Jolt and Lael would talk until dawn, their voices animated with passion, fired by their concurrent idealism; politics had rubbed them together, and the sparks had started a major conflagration. Their break-up was just as explosive. But Joh never took sides, remaining best friends with both. Good old Joh.
Joh opened the door. “Come on in, Fearless Leader.”
“I don’t know whether to shoot myself or get drunk.”
“Bar’s over there,” Joh replied. “It’s a lot less final.”
Jolt went over and scanned the bottles, then concocted a wickedly potent antidote to his depression. “It’s hopeless, Joh,” he said as he mixed. “Sons of bitches have me boxed in with my hands tied.”
“I shouldn’t be, should I? I didn’t think I was being so bloody naïve, but I sure feel like an ass now.”
Joh sat down at the resonator. “Hey, figure, they’ve got a lot to lose. They aren’t going to let you screw it up.” He began playing, something quiet and random, then paused to hold up his glass. “Fill me up, too, would you?”
“Sure. What are you drinking?”
“Brandy. Keep it small. I want to stay sober enough to put you to bed if I have to.” He returned to the resonator. A melody began to emerge from the seemingly random chord changes. “So, talk to me. How bad is it?”
“Total mushroom treatment,” Jolt said, filling Joh’s glass and bringing it to him. “They keep me in the dark, schedule meetings without telling me, shut me out of the nomination process for committees, feed me total stagscat. I went into Fel Dellcar’s office and rioted, and he just batted his eyes at me innocently and said gee whiz. I don’t know what I’m doing and nobody’ll give me the time of day. It’s so fornikking frustrating!”
“They’re bastards. You knew that when you went in there.” Joh took the glass with one hand, the other continued to play with idle ease, a lovely little bit of nothing that his fingers picked out with no effort. Jolt collapsed into a chair and worked at draining his drink.
“Yeah, I know. I guess I hoped I could beat them at their own game somehow. I’ve always been able to make my own breaks, land on my feet, you know. Bloody hell.” He sat up. “You know what they’re going to do. They’re going to keep me boxed in and castrated, then when the election cycle rolls around they’ll claim I went into office making a bunch of promises and couldn’t deliver.”
“That’s probably what they have in mind,” Joh agreed.
“I’m out of ideas. I tried going public with what they were doing to me, but I can’t get the word out. All the channels I used to count on have shut down tight. Hounds that used to chase me around for a story now won’t even return my calls. A lot of heads rolled after I got elected and the Elite has got the media whipped and scared. I’m still good for ratings, but they twist everything I say before it goes out. Cut out the dry facts and just pass on the juicy quotes. I come off sounding like a spoiled brat, whining and raging because I’m not getting my way.”
“They’re getting their revenge on you, Fearless Leader. You shamed ‘em real good, raped ‘em black and blue, and they’re determined to crucify you for it.”
“Yeah. What did I expect.” Jolt could feel the soothing, numbing burn of the alcohol taking the edge of his misery. He got up to make another drink. “God’s scat. What did I really think was going to happen? I’m just one of fourteen Council members, with a host of shadows pulling strings like mad in the background. I don’t know what I thought I could accomplish. Something. I thought I could do something.”
Joh nodded. “Maybe you can. Maybe something you haven’t thought of yet.”
“Like what?” Jolt asked in a bitter tone that didn’t really expect a useful answer.
Joh shrugged. “Politics was never really my bag of tea. I went through raging rebellious adolescence just like the rest of you crusaders, but at the heart of it, all I ever really was any good at was spinning out tunes.”
“So, what are you saying? You don’t care anymore? You just want to sit here and let the world go to blazes while you perform acoustic masturbation?”
Joh stopped playing for a moment, squinting at him. “Cool off, Jolt. What I’m saying is, I don’t have the savvy for it. You’re the clever one. You were the brains behind Naked Truth and everybody knew it. Except maybe Berk. Say, did his mouthpiece send you a summons last week, or was the honor solely mine?”
“Maybe. Anything I get from that elk’s backside I just send to my man and let him take care of it.”
“Any chance of getting the Council’s covert hit squad to bump him off?”
Jolt grinned at him. “If I’m ever privy to that particular state secret, Berk’ll be on the top of my list.” He shut his eyes and lay back in the chair, his drink tipping dangerously. “What is that you’re playing?”
“Nothing much. Variations on a theme.”
“Elder stuff? The Culture Police are gonna bust you.”
Joh chuckled softly.
Jolt fished around in the chair, pulling out the remote. He pointed it at the lights, dimming them further. “You mind?”
“Suit yourself.” He turned on the light over the keyboard. It illuminated a soft circle of his face, chest and hands.
“God!” Jolt sighed, rubbing his eyes. “What am I going to do? I feel like I’ve been handed this once in a lifetime chance to make a difference and I’m blowing it. Yet, I haven’t a clue. They’ve beaten me.”
“Nobody ever beat you, Fearless Leader.”
“Oh, yeah, right! You know, I almost wish I was twenty years younger. I knew everything then. Knew it all. Had all the answers, and I’d shout ‘em in the face of anyone who’d stay still long enough. Somebody tried to put me in my place, I’d kick and scream until I got free. Scat. It’s like the older I get, the more stupid I feel. Does that make any sense? I know a hell of a lot more, I’ve got a hell of a lot more experience, and yet I’m not nearly as sure of myself as I used to be.”
“I know where you’re at,” Joh said, serenely continuing to play. “Reality is a lot more complicated than we used to think it was.”
“No scat! Oh, yow, I wish…hell, I don’t know what I wish.”
The door light purred softly.
“Don’t let them in, Joh. Pretend you aren’t home.”
Joh got up. “I’m expecting somebody in particular. Somebody I think you ought to see.”
Jolt frowned after him, momentarily baffled, then his eyes widened in comprehension. “Oh, yow, you wouldn’t do that to me, Joh, would you?”
“I’m your best friend, aren’t I?” Joh said, squinting at him. “Trust me.”
“No, really, I mean it! I am not in the mood–” he looked around desperately for an escape, but before he could pick a door it was too late.
“That’s a fine greeting,” Lael said.
“Well, what do you expect? Joh, oh, yow! Why? How could you?”
“Because you need it. Don’t give me that look.”
“I should have shot myself.” He went to the bar with furious self-destructive determination.
Lael intercepted him. “Cut it out, jerk. I’m here because it’s about bloody time we got past the stagscat.”
“Joh put you up to this.”
“No, he didn’t!” she protested.
“Yeah, I did,” Joh said. “I‘m sick of you both coming over here and getting drunk and going all maudlin reminiscing over the good ol’ days, each of you moaning about how much you miss the other. You’re both too damn hard-headed to admit it to each other, but you both whine about it to me. Well, here you both are. Make the lady a drink, Jolt.”
“Bloody fornikking God, you have got some brass balls!” Jolt exclaimed.
“Yeah, well, what are friends for?” Joh replied.
“So, have you?” Lael demanded.
“Have I what?” Jolt snapped back.
“Been moaning to Joh about how much you miss me?” When he just scowled at her stubbornly, she took a deep breath and said, “I’ll admit it if you will.”
“I’ll make you a drink,” Jolt grumbled finally. “You still partial to the same?”
“Make it a double,” Lael said with relief. She glanced at Joh. He wasn’t paying attention, suddenly engrossed in dusting off a cobweb he had just discovered on a table lamp.
Jolt handed Lael her drink, keeping his expression unreadably neutral. Their eyes met and he felt an involuntary tightening in his stomach. “I see you haven’t cut your hair,” he said lightly.
“Nope,” she replied. She sipped her drink. “I see you cut yours.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t wear the leather pants anymore, either.”
“I supposed you need to look more respectable, now that you’re a member of the esteemed City Council.”
Jolt snorted. “Right!”
She frowned. “I guess they’ve been making it pretty rough for you, haven’t they?”
“You could say that!”
“They’re scared to death of you, Jolt. You’re a major threat.”
“I’m a major failure,” he retorted, going back over to the cluster of comfy chairs and throwing himself down across one, his legs over the arm. “They’ve done a real handy job of making me chase my tail.”
“Tell me about it.” Lael settled herself in a chair across from him. Joh perched on the back of a chair with his feet on the seat, quietly observing.
“Get this,” Jolt said, gesturing with his glass, “I don’t find out about a major Council meeting until I see the headlines in the Glass the next day. I call up Brock and ask him what the fornik is going on. He’s all apologetic and innocent. ‘You weren’t informed about the meeting? My deepest apologies, Councilor! I shall certainly take this up with my secretary.’ So I demand a complete transcript of the meeting. When I get it, I can tell it’s been edited. Oh, they did a slick job of it, nothing that smokes, but I can tell. It doesn’t flow right, and there’s stuff that was in the Glass news–little details–that aren’t in it.”
“So, they are definitely trying to keep something from you,” Lael said.
“They’ve got to be,” Jolt said. “Like, I’m supposed to have all the clearance passwords. Access to all the databases. But there’s stuff I can’t get into. My password isn’t valid. They claim it’s a glitch, and they are working on fixing it. But it doesn’t happen.”
“So you’ve been shut out of anything but the most superficial matters of the Council,” Lael said, frowning.
“Pretty much. Those businessmen have me dressed up in a clown suit.” Jolt put his empty glass down on the table between them.
“Hmm,” Lael mused thoughtfully. “I wonder….”
“What?” Jolt asked. “Something your people have gotten wind of? Word has it, some of you activists have been trying to violate the Frontier. Poke holes in the Wall of Silence.”
Lael grinned. “We have.”
“No scat?” Jolt exclaimed, swinging his feet onto the floor and leaning forward. “Do tell.”
Lael looked positively smug. “I and a few others have met with the people on the outside.”
Jolt’s eyes got huge. “You mean, the Freefolk?”
“And the Elders.”
He whistled softly. “Yow.”
“We’ve talked with Galamandria. She’s the leader of the Elder Race now.”
“Wait, Galamandria. That’s the daughter of the old Prime Arbitor, Brinnalamaya, right? And Tristramacus! God’s balls! You mean, you’ve actually met her? Talked to her?” He was staring at Lael with new awe.
Lael told him about their covert communications with the Other Side, and how they had managed to sneak across the Frontier.
“Yow! That is incredible!”
“Almost as incredible as you getting yourself elected to the Council.” Lael said.
Jolt chuckled. “Yeah, no kidding. So tell me more. What was it like? What was she like?”
Joh had heard the whole story already, so he got up and returned to the resonator, letting them talk. They were very impressed with one another and eager to let each other know it. The old chemistry was perking away. Interesting how, once they got talking, the hostility evaporated. Joh watched them with satisfaction. Wistful satisfaction.