Authors: Steven Harper
Tags: #Science Fiction
Ben remained silent on the trip home. Kendi didn’t try to draw him into conversation, and for this Ben was grateful. It always took Ben a few hours to recover from a family visit. He was still feeling unstable from this one. As always, Grandma was loud and bossy. Sil and Hazid made Ben shake with a mixture of fear and anger. Zayim remained immature and obnoxious. And Tress! Her unexpected apology had startled Ben more than anything else that evening. He still wasn’t sure he believed it. He wanted to believe it.
Kendi, on the other hand, was clearly in a bouncy mood, and he fidgeted on the seat next to Ben. He knew what Kendi was thinking. Salman had asked him to endorse her campaign, and he was excited. Ben tried to be excited for him, use Kendi’s happiness to banish his own unease. It worked a little bit, but Ben still didn’t feel like talking.
The automated flitcar deposited them in front of their house and vanished into the night sky. Walkways and balconies made black lattices among the talltree branches. Tree lizards chirped and squeaked from hidden places, and the night air was chilly. Ben and Kendi’s two-story house, the one left to Ben by his mother, was dark. Ben palmed the lock and the lights came on inside. The usual twinge—
mom’s dead and I’m in her house
—bolted through him, then faded. Maybe one day it would disappear entirely. Ben wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.
A pair of arms hugged him from behind and a dark chin rested on his shoulder. “How do you feel?” Kendi asked.
Ben reached back and rested a hand on Kendi’s rough hair. The touch settled Ben a little and he felt muscles unclench. “Better,” he said. “Now that I’m home.”
“I hate what they do to you,” Kendi said. “Maybe we should tell Grandma we won’t do family meetings if your family is there.”
Ben had to laugh. “Maybe. How about coffee?”
“That’ll settle your nerves?”
“It will if you drink it with me.”
They entered the spacious kitchen with its polished wood floor and cabinets. Ben pulled the coffee maker from his niche and filled it with water. The coffee container was almost empty, the victim of an early shortage. Coffee was one of the few dishes Ben could reliably make, however, and it had the added benefit of not reminding him of his mother, an avid tea-drinker. Ben set the machine to brewing, then got out the cream and sugar. Ben wondered how long it’d be before sugar became hard to find. Kendi sat in amiable silence at the wooden table with an enigmatic look on his face. The rich smell of fresh coffee filled the kitchen. Ben narrowed blue eyes.
“What?” he said.
“What what?” Kendi asked.
“You look...sly,” Ben replied. “What are you up to, Father Kendi?”
“Everyone suspects me of being up to something,” Kendi complained.
“That’s not a denial.”
Kendi toyed with a sugar spoon. “I’ve figured out your secret, is all.”
“My secret?” Ben said, confused.
“About why you’ve been edgy lately, why you haven’t wanted to talk to me. I know all about it.”
Ben’s stomach clenched and he sank into the chair opposite Kendi. “You do?”
“Hey, it’s okay.” Kendi reached across the table and took Ben’s hand. “I’m not mad, love. I know it’s been hard for you, and I can see why you’d have a hard time bringing it up with me.”
“Oh. Okay,” Ben said, and felt oddly put out. He had torn his hair out forcing himself to decide when to tell Kendi about his parents, and now Kendi had gone and found out on his own. He felt oddly cheated. “But how did you figure it out? Harenn didn’t say anything, did she? Or Lucia?”
“Lucia?” Now Kendi looked confused. “No, it was logic. That, and the fact that I know you better than anyone else. It’s a natural reaction.”
“Sure. Hell, I should have seen it coming.” Kendi squeezed Ben’s hand once and released it. “But I’m not upset. You’re my family, Ben, and we’ll work it out. You don’t need to be jealous of my family.”
“Uh...” was the best Ben could come up with. By now it was clear he and Kendi weren’t talking about the same thing. So Kendi
know. Ben’s mouth went dry, and he steeled himself for what had to come next.
“Look,” he said, “there
something I need to tell you, but it’s not—”
A knock at the front door interrupted him. Kendi let out an aggravated noise. “Who the hell is coming by at this hour?”
“It’s not even eight-thirty,” Ben said. “It just feels later because of everything that’s happened. Irene, who’s at the door?”
“Wanda Petrie,” said the computer.
“Wanda Petrie?” Kendi repeated. “Who the hell is Wanda Petrie?”
“No idea,” Ben said.
“Irene, ask Wanda Petrie to state her business.”
Pause. “Wanda Petrie says she is a publicist who is here to see Father Kendi Weaver. Wanda Petrie says she is in the employ of Senator Salman Reza.”
“I’d better put another pot on to brew,” Ben said, feeling both relief and trepidation. Was this a reprieve or an impediment?
“It’s okay, Ben,” Kendi said. “We can pretend we aren’t home.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Irene, unlock the door and tell our guest we’re in the kitchen.” He poured the coffee into a carafe and started the second pot.
“Hello?” said a woman’s voice a moment later. “Father Kendi?”
“In here,” Kendi called. “We’re just having some coffee.”
A woman entered the kitchen. Her hard shoes snapped the floorboards with quick clicks. Her blue business suit stood stiff at every crease, and her upswept brown hair was rigidly piled in a firm nest atop her head. She extended a birdlike hand to Kendi, who rose to shake it.
“Father Kendi,” she said. “I’m Wanda Petrie, manager and publicist. Senator Reza hired me to handle your involvement in her campaign.”
“That didn’t take long,” Kendi said with a wide, white grin. “We only just left her house.”
“I was already on her staff, Father. The Senator called to reassign me a few minutes ago, and I decided not to waste time.”
“Efficient,” Kendi said.
“Coffee?” Ben said, brandishing the carafe and an empty cup.
“You have coffee?” Petrie said. “I’d love some. “re you...?”
“Sorry,” Kendi said. “Ms. Petrie, this is Ben Rymar, my spouse.”
“Of course,” Petrie said, and shook hands when Ben set the cup down. Her grip was dry and forceful. “I don’t have to tell you, Mr. Rymar, that Senator Reza is still hoping you’ll eventually join the campaign as well. Two heroes of the Despair would be a major asset.”
“Not for me,” Ben replied. “Cream and sugar?”
They took up places at the table. Kendi drank his coffee with long, slow swallows. Petrie sipped quickly, like a bird dipping up water. Ben stirred his, staring at the swirling patterns that trailed after his spoon.
“We need to set a schedule, Mr. Weaver,” Petrie said between sips, and set a data pad on the table. A tap called up the holographic screen, and another tap called up a calendar program. “I’ve already contacted a feed studio, and they can film your first commercial the day after tomorrow at eight o’clock. That should end in time for you to attend a fundraising luncheon for the Ched-Balaar League of—”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Kendi said, holding up his hands. “I’m still at the monastery, you know. I have duties in the Dream. We don’t have a whole lot of working Silent these days, and I can’t just—”
“Senator Reza is arranging leave for you,” Petrie interrupted. “It shouldn’t be a problem. After all, the Children of Irfan are backing her campaign.”
“With endorsements or funds?” Kendi asked. Ben could see he was getting interested despite himself.
“Both, though their funds are limited these days.”
“You said you want me to speak at a luncheon,” Kendi said. “I’m not much of a speech writer, though I suppose I could put something together if I don’t have to go to work.”
Petrie looked horrified. “We have speech writers, Father Kendi. Please don’t
speak extemporaneously in public. Every word you use has to be weighed carefully. Casual remarks can have terrible repercussions.”
“So Grandma said.”
“I’ve arranged an extensive workshop for you tomorrow afternoon,” Petrie said, and the date glowed on the calendar. “Our team will take you through what to do and not do, what to say and not say.”
“How fun,” Kendi said with too much enthusiasm. Subtle signs in his expression and posture set off alarm bells in Ben’s head. “Gee. What else will I learn?”
“How to dress, places you should and should not visit, what to say to unexpected questions, how to modulate your voice for best effect, and similar subjects.”
“Where will they insert the key?”
Petrie looked blank. “The key?”
“The one that winds me up.” Kendi made jerky hand motions like a mechanical toy. “Senator-Reza-is-the-best-choice-vote-for-her-no-further-comment.”
Petrie’s face hardened. “Mr. Weaver, Senator Reza is running for world governor. That means the world population is going to examine her and everyone in her campaign in great detail. That includes you. You are a hero of the Despair, and the public has raised you high, but remember that the public also tears people down, especially in hard times like these. If you can’t control yourself and follow the rules we set for you, you’ll become a liability to the Senator’s campaign. In that case, we’ll have to let you go and hope the Senator can win without you.”
Ben half expected Kendi to snort in derision and tell Wanda Petrie to get lost. Instead, he thought a moment and then nodded.
“I’ll go along with what you say,” he said. “But I have a few conditions of my own.”
Petrie looked doubtful. “What kind of conditions?”
“Ben and I are trying to start a family,” he said. “That comes first with me. This means I can’t do multi-day trips, and family business will take precedence over fundraising, speeches, and commercials. I also reserve the right to modify speeches—with the help of your speech writers, of course. This is because I won’t publicly state a position I don’t agree with.”
“The last part is easy,” Petrie said. “The first—I don’t know. Long-range flits get expensive, and we’ll definitely need you to speak in Othertown and Rangeway and other places. We can probably handle it, but I’ll have to check with the Senator.”
“And speaking of expenses,” Kendi continued, “how are mine going to be met? The monastery is generous, but I don’t think they’ll give me paid leave for a political campaign, even one they support.”
“Stipend from us.” Petrie took another sip of coffee. “Indirect, of course.”
“How so?” Kendi asked.
“The campaign can’t pay you a direct salary,” Petrie explained. “It would destroy your credibility. Instead, we’ll set up a foundation, then ask some of our contributors to give money to it. The contributors pay the foundation, the foundation pays you. The campaign never touches the money.”
“And I thought
was a con artist,” Kendi said happily. “This is going to be fun.”
They continued to talk about the campaign and work on Kendi’s schedule. Ben sat at the table, toying with his coffee and growing restless. Kendi and Petrie filled the kitchen with their presence, and Ben felt pushed aside. He had been prepared to tell Kendi about his biological parents all afternoon and evening, and this latest delay was grating on him. Petrie stabbed at a date on the holographic calendar and it changed from blue to green, indicating another speech. She was a black hole, sucking up Kendi’s time and energy. Ben grew more and more restless as the coffee in his cup grew cold. The words built inside him like a volcano. Abruptly he stood up.
“It’s late,” he said. “Could we finish this later?”
Wanda Petrie looked a bit taken aback. “If Father Kendi—”
“It’s been a long day,” Ben said, “and Father Kendi and I still have things to do. Thank you for coming by.”
“Of course.” Petrie snapped off her data pad and withdrew from her pocket a brand new one. “Here, Kendi—a thank-you gift from Salman. All the people in the campaign are using this version, and it’s half again as powerful as what’s available on the civilian market. You’ll like the holographics—twice as many pixies per cubic centimeter. Makes holos crisp and clear like you’ve never seen.”
“Nice,” Kendi said with pleasure. “Tell her I said thanks.”
Petrie shook hands all around. “I’ll be at the workshop in the afternoon, Father,” she said. “If you have questions or an emergency arises, you can call me night or day.”
“Thank you,” Kendi said with a hard look at Ben. “I’ll escort you to the door.”
They left. Petrie’s shoes made more clipped clicks on the hardwood floor. Ben felt suddenly nervous. He dumped his cold coffee down the drain and began cleaning up the kitchen, more out of a need to do something than any real desire for tidiness.
“That was rude,” Kendi said in the doorway. He set the new data pad on the table. “And unlike you. What the heck is—”
“Daniel Vik and Irfan Qasad are my parents,” Ben blurted.
Kendi burst out laughing. “That’s a good one,” he said. “No really—what’s bothering you?”