Minder Rising: Central Galactic Concordance, Book 2 (Carol Van Natta)
SFR Galaxy Award for Best Slow Burning Romance (Judge Jo Jones)
Lieren and Imara are acquaintances who haves secrets. It is Imara’s son Derrit that starts to bring them together. The romance is slow to develop but very believable.
* Planet: Concordance Prime * GDAT 3238.203 *
Minder Corps Field Agent Lièrén Sòng stared at his no-kick fizzy drink but didn’t see it. He had shrunk his world to as small as he could make it, but even from six meters away, he could feel the big bald man sitting at the bar broadcasting a prickly synaptic haze of barely contained violence as he stared at the dark-skinned woman behind the bar, as if trying to hypnotize her. Lièrén might have let it go, might have followed protocol to stay out of it, but he couldn’t. He counted the bartender as a friend, even if she didn’t know it.
The bar had cleared out early that night. Only a half-dozen patrons occupied the booths and nursed their drinks, chems, and solitude. The piped-in music, a lilting jig in ancient British folk tradition, now jangled in his head like a wind chime warning of an approaching storm. It made him want to put his hands over his ears, but that wouldn’t shut off his sifter talent.
It was yet another problem piled onto a truly lousy day. He’d awakened from his prescribed afternoon nap with a jolt, another dream of falling. Unsurprising, since only six weeks ago, he’d actually fallen several thousand meters out of a high-low flitter that was breaking apart and on its way to a fiery crash and burn.
After three weeks of trauma care and reconstructive surgery, he checked into the long-term residence hotel for the duration of his continued rehabilitation, which included being treated by another sifter for his post-traumatic experience therapy. His recovery had been slowed due to withdrawal symptoms from his Citizen Protection Service-mandated program of enhancement drugs, which he couldn’t take while his new cloned liver integrated with his body. Beyond the headache, dry mouth, and sweat flashes, his primary minder talent felt thick and muddy. It didn’t help that he’d run out of the temporary replacement enhancement drugs the CPS’s medics had prescribed for him. He hadn’t noticed until he’d gotten back to his hotel room that day, which wasn’t like him. He was forgetful, but usually well organized.
He wanted his ordinary, balanced life back, where he mostly stayed in ships and space stations, and where the weather was controlled and it didn’t rain whenever it felt like it. There were too many empty drawers to fill in the hotel room, a silent reminder that his few personal possessions had been destroyed along with the flitter. His replacement clothes, even though autotailored to his exact measurements and range of motion, felt too new.
He shouldn’t be feeling sorry for himself, because at least he’d lived through it. His senior field unit partner and friend, Fiyon Machimata, hadn’t been so lucky.
If Fiyon had been with him now, he’d have insisted on going someplace more upscale. The Quark and Quasar, which was a part of the residence hotel, was designed as a family-style pub and was much more congenial than the hotel’s restaurant, which had marginal food and surly service. The pub had two- and four-person booths and an eclectic mix of round tables of varying heights, suitable for adults and children alike. The decorator had lined the walls with mysterious metal pieces purporting to come from preflight Earth sailing ships and farm equipment, but Lièrén suspected they were copies of random machine parts that caught the designer’s eye. Behind the bar’s simulated wooden façade, the prep area and the dispensary were modern, if not exotic or extensive.
When he’d first visited the bar after moving into his hotel suite, he wasn’t sure he liked the music, which was billed as “preflight British traditional,” even though whoever selected it had a rather elastic definition of the style. It had grown on him in subsequent visits, to the point that he looked forward to the live musician scheduled to perform the next week. It was… odd to be able to plan things like that. Usually his job kept him constantly traveling.
The lowlight of his already zhào chū day had been being stuck in the metro station while the city figured out how to reroute the skytrams because of an accident. A ground hauler had crashed into the pillars of the passenger platform, killing at least thirty people outright and flooding the area trauma centers with the injured. If he hadn’t stopped to help an older couple with toppled packages and wayward grandchildren, he might have been back in the trauma center again himself, and back to waking hallucinations of falling. He was glad he didn’t have to go anywhere near the gruesome ground levels where the victims had landed.
After another nightmare had terminated his too-short nap, Lièrén had been too irritable, thirsty, and unsettled to stay in his hotel room another minute, so he’d gone to the bar. It had been surprisingly crowded for an early weeknight, and he’d retreated to a back corner booth to get away from the pressure of the unknowingly broadcasting patrons. He was only a low-level telepath, so their current, running thoughts didn’t bother him from a distance, but his high-level sifter talent meant he couldn’t avoid feeling the ebb and flow of them. Without the CPS enhancement drugs helping him control his talent, the active minds around him felt like constant raindrops on a sunburn.
The usually boisterous server, Rayle Leviso, who chatted with and teased everyone, had thankfully left him alone that evening. Once the bar emptied, Rayle had slid out early, too, leaving only Bartender Sesay… Imara, she’d invited him to call her, to deal with the few remaining customers. She was cheerfully competent and wasn’t given to idle chatter, and it didn’t hurt that she was easy on the eyes. Even her outgoing son, Derrit, was thankfully quiet tonight.
In the earlier crush, Imara had asked if Derrit could sit with him to do his homework. Lièrén had nodded and said less than was polite, but his pounding headache made it difficult to do anything more. The medics and healers had done admirable jobs in repairing his ribs, diaphragm, lung, and liver, but they couldn’t do anything about the withdrawal symptoms, owing to his sifter talent that made most chemical painkillers useless. His choices had been to stay in the rehab unit for another three weeks with the constant company of a healer, or deal with the pain and discomfort on his own. He valued his privacy more than his comfort, although it was hard to remember why on nights like this one. At least he wasn’t having to regrow teeth—he’d heard from other rehab patients that it took months for the new ones to feel like they belonged in their mouths.
Tonight was the first time Lièrén had spent much time with Derrit, and he’d been relieved that the boy’s mind was blessedly quiet. Once Lièrén had considered it, he realized Derrit was a natural shielder. Talent detection hadn’t ever been one of Lièrén’s strong suits, so the boy was probably at least mid-level, if not better. When the crowd had thinned and more booths opened up, Lièrén could have asked Derrit to move, but he’d left the kid alone. He looked busy and productive, and that kind of concentration was hard to achieve for eleven-year-old boys.
Hell, it was hard to achieve for thirty-two-year-old men. He’d been given part-time CPS desk duty in a local field office while his flitter accident was being investigated. In an odd quirk of fate, though his field unit was officially based out of the main office in High Spires, this was the first time he’d ever been on Capet Dedrum itself, more commonly known as Concordance Prime, or visited its galaxy-renowned showcase capitol city.
Repeated interviews with the staff from the CPS Office of Internal Inquiry suggested they thought there was something questionable about the accident. Since his assignment for the last twelve years had been conducting covert field interrogations, it was easy for him to identify the agenda behind their questions. He’d already requested an advocate to look out for his interests, as was his right as a de facto member of the military. He knew he was innocent of any wrongdoing, but the OII investigators might take some convincing.
So far, his desk duty had been to catch the field office up on its neglected data cubes—cross-referencing, prioritizing, tagging, and threading—which wasn’t helping his headaches. He liked administrative work, and took pride in creating and keeping order, but it was mind-numbingly boring after a while.
Because of his “trade office” experience and training, he was supposed to be available to the field office for occasional tasks suited to his talents, but they hadn’t asked, probably preferring to use sifters they knew and trusted. It was just as well, since he still had little stamina, and his talent continued to feel different and unreliable while on the latest temporary drug protocol. The local field-office supervisor, Tom Yamazaki, was new to Con Prime. Despite his Japanese last name, he didn’t speak the language, and precious little Mandarin, which he’d need if he planned to make a career in Spires. Lièrén had only met Yamazaki once in person and hadn’t been introduced to the other agents in the new office, who all must have gone to the same conservative autotailor to get the group rate. They acknowledged his presence from time to time, but mostly, they ignored him.
It had been disheartening to realize that with the death of his partner, his only friends now were Rayle and Imara. They’d shown more concern and care than people he’d known for years. Only his supervisor had sent a generic “get well soon” ping. To the overworked medical and therapy personnel, he was a CPS auth code and a barely remembered name. To everyone else, he was just another tourist on the metro.
And now, it looked like the capstone to this particularly lousy day was the bald man at the bar who’d been heavy-handedly hitting on Imara and getting nowhere. He was probably drawn by her pretty face and wide smile that invited laughter, and her crazy, coiled hair that always looked like it was on the verge of breaking free from its restraint. To Lièrén’s chagrin, he’d only noticed the situation because young Derrit had seen the trouble and was watching them like a hawk. Lièrén had a sinking feeling it would be more trouble than Derrit could handle.
Rule number one in covert field units like his was not to draw attention to himself or the unit, and rule number two was to follow rule number one. Lièrén had led anyone who asked to believe that his title of “field agent” was CPS-speak for “office twonk,” and that his unit’s mission had to do with trade support. Procedure said he should leave now, or conveniently fall asleep and see nothing, but the bald man’s haze of violent discord was slicing through Lièrén’s talent like a fistful of forceblades.
Derrit abruptly stood and began sidling toward the bar, focusing on his mother with the intensity of a laser beam. Lièrén’s headache flared, and second later, the bald man grabbed Imara’s hand. Lièrén sat, frozen in indecision.
In the blink of an eye, the bald man muttered something in what sounded like German, then stood and tried to drag Imara from behind the bar.
“Leave her alone!” shouted Derrit, closing in fast and latching onto the man’s arm.
The bald man snarled and backhanded the boy, sending him flying a meter or more into some chairs.
Imara Sesay was sorry she’d let Rayle leave early for rehearsal, now that the hairless chitsiru seated at the end of the bar had taken to staring at her like he was a cobra and she was his next mousy meal. The bald man and his buddy, another asshole, had arrived an hour before, obviously pre-chemmed, so she’d refused to serve them anything with a kick. The second asshole had gone back to his room to sleep it off, but asshole number one stayed and tried to interest her in a hot-connect in his room, or even the bar’s storeroom. He’d spent the last thirty minutes refusing to believe her “not interested” replies to any of his increasingly crude invitations, and disdaining the joyhouse discount token she’d offered.
She straightened and evened the edges of her trays and glasses as she casually looked around to see if there was any help to be found in the customers, but the bar was practically empty. Under the counter, she activated the security alert system and, after a moment’s hesitation, keyed a Priority Two ping, meaning they should come as soon as possible, but it wasn’t an emergency. In the four years she’d been a tender, she’d never had to call a Priority One. She was relieved to see that Derrit was safely out of the way with the nice CPS man, Field Agent Lièrén Sòng, who was still recovering from a horrific accident.
She’d planned to make Derrit move to another booth, but as long as Lièrén wasn’t complaining, she left her son where he was. Not that Lièrén ever complained. He was unfailingly gracious and soft-spoken. Even in pain, as he clearly was tonight, he’d never been rude. She liked Derrit to get exposure to other people, more specifically males, since Torin had died five years ago, leaving her without a husband and Derrit without a father. She’d been known to convince the occasional patron to give Derrit impromptu lessons, in exchange for free drinks or chems. As a result, Derrit knew how to use a phase blade as an impromptu spot-welder, how to position softlights to make people look good on holo camera interviews, and how to calculate the lift-weight ratio for a hexquadium antigrav flitter.
When she’d first met Lièrén three weeks ago, he’d seemed surprisingly frail for a handsome man in his prime, but nearly dying in a high-low flitter crash would do that to anyone. He’d only survived because his fall had been broken by some trees, or so the newstrends said. He no longer held his upper torso as carefully, and he hadn’t lately dozed off while waiting for the hotel restaurant to deliver his food, but he was far from fully recovered. He was nice to look at, with his well-defined shoulders and narrow, tight hips. Too damn bad he was a transient.
She probably shouldn’t have allowed herself to privately call him by his first name, but she liked him. Maybe he’d at least stay long enough to teach Derrit something. Even on nights like tonight, Lièrén was still polite and patient, traits that would be useful when teaching a gregarious eleven-year-old with energy to burn and a nanosecond attention span.
The overbuilt bald man at the bar waved to get her attention and grabbed his mostly empty glass.
“Hey, Törtchen, how about sharing some of that sweetness with me?” He waggled his glass and sloshed the dregs of spiced fruit juice around, but he was staring pointedly at her breasts and licking his lips. He’d opened his tunic earlier, as if the bar was too hot, making sure she noticed. His muscled, hairless chest had the perfectly even golden tan only found in a body parlor. Since he was following the latest fashion trends for hairlessness and skin tone, he should have had them do a little subcutaneous fat removal while he was at it. Starting with between his ears.
She forced a chuckle and pasted a professional smile on her face. “Did you just call me a pastry?”
“No, that’s Torten. You’re too dark and juicy for that. Why don’t you come up to my room, and I’ll teach you some more German, like saugen meine Schwanz.” His leer was so overdone that she almost laughed for real, but she didn’t think he’d appreciate it. He’d already taken her lack of interest as a combined insult and challenge. She wondered what exotic chem he’d taken before he arrived, because it sure as hell made him delusional if he thought she was putting her mouth on any of his anatomy.
“No thanks,” she said. “Refill?”
“How about I fill you instead?” He made a rocking motion with his hips.
The guy just wasn’t giving up. She turned away so he wouldn’t see the look on her face, which would probably piss him off. Irritating customers was against hotel policy. She wasn’t shocked—the newest noob youngster on the road crew where she worked days came up with better sexual innuendo—but his one-track mind had gotten old, fast.
“Fine,” he said sourly. “Give me a refill.” He pushed his glass toward her.
She saw movement out of the corner of her eye and turned to see Derrit sidling up to the bar, like he wanted to ask her something. She tilted her head and gave him a look that told him to go sit down, but he ignored it. She gave him a harder look, not wanting him anywhere near the asshole, as she reached for the glass.
She was startled when the bald man’s hand closed over hers. All of a sudden, her head felt like someone was squeezing her temples from the inside.
“Let go,” she said between clenched teeth, trying to pull her hand free.
Instead of releasing her, he snarled, “Gottverdammte Schützennen,” and started to pull her around the corner of the bar. What the hell did he mean “goddamn shielders”?
Derrit grabbed the man’s arm and pulled hard. “Let her go!”
With hardly a glance, the man backhanded Derrit, sending him flying back into some chairs. Imara began kicking at his shins and swearing loudly, hoping someone from security would hear her. Damn her pride for not calling a Priority One.
He slapped her, hard, apparently thinking that would shut her up. She spat blood. “Farking trottel! That all you got?” Even as she called him a moron, she started to crouch down low enough to throw an uppercut punch into his crotch, but suddenly the pressure in her head turned off like a switch and the man slowly collapsed to the floor.
She watched him slump against the bar, then looked up to see Lièrén Sòng leaning over the man, his hand on the man’s neck. Derrit, bloody nose streaming, was crawling toward the bald man, a truly angry look on his face. Before she could process what was happening, Lièrén gave Derrit a hard look.
“Don’t do it,” he commanded forcefully. Quiet, gracious Lièrén was nowhere in that tone, and it was enough to stop Derrit in mid-reach.
“Don’t do what?” she asked, looking back and forth from Derrit to Lièrén, who looked paler than she’d ever imagined an ethnic Chinese man could.
She saw Lièrén glance at the four remaining patrons, most of whom were carefully looking anywhere but toward them. He met her gaze.
“This húndàn is a straight telepath.” His voice was low as he indicated the bald man. “Derrit was going to clean him, but with anger driving his talent, the man would probably end up blank-slated.”
Imara only barely stopped her jaw from dropping in shock. She looked to Derrit, then to the man on the floor, then back to Lièrén. “What did you do to him? The bastard, I mean?”
Lièrén sighed, and a hint of reluctance crossed his usually serene expression. “I’m a sifter.”
“A what?” Imara was having trouble kicking her brain into forward motion. She grabbed a bar napkin to wipe the corner of her mouth where she felt blood seeping. Her jaw was going to be sore for a while. Adrenalin made her hands shake.
“A different kind of telepath. You have to decide now what to do—call the police, call hotel security, or let Derrit and me fix the man’s memory.”
“Fix it how?” Her filer’s memory finally started working, and she remembered what she’d heard about the types of telepaths. Sifters mostly worked with brain chemicals.
Lièrén’s reluctance became more pronounced, but she thought it had a tinge of resignation. “I’ll twist him, and show Derrit where to clean.”
“You’re a twister, too?” Imara felt herself go pale. Twisters could undetectably change people’s memories. It was a frightening talent.
Lièrén nodded. He was proposing to invade the telepath’s mind to alter or erase the inconvenient memories, with Derrit’s help. She told herself she’d have time to be astonished later.
She looked at Derrit as he used his sleeve to blot the blood from his nose, which had slowed to a drip. While she’d really like to leave the bald man a lasting, painful legacy for daring to hurt her son, the hotel management’s unwritten policy was “no trouble with customers meant no penalties for employees.” She went with her gut feeling that she could trust Lièrén.
“Twist and clean him.” She hoped it was the right choice. The last two patrons in the bar were too chemmed or drunk to move. The smarter ones had already cleared out. “But do it fast,” she said quietly. “Security will be here soon, because I sent them a Priority Two ping earlier. Whatever you do has to match the flat video from the security cameras, in case they look.”
Lièrén nodded. He looked pale, but steady, as he motioned Derrit closer. He crouched down in front of the man and gently took Derrit’s hand and put it on top of his own, the one touching the man’s neck.
She watched them both for a minute. Derrit’s open and expressive face showed a variety of emotions, chief among them wonder and delight. Lièrén’s face was serene, almost like he was meditating. He was probably killer in bluff games like hype or poker.
Imara felt like her mind was trying to fly apart at the seams, so she gave herself the task of arranging the bottles and boxes on the bar’s display shelves into perfect symmetry. She wasn’t a very good liar because her filer’s memory never let her forget the truth. To save her job and keep Derrit safe, though, she’d lie like a rug, as her granny liked to say. It was dawning on her that her son was going to be a powerful minder, stronger than his shielder father. She’d already suspected Derrit was developing a shielder talent, but the cleaning was a surprise. She wondered how Lièrén had known.
She kept glancing at the entryway, expecting the evening shift security team, Poltorak and Okonjo, to walk in any second. She needed to clean the blood from Derrit’s face, but she didn’t want to disturb him. She managed to unearth a knit shirt left over from a live band appearance. The shirt would be too big on Derrit’s skinny frame, but better that than the bloody one he was wearing. It wasn’t Derrit’s first fight, but it was the first one with a grown man. She could tell his nose was already swelling up, and he might have the start of a black eye. All she could do was apply a flexible cold pack until she could get him to the medical clinic for a quick treatment. Since she was the only licensed tender available until the night shift arrived, it’d have to wait a few hours.
She wanted to pace, demand answers, and try out the bar’s flame torch on the bald man’s bushy eyebrows, in no particular order. Instead, she scrubbed and polished the bar top until it gleamed, sliced fruit rind twists by hand with exacting precision for the next shift, and refilled the napkin dispenser. It felt like it was taking hours, but a glance at the clock told her it had been less than ten minutes when Lièrén and Derrit finally stood up.
Imara triggered the cold pack she’d pulled from the bar’s supply and handed it to her son. “You know the drill. Fifteen minutes on, ten minutes off. Lie down in the booth.” Derrit did as she asked without hesitation, meaning his nose was hurting a lot.
“Sit, before you fall,” she told Lièrén in the same no-arguments-I’m-your-mother tone, pointing to the barstool next to the one the bald telepath had monopolized. Lièrén smiled faintly. He looked exhausted and pale, but she’d seen him look worse, those first few days after he’d moved to the hotel.
Just as she opened her mouth to pepper him with questions, Poltorak and Okonjo finally arrived.
“What happened here?” asked Poltorak. She was a short but wide woman with a thick Russian accent and a ready smile. Okonjo was a tall, thin black man who looked like the wind would blow him over, but he was a ramper, a minder talent that made him stronger than he looked and wickedly fast. On him, bald was a good look.
Imara pointed to the telepath, still slumped on the floor, but now stirring. “Pre-chemmed guest. Wanted me for sex, and got unhappy when I turned him down, which is when I sent the Priority Two. He tried to get physical, then passed out. I didn’t serve him anything with a kick—you can check the dispense logs.” It was the truth as far as it went, and skipped over Lièrén’s and Derrit’s involvement. Fortunately, Poltorak was just as familiar with the hotel’s unwritten policy about no trouble and didn’t ask any more questions.
“Is good, then. We take him back to room, let him sleep.” She and Okonjo helped the woozy telepath sit, then get to his feet.
Okonjo looked to Imara. “English?” She nodded. “Mister… sir…” asked Okonjo solicitously of the man he was supporting. “What room are you in?”
Imara surreptitiously watched the telepath’s face for some sign of cognition, but he was really looped.
Okonjo sighed and thumbed his percomp to ping the front desk. “Iggy? Got a guest, can’t remember his room. Use security QB-2 and take a look.” Okonjo and Poltorak turned around with the man so he faced the discreet camera eye above the bar. Okonjo tilted the man’s head back so his face was clearly visible.
“He came in with an associate who called him ‘Karl,’ and he speaks German,” said Imara helpfully, loud enough for Iggy to hear. “The other guy mentioned the fourth floor.”
After a moment, Iggy came back with a fourth-floor room number. Okonjo and Poltorak half-carried, half-walked the man out of the bar.
Imara waited a few long seconds more to make sure they were really gone, then turned to Lièrén. “What will he remember?” She kept her voice low and quiet.
“That he had fantasies about you, but the last chem he took was chaotic, making him feel dizzy and fluxed, and then—fade out. The next thing he’ll remember is whatever the security team does with him. Even if they show him the video, he won’t remember assaulting you and will probably blame it on a bad chem reaction. Since you didn’t serve him any, you’re clear.”
Imara was impressed by how well the story fit together, and disturbed. She hadn’t realized how… chillingly effective high-level minders could be. “What did you do to him to make him drop like he was in 3G gravity?”
“Sifters can modulate synapses, neurotransmitters, and hormones. I flooded his receptors with a monoamine…” He trailed off, looking almost embarrassed. “I apologize for the tech speak. Think of it as doping, like applying a happy-drug slap patch.”
She wanted to ask a hundred more questions, but she needed to prioritize them. “Let me get you something to drink, on the house.”
“Thank you. Water would be welcome.” His shoulders were drooping, and one of his eyes was half-blinking with each heartbeat. Damn, but the man was polite, even when he was in agony.
“Would you like a painkiller to go with the water?” She dropped three ice cubes in a glass and started filling it. “I have several in the dispensary…”
He shook his head. “You’re kind to offer, but most chemical painkillers don’t work on sifters. I’d need a healer to follow me around for a few hours.”
“Really?” No wonder it was taking him such a long time to recover. She couldn’t imagine not being able to slap on a pain patch after a hard day on the road crew. “Well, that flatlines.”
“Yes,” said Lièrén, the corner of his mouth twitching with amusement.
She handed him the glass. He nodded his thanks and took several swallows before setting it down on the coaster in front of him. “I have a new liver, among other things. While I’m recovering, I can’t be on my normal enhancement drug program, and the withdrawal makes me dry-mouthed.”
It was the first time he’d confided so much in her. She knew firsthand about withdrawal symptoms. “The headaches, too?”
“Yes, and sweat flashes.” His smile was sardonic. “Still, I’m getting better every day.”
Despite his humor, she could tell he was all but done in for the night. “One more question, and then I hope you’ll go back to your room and rest.”
He ducked his head once. “As you wish, Bartender Sesay.” His overly subservient tone made her laugh.
“Cheeky brat. I told you, call me Imara. How did you know about Derrit’s cleaning talent? I guessed he was probably a shielder, because his father was, and I’m a filer, so it stands to reason he’d have some sort of talent. How did you know Derrit wanted to clean the telepath guy?”
He shrugged one shoulder, then winced. His neck muscles were probably as tight as a drum, considering how long he’d been enduring the headache. “Sifters can detect talents, though I’m not all that good at it. Derrit was angry enough to drop his shields, so I felt the… activation of his cleaning talent. It can be difficult to control when you’re mad.”
“I see. That’s how you knew the asshole was a straight telepath? He was activating, too?”
“Yes, though mid-levels like he is are usually better at containment. Whatever he chemmed himself with weakened his control. I could feel it even from back there.” He pointed to the far booth where Derrit was still lying with the cold pack across his face.
Imara badly wanted to get all the answers she could from him immediately, but she couldn’t justify torturing him any longer. He was only staying with her now out of good manners, and perhaps protectiveness. “You’ve got to get some rest, Agent Sòng. The security team will monitor the assho…uh, valued patron, so Derrit and I will be fine.”
He gave her a tired but genuine smile. “I would be honored if you would call me Lièrén.”
“Shì de, dāngrán, zūnjìng de xiānshēng.” Yes, of course, honored sir. She gave him an exaggerated bow. “Whatever honored sir desires.”
He laughed. “You speak Mandarin very well.”
“It was the official language on Capet Dedrum for six hundred years until the CGC moved in and made English the galactic standard. Mandarin is still primary with the long-timers, so it made sense to learn. My tonal control is iffy, though. I’ve come close to unforgivably insulting people more than once.”
“In that case, I’ll remember to ask first, rather than assuming I’ve made you mad.” He drank the last of his water and stood. “Goodnight, then.”
As he stepped back, she had the absurd impulse to ask when she’d see him again, like she was a fifteen-year-old at the end of a first date. Instead, she gave him a casual salute and a smile.
Once he was gone, she pulled out the knit shirt she’d found earlier and took it to the far booth, where her son was just sitting up.
“Here, trade me shirts. How’s the face, bata?”
“Mom!” he complained, drawing out the vowel. “I’m not a baby.” He stood and pulled off his own bloody shirt and handed it to her, then pulled the other one on. It hung nearly to his knees.
“No, you’re not. How’s the face, doddering old man?” She tilted his chin left and right, examining his face for bruising. The sooner they got to the all-hours medical clinic to get the bruising and swelling taken care of, the happier she’d be. She might even have them do something about her sore jaw and cut lip.
Derrit rolled his eyes. “It’s okay. It hurt worse when I ran into the light pole.” He’d been a lopar, recklessly horsing around on a friend’s street coaster.
Imara felt supremely lucky that it was a rare dead night at the bar. She looked at the one patron still there, an older-looking woman slumped and gently snoring in the booth closest to the hall to the fresher. Bookkeeper Shola was a bi-weekly regular who claimed to be an insomniac, but somehow managed to sleep several hours in the bar, regardless of the noise level. Imara would wake the woman when her shift ended, as usual.
She turned back to her son. “So, tell me what happened tonight.”
“You’re not mad at me, are you? For getting in a fight?”
She brushed the unhurt side of his face with her thumb. “No, but you know I worry about you. Mother’s prerogative. You have to learn when to pick your battles. He could’ve really hurt you.”
“Tatay would have kicked his ass.”
“Your father was an adult man, and you will be, too, someday, but not yet. Tell me about what you and Agent Sòng did together.”
Derrit’s eyes lit up. “It was absolute zero! He spoke in my mind, like Tatay used to, and showed me the guy’s memories and what needed erasing. I could see… well, feel him working, and it was like he was, like, weaving a basket. He showed me how to pick up the right strands. Agent Sòng’s mind is… smooth, maybe, like road glass, but the blond guy, his mind is yuck. Like when that waste reclamation line burst and you had to recycle all your work clothes.”
“And how do you feel now? Your father used to get heavy sinus congestion if he overused his talent.” She smiled and brushed the tip of his swollen nose with her finger. “It’s probably hard to tell right now, but think about it, okay? Human bodies provide negative feedback for a reason.”
“Mom, what does a cleaner do? I didn’t know I was one.”
“You have a net account. Why don’t you look it up and tell me?” She pointed toward the bar’s net terminals along one wall. “And look up sifter and twister, while you’re at it.” It was a good way to distract Derrit from the pain he wasn’t admitting to, and finding out more about Lièrén. Or at least about his talents.
Imara was very tempted to distract herself by mixing something from her dispensary, but she knew from hard-won experience, it didn’t solve anything. She’d had enough of making herself numb after Torin’s unexpected death, and would never go back there again. Detoxing on her own had been painful. She had to be coherent and present so she could do what was best for her son. Plenty of people wouldn’t look past their fearful distrust of minders to see the warm, fun-loving, protective boy, who was so much like his father that it made her heart swell with bittersweet memories.
* Planet: Concordance Prime * GDAT 3238.206 *
Imara put the last drink on the bar and caught Rayle’s eye so he’d know the big table’s order was ready. He was always gregarious, but tonight, he was practically incandescent, flitting in and out among the tables, dancing and sometimes singing to the music, teasing the kids, and flirting shamelessly with the adults. It was a boisterous crowd, and there was nothing Rayle loved more than an audience. His hair was newly sky blue with winking lights, his eyebrows and eyelashes had a blue neon metallic sheen, and drops had made his irises look shiny silver, all in preparation for the upcoming dance performance he was in. He’d been a part of the publicity session just that morning. He was offering tickets to anyone who seemed remotely interested.
Because she was watching for him, she noticed when Lièrén Sòng arrived, a day later than she’d expected based on the pattern he’d established. All the booths were taken, including his preferred small one in the back, so he chose to sit at the end of the bar. Rayle noticed, too, and after serving the big table and stowing the tray, he made a beeline to Lièrén to take his order, even though it was usually Imara’s job to serve the people at the bar. It amused her that Lièrén would always get excellent service as long as Rayle was around. Or if she was around, if she was honest.
Out of habit, she glanced at Derrit, who was playing an online game at one of the kiosks. She allowed him an hour an evening, to make up for being stuck in the hotel. One of the few perks she got as an employee was free use of the net terminals, which made it easier to put off updating the housecomp and percomps for her and Derrit. Spires, even out in the Rim where their apartment was located, was a hideously expensive place to live, which was why she supplemented her day job as a road-crew leader with bartending for the hotel.
Over the last three days, Imara had thought a lot about what to do about Derrit. She’d been careful not to make him feel that she disapproved of his talent, because she’d had enough of that as a child, and she’d only been a farkin’ low-level filer, hardly a minder worth registering in the eyes of the CPS Testing Center. Premium talents like Derrit’s were a double-edged sword. He’d have more career choices than she ever did, but resentment and prejudice could make a minder’s life hell.
He was still a child, no matter how responsible he was for a boy his age. She was concerned that he didn’t know what he was doing and could get hurt, or might unintentionally hurt someone else, and that he wouldn’t tell her because he wouldn’t want to worry her. Her husband Torin had been very protective and had a tendency to keep troubling details from her, and she recognized the same habit developing in her son. Torin had started it because too many details used to overwhelm her, but she was older now and better at staying focused, and she didn’t want Derrit to adopt Torin’s behavior.
She was kept busy for the next ten minutes with dispensary orders. Rayle could prepare the flats and fizzies, but only she was licensed to dispense the kickers—alcohol, chems, inhalants, or alterants—that made up about half the bar’s business on busy nights. She trusted Rayle’s judgment, but it was ultimately her decision as to whether or not to serve the kickers, because it was her license. It was legal in Spires for a tender to serve high-test to a ten-year-old, but it was also likely to get the tender personally sued if the kid sustained lasting injury because of it. Her personal policy was to not serve kickers to anyone under seventeen, and the hotel’s managers backed her up because they didn’t want to get sued, either.
Finally, she had a lull, and she drifted down to the end of the bar where Lièrén sat. He looked healthier than he had three nights ago. He smiled when he saw her.
“If I might ask, who selects the music for the bar?” He gestured up toward one of the ceiling speakers. The song playing sounded a lot closer to Japanese surashu thrash than a British pub tune. His brown eyes were almost black, and when he looked at her, it felt like she had his undivided attention. It was unexpectedly nice. Most of her customers usually had a dozen other things on their minds, and rarely saw her as a person.
Imara smiled back. “Probably some automated algorithm that chooses based on lyrics or whatever keywords the artists tagged it with. Why?”
“Rayle is having trouble improvising choreography that doesn’t look like an insect attack.”
She looked to where Lièrén was pointing, then laughed out loud. It drew Rayle’s attention, and he wended his way through the tables to join them.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
She gave him a teasing smirk. “You. Where’d you find the termite hill to dance on?”
Rayle rolled his eyes and leaned closer to Lièrén to nudge his shoulder playfully. “Says the woman who says she can’t dance at all.”
Lièrén smiled but didn’t nudge back. “I can’t, either, though I respect your difficulty in performing to this particular piece. I think the singer is complaining about glass shards in his Scotch, which would explain the shrieking.”
Rayle was about to answer when a customer from across the room shouted for him. Rayle gave a little salute to Lièrén and darted away.
Lièrén gestured toward where Rayle had stood. “He looks very, uhm, blue tonight.”
Imara laughed, delighted that Lièrén was feeling well enough to joke with them again. “It’s for a show. Don’t tell him you noticed, or he’ll be delighted to show you that all of his hair is now electric blue. The man has no shame.” She shook her head. “At least dancers aren’t expected to get full-body makeovers for their roles like holovid actors are.” She pointed to his empty glass. “Another red fizz, or maybe some water?”
“Yes to both, please.” She quickly took care of him, then checked on the other people at the bar and filled several orders for Rayle. As nice as it was to have a busy night, because it made the time go fast and the tips were good, she really wanted a few quiet moments with Lièrén. She wanted to ask him a favor.
The next chance she got, she asked if he’d eaten yet, and offered to order something.
Lièrén gave her a slight smile. “A kind thought, but I’ll pass.”
She didn’t blame him—the hotel restaurant was unpopular for good reason. “I could send Derrit to the kitchen to make a sandwich. He makes a pretty mean flatbread with toasted cheese, and that’s not just a mother’s pride talking.”
“Thank you, no, but perhaps later.” He looked regretful. “The new drug regimen affects my appetite.”
“Sorry to hear it.” She rested her forearms flat on the counter and rounded her back in a stretch. She’d been on her feet for the whole shift. “May I ask, do all CPS minders get enhancement drugs? I’ve only heard general conversations, but it seems like they do.”
“The telepathic and telekinetic minders do. The enhancement drugs also help with focus and maintaining control. I’m not sure about the patterner class. Filers like you, and the forecasters and such, don’t seem to need it.”
“I don’t know about that. I used to get distracted by, well, everything under the sun, but I’ve worked on it.” She shrugged. “Of course, I’m only a mid-level, and a late bloomer at that. I don’t envy you being told to take daily drugs because it’s ‘good for you.’”
“The benefits outweigh the cost. I will admit to not liking being told to exercise for that reason. Being closely monitored while using force exercisers and treadmills is… uninspiring.”
“You should come to a dance class with me,” said Rayle, who had stepped up behind Lièrén without him noticing and overheard the last few words. “It’s impossible to be bored when you’re dancing.”
Lièrén shook his head. “I am not yet able to participate in such activities.” He sounded actually regretful, not just polite, but Imara didn’t know him well enough to tell the difference.
Rayle winked at Lièrén. “I’ll take that as a ‘maybe.’” He turned to Imara. “The long-limbed, sexy man in the clingy green kilt at table six wants another gram of loupomak. They’re celebrating because he won a frontier planet homestead lottery.” He rolled his eyes. “They’ll probably tip me in lottery tickets. Can’t pay the rent with lottery tickets.”
Imara never forgot a bar order, so she didn’t even have to think about it. “Nope, he’s already had two. Offer him some intwinden or canab. Or a Red Blossom token, to take the edge off.”
“Red Blossom?” asked Lièrén.
“Joyhouse up the north walkway,” replied Rayle as he fished in the drawer, then held up a red, oval-shaped smart chip with a red flower on it. “First come, first served!” He twirled away.
Imara snorted. “You’d think that joke would get old with him, but you’d be wrong.”
Business picked up again, and she had to abandon Lièrén for a while. She was worried that he’d leave before she got the chance to talk to him. He’d probably stay if she asked, because he was always accommodating, but she didn’t want to take advantage of him. Well, she did, because in addition to being nice, he was a handsome, sexy man, but he was also a transient who could be gone tomorrow. She had an ironclad personal policy not to get involved with transients, no matter how plasma hot they were. She’d seen enough of that with her mother’s always-outbound parade of lovers. The favor she wanted to ask was for Derrit, not for her.
Derrit was working on an assignment for school that he wasn’t ready to show her yet. He got that trait from his father, who had loved building suspense before revealing some secret project. Like the time he’d learned to crochet and made an afghan throw for Derrit as a solstice gift. That the afghan was decidedly polygonal instead of square hadn’t mattered to her adoring son in the slightest. On busy nights like tonight, she set up a tiny table near the pantry for Derrit, or he’d never get any work done, especially when other kids came in. Derrit was very social, again like his father. She herself was shy by nature, or at least she had been, until she’d had to learn not to be, so she could put food on the table. Shy road-crew employees got little respect, and bashful bartenders got few tips.
Miraculously, Lièrén stayed, and took the opportunity to snag his favorite booth once it became free. Remembering his dry-mouth problem, she sent Rayle with another glass of water. It was sometimes still hard to remember that in Spires, or more officially, Novi Nadezhdi, potable water was plentiful and cheap enough to offer for free. She’d grown up in a near-desert, where the only oasis was a hundred kilometers away, and water was how wealth was measured.
After refusing to serve brandy to a thirteen-year-old, it got her wondering how old Lièrén was. Certainly over seventeen, because the CPS didn’t hire children as field agents, but he looked about twenty-five. Even without the standard rejuve treatments that everyone got, he’d probably look young most of his life. Whereas her people, especially the women, looked like the proverbial old crones by the time they were fifty, without treatments, and she was behind on hers. She didn’t skip the regular health maintenance checkups and procedures, because she was all Derrit had, but body work at her age was considered elective. She even skipped the expense of a body parlor for her hair, meaning it had grown longer and shaggier than ever, despite occasional home trims. On the other hand, her great-times-three grandmother was still alive and running her own sheep station at age 168, so at least she had natural longevity going for her.
She knew why she was worrying about her looks, when she usually couldn’t be bothered. He was sitting in the back booth. Even though she was only thirty-seven, she was still probably too old for him. Twelve- or fifteen-year age differences didn’t matter much these days, what with increasing human life spans, but it was still a consideration for a successful relationship. She rolled her eyes at the direction of her thoughts. She had no business whatsoever thinking about a relationship with a transient. Maybe she needed to visit the Red Blossom to take the edge off.
Finally, the big party at table six broke up, which seemed to be the signal for other patrons to leave, too. The crowd thinned out, and Rayle took a break so he could make something to eat in the kitchen. As employees, they were allowed to use it unless the restaurant was busy, which was hardly ever. Derrit had made himself an omelet there earlier. Thank Neptune he thought cooking was an adventure, and was now responsible enough to be trusted in a kitchen.
She loaded the glassware into the quicksan in the corner, rather than send it to the kitchen. The unit was fast, but small, so it would take several loads. It wasn’t worth the argument with the resentful restaurant staff to ask them to do it, even though it was their job. She straightened up the supply bottles and boxes, and entered ordering notes for those that were running low.
The second Rayle came back, she asked him to watch the bar for a few minutes. She poured a flat orange for Derrit and took it to him, then took her glass of kelasa and slid into the vacant seat in Lièrén’s booth. Whatever he was reading on his very elegant, high-powered percomp was making him frown, but when he looked up at her, he smiled.
Suddenly, she was nervous. “I’d like to make you a proposition.”
At his raised eyebrows, she realized how it sounded. “Oh, sorry, not like that. I’m trying to propose a trade… I’d like to….” She was sounding like a complete idiot. “I’m not chemmed, I promise. I want to ask you for a favor.” She took a deep breath. “I’d like you to teach Derrit to use his talents. I know you’re still recovering, so I’ll understand if you’re not able to, but I’m just a general filer, and I can’t do it, and I don’t know anyone else. In trade, I’ll serve you whatever you want for free, as long as you’re here. I know it’s not much, but he could really use the help in learning to control his talents.”
She looked at his altogether too-handsome face as he considered her words. She hoped for Derrit’s sake he’d agree, and at the same time, hoped he’d take her for a babbling fool and turn her down, so she wouldn’t be tempted by him anymore.