would have made a good Terran. Maybe that was why he idealized them. The scientist who dealt in realities rescued her.

"You'll never change, Jenyn. The world and everyone in it exist to serve your ends. I was expendable when it suited you, and that said it all. I'm my own person now. I plan on making my own life, not being an accessory in someone else's. It's all over. Forget it."

"It's not just me and us. That's the sauce on the meal. There's a whole future too, that's bigger than both of us. Have you forgotten the movement and what it means? It used to be the most important thing in our lives. I've been across in the Americas, just back. It's a different, vibrant feel. You've got a critical mass of younger people here at Earth, open to new ideas and excited by change. A chapter built out here, with this kind of energy, could go back, take over the whole Progressive organization on Venus, and become a real political force there. That's what I'm working on out here. It could use your kind of help. And that's what you could become a part of again." Jenyn was reading Lorili's face while he spoke. "Have you forgotten about things like order, organization, the power of authority to enforce equality for all? Don't those things matter anymore?"

Lorili didn't want to be drawn in. Arguing politics with Jenyn was like walking into a web. "I still believe any new idea should be tried and not prejudged," she said. "But being out here has clarified a lot of things for me too. Venus does have equality. Of opportunity. If you're good enough, you can make it anywhere. It's not the whims of unregulated institutions that keep people out. It's their own inabilities. You can't demand equality with high performers. You can only earn it. What you really want is an army of followers who believe they can take by force what the world isn't prepared to pay them in any other way. But what that really means is power for you--because you won't get people to follow you in any other way."

"Boy, who have you been talking to?"

"What does it matter? The point is, it's a fraud. You tell people it's for them, but it isn't. It's really for you. They don't matter. They never did. Lies, treachery, deceit--anything goes if it might get you what you want."

"Harsh words, Lorili." Jenyn's tone was assuaging but his brow furrowed uneasily. It was one of the rare moments when Lorili had seen him look taken aback."

"The world you'd deliver would be very different from the one they thought they were sacrificing themselves for," she said.

Jenyn shook his head. "Now I don't understand. What would make you say things like this?"

Something snapped then. The anger flared up that Lorili's initial fright and confusion had been holding in check. "Did you think I'd never know?" she burst out. "That I'd be too stupid to find out? I have eyes and ears and a brain, Jenyn. I do talk to people."

He made a play of being at a loss, eyes wide, hands upturned. "What? . . . What are you talking about?"

"That whole scheme of yours to discredit Lemaril Aedua. It was a setup. She never split any payments with writers to run their works."

"What do you mean?" Still, he was brazening it out. "The evidence was there. You saw the testimonials."

"Oh, give me a break, Jenyn!" Lorili shouted. "That woman who did the series on game-playing psychology was a former lover of yours. You blackmailed her into giving it. That kind of involvement with a Progressive activist wouldn't have looked very good if it came to the attention of her very traditional patron, would it? And I never believed that guy with the piece on topology and sculpture. He was a plagiarist. He couldn't have written it. He didn't have the credentials. So what does that say for his standards? What was the angle there, Jenyn? A straight cash deal?"

The mask turned itself off, and Jenyn's face hardened. "Oh, you were busy, weren't you. Quite the little spy, eh?"

"When rumors like that start coming around, you follow them up. Did you expect me not to care?"

"Yes, to care about the movement, the idea, the big picture. We got a say in The Commentator. Sometimes it's what you have to do. It got the results."

Loril stared at him incredulously. "But you lied!. What kind of better world is supposed to come out of that? A world where everything is turned into manipulated images. Where nobody can believe anything anymore. And what would you have to turn people into for it to work? A world of mindless sheep?"

Jenyn checked the flash of meanness that had started to show, and became mocking again. "Now you're almost sounding like a trad. Just who have you been talking to, Lorili?"

"There are just some basic values that you don't try to change. The idea was about building a better world on the old, not tearing it down."

"Sometimes, to build a new house, you have to dig new foundations."

"Not your kind of house, where it's all right to bend everything if it serves an immediate need. The principle has to come first."

"Everything changes with time. Those values were appropriate to a small, struggling society in a harsh environment with limited resources. We're a growing civilization now. It can afford to be less self-sacrificing. In fact, it's going to have to learn to be. The ones who learn to compete are going to come to the top now. Those are going to be the new rules. You either play by them or go under."

"Well, you came to a planet with the right history to learn about all that, didn't you?" Lorili said. She couldn't refrain from adding sarcastically, "Or was it because they were onto you back home? How come you're still not on the editorial board at The Commentator?"

Jenyn was on his feet. For an instant Lorili thought he was going to strike her, but she squared to him, daring him to try it. "So what made you run here and hide?" he asked her. "Were you one of the ones who put them up to it?"

They stood glaring at each other for several seconds. She saw the anger flaming in his eyes, and then abate gradually as he fought it under control. He could be violent and impassioned, she knew, but he was not stupid. He knew there was nothing to be gained here now, just at the moment.

Lorili let her voice fall to defuse the tension. "I think you'd better go."

Jenyn stared at her for a second or two longer, as if seeing it too, but unable to back down. She held her breath. Then, mercifully, he moved away, toward the door. "Think about it when you've calmed down," he said. "It wasn't a bad thing we had going. And we will again. You know I never give up."

"Just go," she repeated.

He opened the door, stepped through, then turned and looked back. Lorili stood staring stonily. "Why make life tough on yourself, when you could be riding with it?" He closed the door, and was gone.

Loril swallowed and sank down into one of the chairs. She put her hands to her mouth and found that she was shaking. His ego was at stake. The only thing of importance to him now would be that he win. No other matter, nor anybody else, would be of importance. She realized that this wasn't going to go away.

 
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