Authors: Steven Harper
Tags: #Science Fiction
More people, both Ched-Balaar and human, were filling the restaurant around them. The mossy floor muffled both human voices and Ched-Balaar tooth-talk. Ched-Mulooth reappeared and set three troughs on the table, smaller versions of those used by the Ched-Balaar. A shiny purple liquid glimmered in each.
“You don’t have to slurp,” Kendi said, hoisting his trough and taking a drink. Martina and Keith followed suit. The light wine was sweet, with a distinct fruity aftertaste.
“It’s wonderful,” Martina said. “Isn’t it wonderful, Keith?”
“It’s okay,” Keith muttered.
Kendi tightened his jaw. He remembered his older brother as serious but not morose. When they were children, all three of them had invented games that transformed the grimy streets of Sydney into pirate coves, opal caves, and space ships. Keith had been the best at inventing new settings, pretending to explore new things. But fifteen years of slavery had taken their toll.
And then there was the slaver named Feder. Just after their capture, the Weaver family had spent several days on a slave ship, and Feder had taken a...liking to Keith. Kendi had only been twelve at the time, but he still remembered the helpless rage he had felt every time Feder came to their cell and took Keith away, returning him, stone-faced and mute, several hours later.
Slavery, abuse, the Despair, Silent Acquisitions—was it any wonder Keith had problems?
“Aren’t you Father Kendi Weaver?” This time the speaker was human, a young man. Kendi signed an autograph and turned back to his siblings.
“Is it going to be like this all through lunch?” Martina asked.
“Some days are worse than others,” Kendi said. “Ben got our address removed from the public databases, or we’d probably deal with it at home, too. My work address is public information, though, and I get deluged with messages there.”
Ched-Mulooth set three logs on the table. Fragrant steam rose in delicate, spicy-smelling tendrils from gaps in the bark, and pale mushrooms poked up like soggy miniature umbrellas. Bits of wet, rotten wood showered the table. Ched-Mulooth withdrew. Keith stared at the logs. Martina cocked her head.
“Explain,” she said.
“Like this,” Kendi said. He ripped a piece of wood away. Large red grubs glistened inside. Kendi plucked one out—it was almost hot enough to singe his fingers—and popped it into his mouth. It was juicy and meaty, like a bite of tender steak with an outer skin that broke with a slight crunch. Martina grinned.
“You used to hate grubs in the Outback,” she said, tearing open her own log and selecting a blood-red specimen. “What changed?”
“The Ched-Balaar are better cooks.”
“Why do they eat this stuff?” Keith said. He hadn’t touched his own log.
“Look at their feet,” Kendi replied. “They evolved tearing stuff apart and digging things up. The Ched-Balaar are ominivores, like humans, but their eating habits are more...bear-like than monkey-like.”
“Eat your grubs, Keith,” Martina said, downing one of her own. “They’re good.”
“You’re meant to eat the mushrooms, too,” Kendi put in. “Ched-Balaar salad.”
“Maybe I could just ask for a cheese sandwich,” Keith said.
Martina made a face. “A chunk of half-rotten milk stuck between two slabs of yeast-infected seed powder? Ick!”
At that, Keith managed a smile, though to Kendi’s eye it looked forced. He reluctantly ripped out a piece of wood, selected a steaming slug, and stared at for a long moment. Then he ate it.
“It’s not half bad,” Keith admitted grudgingly. “Could use some salt.”
“Aren’t you Father Kendi Weaver?”
Kendi signed another autograph and turned back to Martina and Keith. “So how are you two getting along with your teachers?”
“It’s annoying,” Martina said, delicately licking a shred of slug from her upper lip. “I know how to operate in the Dream, thank you very much, and don’t need help with it. I can possess people and I can whisper from the Dream and my short-term recall is already perfect. But Mother Bess keeps trying to make me do memory exercises. Like I said—annoying.”
“Mother Bess was Silenced, wasn’t she?” Kendi asked.
Martina nodded. “It’s why I haven’t really rebelled against her. She looks so...unhappy all the time.”
“I know what you mean,” Kendi said. “All life, I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose the Dream.”
“I can barely reach it,” Keith said. “And I can’t stay in for very long. It’s like having a hand cut off. Or having palsy. I can still do stuff, but I can’t do it
“That’s exactly it,” Martina said. “All life, I—”
“Why do you talk like that?” Keith snapped. A ‘All life’ and ‘Real People’ and all that Outback shit?”
Martina blinked at him. After a pause, Kendi said, “It’s who we—who
am. The Real People got me through being a slave and losing Mom. They’re how I found the Dream.”
“You’re angry at the Real People,” Martina said. “Keith, that’s all r—”
“I don’t need you to tell me what’s all right and what’s not,” Keith snarled. Then he sighed. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m not good company.”
He lapsed into silence again and a Ched-Balaar approached the table. “You are Father Kendi Weaver, true?”
Martina bravely tried to keep conversation going for the rest of lunch. Keith didn’t speak, and Kendi couldn’t bring himself to give more than one- or two-word answers. This wasn’t how he’d imagined it. Throughout three years of slavery and twelve years with the Children of Irfan, he had dreamed of finding his family again, sitting with them at a meal just like this one. Kendi had fantasized about laughing together, telling stories, even having childish squabbles. He hadn’t ever thought it would be like this.
“Aren’t you Father Kendi Weaver?”
Kendi signed, then stood up. “Let’s go. I’ve got stuff to do.”
They exited the restaurant straight into a crowd of people. The wide platform that made up the “street” in this part of Treetown groaned with humans and Ched-Balaar. A Ched-Balaar with designs shaved into her body fur stood head and shoulders above the crowd next to a sandy-haired man.
“Not another one,” Keith complained. “This is getting stupid.”
“It’s not a demonstration,” Kendi said with groan. “It’s a press conference. For
A...these times of economic hardship,” the man said in a voice that carried well above the crowd, “we need to pull back, hunker down, and find our strengths as a people. This is not a time to look outward. It is a time to look inward. Our tax money should be spent on job programs for our people, not on arms programs for our military. We Federals firmly believe that the people come first.”
When he fell silent, the crowd exploded into questions like an erupting volcano. “Mr. Foxglove, how long do you think the post-Despair depression will last?” “Mr. Foxglove, what will be your first act if you win the governorship?” “Mr. Foxglove, do you think the High Court will rule in favor of releasing mining restrictions in your district?” “Mr. Foxglove—” “Mr. Foxglove—” “Mr. Foxglove—”
“I have every confidence,” Foxglove said, and the reporters fell instantly silent, “that the High Court will make a fair and just ruling to relieve the mining restrictions in the Othertown district. The reasons for the restrictions were wise nine hundred years ago, but times have changed. We can now mine the resources of this planet without harming our environment and in the bargain provide our people with much-needed jobs.”
“Mr. Foxglove, what cutbacks to the military are you proposing?” shouted another reporter before the others could begin their frenzy.
“I’m not proposing a cutback,” Foxglove said. “I’m proposing a freeze. The Federalist Party has said it before, and I’m saying it again: we don’t need more ships. We need more jobs. We don’t need more soldiers. We need more financial security. My proposal would save our government over nine hundred million freemarks without cutting jobs within the military itself.”
“Mr. Foxglove—” “Mr. Foxglove—” “Mr. Foxglove, what about the Silent and the Children of Irfan?”
Kendi held his breath. Martina did the same. Keith stared at his fingernails.
“The sun is setting on Irfan Qasad’s Silent Empire,” Foxglove said. “I think it’s time for the Silent and the Silenced to accept that their time on Bellerophon is growing to a close. We can create new enclaves for them, let them live their lives outside humanity, as they’ve always done. Then, perhaps, the different species can find peace.”
“What kind of bullshit is that?” Kendi snarled without thinking. Several people turned. Ched-Balaar heads swiveled. Kendi found himself staring into several pairs of inquisitive eyes.
“Father Kendi Weaver!” someone shouted, and a sea of people washed around Kendi like a whirlpool. Recording devices were shoved at his face, and two floating microphones spun into orbit around his head. Ched-Balaar heads bobbed, human hands waved. “Father Kendi, do you agree with what Mr. Foxglove just said?” “Father Kendi, what’s your position on the mining rights?” “Father Kendi, are you planning to run for office?” “Father Kendi, is it true that you’ve taken a leave of absence from the Children of Irfan?”
Martina and Keith both shrank behind Kendi. Behind them, the restaurant window filled with faces of patrons, some of them still chewing. Kendi raised both his hands, palms out, and the noise stopped.
“I’m not here to give a press conference,” he said, and the microphones broadcast his words to the edges of the crowd. “I was just getting a bite of lunch with my family, if you don’t mind.”
“Father Kendi, why the leave of absence?” “Father Kendi, are you quitting the Children?” “Father Kendi, what do you think of Mr. Foxglove’s remarks about the sun setting on the Silent Empire?”
“It’s bloody nonsense,” Kendi said, addressing the last question. “I don’t think—”
“With all due respect, Father,” Foxglove boomed from the other side of the platform, “I don’t see how the Children can survive. My Ched-Balaar friends tell me they have sensed no new presences in the Dream for many months now, and one day those who can reach it now will pass away. Time moves on.”
“Why don’t you have any human Silent or Silenced in your campaign, Mr. Foxglove?” Kendi shot back. “Don’t you think they’re human enough for you?”
Foxglove gave a hearty smile. “Are you offering advice to me on how to run a campaign, young Father? I hear you’re experienced at stealing slaves and wandering around the Dream, but I’m afraid that public office is another matter entirely.” A small chuckle. “I suppose we can forgive the foibles of the young and the brash.”
Anger boiled Kendi’s chest in acid. He opened his mouth to respond when someone yanked him hard from behind and he found himself back inside the darkened restaurant. The patrons at the window turned to stare. Kendi tried to round on Martina, but she still had a hold on his robe. Keith slammed the door and twisted the deadbolt lock. The microphones orbiting Kendi’s head fell to the mossy floor and Martina stepped on them. Reporters pounded on the door, but couldn’t open it.
“What the hell are you doing?” Kendi snapped.
“Saving your ass,” Martina snapped back. “What are you, mad? You got into a public debate with an experienced politician with a pack of reporters looking on.”
“I was about to give him a piece of—”
“Nothing,” Martina interrupted. “There was nothing you could say that he couldn’t counter, Kendi. That’s what politicians
. The longer you shouted at him, the stupider you looked.”
“Is ‘stupider’ a word?” Keith asked.
“It was invented just for Kendi,” Martina said, and turned to Ched-Mulooth who was hovering nearby. “Do you have a back exit? We need to slip away.”
Ched-Mulooth was only too glad to show them another way out. The trio fled down two walkways and three flights of stairs before Martina consented to release Kendi’s robe. Kendi took a deep breath, trying to get his anger under control. Martina leveled him a hard look, then flounced to a bench on a secluded little balcony and sat. A patch of spring sunlight washed her in gold.
“Calm?” she asked.
“Calm,” Kendi grumbled, taking a seat next to her. Another deep breath. “Okay, you were right.”
“What do you say, then?”
“Thank you for saving my ass,” he said.
“Adventures at lunch,” Keith said. “I hate to ask what’s going down for supper.”
“Want to eat at my house and find out?” Kendi said. “We’ll have a meal just like Mom used to make—when we ordered takeaway, anyway—and talk about old times.”
Martina laughed. “I have things to do,” she said. “But thanks.”
“I’ll have to give it a miss, too,” Keith said. “Martina?”
Kendi watched the two of them leave. His brother and sister. They lived right here on Bellerophon, and he could talk to them whenever he wanted. Nothing Foxglove could say would take that away from him. Still, Kendi had to run most of the way home vent the last of his anger.
Ben met him at the front door, his face pale as milk. His eyes were wide with panic. Kendi’s stomach clenched.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Without a word, Ben grabbed his arm and towed him toward the den. He seemed unable to speak. His hand was sweaty on Kendi’s bicep. The house was dark, with few lights on, and Kendi’s footsteps echoed eerily on the hardwood floor as they reached Ben’s den. Kendi heard Ben’s breathing, harsh and fast.