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Trickster

A Novel of the Silent Empire

by Steven Harper

Trickster - Steven Harper - Silent Empire
Part of the Silent Empire series:
Editions:Kindle: $ 2.99 USD

The dream has been shattered, and the majority of Silent who telepathically communicated through it have benn cast out by the event known as the Despair, unable to reenter. Now the remaining Silent still capable of linking to the Dream have become a valuable commodity to those in power seeking to keep the lines of galactic communication open…

In the midst of the Despair, Father Kendi Weaver and the crew of the Poltergeist have a limited window of opportunity to find the loved ones they have lost–including Kendi’s parents and siblings, who were sold into slavery more than fifteen years ago.

But just as Kendi closes in on the whereabouts of his brother and sister, they are taken by a mysterious group intent on using them for their own secret agenda…

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Excerpt:

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 excellentengineer.”

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”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 Poltergeistfaded 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.

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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