Authors: Steven Harper
Tags: #Science Fiction
The room remained silent. Kendi thought about his checkered past at the monastery, his angry teenager days. He’d stomped on several dozen rules and almost been expelled twice. Or was it three times? Maybe he should mention that to Salman.
“Remember,” Salman continued, “that the media are extremely resourceful and persistent. If there’s anything to find, they’ll find it, and they’ll make it public. It’s easier to deal with such things if we know about them in advance, my loves.”
On the couch beside Kendi, Ben tensed. A flushed crawled over his face, and subtle movements of his jaw told Kendi he was chewing the inside of his cheek. Did Ben have a dark secret? A skeleton in the closet? No. Kendi knew Ben’s past like he knew his own, and it contained nothing Grandma hadn’t already mentioned. Kendi considered asking him. Then he caught sight of Sil and Hazid, whose faces bore an odd mix of stubbornness and anticipation. They were dying to hear some tidbit about Kendi and Ben, something they could snicker and snarl about. Kendi’s own stubborn streak came to the fore and he clamped his lips firmly shut. There was no way he would give Hazid and the others the satisfaction of ferreting out some nugget of scandal, especially one attached to Ben.
“I’ll talk to each of you later, then,” Salman said. Her words sounded ominous. “Also remember that reporters will almost certainly dog your steps every moment of every day once I declare my candidacy. The four of you”—she made a gesture that took in Kendi, Ben, Tress, and Zayim—”can expect less attention because you’re ‘only’ my grandchildren, though Kendi is already a celebrity.”
“Senator,” said a gray-clad maid at the doorway, “dinner is ready.”
They rose and went into the dining hall, where they took places at a long polished table beneath a crystal chandelier. Salman sat at the head. The first course was clear onion soup covered with a mild melted cheese. It was delicately seasoned and delightfully salty. Kendi savored each mouthful and wished that Ben liked to cook. Or that Kendi himself
cook. Ben, however, remained supremely uninterested in culinary matters. As for Kendi, every time he even glanced at the kitchen, food smoked, shriveled, vaporized, or exploded. Eventually the two of them had given up and run up tabs at all the local take-out places. Ben called it their duty to the local economy.
Salman continued her speech as they ate. “In answer to Sil’s earlier question,” she said, “Sil and Hazid will indeed need bodyguards. It would be foolish for you to go out in public undefended. The Guardians will work with you, of course, and keep the disruption to a minimum.”
Hazid groaned and Sil covered her mouth with a napkin, but neither one of them questioned Salman’s assertion.
“What about the rest of us?” Kendi asked.
“As a rule, grandchildren of high-ranking government figures don’t need bodyguards. However, if any kind of threat arises, we’ll provide security to you.”
“How much will all this cost?” Hazid asked.
“The bodyguards are government employees,” Salman said. “No cost to you. And that brings us to the next thing—blathering personal opinions.”
The maid took away the soup bowls and replaced them with a small fish fillet drizzled with a creamy mushroom sauce. Kendi picked up his fish knife and suppressed a smile. He had grown up in the poorer section of Sydney, Australia back on Earth, running half-wild with his older brother and younger sister on the grimy streets. His parents had fought to get him to use a plastic spoon to shovel beans down his throat. Now he was eating fish fillet at a table decorated with enough cutlery to arm a small nation. Life was a strange thing indeed.
“The media will ask you about this issue or that problem,” Salman said. “And they’ll be relentless. Just acknowledging their presence will start a frenzy, and they won’t leave you alone.”
“Well, that’s all to the good,” Sil said. “I have a few things to say about—”
,” Salman interjected firmly. “That’s exactly what I’m warning you about. Never,
talk to a reporter or newsfeeder. Even a comment that seems inocuous at the time can have earth-shattering repercussions for my campaign. Kendi already showed you how easily they can twist words. The only thing you should ever say in the presence of a reporter is—”
A ‘Get the hell out of my way’?” Kendi asked.
“I was thinking a firm ‘No comment,’ “ Salman replied. “You need to understand that even the slightest slip can damage my party and my chances.”
“How many Senate seats do the Unionists hold right now?” Ben asked.
“We have thirty-two out of ninety-eight,” Salman said. “A little over a third. Foxglove’s Federals hold only twenty-five, but we’re both outnumbered by Ched-Pirasku and the Populists, since they have the remaining forty-one.”
Kendi did some math. “Ninety-eight seats total. When did they lose one?”
“Just after the Despair,” Salman said. “Enough people died that we had to adjust the Senate down a chair. The Federals were the losers, thank heaven, and you should have seen the fight they put up. Redistricting everyone was hell, especially because we were trying to run this place on our own for the first time. We still don’t know what the hell we’re doing half the time.”
Kendi nodded. Just a few months ago, Bellerophon had been a part of the Independence Confederation, a powerful government that encompassed dozens of worlds. The Bellerophon Senate had run local affairs but had ultimately answered to Empress Kan maja Kalii, a benign and popular ruler. After the Despair severed all interplanetary communication, however, the Confederation fell apart and Bellerophon was left to its own devices. Political parties rose out of the chaos, and the Senate decided to elect a planetary governor, imbued with the powers once held by the Empress. To avoid giving any one party too much power, the Senate also decided that the Governor would be elected by popular vote and not appointed by Senate majority.
“The real struggle is going to be defeating the Populists,” Salman said. “They hold the most seats, and Ched-Pirasku’s popularity is pretty high right now.”
“But together the Unionists and the Federals outnumber them,” Tress pointed out. “That has to be some kind of advantage for you.”
“Not as much as you’d think,” Salman said. “We’re polar opposites. My Unionists are out to keep Bellerophon a united planet, and we’ve
to build up the military and find some allies. It’ll mean more jobs, for one thing. For another, Bellerophon has more functioning Silent per capita than any other planet in the galaxy, and you can be sure someone out there will realize that we’re ripe for picking without the Empress to defend us. An invasion is inevitable. But Foxglove and his pet Federals are pushing that separatist nonsense. They want to pull away from the rest of the galaxy and retreat into racial enclaves. Foolishness! This isn’t the time to entrench—it’s time to expand, to reach out toward other—”
“We’re on your side, Grandma,” Zayid interrupted. “You don’t need to give us the speech.”
Salman’s mouth snapped shut. Then she gave a small smile. “Sorry. Rhetoric is a hard habit to break.”
“How are the campaign finances doing?” Hazid asked, changing the subject.
“Could be better,” Salman said. “Could always be better. There isn’t much to go around these days.”
Kendi looked down at the remains of his fish and saw the face of a hungry little girl.
The Children of Irfan Eat While My Children Starve!
People were going hungry around the galaxy, even on this very planet, and Kendi was eating gourmet food from china plates with silver flatware. Grandma Salman wasn’t hurting. Neither were he and Ben. But they were exceptions. The Despair had Silenced almost all the Children of Irfan, the very people who provided Silent communication for hundreds of governments and corporations in all corners of the galaxy, and the revenue generated by this essential service kept the Children and their employees highly solvent, even wealthy. Now only a tiny handful of Children could enter the Dream and they produced only tiny handfuls of money.
“I’m running fund raisers,” Salman continued, “but it’s hard to get people to cough up. That’s another problem. The Populists are bigger, so Ched-Pirasku is outgunning me financially. The Federals are smaller, thank heavens, so Mitchell Foxglove is an even worse position than I am. I’ll be exploiting that, my ducks, you may be sure.”
The fish was replaced with a char-grilled steak tender enough to cut with a fork. Three splinters of bone placed discreetly on the plate told Kendi the meat came from a mickey spike—an herbivorous dinosaur the size of a truck. Mickey spike meat was always served with three bone slivers on the side. No one knew exactly why, though folklorists argued endlessly about it.
“We’re all waiting for the High Court’s ruling on Othertown’s mining rights,” Salman said. “That’ll have a tremendous impact on my campaign.”
“I don’t understand the connection,” Sil said, setting her bone slivers aside and cutting a piece of meat. “I know you’ve been trying to get the rights halted, but—”
“We can’t allow Bellerophon to become another Earth,” Salman said. “It was extremely wise of the original colonists to put severe restrictions on mining and tree farming and anything else that might hurt—”
“You’re giving another speech, Grandma,” Ben said. “What’s it got to do with your campaign?”
“Money,” Salman said, and popped a bit of steak into her mouth.
“It always comes down to that,” Kendi said. He remembered the dreadlocked woman and the little girl, and a thought struck him. “Before you explain, Grandma, tell me if I’m right.”
“Oh, here we go,” muttered Zayim. Tress waved her wine glass to shush him.
“If the Othertown district is granted better mining privileges,” Kendi said, “it will mean a boom in the mining industry. That’ll open up new jobs. The people who are out of work in Treetown will move to Othertown to find employment. And
will mean another redistricting. Correct so far?”
Salman nodded, chewing. “Very good.”
“An exodus will cost Treetown plenty in the way of political power and hand it to Othertown,” Kendi said. “So it’s definitely in Mitchell Foxglove’s interest for that law to pass.”
“And he’s pushing hard for that to happen,” Salman said. “Before the Despair, the High Court thought more like I do. But the Despair balanced the bench, and the mining decision could go either way now. I can’t say I blame them for changing their minds, but it’s a short-term solution that’ll create long-term problems.”
“What are you planning to do?” Ben asked.
“Lobby,” Salman replied. “But indirectly. Lobbying the High Court is a no-no, but there’s the food lobby and the drinks lobby and even the dessert lobby.”
“What’s that all about?” Sil said.
“High Court justices work long, torturous hours, poor things,” Salman said. “And it’s my duty as a citizen to ensure my justices have plenty of delicious food and drink at their fingertips for those late-night sessions. I have informants at every restaurant and food market within walking distance of Justiciary Hall, so I know their favorite dishes.”
“Isn’t that`bribery?” Tress said.
“It would be,” Salman said with a bland smile, “if food counted as money. And it doesn’t. Keep that in mind the next time you want me to do something for you, my ducks.”
That garnered small chuckles, and the conversation turned away from politics. Kendi began to relax, if only a little bit. Naturally, Salman dropped a bombshell in the middle of dessert.
“I have one last request,” she said, digging her fork into a meltingly-soft chocolate cake. “Ben and Kendi, it would be a great help if the two of you would publicly endorse my campaign.”
Ben froze, a forkful of cake partway to his mouth.
Kendi nodded. “I was wondering when you’d get around to asking that.”
“No ego problems
,” Zayim muttered.
For once, Kendi ignored him. “What did you have in mind, Grandma?”
“You’d tell everyone you can what a wonderful governor I’d make. There’d be fund-raising speeches, advertisements, speeches—the usual.”
“No,” Ben said.
Salman raised silver eyebrows.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said, his face wooden. “But no. I’m not going to stand on a podium and make a fool of myself. Kendi’s better at that than I am.”
Kendi laughed. “I think that’s a compliment.”
“I don’t suppose you’re going to ask any of
,” Hazid said. Chocolate crumbs dropped from his lips into his lap.
“I’m sorry to be so blunt, dear,” Salman said, “but you aren’t a celebrity. Ben is. So is Kendi.”
“Only because Kendi hogs the spotlight,” Zayim pointed out. A ‘Look at me, everyone! I saved the whole goddamned universe! I’m a god! Bow down before me!’ “
“Awwww, wook at dat, Gwamma,” Kendi cooed. “Widdle Zayim’s so cute when he’s jealous.”
“Don’t you call me cute,” Zayim snarled. “I’m not like you.”
“Yeah—I know how to use birth control.”
“Is that what you call it?”
“Time to go,” Ben said, rising and hauling Kendi to his feet. “Thanks for dinner, Grandma.” And he towed Kendi toward the door.
“I’ll do it, Grandma,” Kendi called over his shoulder. “Call me.”