Trickster: Sample

Trickster - Silent Empire 3 by Steven HarperA Novel of the Silent Empire

by Steven Harper

Chapter One

“There is no greater fear than the possibility of losing a child.”

— Renna Dell, First Bellerophon Landing Party

Harenn’s chair crashed to the floor. Ben Rymar jumped, spilling most of his water glass down his front.

”God!” Harenn said from behind her veil. “We have left slipspace.”

”How did — ” Ben began, but Harenn had already left the galley. Ben scrambled to his feet to hurry after her, shedding bits of ice and swearing under his breath. His tunic clung cold and wet to his stomach.

”Hold on,” he protested, catching up. “How do you know we left slip?”

”The Poltergeist is a brand new ship and it still has minor bugs in the slipdrive,” Harenn said without slackening her pace. “A good engineer can feel the difference when it shuts down. I am an excellent engineer.”

”There’s still no big hurry. We have to negotiate landing privileges before we can even enter orbit. Five minutes won’t make a difference.”

”Perhaps not to you.” Harenn tapped her earpiece without breaking stride. “Father Kendi, I see we have left slipspace. Have we arrived at Klimkinnar or has something gone wrong?”

Ben quickly activated his own earpiece and checked the communication display on his ocular implant. A flick of his eye highlighted the proper channel and tuned him into the conversation.

”— lutely nothing has gone wrong, Harenn,” came Kendi’s familiar voice. “We’re about a thirty thousand kilometers out from Klimkinnar, right on schedule.”

”Half an hour to get there, then,” Harenn said to the empty air.

They reached the lift and hustled inside before the doors snapped shut. Although Ben couldn’t see anything of Harenn’s face except brown eyes above a blue veil, her entire body radiated impatience. A faint smell of bath powder hung about her. With a grimace, Ben pulled the front of his damp tunic away from his body and flapped it, trying to speed the evaporation as the lift rose.

”Apologies,” Harenn murmured.

”It’s just water,” Ben said. “Don’t worry, Harenn. We’ll get there and we’ll find your son.”

Harenn made no reply, but rushed onto the bridge the moment the doors opened, leaving Ben behind. He followed more slowly.

The bridge was an oval, with the captain’s chair in the center and a large viewscreen at one of the narrow ends. Individual workstations ringed the bulkheads. Two of them — the pilot board and the sensor board — were occupied. Everything was painted in soft blues and greens, and there were no angles anywhere. Even the doors had rounded corners. The place smelled of fresh paint. As Harenn had pointed out, the Poltergeist was new — large and well-appointed.

Seated in the captain’s chair, Father Kendi Weaver glanced up as Ben and Harenn entered. Kendi was Ben’s age — not quite thirty — but where Ben was short and stocky, Kendi was tall and thin, with dark skin, a broad nose, and tightly-curled black hair. Despite his relative youth, stress lines had cropped up around his eyes and on his forehead. A gold medallion glittered from a chain around his neck, and a green jade ring gleamed on his right hand. The former indicated that he was a Child of Irfan, the latter that he had reached the rank of Father. Harenn strode to his chair, though her eyes never left the viewscreen and its display of the planet. Like most human-inhabited worlds, Klimkinnar was blue and green with interesting swirls of clouds drifting through the atmosphere. A trio of moonlets danced their way through orbit while stars glittered on a velvety backdrop. The whole scene was very pretty.

It was also very big.

”So this is where my son is hidden,” Harenn breathed from behind her veil. “Where my son is a slave.”

”If Sejal’s information was correct,” Kendi said.

”I hope we can narrow things down a little,” Gretchen Beyer put in from the sensor boards. She was a tall, raw-boned woman with blue eyes, blond hair, and bland features that would blend easily into a crowd. The gold medallion around her neck matched Kendi’s, though her amber ring gave her rank as Sister.

”What do you mean?” Kendi asked.

”Database says Klimkinnar is thirteen thousand, fifty-five kilometers in diameter — a little bigger than Earth,” Gretchen said. “Surface area is seventy-odd percent water, but we’re still talking about three hundred and eighty million square kilometers.” She sniffed theatrically. “Might take a little time to search. More than eight weeks, that’s for sure, and that’s all we’ve got.”

”It isn’t that bad,” said Lucia dePaolo from the pilot console. “We can find ways to narrow it down. He’s got to be in an inhabited area, for one thing.”

”Population one point two billion,” Gretchen reported.

”But not all of them will be slaves,” Kendi countered.

”Slave population three point three million.”

”Shut up, Gretchen,” Lucia said.

”We will find him,” Harenn said with quiet finality. The dark eyes above her veil were filled with fierce determination. “And we will set him free.”

Ben, meanwhile, slid into his customary seat at the communication board beside Lucia’s pilot console. Communications had remained dead while the Poltergeist was slipping — only the Silent could communicate with ships in slipspace — but now the board leaped with activity. Ben automatically sifted through channels and frequencies to find out which ones carried what kind of information.

”I’ve already contacted the transportation authority,” Lucia told him. She was halfway between thirty and forty and had olive skin, shoulder-length black hair, and a lush body. Her fingers, however, were long and quick, marked by ragged nails and a fair number of white scars. She pronounced her name with a “ch” sound in the middle.

”Permission to orbit?” Ben asked.

”Granted, no problem,” Lucia said. “We’ll be there in twenty-four minutes.”

Ben glanced up. Klimkinnar continued to float on the viewscreen, attended by its three tiny moons. Ben wondered if the moonlets were colonized and if the group would have to search them for Bedj-ka as well. He hoped not. The Poltergeist, like all ships commanded by the Children, was only on loan from the monastery. Kendi had managed to get her for just nine weeks. It had taken four days of that time to reach Klimkinnar.

”All right, troops,” Kendi said, “we have to find one nine-year-old slave boy whose name has probably been changed to who-knows-what, and we need to do it in as little time as possible.”

”Sure,” Gretchen said. “Won’t take but a minute. After all, we have Bedj-ka’s age and gender, the name of the planet where he lives, and the fact that his father kidnapped him away from his mother when he was a baby — ” Harenn stiffened visibly beside Kendi’s chair “ — and sold him into slavery. With all that information, how can we help but find him?”

”Gretchen,” Kendi warned. “Thin ice. Skating. You.”

”Yeah, all right,” Gretchen said, relenting. “Look, we don’t know if he’s ever changed owners, or if Klimkinnar’s the only place where he’s lived, or anything else about him. Slave sales records are usually privileged information, so tracking him that way is going to be problematic at best.”

”Bedj-ka is Silent,” Harenn added firmly. “That will have an impact on where and when he was sold.”

Gretchen’s blue eyes glittered and Ben tensed for an explosion. “Yeah, well I’m supposed to be Silent, too,” she said. “What’s that prove? I haven’t touched the Dream in six months.”

”No, wait,” Lucia said. “It does have an impact. After the Despair, a lot of Silent — ”

”Most Silent,” Gretchen interrupted.

”Most Silent,” Lucia amended, “lost their ability to enter the Dream. If Bedj-ka was being raised and trained as a Silent slave but then suddenly lost his Silence, his value would have dropped. At minimum he wouldn’t be able to do his primary job, right?”

”What are you getting at?” Kendi asked, leaning forward.

”I think there’s a good chance Bedj-ka was sold after the Despair,” Lucia finished. “He would still be a perfectly good slave — sorry, Harenn — he just wouldn’t be Silent anymore. We should probably start with recent sales records, check for nine-year-old males. It’s a good… I mean it might be a good a place to start. Father.”

Kendi nodded and turned his attention toward Ben. “You’re the computer genius, Ben. What do you think? Is the information hackable?”

”We can probably get some data through social engineering,” Ben said. “Tricking people into telling us what we need to know, peering over shoulders to get passwords, that sort of thing. I can hack the networks directly too, but I won’t know how long that’ll take until I actually start working on it and find out how tight their security is.”

”Ballpark,” Kendi said. “We’re under a time limit, here.”

”Uh, a week to figure out who to hack?” Ben hazarded. “Probably another week to sneak in without getting caught and another two or three to search. That’s assuming Bedj-ka isn’t too hard to find in the first place.”

”All life,” Kendi muttered. “That’s three weeks, maybe four. We have to narrow it down. Otherwise we may not have enough time to find — ” He cut himself off.

Harenn touched his shoulder. “Father Kendi,” she said hesitantly, “if finding Bedj-ka will cost you the chance to find your own family, perhaps we should — ”

”No,” Kendi said. “Our mission is to find Bedj-ka.”

~Ben? Kendi?~

Ben stiffened at the voice in his head. Kendi’s eyes glazed over. The voice sounded familiar, but Ben, still new to the concept of Silent communication, didn’t immediately recognize it.

~We need to talk, guys,~ the voice said. ~In the Dream.~

”What’s up?” Gretchen demanded.

”It’s Sejal.” Kendi rose from his chair. “We’ll be in the Dream for a while, troops. Ben?”

Recognition clicked. The speaker was Sejal. A tang of anticipation burst into Ben as if he had bitten an unexpected orange. He bounced to his feet and followed Kendi from the bridge. Sejal was a Silent street kid Kendi had rescued and brought to Bellerophon just before the Despair ripped the Dream to pieces. Sejal had not only survived the Despair with his Silence intact, he had also sensed the general location of Harenn’s son Bedj-ka and of two members of Kendi’s missing family. If he needed to talk with Ben and Kendi, it was probably because he had narrowed something down. That could shorten their mission considerably.

”Are you sure we couldn’t get the ship for more time?” Ben asked, quickening his pace. The rounded, blue corridor was wide enough for Ben and Kendi to walk side-by-side. Walls curved down gently to meet the carpeted floor.

”I’m sure.” The strain lines on Kendi’s face tightened. “I’ve tried twice since we left to get an extension, but the Council won’t budge.”

”It’s not like we don’t deserve it,” Ben growled. “They wanted to give us a parade, remember? Heroes of the Despair, that’s us. I think they didn’t go through with it only because everyone was so damned busy.”

”That’s why we don’t have more time,” Kendi pointed out. “With all the ships drafted into courier work — ”

”Yeah, yeah. I know. We were lucky to get the Poltergeist for as long as we did.”

~Where do we meet, guys?~ Sejal’s mental voice interjected. ~Whose turf?~

”Mine,” Ben said as he and Kendi entered the lift. It hummed as they dropped smoothly downward. “I’m still not very good and finding people in the Dream, and it’ll be easier if you two come to me.”

”You should practice more,” Kendi chided, though his dark eyes carried no hint of rebuke. “And you should also comb your hair. It looks like a red haystack.”

”Who are you, my mo — my keeper?” Ben said.

”It’s definitely a zoo around here,” Kendi said. “Between the Council, Gretchen’s griping, the pressure Harenn’s been laying on me, and you turning into a loose cannon, it’s pretty — ”

”Hey!” Ben protested. “I’ve never been a loose anything!”

Kendi looked Ben’s body up and down with an appreciative grin. “Yeah. You do look pretty tight.” Ben flushed but managed to grin back. Kendi could still do that to him, make him feel embarrassed and empowered at the same time. Ben still liked it. When Kendi took command of the Poltergeist, Ben had wondered if it would feel strange receiving orders from him, but so far it had worked out fine. After all, Ben had once been under his own mother’s command. Maybe he was just used to taking orders from people he loved.

Now there’s a scary thought for the morning, he mused.

~Are you two coming into the Dream or are you just going to muck around being cute?~

”We’re coming, we’re coming,” Kendi said. He and Ben exited the lift and hurried down to their shared quarters.

As captain of the Poltergeist, Kendi — and therefore Ben — rated the largest set of quarters on board. Ben luxuriated in them like a cat caught in a sunbeam. The Post-Script, their previous ship, had been a cramped, tiny tub, with grimy beige deck plating and barely enough room to turn around in. Their quarters on this ship boasted separate living and sleeping rooms, a private bathroom, a kitchenette, and a small office area cluttered with Ben’s computer equipment. An adjustable-gravity workout machine occupied one corner and built-in shelves contained a scattering of bookdisks. The furniture was plain but comfortable. Klimkinnar and her moonlets created a spectacular view from the window. Precisely half the living room was a complete mess — clothes, disks, more computer parts, and something that looked like an erector set on steroids cluttered floor and furniture. The tidy half was Spartan by comparison, with a short, rubber-tipped red spear hanging on the wall as the only decoration. The setup was the compromise Ben and Kendi had created so they wouldn’t kill each other. Ben could trash one half of the living room and all of the office while Kendi kept the other half of the living room and the entire bedroom pristine. The kitchenette wasn’t an issue, since Ben, an aggressive non-cook, never set foot in the place.

Kendi took down the spear and pulled a dermospray cylinder from his pocket. Ben pursed his lips and rummaged through the stuff on the floor near the erector set. Kendi sighed and stripped off his clothes, leaving only a loincloth. Then he bent his left knee, slipped the spear under it as if it had become a peg-leg, and pressed the business end of the dermospray to his inner elbow. There was a hissing thump as the drug drove home. Kendi cupped his hands over his groin in the classic meditation pose of Kendi’s people, the Australian Aborigines. Kendi called them the Real People, and Ben sometimes wondered if that made Kendi a Real Person. He had never asked because he suspected the answer would involve a thwack to someplace tender.

”I’ll meet you in the Dream,” Kendi said. “And maybe now we should pause to mention how you could save yourself a lot of time by — ”

”Found it!” Ben said, triumphantly brandishing his own dermospray. “I’ll see you in there.”

Kendi shook his head and closed his eyes. Ben started for the bedroom, then paused to look at Kendi. As if sensing Ben’s proximity, Kendi opened his eyes again.

”What?” he said.

Ben reached out and ran the back of one finger down Kendi’s cheek. “You. You’re so different these days. Sometimes I don’t even know you.”

”What do you mean?” Kendi’s pupils were dilated from the effect of the drugs, but his voice sounded tense again.

”It’s not a bad thing,” Ben said hastily. “I just mean that you’ve become Mr. Responsibility lately, all we need some options and we’ll be in the Dream, troops. It’s so different from… before.”

”Before the Despair, you mean,” Kendi said in a slightly strained voice. “Everyone has to grow up some time. I guess it was just my turn.” He flashed a smile that went straight through Ben. “I’ll do something irresponsible after lunch just to keep you on your toes. How’s that?”

”Deal,” Ben laughed, heading for the bedroom again. Kendi closed his eyes, and Ben paused one more time to look at him. Although Kendi kept his voice and his words upbeat, Ben sensed his tension. If they didn’t get the Poltergeist back to the monastery in time, Kendi’s career would go straight down the recycling tube, hero or not, and Kendi would never command another mission. Ben swore to himself that he’d find a way to shorten the search and give Kendi enough time to find his own family after they located Harenn’s son.

Ben stretched out on the bed and turned the dermospray over and over in his hand. Such a weird situation. For Ben’s entire life, he’d been the only non-Silent in his family, the only one who couldn’t enter the Dream. His aunt, uncle, and cousins had made his life living hell, and although his mother had never said anything, Ben knew she had been disappointed. Then came the Despair and a quirk of fate that had not only gotten Ben into the Dream, but had torn his family out of it, leaving Ben the only true Silent among them.

He set the flat end of the dermospray to his inner elbow and pressed the button. The dermospray thumped and Ben closed his eyes to concentrate on making his breathing deep and even. His heartbeat slowed, and colors swirled across the darkness inside his eyelids. The small noises of the Poltergeist faded away. He was floating, drifting, bodiless amid whirling colors. Gradually he became aware of having hands and feet again. The colors faded and cleared, leaving Ben standing on a hard white floor in the center of a giant computer network. Organic data processing units reached up like fingers, their DNA matrices glowing green and blue. Magnetic fields pulsed, lights flashed, metal gleamed. Transmission lines and data portals opened in all directions around him, ready to transmit or receive.

It was Ben’s part of the Dream.

Despite a thousand years of study, no one knew exactly what the Dream was, though the prevailing theory held that it was a plane of mental existence created from the collective subconscious of every sentient mind in the universe. The Silent — people like Ben and Kendi — could actually enter the Dream, usually with a boost from a drug cocktail tailored to their specific metabolisms.

In the Dream distance meant nothing. Two Silent who entered the Dream could meet and talk, no matter where in the galaxy their bodies might be. The Silent could also shape the Dream landscape, form it into whatever environment they desired. Some Silent — Sejal, for one — could reach out of the Dream and talk to Silent who were in the solid world. And a few could actually possess the bodies of Silent in the solid world. Ben hadn’t learned to do any of this yet — shaping the landscape was as far as he could go — but he suspected it would come in time.

A few quiet voices whispered on the still air around the network. Kendi said the Dream used to be filled with thousands, even millions, of voices, but Ben had never experienced that. Ben had only been in the Dream once before the Despair, and then he hadn’t been paying much attention to details.

Ben automatically searched the network — his turf — for flaws. Looked solid. He concentrated a moment. The Dream swirled, and a computer terminal coalesced into being, one with a crisp and sharp holographic screen. Ben flipped through a series of images, checking security cameras and anti-virus programs. Everything was in order, and Ben sighed with satisfaction. This was a good place. A bit unorthodox, but a good place. Every Silent had his or her own turf, full of comfortable or soothing images among which to work. Many Silent created idyllic landscapes or fantastic castles for themselves, but Ben found comfort in his network, a locale where everything fell into place and made perfect sense, where any and every anomaly could be tracked down and explained.

A transmission line glowed blue and disgorged a koala bear. It landed not far from Ben’s feet, bounced twice, and skidded to a halt. After recovering its balance, it glanced around the network room with a small whuff of disapproval.

”Tough,” Ben grinned. “This is my turf, not yours.”

The koala grunted, then turned enormous brown eyes on Ben and held up its arms like a child demanding to be picked up. Ben laughed and felt some of his earlier tension ease. “I am not going to carry you,” he said. “What are you, a little kid?”

In answer, the koala bear leaped straight into the air. Even as its hind claws left the ground, its form shifted like quicksilver and a blue-and-brown falcon flapped across the intervening space to land on Ben’s shoulder. The falcon’s talons gently pricked Ben’s skin through the thin material of his shirt, and Ben had to force himself not to flinch. The little raptor leaned over and nibbled Ben’s ear in what turned out to be a surprisingly suggestive manner.

”Knock it off, Kendi,” Ben spluttered, pushing the beak away. “That tickles.”

”But you taste so good,” the falcon pouted.

Ben rolled his eyes. “Is this your attempt to be more impulsive?”

”Maybe.”

A presence brushed Ben’s mind, requesting permission enter his turf. At the same moment, a message flickered across the holographic screen: MAY I APPROACH?

”Hey, Sejal,” Ben said. “Come on in. Kendi didn’t even bother to ask.”

Another conduit glowed blue and Sejal Dasa slid into the room. He was a dark-skinned teenager, thin, with startling blue eyes and thick black hair that had a tendency to curl. He looked around the network and gave a low whistle.

”Pretty good,” he said. “I hadn’t seen your turf before.”

”Thanks.” Ben’s reply was self-conscious. “I’m still kind of new to all this.”

”Hey, you’re one of the elite,” Sejal pointed out. “Numbers are still coming in, but it looks like the early estimates were right — only about one Silent in ten can still enter the Dream these days.”

Kendi shuddered once on Ben’s shoulder. “I guess I should count myself lucky that I can get in at all.”

”Any luck changing back into a human yet?” Sejal asked.

”No.”

”So how are you guys doing?” Sejal said.

”Tired,” Kendi replied. “When I’m not in the Dream, I’m in slipspace. The Order have kept us kind of busy in the last six months trying to track down other Children who were caught out in the field during the Despair.”

Ben resisted the impulse to stroke Kendi’s back. “How’s the new government doing back home? Is my grandma still shaking things up?”

”Yeah.” Sejal gave a wry smile. “She’s fucking scary, you know that? She was three votes short in the election for Party Head, and none of the Senators who were voting against her would budge. So she talks to three of them. Private, right? And next thing you know, Senator Reza is Party Head. Just like that.”

”Wow,” Kendi said.

Ben nodded wryly. “That’s Grandma. Heaven help anyone who gets in her way.”

”Anyway,” Sejal continued, “the new Bellerophon Senate is up and running, and the Independence Confederation of Planets is pretty much gone. I hear tell Empress Kalii just vanished — ran away or something.”

”She was pretty popular,” Ben said, surprised. “What happened?”

Sejal shrugged. “Got me. It’s just a rumor I heard. I do know that the Children are raising their communication rates through the roof — so is everyone else who can still reach the Dream — and since almost nobody can talk between planets these days, everything’s starting to come apart. The Empire of Human Unity’s falling to pieces.” This last came out with a certain amount of glee. “There’s talk of recession all over the place. The galactic corps were really hard hit. Their Silent network for orders and money transfers and business communication — ” he snapped his fingers “ — gone in one shot.”

”Any official numbers on how many Silent died during the Despair?” Kendi asked quietly.

Sejal shrugged again. “ ‘Lots’ is the best I can tell you. If you go out there — ” he waved a hand vaguely toward Ben’s computer network “ — the big thing going is trying to find out who survived and who didn’t. It’s depressing. I’m glad I didn’t know anyone very well.”

Anyone like Mom, Ben thought, with the twinge of sorrow and loss which thoughts of his mother usually brought. He wondered if time would ever blunt the pain of finding her ruined, broken body on the forest floor, just one of many Silent driven mad with grief when Padric Sufur’s insane progeny had cut them off from the Dream. A slow anger began to burn within the sorrow.

Kendi seemed to sense Ben’s mood and nibbled lightly on his cheek in sympathy. Ara Rymar had been Kendi’s surrogate mother as well as his teacher, and her death had hit him equally hard.

”Sorry,” Sejal said, belatedly noticing the effect of his words. “Didn’t mean to be a drag-down.”

”We’re not exactly bundles of sunshine,” Kendi said. He adopted a more brisk tone. “So what’s going on besides gossip, Sejal? Any good news?”

”Actually there is,” Sejal replied. “That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”

”You’ve got more information about Bedj-ka?” Ben said. “We’ve just arrived at Klimkinnar, but a planet’s a big place to search. We could use some more info.”

”I’ve been trying. I mean, using the Dream to find people in the solid world is flipping hard these days,” Sejal said. “I can reach out of the Dream and touch your minds pretty easy because I know you, but Bedj-ka’s more difficult.”

”I know,” Kendi said. “I’m supposed to be one of the best Silent-finders ever, but these days I’m lucky to find Ben.”

”Yeah. Anyway, when the Despair started up, I touched every Silent in the universe for a moment, including Bedj-ka. Talk about a major mind fuck.” Sejal hawked and spat. “I told you about how I got a flash of the kid being on Klimkinnar, but I know that’s not much to go on, so the last couple days I’ve been working on finding them again. If I listen really hard in the Dream, I can sometimes hear people who used to be Silent and track them a little bit.”

”And?” Kendi asked tautly.

”I think Bedj-ka is in a country named Tiq. Does that help?”

Disappointment settled in Ben’s stomach. He had been hoping for more than that. Still, searching a country would be a lot easier than searching an entire planet. They might be able to shave off a week, maybe even ten days if they were lucky.

”Tiq,” Ben said. “Got it. Anything more?”

”He has a different name,” Sejal told him. “That kind of goes without saying, I guess. Most slavers change the names of their slaves.”

”In Tiq and not named Bedj-ka,” Kendi said. “Great. Any more?”

Sejal shrugged. “I’ll keep looking.”

”Then I guess we’ll see you around,” Kendi said, his own disappointment clear from his tone. “Let us know if you find out more.”

”Okay.” Sejal turned to go, then paused. “Oh yeah — something else. Bedj-ka’s first name was changed to something like Terry or Jerry or maybe Kerry. And his last name is Markovi.”

Ben’s mouth fell open. Kendi froze, then puffed up his feathers in mock outrage.

”You little shit,” he said. “Enjoy the remainder of your life on Bellerophon, kid, because you’re dead when I get back.”

Sejal laughed mischievously and vanished from the Dream. The network rippled for a moment and Ben felt an inrush of energy fill the spot Sejal had occupied.

”Little bastard,” Kendi said happily.

Ben laughed. “Now you know how Mo — how the rest of us felt whenever you played a — ”

”Don’t,” Kendi warned, “finish that sentence.” His talons pricked Ben’s skin menacingly.

”Wouldn’t dream of it,” Ben said, wide-eyed.

”Right. I’d better go tell Harenn.” Kendi flapped to the ground and changed back into the koala.

”Do you need me on the bridge right away?” Ben asked. “There are a couple things I want to do in here while Lucia lands the ship.”

”Should be okay for a few minutes,” Kendi said. “We’ve already got fake trader credentials, so we won’t need a hacker at the ready to forge them for us. See you in a few.”

Koala Kendi vanished, leaving ripples in the Dream. Ben watched him go, then turned back to his computer network. The matrices glowed, lights flashed, and a soft, empty hum pervaded the air. An empty hum for an empty Dream, thanks to Padric Sufur. Ben’s slow anger neared the boiling point. He made a curt gesture and the entire scene vanished, leaving behind the flat, empty plain that was the default environment of the Dream. Another gesture, and the ground shifted. A stone statue rumbled up out of the ground. It was crudely-formed — Ben wasn’t much of an artist — but it was recognizably the life-sized figure of a gangly, older man with hawk-like features. The man’s stony eyes stared at nothing. Ben contemplated the statue, then held up his hands. The Dream shifted and he was holding a sledgehammer. Ben’s fury flared into brilliance. With a sudden yell, he swung the hammer with the full power of every muscle in both arm and shoulder. Metal smashed into stone, and the statue’s arm flew off in a shower of rock chips. Hatred filled Ben as he swung again and again, relishing the shock and crack of every hit. The statue’s head went flying, then its other arm. Tiny bits of stone scored Ben’s arms and one fragment slashed his cheek. The torso cracked into three pieces. Ben smashed the hammer into the statue’s groin and the legs split away and fell apart. He yelled, screamed, shouted until his throat was raw. Ben’s hammer fell again and again until nothing remained but fist-sized bits of rubble. At last Ben halted, barely winded from the exertion. He glared at the ruins, then set the hammer down and raised his hands. The rubble quivered, shivered, and reassembled itself into the statue again. Cracks fused themselves back together, leaving smooth stone. When the statue’s last flaw had vanished, Ben picked up the hammer and swung.

o0o

Father Kendi Weaver shifted in the captain’s chair on the Poltergeist’s bridge. It felt right to be sitting there, somehow, and that surprised him. He had been under someone else’s command — usually Ara’s — for so long, he had assumed it would feel odd to be giving the orders himself. But that wasn’t at all the case. Rather, it seemed as if everything he had gone through, including the Despair, had been preparing him for this very position.

”We’ve got permission to land, Father,” Lucia said, looking down at her boards. “Tiq has a spaceport, and we’ll be landing in about an hour, Irfan willing.”

”Where’s Harenn?” Kendi asked.

”She went down to engineering,” Gretchen told him. “We’re in tip-top, but she said it would be easier if she kept herself busy, even if it was make-work.”

Kendi nodded. Like Harenn, no doubt, he felt the urge to get out behind the ship and push.

”Restless, Father?” Gretchen asked archly.

Kendi glanced down and realized he was tapping his feet against the deck plates. He forced himself to stop. “Just anxious to get started.”

”Sooner started, sooner done, sooner outside having fun,” Gretchen sing-songed.

”Enough, Sister Gretchen,” Kendi said, emphasizing her title with a hint of steel. “Since we’re in radio range, I want you to start gathering data on the current state of Klimkinnar’s government. I know it was one of the Five Green Worlds, but that was pre-Despair, and no one among the Children has heard anything about the FGW since then.”

”Yes, Father,” Gretchen said with patently false meekness.

Kendi suppressed a sigh. Now you know how it feels, said the memory of Ara’s voice, and he could almost hear her laughing at him, wherever she was. In that moment, Kendi would have given up everything — his promotion, this mission, even his limited ability to enter the Dream — to have her back in the captain’s chair again while he flew the ship.

The view on the screen brightened as Lucia guided the Poltergeist into Klimkinnar’s atmosphere. Lucia’s entry was smooth, with minimal turbulence, but Kendi still had to bite back words of advice. He remembered how much he had hated unsolicited suggestions when he was at the pilot’s board.

As they touched down on their allotted section of the landing field, the door slid open and Ben entered the bridge. Kendi blinked. A red line scored Ben’s cheek and several small cuts marked his hands. Ben took the communication station and, without a word, began tapping keys.

”Are you okay, Ben?” Kendi asked.

”I’m fine, Father,” Ben said. “Give me a minute and I’ll access Klimkinnar’s network. I should have — ”

”What happened to your hands?” Gretchen asked bluntly.

Ben’s face reddened. “I had… an accident in the Dream. The cuts are just psychosomatic carryover. I’ll be fine. They aren’t even bleeding. Did you tell Harenn what Sejal found out?”

”She knows,” Kendi said, wondering if he should press the point about Ben’s hands or just let it drop. Let it drop, he decided. For now.

Ben’s console chimed. “It’s customs,” he said, a little too briskly. “They said they’ll inspect the ship in about an hour. No one can enter or leave until blah blah blah.”

”Get the bribe money ready,” Gretchen said. “Klimkinnar’s on the unstable side right now. That means government officials don’t know when — or if — their next paycheck will be coming, and they’ll be looking for ways to supplement their income.”

”What else did you learn?” Kendi asked.

”Klimkinnar’s almost completely cut off from the Five Green Worlds,” Gretchen said, glancing down at her screen. “Their local FGW ruler is called the Planetary Governor, and she’s been trying to hold things together, but it’s hard going. Some sectors — countries, if you like — are trying to assert their own sovereignty, and the Governor’s working overtime to keep them in line. Klimkinnar also does a lot of farming and not much manufacturing, and their economy is dependent on selling food to the rest of the FGW. This means that a lot of imported manufactured goods — read, most of them — are going to get expensive until the shipping corps figure out how to operate without Silent communication. The local big corps are also taking advantage of the situation to consolidate some of their own power — surprise, surprise. It all adds up to recession, recession, recession.”

”Jerry,” Ben said.

”What?” Gretchen said blankly.

”Bedj-ka’s name is Jerry,” Ben explained as text crawled across his boards. “Names of slaves and their owners aren’t privileged information on Klimkinnar after all. I found a slave boy, nine years old, named Jerry Markovi who’s registered as belonging to a farm run by one Douglas Markovi. Jerry was a recent purchase, so the records were new and easy to find. Markovi’s farm is about forty klicks away from the spaceport. Take us about half an hour to get there if we rent a groundcar.”

”Praise be to Irfan,” Lucia said. “Good job.”

Ben shrugged. “A kid could’ve done it.”

”Don’t say it, Sister,” Kendi said. Gretchen snapped her mouth shut. “It’s still good work, Ben. If we play this right, Harenn’ll have her son back after lunch and we’ll be popping into slipspace before dinner.”

”You want me to tell her?” Ben asked, reaching for his console.

”No,” Kendi said quickly, and Ben halted. “Not one word. We still have an hour before customs arrive, and who-knows-how-much time for them to inspect. I’ll try to speed things along with the magic of bribery, but it’ll still be a while. No use making it worse for Harenn by telling her Bedj-ka’s within shouting distance. Just say you’re on the networks and have some high hopes.”

”High hopes for what?” said Harenn, coming onto the bridge.

”For finding your kid,” Gretchen said with utter blandness. “Red over there’s already tracking leads while we wait for customs.”

”I have money,” Harenn said, “if you need to bribe them for more speed.”

”There’s plenty in the kitty,” Kendi told her. “But I’ll keep that in mind.”

Harenn nodded. Her face, still hidden behind her customary blue veil, was unreadable, but her every movement was taut and filled with controlled tension. Kendi marveled at her discipline. If he had been this close to any member of his own family —

He banished these thoughts. Right now they had to concentrate on helping Harenn. Then he could pursue his own agenda.

An hour later, the customs inspection team arrived. Because the Children of Irfan were known in some circles as slave-stealers and because the crew wasn’t here to conduct official (read, “above-board”) Child business, Kendi removed his medallion and ring, ordered Gretchen to do the same, and presented the inspector with carefully-forged documentation that identified him as a simple trader, the most common guise adopted by the Children of Irfan. He explained their lack of cargo by claiming they’d just finished a one-way delivery run to an outlying station. The customs inspector, a small, dark-haired man with a toothbrush mustache, lost interest in Kendi’s story once a certain amount of freemarks found their way into his hands. The inspection itself — perfunctory in the extreme — only lasted twenty minutes. Once he was gone, everyone assembled in the galley, a tradition started by Ara. (“What better place for a briefing? Room to sit and close to the refreshments.”)

Lucia, as was her habit, had put together a snack tray comprised of bite-sized vegetables, sweetened ruda nuts from Bellerophon, and crackers spread with mounded peaks of spiced cream cheese. A large pot of fruit tea sat among a set of cups. Kendi caught up a cheese cracker and raised it in thanks to Lucia, who smiled quietly at the unspoken praise.

”This is a good news briefing, troops,” Kendi said. “Ben found Bedj-ka, or Jerry Markovi as he’s called now.”

Everyone pretended surprise and pleasure as Kendi finished explaining. Harenn gasped, then narrowed her eyes above her veil.

”You are a fine liar, Father Kendi,” she said. “But only to those who do not know you. How long have you had this information?”

”Since about the time we landed,” Kendi admitted sheepishly. “I didn’t want you to have a freak, so I kept quiet. Sorry.”

”If we only have to go to the farm and offer an outrageous sum to get my son back,” Harenn hissed, “why are we sitting at this table?”

”Good point.” Kendi rose. “I think Harenn and I can do this one alone. Ben, would you call a rental company and arrange a groundcar for us?” Ben nodded and Kendi continued. “The rest of you can stretch your legs or look around the city, but be ready to go the minute the two of us — the three of us — get back.” He looked at all of them pointedly. “We’ve got other fish to fry after we catch this one.”

”Nice metaphor,” Gretchen murmured as Harenn all but yanked Kendi out of the room. He decided to pretend he hadn’t heard, and Ara laughed in his memory again.

Tiq’s spaceport was middle-sized and fairly well-appointed. The usual announcements blared from hidden speakers, and the smells of low-quality, high-cost food filled the air. People walked, rushed, strolled, or lounged everywhere. The vast majority of the crowd was human, but that was normal, in Kendi’s experience. Most people preferred the company of their own kind, and it was rare for colony worlds to mix species.

Harenn strode through the crowds with single-minded determination, and Kendi had to hurry to keep up. He finally caught her by the sleeve.

”Slow down, Harenn,” he warned. “I don’t want to lose you in this crowd.”

Harenn obeyed with obvious reluctance. “We are close, Kendi. I have been searching for nine years and it seems as if I can feel Bedj-ka’s presence, even hear his voice. I want to push these idiots out of my way and run. I want to know if my baby is all right.”

”He won’t be a baby anymore,” Kendi said.

”I know that. It is merely the way I think of him. It is not something I can help.”

Kendi wet his lips uncertainly. He was afraid Harenn had pinned her hopes on a joyous reunion of mother and son and that she was setting herself up for disappointment — a position Kendi could empathize with. Kendi knew he should say something, but he didn’t know what. An added complication was that Harenn was ten or fifteen years older than Kendi, not someone he would normally reproach or advise. Ara would have known how to handle the situation, and he felt an irrational flash of anger that she wasn’t here to do so.

In the end, he decided to be direct.

”Harenn, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I want you to be careful,” he said as they approached the spaceport’s main entrance. “We’re going to get Bedj-ka back, I promise you, but don’t think he’s going to throw himself into your arms and cry ‘Mama!’ He won’t. I hate to say this so bluntly, but Harenn — he won’t even recognize you. He may not believe you when you tell him who you are.”

”I am not a fool, Kendi,” Harenn snapped. Then she closed her dark eyes for a moment. “All the things you have just said are the things I tell myself over and over. For every night since Sejal told me where Bedj-ka is, I have lain awake thinking about what it would be like to find him again. And I have thought long and hard about what I would do to Isaac Todd for taking Bedj-ka away from me.”

”Is Isaac Todd your ex-husband?” Kendi said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you mention his name.”

”Whenever I say it, I want to wash my mouth and my body,” Harenn growled.

Outside the port building, the golden sun of Klimkinnar shone with tropical warmth, and the air was heavy with humidity. For a moment, Kendi was transported back to the muggy frog farm where he had spent three years as a slave, and he forced himself to shake off the memories.

The streets were paved, if that was the word for it, with lush emerald grass. Tiny purple flowers and gray mushrooms peeked between the blades. Green shrubs lined the low buildings and gray sidewalks, and Kendi realized with a start he didn’t know the name of the city. Steady streams of people moved up and down the walks, and groundcars buzzed over the grass, not quite touching the tender green blades. No flitcars crossed the sky — Klimkinnar didn’t allow much private air traffic.

A series of empty groundcars queued up near the curb, each with a name printed on the side. Kendi moved down the line until he came to one marked “Weaver.” He pressed his thumb to the lock of the vehicle and it popped open. The name erased itself.

”Here we go,” Kendi said, and climbed into the driver’s seat. Harenn, her blue veil fluttering slightly in the breeze, got in on the passenger’s side. Directions to the Markovi farm flashed across the car’s onboard computer — Kendi made a mental note to thank Ben later — and Kendi maneuvered carefully into the heavy traffic surrounding the spaceport terminal.

After a moment, Harenn said, “I must admit that I do not understand why we are here.”

”Turn left at the next intersection,” the computer said in a pleasant, friendly voice.

”Huh?” Kendi scooted around a cargo hauler and made the turn. “We’re rescuing your son. What have we been talking about for the last — ”

”I mean,” Harenn said, “I do not understand why we are here instead of looking for your family.”

”Oh.” Kendi concentrated on driving for a moment. They reached the edge of the city, whatever its name was, and the buildings grew sparser, as did the traffic. “I didn’t explain that?”

”No, and I was… I was afraid to press in case you changed your mind. Even on the bridge before we landed, I was afraid you would change your mind.” Harenn tugged at her veil. “For many years when we were part of Mother Ara’s team, I watched you jump every time you thought you had something that would lead you to your family. I know that you and they were sold because you were Silent, but — ”

”That’s not quite right,” Kendi interjected. “My family and I were colonists on a ship that was captured by slavers. I was twelve. A woman named Giselle Blanc bought me and my mother, but someone else bought my dad and my sister and brother. I never saw them again. Three years later, Blanc found out that Mom and I were both Silent, and she decided to sell us for a hefty profit. My mom was sold, and I never saw her again, either. Then Ara bought me and set me free. After the Children of Irfan taught me how to use my Silence, I looked for my family everywhere in the Dream but no luck. Then the Despair hit, and Sejal touched almost every Silent mind in the universe. He told me he felt a man and a woman who are sure to be my relatives — though I don’t know which relatives — and that he felt Bedj-ka, too. That’s why we’re here.”

”This is not what I am asking, Kendi. You are a hero of the — ”

”Stop saying that,” Kendi said. Traffic cleared and he sped up.

” — of the Despair, and it is true whether you deny it or not. Padric Sufur’s twisted children failed to destroy the Dream because of you — ”

”And because of Ben and because of Sejal and Katsu and Vidya and Prasad and a whole mess of other people,” Kendi pointed out.

”But you are the only one who took advantage of your status,” Harenn continued, ruthlessly pursuing the point. “Vidya and Prasad and Katsu and Sejal were content to become a family again and settle among the Children of Irfan. Ben seems to be happy following you wherever you go. But you — well, I do have to say that I have never thought of you as a modest person — ”

”Thanks.”

” — but you went beyond mere immodesty. You bullied the Council of Irfan into giving you an expensive ship — ”

Loaning me an expensive ship.”

” — something which usually only a Father Adept is granted, and then you staffed it with not one but two so very priceless Silent who can still reach the Dream — ”

”Yeah, well Ben threatened to quit his consulting job, and the Council didn’t want to lose him, especially since he’s Silent now and they’re hoping he’ll become a Brother one day.”

” — and then you took this expensive ship off to find not your family, but mine. So I am asking — why are you doing this?”

Kendi drove in silence for several moments. Then he said, “It’s because of Ben.”

”This you need to explain.”

”When I go home at night — or back to my quarters, anyway — Ben is there. I have somebody, and you — ” He stopped and felt his face turn hot.

”I have no one?”

Kendi cursed himself. There were a hundred other things he could have said, but he had to choose the one that would throw Harenn’s broken family into her face.

”It’s not just that,” he hastened to add. “It’s also because Bedj-ka is still a little kid. He isn’t even ten years old yet. My brother would be over thirty now, and my sister’s in her mid-twenties. They’re adults. They don’t… they don’t need their family like Bedj-ka does. So I decided we should find him first.”

Harenn looked at him. “That sounds like something Mother Ara would have said.”

Kendi stiffened and stared straight ahead at the green road unwinding before him. Trees, fields, and scattered houses rushed quietly past the groundcar. Harenn’s remark had pierced him like an arrow, and he didn’t know how to feel. Pride mixed with sorrow mixed with… relief? To Kendi’s horror, his eyes teared up. He firmed his jaw. Not in front of Harenn, not while he was in charge of the expedition and she was under his command, however casual that command might be.

Harenn lightly touched his hand. “Whatever the reason, I am glad you made this choice.” Then she turned to stare out her own window, leaving Kendi free to rub his eyes without being observed.

They traveled for some time in companionable silence until the computer said, “Your destination is one hundred meters ahead of you on the right.” Harenn sat up straight. Kendi turned down a short gravel driveway that ended in front of a tall, barred gate. From this vantage point, Kendi could see that the trees and brush lining the road actually concealed a high concrete wall that presumably ran around the perimeter of the farm. A sign on the gate read,

 

SUNNYTREE FARM

A DIVISION OF THE L.L. VENUS CORPORATION

Douglas J. Markovi, Manager

 

”L.L. Venus,” Harenn said. “The chocolate company?”

”We carried a whole bunch of their stuff when we posed as merchants back on Rust,” Kendi said, re-reading the sign. “All life — they use slaves?”

”So it would seem.” Harenn’s voice was tight, and her hands were clasped in her lap.

”But they’re a candy company,” Kendi said almost plaintively. “They buy children to work their farms?”

”It does not matter what a corporation produces,” Harenn said. “It will always seek the cheapest method of production.”

Kendi tried to estimate out how many pounds of L.L. Venus chocolate he had eaten over the years. The best answer he could come up with was “a lot.” He felt slightly sick.

The dashboard screen chimed. He tapped it, and a smartly-dressed woman appeared.

”Welcome to Sunnytree Farm,” she said. Her voice was impossibly low and smooth, and Kendi figured she was computer-generated. “How may I help you?”

”My name is Kendi Weaver. We need to talk to your manager, please,” Kendi said, politely, just in case the woman was real.

”Do you have an appointment?”

”I’m afraid we don’t, but it’s very important. It’s a personal matter about one of his — the farm’s — slaves. Is Mr. Markovi available?” Always go straight to the top, Ara had taught.

The woman paused blankly, probably to let her program access a database. “Please drive through the gates to our main office. Please do not leave your vehicle. Please keep your vehicle on the road at all times. Thank you for visiting Sunnytree Farm.”

The screen went blank and the gate swung open. Kendi guided the car through the opening and into what felt like another world — a dark and gloomy one. Slowly Kendi’s eyes adjusted to the dim light. The gloom came from the oppressive shade of a forest of strange trees, each about twice as tall as a human. The trunks were thin, less than half a meter in diameter, and covered with star-shaped flowers that ranged from white to pink to yellow to red. Amid the flowers were clumps of lumpy seed pods that reminded Kendi of rugby balls. They were almost as varied in color as the flowers, appearing in green, orange, and brown. Large, flat leaves at the tops of the trees rustled in a faint breeze. Moss hung from everything, and the ground between the trees was covered in some kind of mulch. Water dripped from leaves and branches. Kendi cracked a window and sniffed. The air was thick and smelled heavily organic.

The screen beeped again. Harenn tapped it and the computer-generated woman re-appeared.

”Welcome to Sunnytree Farms,” she said in an overly-friendly voice. “If you would like guided information about our family-owned operation, just touch the green button on your screen. Otherwise please proceed with caution to the main office building. Thank you!”

Harenn reached down to tap the screen’s off button, but Kendi grabbed her wrist.

”Wait,” he said. “ ‘The greater your knowledge, the lesser your risk,’ remember?”

”Irfan Qasad,” Harenn muttered. “Very well.” She touched the green button. Kendi continued to drive. Among the trees, he could now make out people. They wore simple clothing, with silver bands around their left wrists and ankles. Slave bands. Memories welled again, and Kendi resisted the impulse to rub his own wrist in sympathy.

”The L.L. Venus Corporation was founded on Earth over a eleven hundred years ago, when Lawrence Venus opened a single candy kitchen in the city of Milwaukee,” burbled the computer lady. “He eventually expanded this small family business into a global operation. When the chance came, his heirs took the Venus Corporation to the stars. The company has spanned two millennia and operates on twenty-eight different planets, creating delicious chocolates and candies for billions of consumers — the delight of children everywhere.”

The workers — slaves — were engaged in a variety of tasks, and they scarcely glanced at the passing groundcar. Some of the adults used hooked knives on poles to cut down the brownest pods, which the children gathered and piled on floating gravity sleds. Other slaves spread mulch, trimmed branches, and performed other tasks Kendi didn’t recognize. Harenn watched the children with sharp eyes, and Kendi knew she was wondering which of them was her son.

”The cacao trees you see here at Sunnytree Farm are only the very first step in producing the rich, sumptuous chocolate treats you buy at the store,” continued the computer. “The trees are difficult to raise — they require very a specific climate, soil type, and daily weather pattern. Attempts to genegineer cacao trees to make them sturdier and easier to grow have invariably degraded the quality of the beans, so we raise them the old-fashioned way, by hand — exactly as was done on Earth for thousands of years.”

The groundcar abruptly emerged into bright sunlight. Kendi blinked until the windshield darkened itself to compensate. Harenn continued to sit rigid. A line of slaves stood at an outdoor conveyer belt loaded with lumpy brown cacao pods.

”If you look to your left,” said the computer cheerfully, “you will see the L.L. Venus hands processing the ripe seed pods. First the pods are split in two with a machete.” As if on cue, several of the slaves chopped the pods neatly down the middle as they passed by on the belt. “Next, our hands scoop out the mucilage and cocoa beans inside and put it into wooden boxes, which are then covered with leaves.” The car passed stacks of leaf-covered crates. “Once the beans have fermented, they are removed and spread in the sun to dry. Each pod will produce between forty and fifty cocoa beans, but it takes more than seven hundred beans to make a single kilogram of — ”

Kendi tapped the screen’s red button. When Harenn raised her eyebrows at him, he said, “I can’t stand that syrupy tone anymore.”

”What number of slaves do you suppose this farm owns?”

Kendi looked out at a group of slave children who were using long-handled hoes to spread cocoa beans on screen-bottomed drying racks in the hot sun. Several of them were barely tall enough to see over the racks.

”Lots,” he muttered. “Suddenly the idea of having a candy bar makes me sick to my stomach.”

The driveway ended at an enormous mansion, complete with cupolas and gingerbread trim. Beyond the house lay a series of low, metal-sided buildings. Kendi assumed they were warehouses, equipment storage areas, and slave quarters. He guided the car into a parking lot near the house. The sun hit him like a hammer when he exited the air-conditioned interior of the car. Harenn didn’t seem to notice, and instead headed straight for the mansion’s front porch. Before they had reached the top step, the door opened and a man in a red tunic and brown trousers emerged. The L.L. Venus logo was embroidered in gold on the shoulder of the tunic. Kendi took Harenn’s arm.

”Let me do the talking,” he muttered.

Harenn gave a curt nod of acquiescence.

”Welcome to Sunnytree Farm,” the man said. “How may I help you?”

Kendi repeated his request to see Douglas Markovi. “It’s extremely important, and I’m afraid we really can’t talk to anyone but him.”

”Mr. Markovi is very busy,” the man said doubtfully.

”I realize that, and I apologize for dropping in with no notice, but it’s very important.”

”What company did you say you were with?”

”I didn’t,” was Kendi’s only reply.

The man wasn’t daunted. “What company are you with?”

”A large private concern,” Kendi said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t be more specific than that except with Mr. Markovi himself.”

Kendi could almost feel the waves of controlled impatience radiating off Harenn. He ground his teeth. In the days before the Despair, another Child of Irfan would have entered the Dream to whisper into this man’s mind. If the man had any inclination toward granting Kendi and Harenn an audience with his managerial majesty, the whisper would magnify it and make Kendi’s job easy. But nowadays very few Silent could even enter the Dream, let alone reach out of from it. Even before the Despair, Kendi had never been good at reaching out or at whispering. Ben hadn’t yet learned. Kendi would have to rely on his own powers of persuasion.

The man resisted, and Kendi continued to work at him. His instincts told him offering a bribe wouldn’t be effective, so he continued with a non-stop flow of persuasive talk while Harenn looked on. Eventually the man reluctantly led them to a tastefully-furnished waiting room with the curt promise that he would check with Mr. Markovi.

They waited over an hour. Harenn sat like a statue the entire time. Kendi knew she was in agony, but he didn’t dare speak to her — the waiting area was probably bugged. Finally the man returned.

”Mr. Markovi has agreed to see you,” he said with a certain amount of surprise in his voice.

He ushered them into a large, airy office. A blond man with a prominent chin waited behind a castle-sized desk against a bank of windows. A potted cacao tree blocked some of the sunshine streaming in through the glass. The man’s tunic was edged with silver, and he forced Harenn and Kendi to reach across the huge expanse of his desk to shake hands. His grip was iron-hard. Kendi gave a mental sigh. The negotiations were going to be rough.

”I’m Douglas Markovi,” said the blond man. “What’s this about? The computer said you were asking about one of my hands.”

”Hands,” not “slaves,” Kendi noted. As if those people — those children — out there were interviewed and hired. He decided to try the direct approach.

”My name is Kendi Weaver and this is my associate Harenn Mashib,” he said. “We have a problem that I’m hoping you can help us solve.”

Douglas Markovi sat in a tall leather chair behind his desk. He did not offer seats to Kendi and Harenn, though there were smaller chairs behind them. Kendi decided to remain standing for the moment. Although it made him look like an inferior, it did give him and Harenn a height advantage.

”What problem would that be?”

”You have a — a hand on your farm named Jerry,” Kendi said. “According to public record, you bought him two weeks ago.”

”I may have,” Markovi said. “We acquired several hands recently, but I don’t know all of them.”

Despite the fact that you give all of them your last name, Kendi growled silently. “Unfortunately,” he said aloud, “Jerry is not actually a slave.”

”He is my son,” Harenn blurted out.

Markovi raised a single blond eyebrow, a trick Kendi hated — the few people he knew who could actually do it invariably used it for sarcastic effect.

”Jerry was kidnapped by his father as a baby and sold without Harenn’s knowledge or permission,” Kendi said. “This is a violation of Independence Confederation slave code and a violation of the slave codes set down by the Five Green Worlds.”

”This isn’t the Independence Confederation,” Markovi said. “And the FGW doesn’t seem to exist much anymore.”

”You are correct, sir,” Kendi said. He hadn’t really expected a legal ploy to work. “However, I’m not asking you to hand Jerry over for free. I’m offering to buy him from you.”

”I just acquired him,” Markovi said. “And spent a fair amount of time having him trained. Why would I want to sell him?”

”Humanitarianism,” Kendi said bluntly. “The chance to reunite a torn family. The chance to let a mother hold her own child again. And the chance to profit by it all. I’m willing to pay you twice Jerry’s original purchase price, to reimburse you for your time and effort.”

”Jerry, Jerry.” Markovi tapped his desk and a holographic computer screen popped into being. “Oh yes — the damaged goods. Our regular slaver bought him from a small communications company. Little Jerry was just starting to sense the Dream when the Despair hit. None of the company’s Silent slaves were able to reach the Dream afterward, and the company wasn’t big enough to survive long without Silent revenue. They went bankrupt right quick, had to sell off their livestock. Looks like we got him for a song.”

Harenn’s hands were clenched so tightly Kendi was afraid her palms would start bleeding. “Triple price, then,” he said, “to ensure it’s worth your while. Hard currency.”

”Well, here’s the thing.” Markovi leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “The boy’s seen a lot of our operation by now, and security around here’s pretty tight. We can’t sell off hands who might blab secrets to Venus’s competitors.”

”How much could he have learned in two weeks?”

”The chocolate business is cutthroat. You’d be surprised,” Markovi continued as if Kendi hadn’t spoken. “For all I know, you two work for Wexford Chocolate and Jerry is your mole. Wexford would love to know exactly how we do things around here.”

Harenn said, “I brought his birth certificate and genetic — ”

”Yes, yes, I’m sure you did,” Markovi interrupted. “But I’m afraid that I couldn’t sell the boy even if I wanted to. FGW law says only a slave dealer can sell hands less than a year after purchase. I sell you this Jerry boy now, and I’m in trouble for trafficking in slaves without a license. Sorry, but you understand where I’m coming from. No sale.”

Slaves, not hands, Kendi thought.

”You just said the FGW doesn’t much exist anymore,” he said aloud, trying to keep his temper. “They aren’t in a position to uphold — ”

”Sorry, Junior. Can’t do it.”

”Five times the price,” Kendi said tightly. “I might even be able to come up with six.”

”Wouldn’t matter if you handed me a hundred and your associate here gave me a blow job,” Markovi drawled. “Joe and Alex here will show you out now.”

Kendi turned. He hadn’t heard the office door open, nor had he sensed the two heavily-muscled goons glide into the room. Harenn’s eyes went wild. She lunged across the desk and grabbed Markovi by the throat.

”You have to sell him to me,” she hissed. “He is my son, you bastard! Give me my son!

”Harenn!” Kendi shouted. He grabbed her shoulders and tried to pull her away. Markovi’s eyes bulged and he made choking sounds. Joe appeared next to Markovi and pried Harenn’s fingers away. The moment he broke her grip, Harenn balled up a fist and socked Markovi in the face. He stumbled backward with a yelp.

”Get them the fuck out of here!” he howled, one hand over his nose. Blood trickled between his fingers.

Joe grabbed Harenn’s wrists and twisted her hands behind her. Kendi spun to face him. He was the man who had originally shown them in.

”Let her go!” Kendi snapped.

”Not until we’re outside,” Joe replied through clenched teeth. Harenn fought his grip, cursing and snarling. He pushed her firmly and none-too-gently toward the door. Alex put a heavy hand on Kendi’s shoulder to escort him away as well. Kendi shook it off with a glare and followed Joe and Harenn out the office door.

”Bitch!” Markovi yelled after them. “You’ll never see your little brat again, I’ll make sure of that!”

Harenn renewed her struggles, and in the end it took both Joe and Alex to get her out to the parking lot. Kendi, not knowing what else to do, followed.

”Get into the car, sir,” Joe said. “Our security computer will take control of your vehicle and drive it from the grounds. If you try to come back — ” he cracked his knuckles pointedly “ — it’ll involve a lot of broken bones.”

Kendi silently climbed in. The moment he closed the door, the groundcar rushed out of the parking lot and zipped up the driveway. The gates swung open just in time to let the vehicle through and they crashed shut behind it.

”Thank you for visiting Sunnytree Farms,” chirped the computer. Kendi punched the screen with his fist and it shut up. He turned to Harenn.

”I’m sorry,” he said.

”I don’t know what to do,” she whispered. Harenn pressed a hand against her window. “He is in there and he doesn’t even know I am here for him. He doesn’t even know.”

An unfamiliar, gasping sort of sound issued from her veil. It took Kendi a moment to realize that Harenn was crying. It was the first time he had seen her do such a thing. He found it unnerving, as if he were standing on a boulder that had suddenly shifted beneath him.

”We aren’t done yet, Harenn,” he said grimly, and laid a hand on her shoulder.

”What do you mean?” she asked, her eyes red above her veil.

”I promised you I’d get your son back and I will,” Kendi told her. “I already have a plan.”


Copyright © 2003 Steven Harper



Trickster - Silent Empire 3 by Steven HarperA Novel of the Silent Empire
by Steven Harper
$2.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-114-6

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