Petrus Timon sat in a high-backed chair at the middle of the top side of the long table. The chair was fashioned from the latest composites, the same ones they were using in the Explorer rockets, and was, to his mind, odd. His hand slid almost frictionlessly over them; they provided so little feedback that he couldn't be sure he was touching the chair without looking. He tapped a short, bitten fingernail against it, listening to the quickly damped thud and disliking it.
He much preferred the chair in his office, made of solid wood and mounted on castors that junior officers oiled every week. When he sat in that chair it creaked as it accepted his weight, and it pushed back, solid and real, letting him know that he was in safe hands. Not like this glossy, aerofoamed, ephemeral construct.
A door at the far end of the room irised open, more exotic composites sliding smoothly across each other. There was a sharp crack as Owen Pentathorne came in; the composites developed a static charge when they rubbed against each other, and had managed to earth on something metallic on Owen's uniform. Owen's face grimaced, but he quickly corrected it to impassive neutrality and proceeded up to the table. He stopped, the regulation distance away, and snapped off a salute.
"Sit down, Owen," said Petrus, gesturing across the table from him. Owen drew back a chair, and Petrus noted with glee a fleeting look of disgust as the man touched the composite fabric.
"I asked you to come ten minutes earlier than the rest of the assembly," he continued, "to apprise you something you probably already know."
Owen nodded, slowly, his eyes bright and darting glances around the room.
"The weapons test," he said. His voice was a light contralto, higher pitched than people looking at him expected. His broad, muscular shoulders, tight waist, and especially the thin white scar running from the corner of his jaw down his neck made people expect something rougher, deeper, more macho-sounding.
"This goes against my wishes and my orders, Owen. I have no hand in this, and I will gladly grant you every security permission you need to see that."
"I've no need to distrust you, Petrus. We were in the same class when we were taught that a force divided is no force at all."
Petrus nodded, and for a moment both men sat in silence, a shared memory of early days in the Easthall military academy binding them.
"Who then? Who has decided to do this?"
"There's layers of deception, as you would expect. I've got Rula and Casey assigned to that detail, but it'll take a while to ferret out. I believe they can do it, and without making too much fuss, but I don't know how soon they can do it."
"We could hardly move against whoever did it anyway." Owen rubbed at an imaginary spot on the table with his thumb. "All it would do is let us know who has it in for the Thorne. And I have some good ideas there already."
"True, and there's not enough pro-Thorne sentiment at the moment to muster. We may have to work differently."
"Discredit the weapon tests. It won't do the Thorne any favours, but it'll stop them being used like this. If the country think that the Thorne aren't even any good as weapons, maybe they'll forget about them, leave them alone, let them recover."
"I have my doubts. We can try this, Petrus," Owen sighed heavily, rubbing harder at the table. "We can try, and maybe it'll do some good, but there's such a long way to go."
"--le is ever easy; I know. I do know. But you're not Thorne."
A chime from the centre of the table broke the conversation. Owen frowned, and checked his wrist.
"Your clock's fast, Petrus."
"By two minutes. And I shall be accusing everyone who arrives now of being late for my meeting. Well done for being the only one early enough to be on time."
The two men shared a smile just as the door irised open and the first of the rest of the assembly came in.