by Steven Harper
“Playing games helps children learn to live by rules and learn the difference between fair play and exploitation.”
The game representative flashed a killer smile, and Father Kendi Weaver shifted uneasily in his office chair. Killer smiles always made Kendi uneasy.
“We’re offering generous terms,” the game rep continued earnestly. “A five hundred thousand freemark advance against three percent royalties on the first two million copies, four point five percent on every copy after that. You don’t have to offer anything but your endorsement. We do all the work—writing, developing, marketing. You just sit back and rake it in. Easy money. But we have to know now so we can get production moving, strike while the iron is hot.”
Kendi tapped his fingers on his desk and looked at the holographic models on the table in front of him. One was a representation of himself, a tall, dark-skinned man with tightly-curled hair, a flat nose, and a whipcord build. Australian Aborigine to the core, though Kendi preferred the term “Real People.” Next to Kendi’s hologram stood a model of Ben. He was shorter than Kendi, stocky, red-haired, and damned handsome, especially in the spring sunlight that streamed through the office window.
Kendi’s office was, like most offices at the monastery, small and cramped, with wood-paneled walls and a hardwood floor. To combat the lack of room, Kendi kept his space austere. His desk was bare, and there was only one chair for guests. The windowsill, which looked out into leafy talltree branches, had a precious few holograms on it—Ben and Kendi arm-in-arm on a beach, a motherly woman with dark hair, a representation of Real People cave paintings. A pair of pictures hung on the walls, both pen-and-ink drawings of Outback landscapes.
A third hologram waited to one side on Kendi’s desk. It portrayed a chesty blond woman, blue-eyed and beautiful. Kendi picked it up by the base.
“Who’s this supposed to be, Mr. Brace?” he asked. “She looks familiar, but I can’t place her.”
“Ah. That would be Sister Gretchen Beyer.”
Kendi almost dropped the hologram. “Gretchen?” he spluttered. “It looks nothing like her. What did you do, stuff balloons under her—”
“We had to modify her a little,” Tel Brace said smoothly. “After all, sim-game heroes are larger-than-life. People have expectations.”
“Anything that big would be more of a surprise than an expectation,” Kendi muttered. “Why do you have a workup of her in the first place? I mean, she was important to everything that happened during the Despair, but other people were more instrumental, you know?”
“She’s your romantic alternate.”
Kendi blinked. “Come again?”
“Part of the sim-game involves a romantic subplot,” Brace said. “This version allows the players a choice of partner—Ben or Gretchen.”
”A choice of partner.”
“We want to appeal to the broadest possible base,” Brace explained. His golden hair shone in the sunlight, and a part of Kendi wondered if HyperFlight Games had chosen Brace to approach Kendi because of his good looks. “There will certainly be a segment of players—male and female—who will be more interested in playing up a romance with a woman, and we have to meet that need. It’s a standard development tactic.”
“I see. What did Gretchen have to say about this?”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss Sister Gretchen’s negotiations, Father. I’m sorry.”
“What are you going to call this game again?”
“ ‘Dream and Despair.’ Marketing predicts it’ll be one of the biggest sellers in all history, rivaling even ‘The Siege of Treetown.’ You and your family will be set for life, Father. All you have to do is sign and watch the freemarks roll in.”
Kendi toyed with the hologram in his hands. Dream and Despair. An apt title. The galaxy had once been dependent on the Dream, a telepathic plane of existence that only telepaths known as the Silent could reach. Within the Dream, language and distance were no barrier to communication. In a galaxy where faster-than-light travel was cheap and faster-than-light communication was impossible, the Silent had become essential, allowing governments, corporations, and other entities to maintain quick communication with outlying branches, subsidiaries, and colonies.
Then came the Despair. Terrible forces had torn the Dream asunder, and the Silent found themselves exiled from its haven. Bereft of the Dream’s touch, many Silent became despondent, even suicidal. Kendi, Ben, Gretchen, and several others had been caught in the maelstrom of the Despair, and they had managed to keep the Dream from self-destruction, but only barely. Now only a tiny handful of Silent could enter the Dream, and the place had become a near-wasteland. Unable to communicate with their allies and subsidiaries, governments and corporations plunged into chaos. Many fell apart or went bankrupt. Some rulers grabbed power, others abandoned it. The Empress Kan maja Kalii, ruler of the Independence Confederation had, for example, disappeared without a trace.
Now a company called HyperFlight Games wanted to make a history sim-game out of it all, with Kendi as the hero.
Part of Kendi was flattered. The rest of him was suspicious. Tel Brace had a low, smooth voice and an earnest manner, both of which flared Kendi’s nostrils. He also recognized the elements of a good con game—a demand for a quick decision, smooth explanations, overly friendly demeanor—and he gave Tel Brace a mental salute, one con artist to another.
“I’ll need time to think about it,” Kendi said, still holding the Gretchen hologram. “Consult with some people, sniff around, you know. Leave me a copy of the offer and I’ll get back to you.”
“I don’t know how long I can keep the offer open,” Brace said, racking up another con game point on Kendi’s mental tally. “The boss is riding me, you know?”
“I’m sure,” Kendi said. Now he’ll take me into his confidence, he thought. Make me feel sorry for him.
“Tell the truth,” Brace continued conspiratorially, “I’m really hoping you can help me out. The economy is still bad after the Despair, and I haven’t been able to seal any decent contracts in months. I’m worried about my kids. Things got even rougher after their mother left. Do you have children, Father?”
“Not yet,” Kendi said, and held up his comp-unit. “I need time to consider your offer, Mr. Brace, so please zap me the terms. I have a lot to do today.”
Brace managed a weak grin, one completely unlike the mega-watt version he had used earlier. “Right. Here it is, then.” He aimed his own comp-unit at Kendi’s. A green light flashed on each, indicating a successful data transfer. Brace stood up and held out his hand. Kendi rose to shake it. Brace’s grip was dry and firm.
“Keep the holograms as our gift, Father,” Brace said. “I hope to do business with you soon.”
After the man left, Kendi checked his messages. His public box was crammed. Four offers for speaking engagements. Sixteen requests for information about himself. Eighteen sales pitches. Twelve requests to let someone write his biography. Thirty-five people writing to say they appreciated what he had done for the Dream. Forty nasty letters asking why he hadn’t simply let the Dream die. Nine marriage proposals. Two death threats. And over a hundred solicitations for more…personal services.
Kendi forwarded the death threats to the Guardians, deleted the rest, and called up the Hyperflight Games agreement to skim. His brow furrowed. Was he reading it right? According to the contract, he would have no input on the final version of the game. Hyperflight would also have the right to use his name and likeness for any advertising they liked, whether it related to the game or not, and the agreement lasted one hundred years after Kendi’s death. The royalties, meanwhile, came off the net profits, not the gross take. Kendi narrowed his eyes. No sim-game, movie, or music feed had ever made a profit, and the companies employed teams of accountants to prove it.
Kendi sighed and shut the comp-unit off. As the display winked out, his eye fell on the holograms lined up on the desk, and a thought occurred to him. A bit of rummaging in a drawer turned up a small scanner, which he ran over the base of each hologram. When he reached Ben’s hologram, the scanner beeped once. Kendi glanced at the readout and shook his head with a tight smile. He looked at Ben’s holo for a long moment, then tapped his earpiece. “Ben,” he said. His earpiece started to connect the call, but Kendi interrupted the connection with another tap, stopping the call entirely. He waited a moment in silence, then spoke to the empty air.
“Hey, Ben, it’s me. Fine. Uh huh. Well, I just met with the sim-game guy. The offer looks pretty good, I think, but I’m a little unsure. What’s the savings account like? Oh. Did you talk to the bank about the home improvement loan for the nursery? Oh. That bad? What about that contract job you were bidding on? You’re kidding! They gave it to who? All life, we needed that money. What kind of assholes would—yeah, I know. Okay. Well, maybe this sim-game offer is just what we need then. I’ll see you when I get home.”
With that, Kendi pocketed his comp-unit, exited the office building, and walked straight into a demonstration parade.
Most of the participants were human, though a substantial number were Ched-Balaar. They carried signs, both placard and holographic. FOXGLOVE AND THE FEDERALS: OUR FRIENDS! FOXGLOVE STANDS FOR JOBS! VOTE FOR FOXGLOVE AND FEED MY FAMILY! FOX ‘EM MITCH! THE CHILDREN OF IRFAN EAT WHILE MY CHILDREN STARVE! The holographic signs were decorated with images of a man with dark hair and broad, handsome features.
The humans in the group were poorly dressed. Their patched clothes hung on them as if they had lost weight. The Ched-Balaar had a scruffy, disheveled look, and there was dust in their fur. One human woman had two small girls at her side. Both were thin and ragged, and they looked at Kendi with quiet eyes. He put a hand on the gold medallion he wore around his neck, the one that marked him as a Child of Irfan. Their mother followed their gaze and caught sight of Kendi in his loose brown robes. Her jaw firmed and she raised her sign as the procession marched past. Kendi wanted to do something for her, give her money or the jade ring he wore. But her face was hard and he knew such a gesture would only make her angry. A human voice broke into song. Immediately the Ched-Balaar joined in, chattering their teeth in rhythmic counterpoint. The procession came to a halt as everyone sang.
We all are prisoners of starvation
Fighting for emancipation!
We call upon each city-nation,
One union grand.
Little ones cry for bread
With their parents cold and dead.
The Federals lead us from this dread!
It’s our final stand.
A dark-skinned woman in dreadlocks and a hand-knit scarf climbed up on a balcony rail. She raised a placard that said OPEN MINDS FOR OPEN MINES. Several of the holographic signs in the procession erased themselves and called up new text. WE CAN MINE RESPONSIBLY. WE AREN’T CHILDREN—LET US WORK! A MINE IS A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE.
“We are sitting on unimaginable wealth,” the woman shouted. “Bellerophon is rich in metal—gold, silver, iron, uranium, and more! And yet our people starve. How did we let this happen?”
Cheers of agreement roared through the talltree leaves.
“Our ancestors thought they were being wise when they laid the restrictions on mining and farming and talltree harvesting,” the woman shouted. “Perhaps were. Perhaps they preserved the environment. But that was almost a thousand years ago, and times have changed. We are responsible adults, not children. We can mine the planet’s resources without causing harm. Mining and farming and harvesting would mean jobs for the people!” More cheers. “Food for our children!” Cheers. “Security for everyone!” Cheers. “Mitchell Foxglove and the Federals opposed the mining restrictions long before the Despair, and he opposes them now. The Unionists and the Populists supported the restrictions, and look where it got us—frozen, starving, and afraid. Foxglove needs our vote, and we have to give it to him. Foxglove! Foxglove! Foxglove!”
The procession took up the chant of Foxglove’s name and started marching again. The dreadlocked woman jumped down to join them. Protesters both human and Ched-Balaar continued along the office building walkway and tromped down a wide wooden staircase that wound around a talltree trunk. One of the little girls threw Kendi a last glance before marching out of sight.
Kendi sighed and released his medallion. The edges had dug furrows in his palm. How could he possibly get het up about a sim-game contract when people staved within ten meters of his office door? He privately decided to donate a portion of the sim-game proceeds to a charity that helped the hungry. Maybe the First Church of Irfan. Orphans and other needy people fell under their bailiwick.
The last of the procession cleared the walkway, and the Blessed and Most Beautiful Monastery of the Children of Irfan went back to moping through a crisp spring afternoon. The small audience that had gathered to watch the march drifted away like limp petals on a tired wind. Some were brown-robed monks—Children of Irfan—and others were lay people who worked for the monastery, though these days there were fewer and fewer jobs. Although most of the people were human or Ched-Balaar, a fair number of other species fed into the mix as well, and the air was filled with the quiet chatter of human voices, the muted clatter of Ched-Balaar tooth-talk, and the squeaks, squawks, and quacks of other species. Gondola cars strung on overhead cables coasted by, and a monorail train snaked between the massive talltree branches. Beneath the monastery’s swaying walkways lay the dizzying drop to Bellerophon’s forest floor over a hundred meters below. Overhead, the sun’s great golden eye hung in a field of perfect blue, and the air smelled of green leaves.
Kendi leaned on a heavy wooden railing and looked out over the arboreal monastery. A man and a woman in brown robes passed Kendi by, their voices barely audible. A teenage boy walked in silence with a being that looked like a giant caterpillar, and their steps dragged. Kendi sympathized. Before the Despair, all the monks at the monastery had been Silent, able to enter the Dream. After the Despair, only a tiny handful had retained their Silence. For the Silent, exile from the Dream was like being struck blind or deaf. Not everyone had adjusted well.
A gentle tap on Kendi’s shoulder made him turn. Behind him stood Ched-Hisak, one of the equinoid Ched-Balaar. Like all of his species, the Ched-Hisak was the size of a small horse. Hay-colored fur covered a stocky body and four legs that ended in heavily-clawed feet. A thick, sinuous neck rose between two muscular arms that ended in four-fingered hands. His head was flat, with wide-set brown eyes and a lipless mouth filled with shovel-like teeth. His forehead sported a small hole just above and between his eyes. His forelegs were thicker and sturdier than the shorter hind legs, which gave a downward slant to the Ched-Balaar’s back. One finger sported a green jade ring similar to Kendi’s.
“Ched-Hisak,” Kendi said with a warm smile, and held out both hands, palms up.
Father Ched-Hisak placed his hands over Kendi’s and gripped his wrists in greeting. His palms felt like warm suede. Ched-Hisak opened his mouth and his teeth clattered in a complex rhythm punctuated by occasional soft hooting sounds from the nasal opening between his eyes. Half a lifetime of living among the Ched-Balaar let Kendi understand the language perfectly, though he had no hope of reproducing it.
“I wish to make you an invitation,” Ched-Hisak chattered after exchanging a few pleasantries. “It is time for Ched-Nel and Ched-Pek to leave the den, and it would please me much if you and Ben attended the ceremony.”
Kendi blinked and suppressed a small gasp. “It would be an honor!” he said. “But Ched-Hisak—are you sure you want us there? I’ve never known the Ched-Balaar to ask aliens to attend a Leaving for their ch—for their younger family members.”
Ched-Hisak dipped his head once. “You and Ben have been good and kind friends to me and my family for a long time, and it is my wish that you attend.”
“Then we’ll definitely come,” Kendi said. “When and where?”
“Four days from now in our home. We begin at noon. I have hope it will be a fine and festive occasion in a difficult time.”
“We could use some festivity,” Kendi sighed.
“It has been a difficult eight months,” Ched-Hisak chattered. “Our entire civilization was based on every one of us learning to reach the Dream. Now that has been taken from us.”
Kendi placed a hand on Ched-Hisak’s flank. “I’m sorry. I’ve been so busy running around putting out fires for the monastery that I haven’t had time to think about what the Despair means for your people.”
“I cannot find fault with you, Kendi,” Ched-Hisak said mildly. “You are the reason the Dream still exists, limited though it is. In any case, there is nothing you personally could have done. We Ched-Balaar have gone from Silent to Silenced. That is the way of it.”
“Except it was humans that nearly destroyed the Dream in the first place,” interrupted a third voice. “Our ancestors should never have brought humanity into the Dream in the first place. Now we are repaid for our kindness with exile and despair.”
A second Ched-Balaar had approached. This one was a little shorter than Ched-Hisak, with paler fur and startling violet eyes. She wore no monastery ring, and a swirling, curlicue pattern had been shaved into her pelt.
“Ched-Putan,” said Ched-Hisak. “Your words only cause anger, and they solve no problems. Why are you here? The demonstration has already passed by.”
Ched-Putan waved a hand. “There are so many demonstrations and marches, it is impossible to be anywhere without seeing one. The people—our people—have time to demonstrate because they have no jobs.”
“More rhetoric,” Ched-Hisak said. “What do you want here, in this place at this time?”
“I have come to meet with the Council of Irfan. I will talk with the Ched-Balaar who walk with the Children.”
Kendi’s eyes widened. Ched-Putan had used the actual word for children. The Ched-Balaar used that term only rarely. In fact, the Ched-Balaar term for the monastery’s people technically translated as the Family of Irfan, though everyone mentally translated it as the Children of Irfan. The Ched-Balaar, meanwhile, pretended that the human word child meant young family member. Kendi himself had heard a Ched-Balaar use the term children only once or twice in his entire life.
Ched-Hisak raised his head high, and his fur stood up in outrage. “Ched-Putan, your rhetoric takes you too far. You use offensive language and anger all those who hear you.”
“That is my wish,” Ched-Putan responded. “Our people have been too mild for too long. The Dream is empty, kinsman, and you do not see that this is our chance to reclaim it.”
“We can preserve the Dream for the Ched-Balaar,” Ched-Putan said. “It is nearly empty now, and we must prevent the other species, especially the humans, from finding it again. Mitchell Foxglove is a human, but he agrees with us, and when he wins the upcoming election—”
Kendi waved a hand in front of Ched-Putan’s face. “Hello! Human standing right here. Silent human.”
“And look what Silence did to your people,” Ched-Putan said, rounding on him. “It made you a commodity. Your own species kidnaps you, treats you like animals for breed and for sale. When the slavers destroyed your childhood, Father Kendi, did you find yourself grateful for the ‘gift’ of Silence?”
Kendi’s jaw tightened. He was about to snarl at Ched-Putan when a warm hand on his shoulder restrained him.
“There is no point in arguing with this person,” Ched-Hisak said. “You will not change her mind, and she will not change yours. Your words will matter for nothing.”
Kendi fought his temper and finally beat it back. Ara would have been proud. Still, he couldn’t resist saying, “You’re right. As much try to persuade a maggot not to eat rotten meat.”
“Insults only show a lack of intelligence,” Ched-Putan said.
“If that’s your only way of calling me stupid,” Kendi shot back, “you come up pretty light on the IQ scale yourself.”
He turned his back and marched away before Ched-Putan could reply. A scrape of claws on the wooden walkway told him Ched-Hisak had followed. They walked in silence for a long moment. Then Ched-Hisak said, “I feel I should apologize on behalf of my species.”
Kendi shook his head. “Not all Ched-Balaar are like her.”
“Perhaps not all,” Ched-Hisak said. “But certainly a growing number. Almost every member of my species was Silenced by the Despair, and they want to blame someone. Just as the humans who have lost friends and family and jobs to the Despair want to blame someone. The Freedom Confederation Party—and Mitchell Foxglove—is capitalizing on that.”
“Keep the species separate,” Kendi said. “I’ve heard the rhetoric. It makes me sick. What do they think, that after all this time, Bellerophon will splinter into enclaves based on planet of origin?”
“Stranger and more frightening things have become law. Slavery, for example.”
Kendi pursed his lips. “You have a point,” he said. “I should know that people don’t change. Not even after a thousand years.”
“They don’t change,” Ched-Hisak agreed. “They are evil, cruel, misguided, and absurd. They are also brave, noble, kind, and giving. We have to find the latter qualities while we fight the former, and it would be foolish to expect anything else.”
Kendi reached up and placed his hands on either side of Ched-Hisak’s face in a sign of affection. “I know. Thanks. And thank you for the invitation.”
They parted company, and Kendi’s feet took him toward home. Before he got much further, his ocular display flashed. A high-priority message was waiting for him. Kendi tapped his earpiece.
“Display message on ocular implant,” he said. His eyes tracked back and forth as text scrolled across his retina, and a smile broke out on his face. “Well, what do you know?”
Ben Rymar sat on the floor and stared at the holograms on his coffee table. The first showed a pretty woman, with pointed features and a long brown braid. She wore a form-fitting jumpsuit with a small captain’s insignia at the shoulder. The other hologram portrayed a short, stocky man. His straw-blond hair and enormous blue eyes gave him a boyish look. A handsome guy. Ben puffed out his cheeks and held up a hand mirror so he could compare his reflection with the hologram’s. His hair was sunset red, but Ben and the man shared the same long jaw, the same stocky build, the same square features. Their eyes were the same shade of blue.
There was something of the woman in Ben’s face as well. Ben made mental comparisons. Same eye shape, same mouth, same nose.
Ben set the mirror down and drew his knees up to his chest. The base of the woman’s hologram was inscribed with the words IRFAN QASAD. The base of the man’s hologram said DANIEL VIK. They had died almost a thousand years ago, and they were his parents.
He sat on the hardwood floor for a long time, trying to wrap his mind around this impossible concept. Irfan Qasad. Captain of the colony ship that brought humans to the planet Bellerophon. First human to speak to the alien Ched-Balaar. First human to accept the Ched-Balaar’s gift of Silence and enter the Dream. Founder of the Blessed and Most Beautiful Monastery of the Children of Irfan.
Daniel Vik. Yeoman to Captain Qasad and eventually her husband. Second human to enter the Dream. Father of Irfan’s children. Genocidal maniac who had tried to murder every Silent on Bellerophon.
Ben got up and went to the kitchen, poured himself a tall, tart glass of juice and took it out onto the balcony that ringed the house. The early spring sun had finally chased away the heavy winter clouds. Voices, both human and Ched-Balaar, chattered, clattered, and hooted in the distance. Beyond the balcony stretched the talltree forest, with its hundred-meter trees above and giant lizards below. Neighboring houses peeked out from the branches one tree over. The original colonists of Bellerophon had taken to the trees to escape the local lizards—inevitably dubbed “dinosaurs”—and their Treetown descendants had never gone back to the ground. Some of the structures, built of iron-hard talltree wood, were reputed to date back to the time of Irfan Qasad herself.
Irfan Qasad. Ben set the juice glass on the balcony rail. The news felt unreal, as if it had come to someone else, as if—
“You are brooding,” said a voice behind him. Ben spun, upset the glass, and caught it just before it fell over the rail. Juice spattered the leaves below.
“Harenn,” he yelped. “You scared the life out of me.”
“Perhaps I should scare some life into you,” said Harenn Mashib. She was leaning against the door jamb, her dark eyes half-closed, her arms folded. At her feet lay a star-shaped piece of computer equipment. “I knocked, but no one answered.”
“I didn’t hear.”
“You hear very little lately,” she observed. “Kendi has noticed, you know. He asks about you, wants to know if I have any idea what bothers you, and then I have to lie and tell him I know nothing. I dislike lying to him, Ben, especially about something so important.”
“Straight to the point,” Ben grimaced. “And pulling no punches.”
“You have to tell him.”
“I will,” Ben protested. “I just…it hasn’t been the right time.”
“This begs the question of when the right time will come.”
Ben sighed and boosted himself up to sit on the balcony rail. Harenn remained in the doorway. She was a shortish, pretty woman whose choice of clothing ran to voluminous, and she covered her hair with a blue head scarf.
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “How do you say something like this? ‘Hey, love, I just thought you ought to know that Harenn found out who my biological mother is. Can you believe it’s Irfan Qasad?’ Sure.”
Harenn picked up the bit of equipment and brought it over to the balcony. “That information will not change Kendi’s feelings for you. And it does not change who you are.”
A crisp spring breeze ruffled Ben’s hair. He took the cryo-unit from Harenn’s hands and stared down at it. The information didn’t change who he was. The problem was, he didn’t know who he was. Or maybe it was that he did know.
System lights blinked in a familiar pattern across the readout. Ben knew the cryo-unit itself wasn’t a thousand years old, unlike the embryos frozen inside. Those embryos were mere clumps of tiny cells, yet they managed to raise countless questions. Why had Daniel Vik and Irfan Qasad created them? Who had stolen them away? Why had the thief later abandoned them?
Ben knew part of the story, of course. Ara Rymar, on a mission for the Children of Irfan, had found a derelict ship orbiting a gas giant. A brief examination had proven the ship empty except for the cryo-unit. Back on Bellerophon, Ara decided she wanted a child of her own and had one of the embryos implanted in her womb. Nine months later, Ben came into the world, red hair, blue eyes, and all.
Although a simple scan had revealed that all the embryos were Silent, Ara had never bothered to run a full genetic comparison on Ben or his frozen siblings. No point. The derelict ship had been nowhere near Bellerophon, and it seemed unlikely such a scan would reveal any relatives at the monastery.
After Ara’s death, however, Ben had gained custody of the cryo-unit and its contents, and once he and Kendi had decided they wanted children together, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to turn to the cryo-unit and tiny riches within.
Ben had always wanted to raise his brothers and sisters as his own children, wanted it with an ache so intense it sometimes awoke him late at night when the only sounds were Kendi’s deep breathing and the secret cry of unborn infants.
Kendi, however, had been less poetic and more practical. Unknown to Ben, he had asked Harenn to run a full genetic comparison to make absolute sure everything was all right with the embryos. The results had wrenched Ben into a strange and different universe, one where truth hung above him like hungry sword.
“I am tiring of lying at your request, Ben,” Harenn said. “I lied to Kendi when I told him that the database yielded no parental matches. I lied to him when he asked me if I knew what was bothering you. Lucia has joined in these lies, and she finds it a strain because she still holds the famous Father Kendi Weaver in awe, and she fears what will happen when he learns she has concealed the truth from him.”
Lucia dePaolo. Ben ran his fingers over the familiar shape of the cryo-unit. Lucia and Harenn had volunteered to be host mothers for the embryos, and Lucia had been present when Harenn had broken the news to Ben.
“You are causing your beloved great pain with this secret,” Harenn said, “because he believes you are unhappy about something. You must tell him so his pain will end.”
“It’s not that easy, Harenn,” Ben protested. “If this information gets out, do you know what will happen to me? To them?”
“Tell me what you think will happen.”
“Devastation,” Ben said bitterly. “God, Harenn—Irfan Qasad is the most famous human being in all history. She changed society across the universe. Without her, humans would never have entered the Dream. People have built religious cults around her. Hell, Harenn—Lucia and her family worship Irfan as a goddess.”
“They worship her as a mortal incarnation of divinity,” Harenn corrected gently.
“You know what I mean,” Ben said. “If this came out, half the universe would show up on the doorstep to have a good gawk, a quarter would probably want to kidnap me and the children for study or worship or whatever, and the last quarter would probably try to…” He waved a hand.
“Assassinate you,” Harenn finished. “Because Daniel Vik was your father. Or because some people like to target the famous.”
“It won’t affect just me. It’ll affect the kids. They’re Irfan’s children, too, and they’ll get the same attention. And I don’t want to be famous. It scares me, Harenn. Enough people already know who I am and what I did during the Despair. Everyone calls me a hero. They stare in public and they ask questions and I hate it. I don’t want this for me, and I don’t want it for our kids.”
“I still fail to see the problem,” Harenn said. “Telling Kendi is not like telling the world. He would not give the secret away if you didn’t wish it. Kendi will be the father of these children, Ben. Perhaps not biologically, but certainly in all ways that matter, just as Ara was your mother in all ways that matter. He deserves to know.”
“I know,” Ben sighed. “Every time I try to say the words, they won’t come. And no, I don’t want you or Lucia to tell him.”
“You have a deadline,” Harenn said. She took the cryo-unit from him. “By the end of the week, my body will be ready to receive your first child. I will not go through the procedure if Kendi remains ignorant of the baby’s nature.”
A door slammed inside the house and a voice called, “Ben?”
“Out here, Kendi,” Ben called back. Then, to Harenn, “Not now.”
“As you say,” Harenn replied. “But you have my opinion and my deadline.”
Before Ben could say more, Kendi strode out onto the balcony with an excited bounce in his step. Kendi favored the brown tunic and trousers often worn by the Children of Irfan, and the jade ring on his hand indicated he had reached the rank of Father. Like Ben, he was in his late twenties, but the excitement on his face made him look younger. Ben found himself sharing the excitement, even though he didn’t know what it was about. Kendi could still do that to him, communicate a mood by his very presence. Ben liked that. He kissed Kendi hello, then backed up a step. Kendi’s eye fell on the cryo-unit in Harenn’s hands and his face went tight.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“We were discussing parenthood,” Harenn said, “and I was using a visual aid. No need for alarm.”
“All right, out with it,” Ben commanded, changing the subject.
“Out with what?” Kendi said innocently.
“There’s something you’re dying to tell me,” Ben persisted, “so go ahead.”
“Sound advice,” Harenn murmured. Ben shot her an alarmed look, but Kendi was too excited to notice. “And what is this news, then?”
“You should check your messages, Ben,” Kendi said. “Grandma is running for Governor.”
Ben stiffened. Then his knees went weak, and he grabbed the balcony for support. “Grandma” Salman Reza was actually Ben’s grandmother, not Kendi’s, but she had pressed Kendi into using the designation as well.
“Are you all right?” Kendi asked, taking Ben’s elbow. “It can’t be that much of a shock. All life—she’s been talking about it for weeks.”
“I was just hoping she wouldn’t go through with it,” Ben said. “I’m okay. God, I didn’t even know she’d come back home.”
“Gonna be a fun ride,” Kendi observed. “We’ll be famous. Again.”
“Yeah,” Ben muttered. “Famous.”
“I must be going,” Harenn said diplomatically. “Bedj-ka will be home from his playmate’s house any moment and I must start supper.” She gave Ben the cryo-unit and a hard look, then withdrew. A group of laughing children thundered past the house on a wooden walkway. Tiny glider lizards chittered among the leaves above Ben’s head. Ben didn’t speak, merely stared over cryo-unit and balcony rail into Treetown. Cloth rustled as Kendi moved to stand beside him. After a long moment, he rested his dark hand on Ben’s light one.
“I should’ve realized,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset.”
“Liar.” Kendi’s voice was gentle. “She hasn’t made the official announcement yet, you know. You might be able to talk her out of it.”
“I’d have better luck telling a carnosaur to go vegetarian,” Ben snorted. “If she wins, we’ll be part of Bellerophon’s first family. Or don’t grandchildren count as firsts?”
“Dunno.” He squeezed Ben’s hand. “Is this all that’s upsetting you?”
“What do you mean?” Ben asked, though he knew perfectly well.
Kendi sighed. “I know this is usually not the best way to approach you, love, but I don’t know what else to do. Most of the time I know you’ll tell me eventually. The quieter you get, the faster you say something. But this time…” Kendi shrugged. “It’s been almost a month since we got back from SA Station, and you’ve barely said a word except when I ask you a direct question. I’m getting scared. What’s wrong, Ben? Are you having second thoughts about becoming parents?”
The words died in Ben’s throat and he shut down. He sometimes envied Kendi’s easy use of words, the way he could blurt out whatever was on his mind. Ben knew what he wanted to say, knew he had to say it eventually. But his mouth wouldn’t form the words. It had been like this ever since he could remember. He stared down at the cryo-unit in his hands without speaking.
“Fine,” Kendi said at last, a note of anger in his voice. “Where do you want to order dinner from tonight? Can you at least tell me that?”
Ben’s stomach twisted. He hated it when Kendi got upset, hated it even more when it happened over something Ben himself had done. Was doing. Still, this was a question he could answer. “Maureen’s,” he muttered. “A number twelve for me.”
“Sure.” Kendi turned to go, his face hard as talltree wood. Ben’s mouth was completely dry and his hands were cold on the cryo-unit.
Say it, stupid, he ordered himself. Just open your mouth and say it.
The words still wouldn’t come. Kendi reached the balcony doors, his back rigid. Ben already knew what was coming. They would eat a tense dinner from take-out cartons, after which Kendi would prowl restlessly through the Dream while Ben hid in his computer workshop or lifted weights. Ben would go to bed early, Kendi would stay up late. Ben would stare sleeplessly at the ceiling until Kendi finally came in to bed, whereupon Ben would feign sleep, even though Kendi knew Ben was faking to avoid talk. This would go on until Ben finally told Kendi what was bothering him. These little spells were rare, but the pattern was always the same, and suddenly Ben hated it. What was he so worried about? Kendi had to know and Ben had to tell him. It was as simple as that. Still, he had to cough to get his voice to work.
“Kendi,” he said. “Wait.”
Kendi turned, his face expectant, yet uncertain.
“There is something going on. It’s not bad. At least, I don’t think it’s bad. But…” Ben took a deep breath. “I just don’t know how to tell you. It’s…it’s that…”
“Just say it, Ben. Hey, there’s nothing you can say that’ll make me love you any less. Blurt it out.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Ben clutched the star-shaped cryo-unit hard. The polymer was smooth, the corners sharp. Sometimes it seemed like he could hear eleven tiny voices calling to him, begging him to let them out. He wanted to. His mother had told him about his origins and about his frozen siblings as soon as he was old enough to understand, and Ben was glad of it. It had been obvious from the start that he was different. Mom’s entire family had ultimately sprung from the Middle East back on Earth, and Ben’s red hair stood out like a torch in the rain forest. Finding out why was a relief. Ben used to pretend his brothers and sisters were just sleeping, and one day they would wake up, ready to join his family. Now he had the chance to make fantasy into reality. First, however, he had to tell Kendi the truth.
“It’s kind of a family thing,” he began. “See, I learned—”
“Attention! Attention!” said the house computer. “Incoming call for Ben Rymar and Kendi Weaver. Caller requesting high priority. Attention! Attention! Incoming call for—”
“High priority?” Kendi interrupted. “Irene, who is calling?”
“Senator Salman Reza.”
“Isn’t she out of town?” Kendi said.
“We better take this,” Ben said, uncertain whether he was relieved or not. He strode into the living room and tapped one hardwood wall. “Irene, connect.”
The wall glowed briefly, and Salman Reza’s face appeared on the screen. She was eighty years old, but looked closer to sixty. Her face was round and only lightly lined, and thick salt-and-pepper hair made a firm helmet on her head. Her eyes were dark, and she was smiling. For a moment Ben saw his mother, Ara, on the screen, and a small lump came to his throat. Ara Rymar had died almost eight months ago, but grief still struck Ben from unusual directions. He did like Grandma Salman a great deal, though growing up he had usually seen her only at major holidays and family gatherings.
“Welcome home, Grandma,” Ben said. “What’s going on? We got your other message.”
“So you know I’m going to declare my candidacy,” Salman said. “I’m sure you’ve figured out that it’s going to have a big impact on this family, yes?”
Ben and Kendi both nodded. “It had crossed our minds,” Kendi said wryly. “Going to put yourself through the ringer, eh?”
“I live for pain, hon,” Salman said, equally wry. “But I think the Unionist Party is the best choice to lead Bellerophon right now.”
“And as head Unionist, that would put you in the Governor’s chair,” Ben said.
“By sheer coincidence,” Salman agreed, still smiling. “Which means we really need to have a family meeting, my ducks, and the sooner, the better. Dinner at my house tonight? Six o’clock. No need to dress.”
Ben checked his fingernail for the time. “We’ll barely make it.”
“I’ll send a flit. See you soon.” Her image vanished.
“No room for argument,” Kendi grinned. “No wonder she’s party chief.”
“We better hurry and dress,” Ben said, already moving toward the bedroom.
“What? But she said—”
“You know Grandma,” Ben interrupted. “When she says ‘no need to dress’ it only means you don’t have to wear formal robes and I don’t have to wear a tuxedo.”
Cora Haaseth, age ten, peered around the spiral slide. Nick was nowhere in sight, and the talltree branch they had designated as home base was in clear view. Cora narrowed her eyes. Nick played hide-and-seek to win. When he was It, he himself sometimes hid so he could guard his base from a safe vantage point, leap out, and tag anyone foolish enough to make a dash for home. Right now Cora couldn’t see him anywhere, and that made her suspicious.
A scattering of other kids played on the playground, filling the air with shrieks and yells. A series of platforms connected by rope ladders, stairs, ramps, and slides wound its way around the talltree. Swings and merry-go-rounds occupied some of the platforms, along with hopscotch courts, flimsy-ball loops, and catch-em bars. It was a pretty fun place, though Cora had the opinion that she was outgrowing it. Cora caught sight of Sammy Fishman, who was peeking out of a series of interconnected plastic tunnels. He looked ready to run for it. Cora nodded to herself. She could watch Sammy go first, let him spring any trap Nick might have set.
“Excuse me, young miss,” said a voice behind her. “Can you help us?”
Cora turned in surprise. A human man and woman stood behind her. The man was holding a small holographic image generator on his palm. Above the generator hovered the image of a puppy with big paws and floppy ears.
“What’s wrong?” Cora asked.
“We lost our puppy,” the woman explained. “And we need help finding him.”
“You have a puppy?” Cora said, fascinated. Bellerophon was a city of platforms and walkways, and dogs were difficult to care for in such an environment. Cats, which could be litter-trained, were easier to deal with. Cora’s family had two of them, in fact, but she had always wanted a puppy.
“He ran away,” the man said. He was tall and blond, and his blue eyes crinkled up when he smiled. “He’s probably hungry and scared. Have you seen him?”
Cora shook her head. Mom had warned her about talking to strangers, but these people were obviously nice. And they had lost a puppy.
“Maybe you can help find him,” the woman said. She had black hair. “If we give you a copy of the holo, you could show it to your friends.”
“Sure,” Cora said. “I’ll ask around.”
“Thanks,” the man said. “We’ve got copies of the holo over here. Come on—we’ll give you one.”
As Cora followed the couple away, she took a glance over her shoulder. Sammy Fishman had left the safety of his hiding place and was running for all he was worth toward home base. At the last moment, Nick jumped out from around a corner and tagged him. Cora smiled to herself, glad she’d been too smart to fall into that trap.