Authors: Steven Harper
Tags: #Science Fiction
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked.
“Sometimes she gets like this,” the man said. “We don’t know why. She hurts.”
The woman looked up at Carl with pain-filled eyes. Then her hand whipped around and Carl felt a
against the side of his neck. The woman’s hand came away. She held a dermospray.
“What—?” Carl said. And then his world went black.
“Never get into a public argument with someone who has a microphone.”
Morning found Kendi in his office at the monastery. Arranging the leave of absence had indeed been easy. The Council of Irfan wanted Salman Reza to win the election, wanted her to win it very much, and the members had quickly agreed that Kendi’s endorsement of her campaign would greatly increase her chances.
Kendi cleared out his mail—fifteen sales pitches, ten biography offers, twenty-eight fan letters, one death threat—and made sure the monastery’s other working Silent knew they’d have to handle his communication caseload. It didn’t take nearly as long as he’d thought.
His eye fell on the sim-game holograms lined up across his desk. Gretchen’s upper torso looked as improbable as ever. Ben’s image was smiling. Kendi looked at the holo with a tangle of emotions. Ben was Kendi’s rock, his grounding point, the love of his life, and the eventual father of his children. Ben was Irfan Qasad’s son. Ben was also Daniel Vik’s son.
So what? Ben was Ben. His
mother, the one who mattered, had been Ara Rymar. Kendi knew that, but it still hit him at odd moments that Ben had originally been—created? put together?—almost a thousand years ago by the universe’s greatest hero and its greatest villain.
He wanted to tell someone. It was a powerful secret, and a part of him wanted to let a few people in on it, see the startled and amazed looks on their faces. Keith and Martina wouldn’t tell anyone if he asked them not to, and it—
No. Ben didn’t want anyone else to know, so no one else would know. Kendi needed to concentrate on something else.
He picked up the Ben hologram, set it in the hallway, and shut the office door. Then he tapped an empty space on the wall. “Sister Gretchen Beyer,” he said, and the wall screen glowed as the computer made the connection. Gretchen Beyer’s blond head popped up. She was a plain-faced woman, tall and raw-boned, nothing at all like the busty beauty on Kendi’s desk.
“Hey, Kendi,” Gretchen said after initial greetings. “What’s going on with you?”
Technically Gretchen was supposed to address him as “Father Kendi,” but Kendi rarely pushed the issue. He and Gretchen had been through too much together for that sort of formality.
“Did a bloke named Tel Brace contact you?” he asked. “From Lightspeed Games?”
“Yeah, a few days ago. I was going to call you about it, but I got busy. I laughed my ass off over the hologram.”
“Is the hologram in the room with you?” Kendi asked.
“Good. Listen—don’t agree to anything quite yet.”
“Why not? I could use the money, Kendi. My stipend doesn’t go as far as it used to these days, if you know what I mean.”
Kendi knew what she meant. Gretchen had been Silenced during the Despair. It flashed across Kendi’s mind to offer her some money to tide her over, an idea he just as quickly discarded. Such an offer would only transform Gretchen from a proud woman into an angry one.
“Just hold off a few more days,” Kendi said instead. “It’ll be worth your while, I promise.”
Gretchen eyed him suspiciously from the viewscreen. “All right,” she said at last. “A few more days. And you owe me dinner. One just like Ara used to buy.”
“Done,” Kendi grinned. “I’ll catch you later, then.”
They signed off. Kendi retrieved the Ben hologram, sat down at his desk, and searched his computer for a single sound file. He activated it, and the soft sound of a computer alert chimed through the room.
“Father Kendi,” Kendi said, pretending to answer a call that came in over his earpiece instead of on the viewscreen. He paused. “Hey, love. Yeah, I’ll probably be home early. Look, I’m glad you called. I’ve been looking at the cost of adding a nursery, and I’m thinking we should accept that offer from Lightspeed Games. It’ll more than pay for the new room, and they’ll get us the money quick. Heaven knows we need the cash. Yeah. Okay, I’ll see you in a while.”
He tapped his earpiece again, this time for real. “Tel Brace.”
Brace came on almost immediately. Kendi could have called him on the viewscreen, but he didn’t feel like seeing the man’s grinning face.
“What can I do for you, Father?” Brace asked in Kendi’s ear, and Kendi imagined him rubbing his hands together in anticipation of a multi-million freemark contract.
“Mr. Brace, I’ve given your offer considerable thought, and I’d like to discuss it in more detail. Could we meet in my office at, say, two o’clock?”
“Let me check my appointments.” Brace made a small clucking noise with his tongue. “I’m afraid two doesn’t work for me. Three?”
“Three is fine,” Kendi agreed. “I’ll see you then.”
Kendi disconnected and gave Brace a few more flim-flam points for controlling the time of the meeting and thereby reducing Kendi from autocrat to supplicant. The extra hour was supposed to give Kendi time to worry something had gone wrong with the deal.
A knock sounded at the door and Kendi shouted permission to enter. A man and a woman came in. The woman was possessed of a head-turning beauty, with fine features and wide, dark eyes. The man bore a strong resemblance to Kendi. His body was a little thicker and gray streaked his hair, but anyone seeing them together would have known they were related. Keith and Martina Weaver, Kendi’s older brother and younger sister.
“Keith needs a change of scene,” Martina announced, “so we’re kidnapping you for an early lunch.”
“I don’t need a change of scene,” Keith muttered. “I’m fine.”
“People who sit around in dark rooms all day don’t get to say they’re fine,” Martina said firmly. “I’ve lived on Bellerophon for three weeks now, and I’ve yet to have eaten in a Ched-Balaar restaurant. How about you show us one, Kendi?”
“Sure.” Kendi pushed the Ben hologram into a drawer. “I know just the place.”
Martina linked arms with Keith and all but dragged him out of Kendi’s office. Kendi followed, watching Keith’s slumping posture from behind. Kendi pursed his lips. He didn’t like this development with Keith. Kendi, Ben, and a team of Children had yanked Keith and Martina out of enslavement to a strange cult on SA Station just three weeks ago. Keith had come out of it ebullient and happy, but his mood had lately shifted to gloom and depression. He resolutely refused to see a counselor, and in any case the monastery’s psych people were overworked treating Silenced Children traumatized by the Despair. People who had retained their Silence, as Keith had, rated low priority.
Outside the office building, clouds drew a low gray curtain across the sky and the air was damp. Martina maintained pointedly happy chatter. Keith remained quiet. Kendi led the way. The staircase they were descending opened onto a wide platform at the bottom, where another group of people were demonstrating. Placards and holograms bobbed up and down. About half were in the curved, swooping script of the Ched-Balaar.
Ched-Pirasku—the Best Choice. Moderation in All Things and the Governorship. Our Ally Ched-pirasku. No Radicals! No Liberals! Just Ched-pirasku!
A Ched-Balaar with dark, almost black fur had straightened her neck, raising her head high above the crowd. Her teeth chattered like a xylophone.
“What’s she saying?” Martina asked.
A ‘The Federals and the Unionists want to create division and battle among our people,’ “ Kendi translated. A ‘They do not seek a middle ground for all to stand on. We can mine the world’s treasures, but we do not have to strip the earth to do it. Carefully regulated mining will create jobs without destroying the environment our ancestors worked so hard to protect. However, we will also have to regulate the factories and manufacturing industries that will use the products of the new mines. Ched-Pirasku is prepared to address those challenges with compassion and forethought for all.’ “ Kendi paused. “She’s exaggerating Grandma’s position. Grandma doesn’t advocate no mining at all—she thinks we need to be careful. I agree with her. Remember what Australia was like?”
“The Real People were enslaved by miners looking for opals and ore,” Martina said as if reciting a long-ago lesson. “Under mutant control, the Outback became a desert and the Real People were forced to eat meat for the first time. Do you think that could happen here?”
“Not the enslavement,” Kendi said firmly. “We don’t buy and sell people on Bellerophon. But the environmental disasters—that’s something else entirely.”
A cheer rose from the crowd and the signs waved wildly.
“These people sure go in for their demonstrations and marches,” Keith observed. “You can’t run to the corner store without tripping over one.”
Kendi laughed. “You’ve got the right of that. This is the first time Bellerophon has had free elections for several hundred years, though. Before that, we were a member of the Independence Confederation under the rule of Empress Kalii. The Confederation appointed local government but otherwise let us have our head. The Children of Irfan were a lucrative source of income for the Confederation, and her imperial majesty was smart enough not to upset the goose that laid all those golden eggs. Now, though—we’re starting our own government practically from scratch. Everyone gets to voice an opinion, and they do.”
“Especially since so many people don’t have jobs to keep them busy,” Keith said cynically.
They skirted the demonstration and continued on their way. A brisk stroll over several walkways and down two flights of stairs took them to the Ched-Balaar restaurant. It was, like most Treetown structures, a wooden building built on a platform amid talltree branches. A balcony set with tables ringed the second floor. None were occupied—it was still early for lunch. The name on the sign said in graceful Ched-Balaar script,
Delectibles of the Open Blossom
. Strange and delicious smells wafted by.
“What do the Ched-Balaar eat?” Keith said dubiously.
“You’ll like it,” Kendi promised.
“That means it’s going to be disgusting.”
“Stop being such a baby,” Martina said. “Let’s go in.”
The interior was dark and damp. Moss covered the floor in a thick green carpet. More tables were scattered about, and an artificial waterfall rushed down one wall. The ceiling was high, to accommodate Ched-Balaar height. Smells of hot oil, sharp spices, and cooking meat salted the air. A Ched-Balaar with pale, silvery fur and a red head cloth turned to greet them.
“Father Kendi,” chattered the Ched-Balaar. “I have the perfect table for you. Who are your friends?”
Kendi paused to translate for his family, then said, “Ched-Mulooth, meet my brother and sister, Keith and Martina Weaver. They’re new to Bellerophon.”
Ched-Mulooth dipped his head. His movements were slow and careful. “It is a fine thing to meet the family of the great Father Kendi Weaver. Please come this way.”
He led them past a series of tables too high for humans to use comfortably. There were no chairs. A pair of female Ched-Balaar occupied one table, sitting on their haunches like dogs or cats. Two wide troughs containing purple liquid rested on the table, and one of the Ched-Balaar dipped her wide lower jaw into it to drink. A delicate slurping sound accompanied the gesture. The other Ched-Balaar glanced at Kendi as he passed, then turned back to her companion.
In the rear of the restaurant was a scattering of human-sized tables and two human-sized booths. Ched-Mulooth ushered them toward one of the latter and stood solicitously by as the Weavers seated themselves.
“The world will provide,” Ched-Mulooth said, and withdrew.
“It’s hard to tell,” Martina said, “but I get the feeling that he’s pretty old.”
“Ched-Mulooth? Yeah, he’s older than Irfan.” The comparison made Kendi think of Ben, and he shifted uncomfortably in the booth. “He’s a great host. I don’t think he’s cooking much these days anymore, though.”
“So what do we order?” Keith asked.
“We don’t. The Ched-Balaar believe that the world will provide, and asking for specifics is rude. It’s actually Ched-Mulooth’s job to anticipate what we’ll like and serve it. He’s really good at that, which is why I brought us here.”
“Apology,” chattered a new voice. “Are you Father Kendi Weaver?” One of the Ched-Balaar they had passed earlier was standing near the table.
“That’s me,” Kendi replied. Martina and Keith looked lost, so Kendi gave a quick translation. “What can I do for you?”
She thrust a computer pad at him. “Your handprint?”
Kendi laid his hand on the pad, then scribbled his initials at the bottom with a stylus. The Ched-Balaar bobbed her head.
“My gratitude, both for your handprint and for your deeds.” And she left.
“Does that happen to you a lot?” Martina asked.
“Yeah,” Kendi said in a rueful voice. “She was polite, at least.”