Authors: Steven Harper
Tags: #Science Fiction
Kendi sighed and shut the comp-unit off. As the display winked out, his eye fell on the holograms lined up on the desk, and a thought occurred to him. A bit of rummaging in a drawer turned up a small scanner, which he ran over the base of each hologram. When he reached Ben’s hologram, the scanner beeped once. Kendi glanced at the readout and shook his head with a tight smile. He looked at Ben’s holo for a long moment, then tapped his earpiece. “Ben,” he said. His earpiece started to connect the call, but Kendi interrupted the connection with another tap, stopping the call entirely. He waited a moment in silence, then spoke to the empty air.
“Hey, Ben, it’s me. Fine. Uh huh. Well, I just met with the sim-game guy. The offer looks pretty good, I think, but I’m a little unsure. What’s the savings account like? Oh. Did you talk to the bank about the home improvement loan for the nursery? Oh. That bad? What about that contract job you were bidding on? You’re kidding! They gave it to
? All life, we needed that money. What kind of assholes would—yeah, I know. Okay. Well, maybe this sim-game offer is just what we need then. I’ll see you when I get home.”
With that, Kendi pocketed his comp-unit, exited the office building, and walked straight into a demonstration parade.
Most of the participants were human, though a substantial number were Ched-Balaar. They carried signs, both placard and holographic.
Foxglove and the Federals: Our Friends! Foxglove Stands for Jobs! Vote for Foxglove and Feed My Family! Fox ‘Em Mitch! The Children of Irfan Eat While My Children Starve!
The holographic signs were decorated with images of a man with dark hair and broad, handsome features.
The humans in the group were poorly dressed. Their patched clothes hung on them as if they had lost weight. The Ched-Balaar had a scruffy, disheveled look, and there was dust in their fur. One human woman had two small girls at her side. Both were thin and ragged, and they looked at Kendi with quiet eyes. He put a hand on the gold medallion he wore around his neck, the one that marked him as a Child of Irfan. Their mother followed their gaze and caught sight of Kendi in his loose brown robes. Her jaw firmed and she raised her sign as the procession marched past. Kendi wanted to do something for her, give her money or the jade ring he wore. But her face was hard and he knew such a gesture would only make her angry. A human voice broke into song. Immediately the Ched-Balaar joined in, chattering their teeth in rhythmic counterpoint. The procession came to a halt as everyone sang.
We all are prisoners of starvation
Fighting for emancipation!
We call upon each city-nation,
One union grand.
Little ones cry for bread
With their parents cold and dead.
The Federals lead us from this dread!
It’s our final stand.
A dark-skinned woman in dreadlocks and a hand-knit scarf climbed up on a balcony rail. She raised a placard that said
Open Minds for Open Mines.
Several of the holographic signs in the procession erased themselves and called up new text.
We Can Mine Responsibly. We Aren’t Children—Let Us Work! A Mine Is a Terrible Thing to Waste.
“We are sitting on unimaginable wealth,” the woman shouted. “Bellerophon is rich in metal—gold, silver, iron, uranium, and more! And yet our people starve. How did we let this happen?”
Cheers of agreement roared through the talltree leaves.
“Our ancestors thought they were being wise when they laid the restrictions on mining and farming and talltree harvesting,” the woman shouted. “Perhaps were. Perhaps they preserved the environment. But that was almost a thousand years ago, and times have changed. We are responsible adults, not children. We can mine the planet’s resources without causing harm. Mining and farming and harvesting would mean jobs for the people!” More cheers. “Food for our children!” Cheers. “Security for everyone!” Cheers. “Mitchell Foxglove and the Federals opposed the mining restrictions long before the Despair, and he opposes them now. The Unionists and the Populists supported the restrictions, and look where it got us—frozen, starving, and afraid. Foxglove needs our vote, and we have to give it to him. Foxglove! Foxglove! Foxglove!”
The procession took up the chant of Foxglove’s name and started marching again. The dreadlocked woman jumped down to join them. Protesters both human and Ched-Balaar continued along the office building walkway and tromped down a wide wooden staircase that wound around a talltree trunk. One of the little girls threw Kendi a last glance before marching out of sight.
Kendi sighed and released his medallion. The edges had dug furrows in his palm. How could he possibly get het up about a sim-game contract when people staved within ten meters of his office door? He privately decided to donate a portion of the sim-game proceeds to a charity that helped the hungry. Maybe the First Church of Irfan. Orphans and other needy people fell under their bailiwick.
The last of the procession cleared the walkway, and the Blessed and Most Beautiful Monastery of the Children of Irfan went back to moping through a crisp spring afternoon. The small audience that had gathered to watch the march drifted away like limp petals on a tired wind. Some were brown-robed monks—Children of Irfan—and others were lay people who worked for the monastery, though these days there were fewer and fewer jobs. Although most of the people were human or Ched-Balaar, a fair number of other species fed into the mix as well, and the air was filled with the quiet chatter of human voices, the muted clatter of Ched-Balaar tooth-talk, and the squeaks, squawks, and quacks of other species. Gondola cars strung on overhead cables coasted by, and a monorail train snaked between the massive talltree branches. Beneath the monastery’s swaying walkways lay the dizzying drop to Bellerophon’s forest floor over a hundred meters below. Overhead, the sun’s great golden eye hung in a field of perfect blue, and the air smelled of green leaves.
Kendi leaned on a heavy wooden railing and looked out over the arboreal monastery. A man and a woman in brown robes passed Kendi by, their voices barely audible. A teenage boy walked in silence with a being that looked like a giant caterpillar, and their steps dragged. Kendi sympathized. Before the Despair, all the monks at the monastery had been Silent, able to enter the Dream. After the Despair, only a tiny handful had retained their Silence. For the Silent, exile from the Dream was like being struck blind or deaf. Not everyone had adjusted well.
A gentle tap on Kendi’s shoulder made him turn. Behind him stood Ched-Hisak, one of the equinoid Ched-Balaar. Like all of his species, the Ched-Hisak was the size of a small horse. Hay-colored fur covered a stocky body and four legs that ended in heavily-clawed feet. A thick, sinuous neck rose between two muscular arms that ended in four-fingered hands. His head was flat, with wide-set brown eyes and a lipless mouth filled with shovel-like teeth. His forehead sported a small hole just above and between his eyes. His forelegs were thicker and sturdier than the shorter hind legs, which gave a downward slant to the Ched-Balaar’s back. One finger sported a green jade ring similar to Kendi’s.
“Ched-Hisak,” Kendi said with a warm smile, and held out both hands, palms up.
Father Ched-Hisak placed his hands over Kendi’s and gripped his wrists in greeting. His palms felt like warm suede. Ched-Hisak opened his mouth and his teeth clattered in a complex rhythm punctuated by occasional soft hooting sounds from the nasal opening between his eyes. Half a lifetime of living among the Ched-Balaar let Kendi understand the language perfectly, though he had no hope of reproducing it.
“I wish to make you an invitation,” Ched-Hisak chattered after exchanging a few pleasantries. “It is time for Ched-Nel and Ched-Pek to leave the den, and it would please me much if you and Ben attended the ceremony.”
Kendi blinked and suppressed a small gasp. “It would be an honor!” he said. “But Ched-Hisak—are you sure you want us there? I’ve never known the Ched-Balaar to ask aliens to attend a Leaving for their ch—for their younger family members.”
Ched-Hisak dipped his head once. “You and Ben have been good and kind friends to me and my family for a long time, and it is my wish that you attend.”
“Then we’ll definitely come,” Kendi said. “When and where?”
“Four days from now in our home. We begin at noon. I have hope it will be a fine and festive occasion in a difficult time.”
“We could use some festivity,” Kendi sighed.
“It has been a difficult eight months,” Ched-Hisak chattered. “Our entire civilization was based on every one of us learning to reach the Dream. Now that has been taken from us.”
Kendi placed a hand on Ched-Hisak’s flank. “I’m sorry. I’ve been so busy running around putting out fires for the monastery that I haven’t had time to think about what the Despair means for your people.”
“I cannot find fault with you, Kendi,” Ched-Hisak said mildly. “You are the reason the Dream still exists, limited though it is. In any case, there is nothing you personally could have done. We Ched-Balaar have gone from Silent to Silenced. That is the way of it.”
“Except it was humans that nearly destroyed the Dream in the first place,” interrupted a third voice. “Our ancestors should never have brought humanity into the Dream in the first place. Now we are repaid for our kindness with exile and despair.”
A second Ched-Balaar had approached. This one was a little shorter than Ched-Hisak, with paler fur and startling violet eyes. She wore no monastery ring, and a swirling, curlicue pattern had been shaved into her pelt.
“Ched-Putan,” said Ched-Hisak. “Your words only cause anger, and they solve no problems. Why are you here? The demonstration has already passed by.”
Ched-Putan waved a hand. “There are so many demonstrations and marches, it is impossible to be anywhere without seeing one. The people—our people—have time to demonstrate because they have no jobs.”
“More rhetoric,” Ched-Hisak said. “What do you want here, in this place at this time?”
“I have come to meet with the Council of Irfan. I will talk with the Ched-Balaar who walk with the Children.”
Kendi’s eyes widened. Ched-Putan had used the actual word for
. The Ched-Balaar used that term only rarely. In fact, the Ched-Balaar term for the monastery’s people technically translated as
the Family of Irfan
, though everyone mentally translated it as
the Children of Irfan
. The Ched-Balaar, meanwhile, pretended that the human word
young family member
. Kendi himself had heard a Ched-Balaar use the term
only once or twice in his entire life.
Ched-Hisak raised his head high, and his fur stood up in outrage. “Ched-Putan, your rhetoric takes you too far. You use offensive language and anger all those who hear you.”
“That is my wish,” Ched-Putan responded. “Our people have been too mild for too long. The Dream is empty, kinsman, and you do not see that this is our chance to reclaim it.”
“We can preserve the Dream for the Ched-Balaar,” Ched-Putan said. “It is nearly empty now, and we must prevent the other species, especially the humans, from finding it again. Mitchell Foxglove is a human, but he agrees with us, and when he wins the upcoming election—”
Kendi waved a hand in front of Ched-Putan’s face. “Hello! Human standing right here. Silent human.”
“And look what Silence did to your people,” Ched-Putan said, rounding on him. “It made you a commodity. Your own species kidnaps you, treats you like animals for breed and for sale. When the slavers destroyed your
hood, Father Kendi, did you find yourself grateful for the ‘gift’ of Silence?”
Kendi’s jaw tightened. He was about to snarl at Ched-Putan when a warm hand on his shoulder restrained him.
“There is no point in arguing with this person,” Ched-Hisak said. “You will not change her mind, and she will not change yours. Your words will matter for nothing.”
Kendi fought his temper and finally beat it back. Ara would have been proud. Still, he couldn’t resist saying, “You’re right. As much try to persuade a maggot not to eat rotten meat.”
“Insults only show a lack of intelligence,” Ched-Putan said.
“If that’s your only way of calling me stupid,” Kendi shot back, “you come up pretty light on the IQ scale yourself.”
He turned his back and marched away before Ched-Putan could reply. A scrape of claws on the wooden walkway told him Ched-Hisak had followed. They walked in silence for a long moment. Then Ched-Hisak said, “I feel I should apologize on behalf of my species.”
Kendi shook his head. “Not all Ched-Balaar are like her.”
“Perhaps not all,” Ched-Hisak said. “But certainly a growing number. Almost every member of my species was Silenced by the Despair, and they want to blame someone. Just as the humans who have lost friends and family and jobs to the Despair want to blame someone. The Freedom Confederation Party—and Mitchell Foxglove—is capitalizing on that.”
“Keep the species separate,” Kendi said. “I’ve heard the rhetoric. It makes me sick. What do they think, that after all this time, Bellerophon will splinter into enclaves based on planet of origin?”