I'm surrounded by idiots. Gully, of course, was smart enough not to vocalize her intense displeasure with her "comrades" and their rhetoric. No one was ever going to accuse her of being a proper statesmen, but she could hum a few bars and dance a few steps. What that basically amounted to was keeping her mouth shut as long as she could stand to. That, however, was easier said than done. Especially among this lot. "I say we wipe the dirty bastards out now, while we still have the chance!" shouted one of her colleagues. "They can't kill us if we kill them first!" Aaaaand that was about the limit of her patience. Oh well. "That's the stupidest thing you've said all day," she drawled. "And brother, you set that bar high from the get." The speaker was a short, wiry man approaching advanced middle age. Or, hell, he might not have been much older than Gully herself. His skin was tanned into leather, creased and wrinkled from a lifetime of hard labor. His hands bore the callouses of a man accustomed to working long hours under harsh conditions. His tailored suit couldn't have been more at odds with his appearance if it had been neon pink with sparkles. For all his faults, no one could say that Farad wasn't willing to get his hands dirty. As much as Gully despised his hot temper and predisposition towards wanton acts of violence, it had been his work ethic and brutal pragmatism that saved his colony from a plague that would have otherwise have wiped them out. Like so many other worlds, Carpenter had done its best to shake the colonists from its back like a dog ridding itself of fleas. Farad had managed to hold his people together until they could get through the crisis, and because of that, it had turned into a moderately productive source of nickel, cobalt, and lead, all materials in high demand. Gully's own world, Farnham's Freehold, named so because the party that stumbled across it was led by a colossal nerd, had fared better on landing, but lacked any notable deposits of minerals or resources that could be readily accessed. What it had, instead, was a relatively temperate climate and vast swathes of tillable soil. Settled (illegally) mere months after the first initial planets had been discovered, FF had, over the past several years, established itself as a breadbasket for the neighboring regions. For all that it kept less hospitable planets fed, however, foodstuffs didn't have the same value density as minerals. In another decade or two, it would be as wealthy as any planet discovered since Providentia, but until then, its influence, and by extension Gully's, was primarily in the form of goodwill from colonies that would otherwise have starved, or been forced to import processed rations. Farad, on the other hand, had deep pockets. Not only was Carpenter in the black financially, he came from Old Earth money, with all the power and influence that entailed. Hard worker? Yes. Entitled brat? Also yes. "And what would the representative from Farnham's Freehold have us do instead?" he sneered. "Cower? Grovel? Hope that the skinnies leave us in peace?" "O' course not," Gully snorted. "Grandpa didn't raise no fool. He did, however, tell me not to go stickin' my hand in hornet nests unless I was damn sure I was ready to get stung." Oh, great, she thought. My accent's coming out again. Must be getting tired. Or pissed. Maybe both. As it had many times over the last several hours, the room dissolved into hushed conversations as the many representatives debated among themselves the merits of Farad's fiery call to arms, or Gully's bucolic "wisdom." And, for about the millionth time, she wondered just what the hell Harry had been thinking, sending her out to New Tycho in his stead. Harry was nominally the elected leader of FF. True to its name, Farnham's Freehold had no ruling class, and made no distinction between peasant and politician. Nearly everyone had a farm, as much as they could handle by themselves or with the help of hired hands fresh off the ships. It was a big world, a quarter again the size of earth, but the gravity balanced out thanks to the lack of heavy metals. Thanks in no small part to Builder meddling, it had over twenty times the amount of tillable soil, and much of the world, especially around the equator, could sustain crops year round. Even with a steady influx of immigrants and all the automation money could buy, it would be decades before they managed to sow more than a fraction of a percent of the available land. Harry had been part of the first wave of colonists, and was one of the few that grew anything other than soy or grain. He grew sizable crops of tobacco, marijuana, poppy, hops, and just about anything else that could make life a little easier, though he sold the hard stuff exclusively offworld. Not that anyone minded. A little beer and a joint after a long day was about all anyone really wanted on FF. But, because he did have the fun stuff, that made him popular, and that meant that, when it came time for meetings, he was usually the head. If Harry was the head, however, Gully was the fist. FF had no fleet, and no real army or police force. Hell, there were less than 10,000 colonists all told. Wherever there were humans, there was crime, but mostly that amounted to petty theft among the newcomers and the occasional drunken brawl. Anything more severe was Gully's problem. She, having the closest thing to combat experience among the peaceful farmers, was elected the leader of the "Defense Militia," a force of about 500 young men and women who got together for a couple days every month to train. Of that 500, there were maybe 70 that Gully could really trust in a fight, and they were just about the only folks on the planet, aside from the vendors that catered to the steady flow of offworld traffic, who didn't farm for a living. Their job was to patrol the planet's sole spaceport and keep the ships' crewman from causing too much trouble. As Harry had no interest in martial matters, and it looked awful likely that this "meeting" was going to be a call to arms against the Belter colonists, he'd asked Gully to go in his stead. "Damn you, Harry," she muttered, and not for the first time. "Alright, I think that's about enough for now. How's about we all call it a night, and come back in the morning?" asked Cynthia Radder, the chair of the meeting. As the representative of the First Wave Union, she was the chair, and undoubtedly the most powerful person in the room by a significant margin. The FWU consisted of at least 70 worlds, all settled by Earthers, with controlling stakes in as many as 30 others. They were far and away the largest independent faction outside of the Sol system, or so they claimed. Gully wasn't so sure about that; the OPA and its various subsidiaries, allies, and favorably neutral systems could probably make a pretty decent claim to that title as well, but the FWU didn't exactly like the OPA, and therefore, weren't inclined to let them try. See, the First Wave Union was very much an Earther-first organization, nevermind the fact that none of its membership could truly consider themselves Earthers anymore. For whatever reason, everyone in this room, including Gully, had cut ties with the homeworld to seek their fortune among the stars. Not that the FWU let that get in the way of a perfectly good streak of bigotry against the "subhuman" Belters. This "meeting" was ostensibly the FWU's attempt to court neutral or unaligned Earther colonies into "The Great Struggle." They saw war with the Belters as not only inevitable, but desirable. The first part was...debatable. Gully knew enough history to know that war was certainly likely, not in the least because of the various economic pressures at play. Desirable, though? Now that was a different story. As the exhausted delegates of a hundred worlds filed out of the room, Gully sank down in a chair with a deep sigh. Farnham's Freehold had no business going to war. They didn't have enough competent fighters to fill a dropship, and most of the guns sat in Gully's private safe. She wouldn't even be here if the FWU didn't intimate that trade would get a lot more difficult if they didn't at least hear them out. Well, that, and the makings of what looked like a Belter colony in their system. With no fleet to speak of, FF didn't have the means to keep their asteroid belt free of potential colonists. So far, FF and the Belters had maintained cordial relations, with a steady flow of trade between the surface and the Belt. But, if war did come between Earthers and Belters, who's to say that wouldn't change? Without a fleet, there was nothing to stop the Belters from dropping a few rocks down the gravity well. And that, ultimately, was why Harry decided to send Gully as his representative. As long as that threat remained, no one, not even the peaceful people of Farnham's Freehold, could afford to remain truly neutral. If the cost of security was sending a few young boys and girls off to die, well, so be it. At least Gully could console herself with the fact that she'd be going with them. Until that day came, however, she was bound and determined to do everything in her admittedly limited power to head it off. If she failed, then she deserved to throw herself back into the fray. If nothing else, maybe she'd get lucky this time and catch a bullet.