Authors: Steven Harper
Tags: #Science Fiction
The words died in Ben’s throat and he shut down. He sometimes envied Kendi’s easy use of words, the way he could blurt out whatever was on his mind. Ben knew what he wanted to say, knew he had to say it eventually. But his mouth wouldn’t form the words. It had been like this ever since he could remember. He stared down at the cryo-unit in his hands without speaking.
“Fine,” Kendi said at last, a note of anger in his voice. “Where do you want to order dinner from tonight? Can you at least tell me that?”
Ben’s stomach twisted. He hated it when Kendi got upset, hated it even more when it happened over something Ben himself had done. Was doing. Still, this was a question he could answer. “Maureen’s,” he muttered. “A number twelve for me.”
“Sure.” Kendi turned to go, his face hard as talltree wood. Ben’s mouth was completely dry and his hands were cold on the cryo-unit.
Say it, stupid,
he ordered himself.
Just open your mouth and say it.
The words still wouldn’t come. Kendi reached the balcony doors, his back rigid. Ben already knew what was coming. They would eat a tense dinner from take-out cartons, after which Kendi would prowl restlessly through the Dream while Ben hid in his computer workshop or lifted weights. Ben would go to bed early, Kendi would stay up late. Ben would stare sleeplessly at the ceiling until Kendi finally came in to bed, whereupon Ben would feign sleep, even though Kendi knew Ben was faking to avoid talk. This would go on until Ben finally told Kendi what was bothering him. These little spells were rare, but the pattern was always the same, and suddenly Ben hated it. What was he so worried about? Kendi had to know and Ben had to tell him. It was as simple as that. Still, he had to cough to get his voice to work.
“Kendi,” he said. “Wait.”
Kendi turned, his face expectant, yet uncertain.
“There is something going on. It’s not bad. At least, I don’t
it’s bad. But...” Ben took a deep breath. “I just don’t know how to tell you. It’s...it’s that...”
“Just say it, Ben. Hey, there’s nothing you can say that’ll make me love you any less. Blurt it out.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Ben clutched the star-shaped cryo-unit hard. The polymer was smooth, the corners sharp. Sometimes it seemed like he could hear eleven tiny voices calling to him, begging him to let them out. He wanted to. His mother had told him about his origins and about his frozen siblings as soon as he was old enough to understand, and Ben was glad of it. It had been obvious from the start that he was different. Mom’s entire family had ultimately sprung from the Middle East back on Earth, and Ben’s red hair stood out like a torch in the rain forest. Finding out why was a relief. Ben used to pretend his brothers and sisters were just sleeping, and one day they would wake up, ready to join his family. Now he had the chance to make fantasy into reality. First, however, he had to tell Kendi the truth.
“It’s kind of a family thing,” he began. “See, I learned—”
“Attention! Attention!” said the house computer. “Incoming call for Ben Rymar and Kendi Weaver. Caller requesting high priority. Attention! Attention! Incoming call for—”
“High priority?” Kendi interrupted. “Irene, who is calling?”
“Senator Salman Reza.”
“Isn’t she out of town?” Kendi said.
“We better take this,” Ben said, uncertain whether he was relieved or not. He strode into the living room and tapped one hardwood wall. “Irene, connect.”
The wall glowed briefly, and Salman Reza’s face appeared on the screen. She was eighty years old, but looked closer to sixty. Her face was round and only lightly lined, and thick salt-and-pepper hair made a firm helmet on her head. Her eyes were dark, and she was smiling. For a moment Ben saw his mother, Ara, on the screen, and a small lump came to his throat. Ara Rymar had died almost eight months ago, but grief still struck Ben from unusual directions. He did like Grandma Salman a great deal, though growing up he had usually seen her only at major holidays and family gatherings.
“Welcome home, Grandma,” Ben said. “What’s going on? We got your other message.”
“So you know I’m going to declare my candidacy,” Salman said. “I’m sure you’ve figured out that it’s going to have a big impact on this family, yes?”
Ben and Kendi both nodded. “It had crossed our minds,” Kendi said wryly. “Going to put yourself through the ringer, eh?”
“I live for pain, hon,” Salman said, equally wry. “But I think the Unionist Party is the best choice to lead Bellerophon right now.”
“And as head Unionist, that would put you in the Governor’s chair,” Ben said.
“By sheer coincidence,” Salman agreed, still smiling. “Which means we really need to have a family meeting, my ducks, and the sooner, the better. Dinner at my house tonight? Six o’clock. No need to dress.”
Ben checked his fingernail for the time. “We’ll barely make it.”
“I’ll send a flit. See you soon.” Her image vanished.
“No room for argument,” Kendi grinned. “No wonder she’s party chief.”
“We better hurry and dress,” Ben said, already moving toward the bedroom.
“What? But she said—“
“You know Grandma,” Ben interrupted. “When she says ‘no need to dress’ it only means you don’t have to wear formal robes and I don’t have to wear a tuxedo.”
Cora Haaseth, age ten, peered around the spiral slide. Nick was nowhere in sight, and the talltree branch they had designated as home base was in clear view. Cora narrowed her eyes. Nick played hide-and-seek to win. When he was It, he himself sometimes hid so he could guard his base from a safe vantage point, leap out, and tag anyone foolish enough to make a dash for home. Right now Cora couldn’t see him anywhere, and that made her suspicious.
A scattering of other kids played on the playground, filling the air with shrieks and yells. A series of platforms connected by rope ladders, stairs, ramps, and slides wound its way around the talltree. Swings and merry-go-rounds occupied some of the platforms, along with hopscotch courts, flimsy-ball loops, and catch-em bars. It was a pretty fun place, though Cora had the opinion that she was outgrowing it. Cora caught sight of Sammy Fishman, who was peeking out of a series of interconnected plastic tunnels. He looked ready to run for it. Cora nodded to herself. She could watch Sammy go first, let him spring any trap Nick might have set.
“Excuse me, young miss,” said a voice behind her. “Can you help us?”
Cora turned in surprise. A human man and woman stood behind her. The man was holding a small holographic image generator on his palm. Above the generator hovered the image of a puppy with big paws and floppy ears.
“What’s wrong?” Cora asked.
“We lost our puppy,” the woman explained. “And we need help finding him.”
“You have a puppy?” Cora said, fascinated. Bellerophon was a city of platforms and walkways, and dogs were difficult to care for in such an environment. Cats, which could be litter-trained, were easier to deal with. Cora’s family had two of them, in fact, but she had always wanted a puppy.
“He ran away,” the man said. He was tall and blond, and his blue eyes crinkled up when he smiled. “He’s probably hungry and scared. Have you seen him?”
Cora shook her head. Mom had warned her about talking to strangers, but these people were obviously nice. And they had lost a puppy.
“Maybe you can help find him,” the woman said. She had black hair. “If we give you a copy of the holo, you could show it to your friends.”
“Sure,” Cora said. “I’ll ask around.”
“Thanks,” the man said. “We’ve got copies of the holo over here. Come on—we’ll give you one.”
As Cora followed the couple away, she took a glance over her shoulder. Sammy Fishman had left the safety of his hiding place and was running for all he was worth toward home base. At the last moment, Nick jumped out from around a corner and tagged him. Cora smiled to herself, glad she’d been too smart to fall into that trap.
“Family secrets are sometimes even kept from family.”
The automated flitcar rushed through the cool spring air. Kendi looked out the window. The sun had become a lonely orange ball dropping to kiss the horizon, and the talltree forest below was already in shadow. A few lights shone here and there amid the canopy, looking isolated and forlorn. Before the Despair, Treetown had been a bright, vibrant place after dark, with plenty of house- and streetlights to banish the shadows. Most people in the post-Despair depression, however, burned as few lights as possible in an attempt to scrape up a few more pennies for food. The flitcar was the only vehicle in the sky, another indicator of the new poverty that crushed Bellerophon and her people. Kendi felt another stab of guilt. He was riding high above want and need in a hired flitcar.
Ben sat beside him, face stoic. Kendi sneaked a glance at him. Although Kendi was burning with curiosity about Ben’s news, whatever it was, he knew better than to press for details right now. Visiting Ben’s family was stress enough for him. He could wait until they got home.
To pass the time, he called up a newsfeed text on his data pad. Ched-Pirasku, the Populist party leader, had just declared his candidacy and was now part of the race for governor. The Guardians were looking for a ten-year-old girl who had disappeared from a playground near the monastery. Foul play was suspected. An advice columnist advised a husband to be creative in order to spark his wife’s waning libido. And the Treetown Carnosaurs had beaten the Othertown Pirates 5-2 at soccer.
“We’re almost there,” Ben said, and Kendi shut of the pad.
The little flitcar approached an enormous house with a circular landing pad on the roof. It circled once, landed, and opened the door. Kendi smoothed his blue silk tunic and slid out into the chilly air. Ben, dressed in midnight black from head to toe, followed. Down among the trees it was as if the sun had already set, though Senator Salman Reza kept lights on her roof, and they shed a warm golden illumination.
The moment Kendi and Ben cleared the flitcar, its door snapped shut and the car fled back to the sky in a silent rush of wind that ruffled Ben’s sunset hair. Kendi gently combed the thick strands back into place with his fingers.
“You,” he said, “look damned amazing in black, Mr. Rymar.”
A hint of red colored Ben’s face. “And you look fantastic fine in electric blue, Father Kendi.”
“Then let us grace this party with our august presence.” Kendi threw an arm across Ben’s solid shoulders and they moved toward a large painted circle marked
. Darkening azure sky stretched above them, and the tops of the talltrees made a green carpet that stretched all the way to the horizon. Peaks, gables, and even a small tower poked up here and there on the roof. Ben’s body was warm next to Kendi’s, and he gave an inward sigh as they approached the lift. Ben was Kendi’s rock, hard and solid, always there. And like a rock, Ben could be stubborn and silent. Kendi had been surprised when Ben started to talk about what was bothering him, and the computer call had seriously pissed him off. If it weren’t for the high priority request, Kendi would have simply ignored the call. As it was, he burned with curiosity. Ben had never gone this long without telling him about a problem. What could be so horrible? It must have been something that had happened since they got back from Silent Acquisitions, Ltd. Maybe it was the raid. No, Ben had said it was a family thing. Maybe it had to do with Kendi’s brother and sister.
Several months ago, Kendi had learned that his brother Keith and sister Martina, captured and sold into slavery when they were children, were being held by a corporation called Silent Acquisitions, Ltd. Kendi, Ben, Harenn, and Lucia had put together a risky plan to get them out, a plan that sometimes still made Kendi sweat in retrospect. In the end, however, after two months of effort, they had come away with not only Kendi’s brother and sister, but an entire shipload of escaped Silent Acquisitions slaves to boot.
After fifteen years of separation, Kendi abruptly had a brother and sister again. Keith and Martina were currently sharing a small house that had belonged to Ben before his mother had died, and Kendi spent a fair amount of time visiting them, naturally enough.
A thought struck Kendi. Maybe Ben was jealous. Kendi turned the idea over in his mind. It made sense from several sides. Ben wasn’t used to sharing Kendi with anyone. And Kendi had been spending almost every spare moment with Keith and Martina lately, helping them acclimate to the Monastery of Irfan, showing them what it meant to be free again, and just getting to know them once more.
A family thing. Jealousy? Ben doubtless felt uncomfortable admitting he was jealous, since he knew Kendi had missed his family horribly and it wasn’t fair to expect him not to see them often. Ben, shy to begin with, hadn’t made a big effort to insert himself into the relationship, and Kendi, idiot that he was, hadn’t noticed.
The more Kendi thought about it, the more sense it made. Poor Ben! No wonder he’d been upset. Well, Kendi would have to reassure him once they got home. Then there would be the make-up session in bed—a fine prospect in and of itself—and everything would be all right again. The revelation put a slight spring in Kendi’s step and a wide smile on his face.