Narl has a conversation with a shadowy figure. SPOILERS.
The visitor - merely a collection of shadows, to the eye, although Narl of course knew better - walked up to his desk. "I had to be careful; you never know when you might run into someone who can see through this mask. It's dangerous enough, coming here like this."
"Yes, but I fear that it is necessary." He stood up. "Things must remain under our control... and we can't allow our conversations to be intercepted. You know that."
"Of course." The shadows walked behind the desk to join him at the monitor. "Hm... so the offworlders and their friends are off doing their busywork, I see. I have to admit, Mayor, that I fail to see the point."
"Think of it as a test - not for our benefit so much as for theirs, of course. I don't think they fully understand what they're getting themselves into. It's no surprise, of course; they're simply naive."
"By your standards, Mayor, everyone on the planet is naive." It was impossible to see his visitor's face, but he was sure that there was a smile there. "Even me, I'd assume."
"Not so much; you're only two hundred years younger than I am, after all." Narl smiled back, but it was thin and forced. "None of them have passed their first lifespan... not even the Nedians among them. How can they be expected to understand?"
"So you send them off on a wild goose chase so that you can pick their brains, find out their motivations... and at the same time you give them challenges to bolster their confidence. That does sound like your handiwork, Mayor."
"You know me entirely too well, Commander - oh, don't worry," he added, sensing her pointed stare. "We'll not be disturbed. And I've already checked for listeners."
There was a long pause, and for just a moment Narl entertained the option that the Commander of the Defense and Security Forces might not be as intimidated by him as most of the other Nedians were. It was in her blood, he supposed; he always did take after her mother, and she knew him far too well. Much better than he knew her, even if he had raised her.
"I hope that your search was very thorough," Marianna finally answered. The shadows dropped abruptly, revealing a pixish girl that few people would've believed was one of the best fighters on Nede. Unlike Narl, who chose his rough-hewn features and dignified bearing because it was what the Nedians expected of a leader, she'd always chosen the opposite. Being underestimated, she'd said to him once, always gave her an advantage. "If they happen to overhear our conversation..."
Narl shrugged. "We'd think of an explanation. Besides, they won't be here anytime soon." He tapped one of the monitors on his desk. "I have a feed on them right now. It might take them days to climb back down that mountain."
"I suppose." She walked over to his desk, still nervous. He knew very well that she would've preferred to wear her cloak, but that she was deferring to his judgement. Most of the Nedians did that out of sheer habit; Marianna did it out of a grudgingly genuine respect, partially because he was her Mayor and largely because he was her father.
"You should trust me, Marianna," he said gently. "But let's get to the point. What is this situation that you wanted to see me about?"
Marianna took an atomic disk out of her pocket. "Security risk," she answered shortly. "And your 'guests' are involved."
Narl raised an eyebrow. "Really." He extended a hand for the tape, not surprised when she handed it to him without a word. He sat at his desk again, slipped it into one of the slots on his console and pulled up her report, reading it quickly. "Ah," he said simply, and nodded. "I see."
"I don't know how that reporter managed to find the password for the files. There must've been a mistake -"
"Ms. Madison's tenacity is admirable. I think that she would've found it if it had been locked in a safebox under my bed, even if it meant breaking into my home in midday to take it." Narl interrupted.
"What should we do? She shouldn't have been allowed to travel with the offworlders in the first place. Neither should the other one, that charity case of yours."
"That was not your decision to make," he interrupted. "Dr. Chandler and Ms. Madison are young and naive, and also quite talented. Their aid has been invaluable." He took the disk and stood up. "At any rate, your report is appreciated, Commander. But it is hardly necessary."
There was open disbelief on her face, something that not many people would have dared to show. "Mayor... with all respect, this could turn into a very serious situation. I'd expected orders to take care of it as soon as you saw my report."
"Under normal circumstances, I would. But these are far from normal circumstances." He gave the disk back to her. "Under normal circumstances, we would not have enlisted the help of these people... but in this circumstance, we must not compromise them. We need their aid against the Wise Men -"
"Spare me your lies, Father,/" she almost spat. She glared at him. "We could deal with this all ourselves, if we wanted to. We do not /need them!"
And he had to admit that in one sense, at least, that was true. If they used every last ounce of power remaining on Nede, they could manage to defeat the Wise Men. True, it would destroy Energy Nede and everything on it, and perhaps more. But certain people would've seen that as a reasonable price to pay.
"Maybe not... but I need them," he finally answered. "I know that this is a blow to your pride, Marianna, and I'm sorry about that. I could destroy Nede and everything on it now, with one order... but what would happen then? We would all die, and our destruction would mean nothing. If we are going to have any reason behind our destruction, we do need them." He shook his head. "Think of them as a necessary evil, if it helps."
Marianna just stared at him. She didn't approve of the plan, that much was obvious. "I still don't understand why. Spending our energy to revive a primitive planet..."
"We can't endure forever, no matter what our ancestors said. We've lost most of our backup system to disuse. It's only a matter of time before something fails completely, even if we could manage to defeat the Wise Men without destroying ourselves. The least we can do is allow them to continue on." He paused for a moment. "Besides... the Expellians were once wards of our race. We might even call them children of Nede... although it's impossible for us to know how true that is. But at least if we can bring their world back, our sacrifice won't be meaningless."
"I still don't like it," she muttered again.
"Yes, daughter," he said simply, patiently. "I understand."
She turned her back. "So I should do nothing about that problem, even though it could create mass hysteria across Nede if the secrets are revealed?"
"Yes." Narl sat back down, drummed his fingers on the desk. "Even if they manage to break the rest of the encryption - which might prove to be even more difficult than finding the password - there's little that the citizens can do to disrupt our plan."
She shook her head, and with the touch of a button on her wrist she was shadowed again. She walked away without as much as a good-bye.
Narl watched her go with tired, old eyes - they were quite possibly the only part of him that looked almost six hundred years old. He knew that she was angry. Maybe if he were in her place he'd be angry too... but he was tired of being selfish, serving only for the welfare of his Energy Nede. He had to think about Expel, about the welfare of a planet that had a future. Maybe, if he could save it, all of the death and destruction that his orders would cause would be worthwhile.
He shook his head and turned the monitor back to the mountains, and watched Rena and her companions continue their long, cold climb.