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Offspring

A Novel of the Silent Empire

by Steven Harper

Offspring - Steven Harper - Silent Empire
Part of the Silent Empire series:
Editions:Kindle: $ 2.99 USDAudiobook (Abkhazian)

The lush and beautiful forest planet of Bellerophon is home to a cacophony of noises, but its resident psychics are known as the Silent. Previously they could travel to the Dream, a telepathic plane of existence where they could twist the laws of reality. But that time is over...

One madman's lust for power tore the Dream asunder. Now only a handful of the Silent can enter it. Kendi Weaver is one of them.

As an election for the governorship of Bellerophon begins, Kendi is caught in the crossfire. Attempts on his life—and a rash of Silent kidnappings—point to a political enemy...or a personal one. Either way, the future of the Dream is at stake. And Kendi fears it may become a nightmare.

 

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Excerpt:

Chapter One

“Playing games helps children learn to live by rules and learn the difference between fair play and exploitation.”

—Irfan Qasad

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.”

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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.”

“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?”

COLLAPSE

About the Author

Steven Piziks was born with a name no one can reliably spell or pronounce, so he usually writes under the pen name Steven Harper.  He sold his first short story way back in 1990, and his keyboard has been clattering ever since.  So far, he's written fifty-some stories and twenty-some novels, including The Silent Empire series, The Clockwork Empire steampunk series, and The Books of Blood and Iron fantasy series.  He's also written movie novelizations and books based on Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and The Blacklist. He's been a finalist for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for science fiction four times.

Steven also teaches English in southeast Michigan, where he lives with his husband and son.  When not writing, he plays the folk harp, tries to stick to weight-lifting, and spends more time on-line than is probably good for him.  Visit his web page at http://www.stevenpiziks.com


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