Authors: Steven Harper
Tags: #Science Fiction
“What?” Ben asked, noticing the change in Kendi’s mood.
Kendi kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll tell you later, love. For now, we only have to—”
Another silent blast of air hit them from behind. Both men turned. A second flitcar was landing on the roof. The door opened, and a male-female couple emerged. They were both in their late fifties, running toward plump, and wearing brown robes. Both of them wore amber rings. Ben groaned. Kendi grimaced.
“Well, we knew it would happen,” he said. “A family meeting brings out the family.”
“I’m just glad we aren’t technically related,” Ben muttered as the pair approached.
“You don’t have a single asshole gene in you,” Kendi agreed.
“Not even after all those times we—”
Kendi tightened his arm around Ben’s shoulder. “Company manners, love. Hello, Brother Hazid. Sister Sil.”
Hazid and Sil Lemish—Ben’s aunt and uncle—paused uncertainly. Kendi gave a prim smile. This was a purely social situation, but Kendi had addressed them by their monastic titles, throwing everything into a more formal mode. Sil uncertainly brought her fingers up to touch her forehead in automatic salute, then stopped herself when she realized what Kendi was doing. Hazid merely glowered.
“Very funny, Kendi,” he growled. “So it’s going to be like this tonight, is it?”
“Is it ever any other way?” Kendi replied, not bothering to keep the contempt out of his voice. He felt Ben tense beside him.
“I don’t know why you have to snipe all the time,” Sil put in. Her voice was high and whiny and made Kendi’s teethe ache. Her hair, usually done up in the latest cut, was styled into an old-fashioned helmet.
“When you figure out why I do it, I’ll stop,” Kendi said. He drew Ben closer to him, turned his back, and stepped onto the lift. Ben’s mouth was tight. “Down,” Kendi ordered before Sil and Hazid could join them. The lift sank into the roof, leaving the other couple behind.
Once Ben and Kendi’s heads dropped below roof level, a door slid shut above them, and the lift descended gently to the floor of an entry foyer. The interior of Salman Reza’s house was all white plaster walls and deeply-carpeted floors. Expensive paintings hung in tasteful places, and the furniture looked more elegant than comfortable. Kendi dropped his arm from Ben’s shoulder and they stepped off the lift together. It rose back up toward the ceiling to fetch Sil and Hazid.
Ahead, the foyer opened into a formal sitting room, and Kendi attention was immediately drawn straight to a hovering easy chair and the a woman seated therein. Senator Salman Reza. She had silver hair, pale gray eyes, and an absolutely straight posture. The senator was a large woman, and her presence permeated the room. When she sprang to her feet to greet Ben and Kendi, her movements crackled with fierce energy.
“Come in, ducks,” she said. Her voice filled the space around her. “Your aunt and uncle should be here any moment now.”
“They’re on the roof,” Kendi said, and kissed her on one soft cheek. She reminded Kendi of Ara Rymar, her daughter and Kendi’s long-time teacher. Ara had also been Kendi’s surrogate mother from the time she had freed him from slavery at the age of fifteen. Her death had dealt him a heavy blow, one that still made him reel at times.
Elsewhere in the room, fresh flowers made splashes of scented color among the furniture, and in the corner a floor-to-ceiling cage swarmed with dozens of tiny Bellerophon tree dinosaurs, each one yellow as sunshine. They chirped with musical softness. On a sofa that floated a few centimeters off the floor perched younger versions of Sil and Hazid—Zayim and Tress, Ben’s cousins.
Ben gave his grandmother a kiss of his own while Kendi turned to the cousins.
“Brother Zayim,” he said formally. “Sister Tress.”
Neither of them rose to the bait. Zayim got up to shake hands. Tress kept her seat. Her eyes were tired, almost vacant, and she looked unfocused and dim, especially with her grandmother in the room. Still dealing with the aftermath of the Despair, Kendi thought.
The lift came down again, and Sil and Hazid entered the room, looking defiant. More greetings were exchanged. Ben said very little, pulling inward tight as a turtle. His handsome face remained expressionless, though Kendi’s practiced eye saw the misery. It made Kendi’s blood boil to see Ben like this, and fresh anger burned in his chest. Ara Rymar had been active among the faction of the Children of Irfan that traveled about the galaxy, seeking enslaved Silent and doing whatever it took to free them. Ara had used bribery, theft, blackmail, extortion, and an endless supply of con games to pry Silent chattel away from their owners and bring them back to Bellerophon.
This meant, of course, that Ara had been away for long periods when Ben was a child. During those times, Ben had usually stayed with his aunt, uncle, and cousins. Ara had hoped that Tress and Zayim would turn into a brother and sister for her only child, but it had never worked out that way. Not only did Ben look completely different, he was also the only family member who wasn’t Silent. Tress and Zayim had made his life miserable, and Hazid and Sil had turned blind eyes to it. Had contributed to it. Kendi kept hoping that one of them would finally give him an excuse to use an uppercut. Or a groin shot.
Everyone settled back into couches and chairs, which adjusted their elevation for optimum comfort. A tray of
sat on the etched glass coffee table next to a selection of chilled flasks and bottles and a steaming tea set. Kendi knew the rule—no one but Salman touched that tea set.
“Help yourselves,” Salman said. “Dinner will be ready soon. I don’t know about all of you, but I’m tired and starving.”
“Long trip?” Hazid said.
“Fourteen days of speaking, pleading, cajoling, and even roaring like a dinosaur,” she said. “And I’m not a hatchling anymore.”
“So what’s this meeting about, Grandma?” Kendi asked, pouring himself a glass of juice. “As if we didn’t know.”
“When will you be making the formal announcement?” Tress asked. Her voice was low, barely audible.
“Soon,” Salman said. “Within a few days. There are things to discuss first, my loves.”
“Such as?” Ben asked, and Kendi could hear his apprehension.
“The impact my candidacy will have on this family.” Salman picked up a teacup and saucer in her large hands. “Bellerophon’s population numbers about ninety-eight million people. Just over half are human. The Ched-Balaar make up approximately forty percent, and the rest consist of other sentient species. I want to be their governor. This means that millions of people are going to be watching me and mine very carefully. Unfortunately, this also means that you’ll come under a certain amount of scrutiny as well. Sil, you’re my only...my only child now, and the press will try to take a hard look at you.”
“Let them,” Sil said airily. “I have nothing to hide.”
“What about all those recreational drugs you took last year?” Kendi asked.
“How dare you!” Hazid snapped, half-rising.
“I never did any such thing!” Sil said.
“Candidate’s Daughter Denies Taking Drugs,” Kendi intoned like a newscaster. “Details at ten.”
Ben said, “Ouch.” Sil stared at Kendi, her mouth open.
“He’s right, Mother,” Tress said quietly. “We have to be ready for that.”
“I can, of course, let the press know that my family isn’t involved in my politics, and that any reporter who bothers you will never have access to my administration,” Salman said, “but that sort of protection only goes so far, and it’s an empty threat to the scummier newsfeeds that know they’d never be allowed inside the governor’s mansion anyway. Everything you say, everything you do, is a potential story. If you accidentally belch in a restaurant, there’ll be a vid of it on the feeds within minutes. If you step outside with your fly unfastened, they’ll beam a close-up into every living room on the planet.”
“What about personal safety?” Kendi asked.
“Safety?” Zayim echoed. “You mean we’re in danger?”
“We have ninety-eight million people in the world,” Salman said, “and some of them talk to trees. Or wear foil hats. Or think they’re the reincarnation of Irfan Qasad.”
Ben snatched up a napkin and coughed wildly, drenching the cloth with a mouthful of soda. Kendi thumped him on the back.
“You all right?” he asked, concerned.
“Fine. Sorry, Grandma.”
Salman nodded. “Since the Despair, the number of mental patients has skyrocketed,” she continued. “Some of them fixate on public figures and may—I stress,
—want to harm you. And, of course, I have political enemies who might try to influence me by threatening you.”
“I don’t want bodyguards,” Zayim said. “Do you think I need bodyguards?”
“We’ll talk specifics in a moment,” Salman said. “Right now I’m just laying out the topics of discussion. We also need to go over privacy issues, what’s likely to come out in the press, and how to behave in public. Especially you, Kendi.”
“Me?” Kendi said, startled.
Zayid smirked while Hazid nudged Sil in the ribs. They exchanged knowing looks.
“You aren’t known for your tact, hon,” Salman said, and Kendi shifted a little under her penetrating gaze. He was surprised to find himself flushing. “What you did during the Despair has granted you a certain amount of leeway—”
“You mean the fact that I saved the universe means people give me a little slack now and then?” Kendi said despite his warm cheeks. “Imagine that.”
“Now that’s exactly what she means,” Sil said. “You can’t shoot your mouth off whenever you like, Kendi, or lord your status over the rest of us like a spoiled child. If you want to be a part of this family, you can’t go around saying—”
I want to
a member?” Kendi interrupted. “Let’s get one thing straight, Sil. I was dragged kicking and screaming into this den of dysfunction. Ben is the only one of you lot who’s worth a—”
!” Salman’s voice boomed like a cannon. “You listen to me—all of you. I know damned well that this family has two enemy camps. I also know that if I’m going to win this election, we have to present a united front. I don’t give a flying shit-fit if it’s a fake front or not. What you do and say behind closed doors is your own damn business, but in public, you
. Or do you want Michael Foxglove in the governor’s mansion?”
Her fury silenced the room. Kendi clenched a fist. Tress had drawn her feet up and tucked them underneath herself on the sofa. Sil and Hazid sat rigidly next to each other, and Ben’s face was carved from stone. The stillness lay thick as dust.
“Grandma’s right,” Kendi said at last. “We can’t let Foxglove anywhere near the governorship.”
“I never liked the fighting,” Tress said softly. “Not since the Despair, anyway. Ben...” She took a deep breath. “Ben, I want to apologize. I treated you like dirt when we were kids, and I wasn’t any better when we grew up. I was dreadful, and I’m sorry.”
Ben stared, clearly unable to speak. Kendi squeezed his hand. It was sweaty.
“Tress!” Zayid said. “What the hell? We weren’t any meaner than kids in any other family.”
“Yes we were,” Tress said. “We treated Ben like an outsider and a bastard child just because he wasn’t Silent. Well these days he’s Silent and we aren’t, and now I know what it’s like. So I’m apologizing.”
“To make yourself feel better?” Kendi burst out. “Assuage some guilt? All life—is he supposed to forget everything you did and said to him just because you say you’re
“Kendi,” Ben said. “You’re hurting my hand.”
Kendi instantly relaxed his grip, though he couldn’t keep from grinding his teeth. Tress expected a single sentence to undo more than twenty years? What kind of trick was she trying to pull?
“I accept, Tress,” Ben said gravely.
“Thank you,” Tress replied.
Kendi started to speak again, but Ben squeezed his hand hard, and Ben’s hands were
. Kendi suppressed a wince and shut his mouth.
“Let’s continue, then,” Salman interjected from her chair. Every head swiveled toward her. “I’m afraid very little of this is going to be pleasant, my ducks, and I want you to remember that I love each of you very much. The public, however, may have a different view.”
“What do you mean?” Zayid said.
“Let’s start with the news media. They’re going to dig into our pasts to look for delightful and interesting facts to air on the feeds. We need to anticipate what will come up and how to handle it.
“First, Zayid, they’ll make hay over your four marriages, your four divorces, and the child you had from that one-night stand.”
Zayid paled. “How did you know about that?”
“And Tress,” Salman continued, ignoring the question, “they’ll learn how your studies at the monastery were delayed while you underwent rehabilitation. Sil and Hazid, you separated for six months and got back together again, but only after Sil spent time in a psychiatric hospital. None of this should cost me the election, but it
come out, and you need to be ready for it.”
“What about Ben and Kendi?” Sil said, her face hard. “They aren’t perfect, you know.”
“The circumstances of Ben’s birth will come under scrutiny, yes,” Salman said. “As will his and Kendi’s role in the Despair, though that’s already gone through the feeds a thousand times. If there’s anything else you can think of that might come out, you’d better tell me, either here and now or soon and in private.”