A Novel of the Silent Empire
by Steven Harper
For one thing to begin, another must end.
In the end, they walked to Ijhan. Vidya Vajhur started with swift steps, but Prasad slowed her down.
“You’ll tire quickly at that pace,” he told her. “We have a long way to go.”
Vidya nodded. She set her shoulders more firmly into the shoulder harness Prasad had made for the wheelbarrow and forced herself into a steady trudge. The wheelbarrow was piled with clothing, a tent, food, and other necessities. It was hard to think of it as everything she owned, so she didn’t.
Gravel crunched as Vidya walked. Beside her, Prasad pushed a cart containing the rest of their food. Hidden at the bottom were a few trinkets he said he didn’t want to leave behind. One was their wedding knot. Another was a set of red data chips, red for medical histories and gene scans. Prasad had tried to slip them into the cart without her seeing. Vidya had wordlessly pursed her lips. Prasad’s cart was topped by a crate of a dozen quacking ducks, the only animals unaffected by the Unity blight.
“Imagine if the blight had left the kine,” Prasad had said. “Too valuable to leave and too difficult to take on the road. We’re lucky there.”
Leave it to Prasad, Vidya thought wryly, to find blessings in a pile of horse shit.
The harness bit into Vidya’s shoulders and she spared a glance at her husband of five years. He was a head taller than she was, with brown skin to match her own. His black hair had gotten shaggy of late. Dark whiskers dusted chin and cheeks, though he had shaved only yesterday, and curly hair coated his strong forearms as they strained against the hand cart. His beautiful black eyes were lined with stress and strain, though he was barely twenty-five.
Vidya’s eyes were a lighter brown beneath thin brows and a high forehead. Her face was a pleasing oval, and her body was long and lean. Too lean.
The crated ducks on Prasad’s cart quacked in annoyance. Vidya wished they would shut up. They were getting a free ride, weren’t they? She’d trade places with them in a second. It would be nice to be a duck. You could root around in a quiet pool to find food, and if there wasn’t any, you only had to fly somewhere else.
She found she was striding again and forced herself to slow down. Her legs wanted to carry her fast and far so she wouldn’t be tempted to look back at their ruined farm. She kept her eyes firmly on the gravel road before her. Watching out for the blast craters that made wheeled transport impossible was a good excuse to avoid looking at the fields. She could not, however, block out the smell. Every breath brought her the damp, moldy stench of standing crops destroyed by the Unity blight. Sometimes she caught a whiff of rotting meat, and once she smelled burned feathers. This made her speed up, and Prasad lengthened his own pace. Without a word, they pushed on as fast as they dared until the smell faded. Vidya heaved a soft sigh. Chickens mutated the blight into a form that attacked humans, and burning feathers could only mean a poultry farm someone was trying to cleanse. Except in that one instance, the blight—actually a series of diseases—left humans alone. Only now was Vidya realizing how that was, in some ways, even more horrible.
They trudged on, Vidya’s eyes on the ground, until Prasad gasped. Vidya looked up. They had reached the main road, and it was in worse condition than the one they had been traveling. Flyers from the Empire of Human Unity had bombed and strafed it thoroughly. Craters pocked some places, piles of shattered pavement blocked others. It was passable, but only with difficulty. Prasad, however, was looking straight ahead. Vidya set the wheelbarrow down with an angry thump.
“This is a treat!” she cried. “A gift!”
“Hush,” Prasad murmured. “We shouldn’t call attention to ourselves.”
Vidya glared at him, then swallowed her sharp retort. Sarcasm wouldn’t improve the situation, and it wasn’t Prasad who deserved her anger.
“What do you think we should do?” Vidya asked at last. “I have no ideas.”
Prasad shrugged. “What else can we do?”
He lifted the handles on the hand cart and trudged forward. The ducks quacked again. Vidya hesitated, then set her shoulders, hefted the wheelbarrow, and joined him.
The streaming mass of people on the road made grudging space for them. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, crowded the broken pavement. Most carried bundles or pushed carts and barrows. Many were injured. All were heading toward Ijhan.
The crowd shuffled along in eerie silence. Those who spoke did so in subdued voices. Occasionally a baby whimpered or a small child cried, but the sounds were quickly hushed. It was as if the throng feared being noticed.
“They must have heard the rumors, too,” Vidya murmured. Her eyes flicked left, right, forward, behind, constantly scanning the crowd.
“Relief in Ijhan,” Prasad agreed softly. “I wish we could’ve checked with Uncle Raffid to see how true it is. I wish—”
“You make a hundred wishes before breakfast,” Vidya said. “Wishing will not take the networks from the Unity’s hands or make it possible to call—”
“Poultry!” shrieked a voice. “My god—birds!”
Vidya’s head snapped around. A silver-haired man was staring at Prasad’s duck crate in horror. Prasad blinked. The people around them began to draw away.
“The blight!” the man screeched. “They’ll bring the blight!”
He lunged for the crate, intending to smash it, but Vidya was already moving. Her hand snatched a small bundle from the wheelbarrow and whipped the cloth away.
“Stop!” she barked. “Or die.”
The man froze. So did the people around him. After a split-second, the crowd edged away, leaving the man in an ever-widening circle. Vidya held a short rod in rock-steady hands. It glowed blue, and a single spark crackled at the end.
“This is an energy whip for herding kine,” she said, standing in the wheelbarrow harness. “At half power it stuns a full-grown bull. It is now set to full. Leave the ducks alone.”
“The blight—” the man gasped.
“—is only found in chickens,” Prasad said in his soft voice. “Ducks don’t carry it.”
“Back away,” Vidya repeated. “I will press the trigger in three…two…”
The man fled into the crowd. Vidya watched until he was out of sight. Then she slid the whip into her belt, shrugged her shoulders in the harness, and continued on her way. Prasad followed. The crowd watched for a moment, then slowly closed about them.
“My wife has fine reflexes,” Prasad observed. “It did not occur to me that our own people would wish to harm us or take our property.”
“My husband is trusting,” Vidya said, not sure at that moment whether she was annoyed at him or fond of him. The adrenaline rush was wearing off and her hands would have been shaking had they not been gripping the wheelbarrow staves.
Prasad reached over and squeezed her hand twice. She smiled at him. The gesture, born on their wedding night, had originally meant “I love you,” but it had, over the years, become a more all-purpose signal of anything positive. Here, Vidya took it to mean “you did well.”
Hours passed. Hunger pinched Vidya’s stomach—she and Prasad had skipped breakfast to save food—and she was sweating even though a thick layer of clouds blocked the sun. It was warm for early fall. The world of Rust had an even, temperate climate because it had no moons to stir wind and water to anything greater than a balmy breeze or gentle rain. Vidya had dim memories of torrential rains and rushing winds, but after her parents emigrated to Rust, all her experiences with weather involved slow, easy swings from sun to clouds to rain and back again. Now the above-average temperature made her uneasy. Had the Unity done something to the weather as well as spreading the blight? Vidya’s stomach growled, and a hunger headache coiled behind her forehead.
“We need to eat,” Prasad said. “Perhaps over there.”
They guided cart and barrow to the edge of the road and into what had been a hayfield. Mushy stalks squelched under Vidya’s shoes, and the fetid smell lessened her appetite. A waist-high stone wall divided the field in half, however, and this was Prasad’s goal. Other people were taking advantage of the wall as a place to rest, but Prasad, Vidya noticed with satisfaction, warily kept his distance from them. They wheeled their respective conveyances to a likely spot and pulled themselves up to the wall’s bumpy top. Vidya groaned as her weight left her aching feet.
“May I sit with you?”
The whip was already in Vidya’s hand and pointed at the speaker. It was a woman with a pack on her back and two small children at her side. Vidya didn’t lower the whip.
“Of course,” Prasad said gently. “Do you need help?”
“Prasad,” Vidya warned. “We can’t—”
“Our old community was destroyed,” Prasad replied. “If we wish to survive, we must build a new one.”
“We can be three more pairs of eyes to watch for thieves.” The woman nodded at Prasad’s cart. “Or duck-nappers.”
A laugh popped from Vidya’s mouth before she could stop it. She motioned for the woman and her children to sit. The woman’s name was Jenthe. The children were her sister’s.
“My sister was Silent,” Jenthe continued. “Her owner planned to hide just her—not her husband or children—in case the Unity won the war. I think she was planning to run away, but then she and her husband disappeared. Now we’re traveling to Ijhan because they have food.”
Vidya shot a glance at Prasad’s cart. “Do the children belong to your sister’s owner?” she asked bluntly. “Are they Silent, too?”
“Vidya,” Prasad said. “We don’t need to be rude.”
“We need to know,” Vidya replied. “If the children are Silent, they’re valuable.”
Jenthe pulled both children closer to her. They looked at her with wide eyes. Vidya sighed. Jenthe’s gesture had answered Vidya’s question as clearly as a shout.
“I’m not going to take them from you,” Vidya said quietly. “But someone else might. It isn’t duck-nappers we have to worry about.”
“I’ve worried about that since we left,” Jenthe said, and changed the subject. “Have you heard if we’ve surrendered to the Unity yet?” She rummaged around in her backpack and took out half a piece of flat bread. She divided it between the children but took none for herself. Vidya sighed and waited. On cue, Prasad offered Jenthe a piece of their own flat bread. Jenthe refused, but finally accepted after minimal pressure from Prasad. Vidya mentally went over their tiny store of food, all that remained after six months of bombs and blights. It would take them three days to reach Ijhan, maybe four, and they could do it without slaughtering the ducks if they ate two small meals a day. If they fed three more mouths, though, they’d have to eat the ducks, and Vidya had been counting on using them as trade goods. She had a feeling that the money they carried wouldn’t be worth much.
“I haven’t heard of surrender,” Prasad was saying. “Perhaps we’re winning.”
Vidya glanced at the river of refugees on the road and suppressed an acidic remark. There really was no point. Words wouldn’t change their situation.
“May we sit with you?” said a cautious voice. Vidya sighed and chewed her bread.
It took four days to reach Ijhan. In that time, their group had grown to twenty people. Prasad’s crate had four ducks left.
Vidya had visited Ijhan half a dozen times in her life. She remembered it as a sprawling city of trees and low buildings. It still was, but now a refugee camp had sprung up around it like a moat around a castle.
“They aren’t letting anyone in,” Mef reported. He was fourteen and on his own now. Prasad charged him with scouting ahead because he still had energy for it and he had a knack for gathering information. “They’ve built sandbag walls around the whole city. Trucks came out with food four days ago, but that’s been it.”
A murmur went through the group and Vidya bit her lip. Counting the ducks and Gandin’s two geese, the group had enough food for two or three days. The filter on Vidya’s water bottle would also give out soon, and she didn’t want to think about what filth had accumulated in the ponds and streams. The area around the city already smelled like a sewer.
“There aren’t letting anyone in?” Prasad asked. The desperate note in his voice made Vidya’s heart lurch. The past several days had been hard on all of them, but it showed most on Prasad. The skin around his eyes sagged with hunger and fatigue and he spoke little. When they curled next to each other to sleep, she had felt the tension in his body grow with each passing night. She wanted to comfort her husband, this strong man, but she didn’t know how to do it other than to stand beside him.
Mef shook his head. “No one goes in. The famine is just as bad in the city.”
Vidya took Prasad’s hand and squeezed twice. He squeezed back, but the gesture lacked any strength.
Vidya clasped her hands around her shins beneath the overturned hand cart. Soft, gentle rain washed down from the sky to form soft, gentle mud. The latrine pits had already overflowed. Turds mixed with dirt and piss mixed with water until it was impossible to tell one from the other in a mix like sloppy pudding. Cholera and dysentery swept the camps. Babies and young children, already weak from lack of food, fell sick and died in mere hours. Vidya’s last meal had been a handful of beans four—or was it five?—days ago. They had cost her and Prasad the tent. The only water Vidya had was what she could catch from the sky. Her skin was waterlogged and flaccid, with white sores Prasad said were a form of mold.
At first, all Vidya had been able to think about was food. Thoughts of tender goose, crunchy felafel, sizzling beef, and hot flat bread with sweet honey bombarded her until she thought she would go insane. Now she wasn’t thinking of food, or anything else. Her stomach no longer cried out and it had long ago become a dull ache inside her. Prasad had left several hours ago on an errand he refused to discuss, but Vidya didn’t have strength to care. She stared into the rain from the scant shelter of Prasad’s cart, not even wondering what would happen next.
“My wife,” Prasad said.
Vidya looked up. Prasad stood in the rain in front of her up to his shins in mud. His skin was blotchy like her own and his frame had gone gaunt. A lump rose in her throat at the sight of him in such a condition.
“My husband,” she whispered.
He reached for her hand and squeezed twice. She squeezed back and he tried to pull her up. His body lacked the strength, and she had to manage on her own.
“You must come with me,” he said.
Vidya let him lead her away, leaving the cart behind. The energy whip made a lump in her pocket. She had tried to trade it for food, but there had been no takers.
Vidya and Prasad passed the pitiful shelters of the tiny community of twenty they had gathered, now shrunk to less than a dozen. Jenthe and her children had vanished days ago. Gandin had died of cholera. Mef was still alive, a coughing ball of misery beneath a scrap of wood. The boy didn’t look up when Prasad and Vidya passed.
They moved through the camp, and it eventually penetrated Vidya’s mind that they were heading toward the city. The sandbags walls were broken only by gates which were watched by guards who looked as hungry as the refugees. Prasad showed something to one of the guards, who waved them through.
All this barely registered with Vidya. The stupor that had fallen over her was unshakeable. She concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other beside Prasad without sparing a glance for the city.
Finally she realized the rain had stopped. She was sitting in a soft chair and Prasad was talking to a woman behind a desk. They were in an office, a large one with plush carpets and paneled walls. The woman was tidy and well-fed, seemingly immune to war and famine. A name plate proclaimed she was Kafren Jusuf, Vice President of Acquisitions. She spoke. Vidya tried to concentrate but simply didn’t have the energy. Prasad said something, and she nodded automatically.
Something pricked Vidya’s fingertip. Kafren Jusuf was standing beside her, holding a small med-comp. The lights flashed green. Kafren sat behind her desk again and passed Vidya and Prasad each a data unit. Vidya looked down. The screen showed a contract between Silent Acquisitions, Incorporated and Vidya and Prasad Vajhur.
“This is our offer,” she said. “We will provide you with food, housing, and medical care. You will receive the sum of fifty thousand kesh in three payments—ten thousand upon signing, twenty thousand at the birth of the first child, and twenty thousand at the birth of the second. You also agree to have penile-vaginal intercourse at least three times per week until pregnancy is established. You will use no birth control.”
“And if the children aren’t Silent?” Prasad asked softly.
Kafren leveled him a glance. “Any child born of you and Vidya will be Silent. It’s a medical certainty. Now, in section two, you’ll notice…”
Kafren droned on. Vidya stared down at the contract. She had known this was coming, had known it from the moment she had seen Prasad slip the medical data chips into his possessions, had known it the moment he had left her with his completely empty cart.
She felt a twinge of conscience, but it was brief. The children she might have were theoretical, mere dreams. What was real was Prasad beside her and the famine in his face.
Vidya’s eyes met Prasad’s. They were sunken, fearful, and uncertain. In that moment she knew that if she refused this contract, he wouldn’t fight her. He would starve without complaint or regret. Somehow, that made the decision easier. Vidya reached for her husband’s hand and squeezed twice.
Serenity is the slope down which the spirit flows into the Dream. Serene must you walk the paths, and serene must you ever remain.
—Irfan Qasad, Pathways to the Dream
“We have authorization!” Ara shouted. “I tight-beamed it ten minutes ago.”
The ship shuddered. Kendi Weaver slapped the override on the gravity regulators. “Peggy-Sue!” he barked. “Load maneuver Yooie-One and execute!”
“Acknowledged,” replied the computer. On the viewscreen, the stars yawed into white streaks. Everyone on the bridge leaned a hard left in their seat harnesses. Kendi’s stomach bobbed down toward his feet then leaped into his throat. A big red smear rushed by the screen and Kendi assumed it was the planet Rust. Then the stars straightened out and Kendi was able to swallow his stomach.
“Nice,” growled Gretchen Beyer from the sensor boards.
“Dammit, stop firing!” Ara yelled from her position on the floor. “We’re a Unity vessel!” She scrambled to her feet beside Kendi’s chair and leveled him a look that would freeze beer.
“Sorry,” he said helplessly. “It was all I could think of. If that charge had come closer—”
She waved him to silence. Ara was a short, round woman who could look Kendi in the eye if he was sitting. Her deep brown skin hadn’t paled much after two weeks of ship lighting, and it was almost as dark as Kendi’s. She had short black hair which displayed a round, open face with a hint of double chin, a face that looked like it should be smiling over a tray of fresh cinnamon rolls.
“Excellency, please respond,” Ara said to empty air. “This is the Post-Script. We are a registered vessel with the Empire of Human Unity. Why are you firing?”
“Are we still transmitting?” she murmured to Ben Rymar at communication. He nodded. Ara raised her voice.
“Excellency,” she said, “we have no defenses against your firepower. I repeat—we are merchants come to trade. We received landing authorization via Silent courier fifty-five hours ago.”
Kendi, meanwhile, reset the safeties on the gravity, then carefully aimed the ship away from the planet. He held his fingers over the thrusters, ready to punch them up to full speed if the satellites orbiting Rust readied another volley.
Static crackled over the speakers. “Glory to the Unity,” said a different voice. “You did not transmit the codes.”
Ara’s neck muscles moved like a team of wrestlers. “Yes. We. Did. To whom am I speaking, please?” she added.
“Peggy-Sue, mute me,” Gretchen said softer than the communications system could register.
“Acknowledged.” A blue light winked at the sensor boards to remind Gretchen that her voice was currently screened from the communication system.
“They’re stalling, Mother Adept,” she told Ara. “I’ve snuck into their network, and they’re checking out our story.”
“This is Prelate Tenvar of the Empire of Human Unity Trade Commission,” crackled the voice. “We have received no communication from you. Transmit the proper codes or be fired upon.”
Ben’s mute light flashed. “They’re trying to track down the courier, Mother. I think I can jump ahead and drop a false transmission into their lines, but for now you’ll need to keep them happy with what I’ve already given them.”
Ara marched over to the captain’s board and punched up the codes Ben had spent hours forging. Her purple trader’s tunic rustled as she moved. Ara played the role of indignant trader well, and only the tightness around her mouth betrayed nervousness. Kendi’s own heart was beating hard and he swallowed dryly. Escape into slipspace this far into to Rust’s gravity well was impossible, and it seemed like he felt the Unity lasers and charges trained on their ship’s all-too-thin ceramic skin. Kendi goosed the thrusters a little and set the ship drifting casually away from the planet just in case.
Drift away, he told himself, but don’t look like you’re drifting away.
He stole a glance at Benjamin Rymar. Ben was bent over his boards. His bright red hair was disheveled and his trader’s tunic was rumpled even though he had just put it on. Ben always looked rumpled, even after a shower. Kendi wasn’t sure how he managed it.
“Got it!” Ben whispered. He tapped a button and raised his voice. “It’s done, Mother. I deleted their message before it was received and faked verification of who we’re pretending to be.”
“I just hope Tenvar isn’t a drinking buddy of your mark’s, Ben,” Gretchen said. “Otherwise they’ll fry us like an ant under a magnifying glass.”
Ben bent his head back over the boards, but Kendi saw his blush. Kendi’s fingers moved and the words Lay off, Gretch, or you can forget about trading duty shifts marched across Gretchen’s screen.
Teasing, she sent back. No need to snit.
Ara, meanwhile, settled into her chair and pulled the harness around her. “Prelate Tenvar,” she said, “I have transmitted our authorization. Again. Have you received it?”
Silence. Kendi held his breath.
“Prelate Tenvar, are you there?” Ara said, allowing a hint of exasperation to creep into her voice. “Prelate, please. I’ve transmitted our authorization four times to four Prelates. How long will—”
“Why are you travel traveling on a vessel built in the Independence Confederation?” Tenvar’s voice demanded.
Ara sighed loud enough for the microphones to pick up. “You’ll pay for this, apprentice,” she said a bit too loudly.
Kendi recognized a cue when he heard one. “You agreed to it, Boss.”
“That information, Prelate,” Ara said, “is in our transponder code. Please read it. Our ship was salvage.”
Another long pause. Kendi closed his hand over the gold disk that hung around his neck beneath his tunic and whispered, “If it is in my best interest and in the best interest of all life everywhere—”
“You are cleared for landing on field seven-eff-one,” Prelate Tenvar’s voice said. “Do not leave the ship until the quarantine crew has inspected your vessel. Glory to the Unity.”
“Thank you, Prelate,” Ara said. “Glory to the Unity.”
Ben shut off the transmitter and the entire crew heaved a sigh. Ara sagged briefly in her harness, then unbuckled herself and stood up.
“Kendi and Gretchen,” Ara ordered, “I want you on my turf in the Dream. Ten minutes. Ben, you pilot. Get Trish and Pitr up here to handle the other stations.”
“Yes, Mother,” Ben said.
“Ten minutes?” Kendi complained. “How fast do you think I am?”
“I heard,” Gretchen drawled, already heading for the door, “that you were a two-minute man myself.”
Kendi bounded to his feet to chase her, but Gretchen nipped into the corridor and punched the close button. Kendi flung his arms out and pretended to slam into the door. After hanging for a moment, he slid to the floor. Ben actually snorted, and Kendi couldn’t suppress a smile.
“Kendi,” Ara sighed. “We don’t have time—”
The door slid open, revealing the solemn face of Trish Haddis. She stepped over Kendi’s prone body and took up Gretchen’s position at sensors. Behind came Pitr Haddis, her twin brother. The two of them looked nothing alike. Pitr was a blocky man, with close-cropped brown hair, oddly wide hazel eyes, and a firm chin. Trish, in contrast, was small and delicate-looking, with a long brown braid and a build more like adolescent boy’s. She did share Pitr’s eyes.
“We were on our way up when Ben called,” she said, explaining their prompt appearance. “Was Kendi responsible for that u-turn? The galley’s a mess.”
“Kendi will clean up,” Ara promised.
“Geez,” Kendi grumbled from the floor. “Save the ship and all you get is K.P.”
“Kendi,” Ara said sternly, “go.”
“Going, going.” Kendi rolled to his feet and trotted down the corridor.
The Post-Script was a small, wedge-shaped ship with only three decks. The narrow corridors were dingy and in need of paint. Dull gray ceramic showed through the beige. Kendi reached the lift, but the elevator been rattling alarmingly of late, so he instead descended the ladder to the crew quarters on the deck below the bridge.
Third door on the left, Kendi reminded himself. Despite the ship’s small size, Kendi still got confused. The Script’s doors and corridors were unmarked and they all looked alike. He chose a door and thumbed the lock. It slid aside, meaning he had found his quarters on the first try.
Ten minutes, he grumbled to himself as the door slid shut behind him. Who does she think I am? Super-Aussie?
Kendi’s quarters were spartan. A neatly-made bed took up one wall and a battered computer terminal occupied another. A dozen book disks sat in a rack above the terminal, while a very few clothes hung in the closet. A short red spear leaned against the wall in one corner. The bathroom was up the hall, though the room sported a small sink with a medicine chest.
Kendi pressed his thumb to the medicine chest’s lock plate and the doors popped open. On the shelves inside lay several ampules all filled with amber fluid. A dermospray occupied the bottom shelf. Kendi racked ampule into the cylindrical handle, pressed the flat end against his arm, and pressed the button. There was a soft “thump,” and a red light indicated the ampule had emptied. Kendi put the dermospray away and removed his purple tunic. Beneath it he wore nothing but sandals, a brown loincloth, and the neck chain with the gold disk that marked him as a Child of Irfan. Kendi had a spare build, with dark skin and short, tightly-curled brownish hair. His nose was flat, and his eyes were so black it was hard to tell iris from pupil.
Kendi took up the red spear, which was the length of his leg from his knee to his foot, and checked to make sure the rubber tip on the spear’s point was secure. Then, in one smooth motion, he bent his left leg and slipped the spear under his knee, as if the spear had become a peg-leg. Under ideal conditions, Kendi would have thrust the spear into the earth to keep it from slipping out from under him, but that was impossible on a ship. Hence the rubber tip. A languid warmth stole over him—the drug at work.
It took a moment for Kendi to make of his balance. Then he closed his eyes, cupped both hands over his groin, and started a series of breathing exercises.
If it is in my best interest, he thought, and in the best interest of all life everywhere, let me enter the Dream.
As he breathed, the noises of the ship—the faint hum of various machines, the vague whisper of moving air, the steady drone of distant engines—faded away. Colors swirled behind his eyelids as the drug took effect. Kendi breathed. He imagined himself standing in a deep cave with a tunnel that spiraled outward. Carefully, he added details. Cool water dripped from stalactites and ran down stalagmites. The floor was chilly beneath his bare feet. Glowing fungi provided faint illumination, and their musty smell filled his nose. Slowly, Kendi walked out of the cave and up the spiral tunnel. With every step, the details of the cave became sharper. The floor pressed his soles and the chill air raised goose bumps on his skin. The rock took on color, rich shades of red, turquoise, and purple.
Light appeared ahead of him. Kendi moved toward it. A moment later, brightness blinded him and he squinted until his eyes adjusted. When his vision cleared, he found himself at the base of a cliff with a wide plain stretching before him. The earth was dry and covered with scrubby vegetation. Overhead, the sun burned in a cloudless blue sky. A falcon shrieked high on the dry wind. Every detail was clear and sharp.
It was the Dream.
Kendi surveyed the landscape around him. It never ceased to fascinate him. He wondered if Irfan Qasad, the first human to enter the Dream, had felt the same. A thousand years ago, before the discovery of slipspace, a colony ship had encountered the Ched-Balaar, an alien race intent on colonizing the same planet the humans wanted. Fortunately, the aliens proved willing to share. There was just one catch—the Ched-Balaar insisted the humans take part in a ceremony and drink a special wine to cement relationships between the two species.
The wine—drugged—and the ceremony’s hypnotic chanting drew Irfan Qasad and several of her crewmates into the Dream. Amazed, the humans experimented and learned the drug allowed them to enter this shared dream at will, though some were better at getting there than others. Some of these people began to “hear” voices of humans on Earth. Eventually, the Terran humans were drawn into the Dream and were able to communicate with the Ched-Balaar and their brethren humans, though they were separated by thousands of light years.
The hibernation ship carried in its hold thousands of embryos, both human and animal, to colonize each planet and keep the gene pool fresh. With the help of the Ched-Balaar, the humans experimented on the embryos, isolating favorable genes to produce people who could find the Dream. The first children produced by these experiments developed speech late, and even afterward spoke only rarely outside the Dream. They became known as the Silent.
On the hot, scrubby plan, Kendi spread his arms to the wind. His clothing and medallion had vanished. Naked, he took a few steps onto the plain and cocked his head to listen. Voices whispered in the breeze and rumbled through the earth. He sorted through them. Kendi recognized Ara’s throaty alto, but all the others were strange to him. Gretchen must not have arrived yet. Cautiously he extended his senses, testing earth and air, ready to act if he felt the odd presence again.
There was localized babble some distance away. It was probably the Silent on Rust, but at this distance Kendi couldn’t tell for certain. Further off he felt thousands—millions—of firefly flickers as other Silent on other planets entered and left the Dream. Kendi felt no sign of the strange child.
Kendi put up his arm and whistled shrilly. The falcon dove like a feathered boomerang, pulling up in time to land on Kendi’s forearm. Although the falcon’s talons were capable of crushing bone, they only pricked Kendi’s skin. In the real world, Kendi’s arm would have been reduced to a shredded mess, but this was the Dream.
“Sister,” Kendi asked the falcon, “can you learn for me who speaks in the distance?”
The falcon leaped from Kendi’s arm. In mid-air she changed into a kangaroo that bounded swiftly away. Kendi watched her go, then strode purposefully across the scrubby vegetation. Spines from ground-hugging spinniflex plants tried to pierce his feet, but in the Dream Kendi’s soles were covered with thick calluses. As he walked, he was aware of the living earth beneath him. Every particle was alive and breathing. Every piece was separate, and yet part of a whole. Just for the practice, Kendi narrowed his focus for a moment to a single particle. It was a human female, completely unaware that her mind made up a tiny part of the Dream. He thought she might be sleeping, but he couldn’t be sure. Reaching out of the Dream to the non-Silent was difficult for him, and in any case it wasn’t why he was here.
Then he felt it. A flicker at the edge of awareness. Someone was reaching not into the Dream, but through it, as if from one mind to another. Kendi pounced on the feeling, trying to pin down which direction it was coming from. It vanished before he could nail it.
Damn, Kendi thought, frustrated. But at least we know the kid is still around.
Kendi resumed his walk, following the sound of Ara’s whisper. As he grew closer to her, he felt the shift where Ara’s mind molded the Dream to her own perceptions. The only way to communicate with another Silent was to agree who would shape the Dream space they shared. Ara had said that she, Gretchen, and Kendi were to meet on her turf, so as Kendi walked, he released his expectations of reality and surrendered them to Ara.
The landscape changed with scarcely a ripple. The spiny spinniflex became soft green grass. Cool water tinkled softly in an elaborate fountain, and exotic perfumes scented the air. Tall shady trees blunted the sun’s rays. Fat oranges and glistening pears hung heavily in their branches, and birds twittered among the leaves. Ara sat on the lip of the fountain. She wore a simple green robe of gauzy material. A close-fitting hood covered her hair and ears, and emeralds glittered across her forehead. Kendi wore loose red trousers and a long white linen shirt. His gold medallion had returned, and he now wore a silver ring set with a golden piece of amber. Ara wore a ring as well, though hers held a sparkling blue lapis lazuli.
“Where’s Gretchen?” Kendi asked without preamble.
“Not here, obviously,” Ara replied.
“Yes, I am.” Gretchen emerged from behind the fountain. She wore the same outfit Ara did, except her robe was blue. Her gold disk gleamed brightly, and her amber ring matched Kendi’s. Gretchen was a tall woman with fair skin, pale hair, and heavy eyebrows. Her eyes were gray and her lips were a startling, heavy red. Kendi had always thought she would look good in a belly-dancing outfit.
“Good.” Ara looked at Kendi. “Is the child here in the Dream?”
“I sensed a brief presense,” Kendi said. “And as far as I can tell, no one else has sensed the kid at all. I’m the only one.”
“Keep watching. If the child turns up again, try to narrow the trail. It’ll take decades to search all of Rust. I want this wrapped up in a few weeks.”
“Unfair,” Kendi protested. “No one else could even narrow it down to a single planet in the time I did. You can’t complain that—”
“It wasn’t a judgement, Kendi,” Ara interrupted. “Just an observation. You did well. Right now, I want you two to talk the Silent on Rust. We need information, and they’re our best bet.”
“Way ahead of you,” Kendi said, mollified. “I sent my sister to scout them out.”
Gretchen shuddered. “That creeps me bad. If your little creature didn’t come back, you’d be brain damaged.” She sniffed. “Not that we’d notice.”
“Enough, children,” Ara said pointedly. “We have work.”
Kendi bowed slightly, hand on his disk. “Yes, Mother Adept. This humble Child of Irfan begs your—”
“Shut up and listen,” Ara growled. “You too, Gretchen. I want you both to sniff around the Rustic Silents, find out what the current situation on the planet is. Kendi, did you read those files?”
Kendi looked sheepish. “I’ve been busy.”
“The Empire of Human Unity invaded sixteen years ago,” Gretchen replied primly. “It conquered Rust in seven months. It dropped a bunch of bio-weapons to soften the populace and generally shot the place up until some of the powerful governments cried ‘uncle.’ Those governments were allowed to keep power provided they stomped on their neighbors. Standard Unity tactic. The holdout governments got mad at the ones that caved, which made it easier for the Unity—the Rustics started fighting among themselves.”
“I did read that much,” Kendi said in a peevish tone. He perched on the smooth lip of the fountain. “I didn’t see anything about Rust’s economy, though. Have they recovered from the Unity takeover? If they haven’t, the slave market will be really tight.”
Gretchen shrugged. “They’re still in a recession. The Unity imposes artificial restrictions on trade, and it’s siphoning away resources through heavy taxes. That hurts. I’d bet a year of your stipend—”
“—that we’ll have to hunt for this kid in at least three fields.”
“Free citizens, legitimate slaves, and black market slaves?” Ara hazarded.
Gretchen nodded. Behind her, an orange thumped softly to the grass. “I just hope this kid is a legitimate slave. It’d make everything a hell of a lot easier.”
“Buying a slave would be easiest,” Ara agreed. “But we may have to persuade a free person to come with us or even track a kidnap victim through the black market. That’s where you come in, Kendi.”
“I live to serve.”
Ara rounded on him. “Kendi, I’m in no mood,” she snapped. “I barely talked us out of being destroyed by Unity security, I have to impersonate a master trader, and we have to find this rogue Silent before the Unity or one of the corporations does. I have no patience for smart remarks and slapstick jokes. Is that clear, Brother Kendi?”
Her sudden fury hit him like a slap. Kendi nodded, abashed. Gretchen smirked.
“All right, then.” Ara settled her robes. “Once we get down there, Kendi, I want you nosing around the seamier parts of town. But. Stay. Out. Of. Trouble.”
“Yes, Mother,” Kendi said meekly.
Another orange fell from the tree. It squished when it hit the ground. Kendi glanced at it in surprise. Black mold was growing on it. Kendi blinked. That was strange. He’d never seen anything like it in Ara’s garden before.
“Gretchen,” Ara continued, not noticing the orange, “I want you to check the legitimate slave markets.”
Gretchen nodded. “What’ll you be doing?”
“I need to report to the Empress,” Ara replied. “Then I’ll be pumping bureaucrats. You two get started while I’m doing that.”
“Yes, Mother,” Gretchen said.
Kendi, still staring at the orange, realized Ara was waiting for an answer and he had to scramble to remember what she had said.
“Kendi?” she said dangerously.
“Check the seamier parts of town,” he said. “Get started while you talk to the Empress.”
He was about to mention the orange when a falcon screamed overhead. Kendi held out his arm. The falcon landed, and new knowledge instantly flooded his mind. For a moment there were two of him, one standing next to a burbling fountain, the other perched on a wiry forearm.
“Did she—you—find Rustic Silent?” Gretchen asked.
Kendi nodded, and the falcon duplicated the movement. For a moment he lost his balance, then regained it as the disorientation passed. He flung his arm up, tossing the falcon to the skies. She beat her wings to gain altitude, then circled overhead.
“I’ll let her lead you to them,” Kendi said. “We’ll go through my turf, all right?”
“Why can’t you just take us to them directly?” Gretchen grumbled.
Kendi shook his head. He knew that distance had no meaning in the Dream. He knew that the need to walk to other “places” through his own Outback was purely artificial. All this his conscious mind knew. It seemed, however, that his subconscious held more sway.
“Sorry,” he said, rising. “That’s the best I can do.”
“Just make sure you conjure me some decent clothes, then,” Gretchen told him. “I’m not going on a nude walkabout.”
“Be careful,” Ara cautioned.
“I’ll make sure we’re wearing clean underwear,” Kendi said solemnly, and trotted off before Ara could reply. Gretchen scrambled to follow while the falcon flew ahead. Kendi heard a heavy sigh from Ara before the fountain disappeared behind them and he smiled quietly to himself.
A moment later, the landscape changed back to the scrubby plain. Hard heat and sunlight beat down from the cloudless sky. Kendi’s clothes melted away until he wore only a loincloth, and that only because he knew Gretchen didn’t want to see him naked. Gretchen’s robe reformed itself into a khaki explorer’s outfit, complete with pith helmet and hiking boots. They walked in silence, following the falcon toward the Silent on Rust. After a moment Kendi realized he hadn’t mentioned the rotten orange to Ara. He paused to turn back.
“Now what?” Gretchen asked, annoyed.
Kendi glanced in the direction of Ara’s garden, then resumed walking. Ara was already in a bad mood. There was no point in making it worse. He could ask her about it later.
A Novel of the Silent Empire
by Steven Harper
$2.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-112-2