Varken rise, p.4

Varken Rise, page 4


Varken Rise

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  “That’s pretty much exactly what they’re reporting,” Brant agreed.

  “If the planet was too close to the gates, then the gravity surges will cause earthquakes, as continental plates get pushed around. Then volcanoes will break out, as the lava beds beneath the tectonic plates are squeezed up to the surface.”

  Brant stared at him. “Glave above….”

  “I’ll drink to that.” Bedivere took another mouthful.

  * * * * *

  They all followed the Soward story with close attention. After a week of reporting on emergency measures, the news feeds shifted focus. Catherine was the first to notice.

  “Is it my imagination, or are they implying that Jovanka was crazy?”

  “It takes attention away from the inefficiency of gates as transport,” Bedivere said dryly. “The traditionalists don’t enjoy having their weaknesses pointed out.”

  “No, it’s economics,” Catherine said. “The planetary governors control their own gates now that the Federation has gone. There’s a lot of revenue they can collect from ships using the gates. They don’t want people to be afraid to use them.”

  “So we got rid of the Federation yet the monopoly still reigns,” Brant said.

  “No wonder the Cartel is trying to blame Jo,” Bedivere added.

  “You think the Cartel is behind this?” Lilly asked.

  “Soward has a planetary governor,” Catherine said. “I guarantee that the Cartel is pulling his strings.”

  “It doesn’t matter who is the power holder there,” Bedivere argued. “Soward is closed for business. If the planet doesn’t shut down altogether and whoever is left alive migrates, then they going to go back into fringe-like status until they can claw their way back to civilization. Someone is going to be highly pissed about that. Of course they’re looking for someone to blame.”

  “So they’re going to blame Jovanka,” Lilly said sourly.

  “They have admitted that Jo was sentient,” Catherine said. “Now this crazy thing. Is it is obvious to you as it is to me what they going to do next?”

  An invisible hand caught at Bedivere’s throat and squeezed. “They’ll say she turned rogue, that she did this deliberately, to kill humans.”

  Catherine nodded.

  “She did do this deliberately,” Lilly said.

  “If by deliberate,” Brant said, “you mean she did it in the same way a man dying of thirst will shoot himself in the head to put himself out of his agony, then yes, she did it deliberately.”

  Lilly stared at him in surprise.

  So did Bedivere. This was the first time he had seen Brant publicly support them. “You’ve been silent for years about the Varkan,” Bedivere said. “I thought you were on the fence about this.”

  “I was until this happened,” Brant said. “Then I met Jo. She was as sane and steady as you, which was remarkable given the way they were treating her.” He grimaced. “Now that we know it was the Cartel doing it to her, it makes horrible sense. And it makes me mad.”

  “So human life is not the be all and end all of existence?” Catherine asked. Bedivere could hear the amusement in her voice. Sometimes, she got a wicked sense of fun out of teasing Brant about his beliefs.

  “I don’t know that I’m ready to say that much yet,” Brant said soberly. “Bedivere being the exception, of course. The Varkan are still very young. Let’s say I’m keeping an open mind.”

  “Catherine really has rubbed off on you hasn’t she?” Lilly said.

  “Experience has rubbed off on me,” he corrected her. “Standing next to Catherine has a way of opening my eyes, because things happen around her.”

  Lilly looked as though she was bracing herself for a knockdown, drag out argument over philosophy and faith. There had been plenty of those in the past and Bedivere suspected it was those arguments more than the experience that Brant was touting that had influenced his shift in beliefs. This would be the first time the Brant was on a different side from Lilly. They had marched in lockstep for two decades, secure in their belief that the human race was the only priority that mattered.

  The house AI spoke to Bedivere silently and he sat up. “There’s a city cab hovering, asking for permission to land.”

  “Who is it?” Catherine asked.

  “The passenger paid for an ID block,” Bedivere said. “The only way we find out is to let it land.”

  That ended the argument before it began. Most arguments about faith never concluded. They were merely disbanded. What someone believed, what they thought was the truth, was often hard to give up.

  * * * * *

  Catherine used the concierge panel to open the bumper shield enough to allow the cab through. Then she activated the secondary protocols, that would monitor the new arrival until they reached the roof.

  The house AI informed Bedivere of what she had done, as he used the drop shaft to float to the roof. Plus, Catherine kept a shield bubble around him as he moved forward to meet the cab as it landed on the grass, flattening it.

  The door slid up and the passenger stepped out and raised his hands.

  “I’m really quite harmless,” Kemp Rodagh said.

  Bedivere found himself smiling. He popped the shield bubble and moved forward. Kemp held out his arms and they hugged tightly. “Talk about a voice from the past,” Bedivere said warmly.

  “I’m sorry to just drop in on you,” Kemp said as they separated. “Honestly, I had nowhere else to go.”

  “You weren’t on Soward then?”

  Kemp’s dark coffee-colored face was troubled. “Ey’Liv. A contract to help them coordinate stepping online with the datacore. They have finally unbent and joined everyone. The contract was a complete pain in the neck, not least because Ey’Liv is a heavy place. Ends up it was the best contract I ever had.”

  As Kemp spoke, Bedivere reach through to the datacore and did a quick, superficial search. What he could trace of Kemp’s movements matched what he was saying.

  Kemp had spent his entire life dodging the Cartel and knew how to hide his tracks, even from Bedivere. He would have to do a more thorough search later. For now, though, there was enough concurrence to let him relax. Just a little.

  “If you’ve been on a heavy world, then the sea is just what you need to unwind. Come on, we’ll have dinner and sort things out after that. I’m sure Catherine and the others will be very happy to see you again.”

  Kemp looked around, as if he was taking in his environment for the first time. “There are so many islands and buildings, I can’t see much sea.”

  “This is your first time on Nicia?”

  “Everyone talks about how beautiful this place is. I just never got around to it.”

  “Then we’ll definitely have to take you to see the Finger.” He led Kemp toward the drop chute entrance.

  “That’s the upside-down building, right?”

  “I suppose you could describe it that way. The ninety-seven floors underneath the surface keep the forty above the surface tipped up the right way. The view from the sub-ninety-seventh floor is amazing.”

  Kemp paused at the entrance and looked at him. “It really is good to see you Bedivere.” Then he straightened his shoulders. “You’d better reintroduce me to Catherine. Last time we met she was Caitlyn, you were human and I thought you both hated each other.” He laughed. “I really got that wrong, didn’t I?”

  “Which part?”

  “All of it.”

  Bedivere laughed.

  Later, he would remember that as one of the last peaceful moments.

  * * * * *

  “The Federation has gone, which has freed up the economics of the known worlds in a way that scares the pants off most people,” Kemp said easily, then ate another mouthful of fish. “A truly free and open market is a live thing. No one can estimate how it will behave, not on the scale we have now. Yet there are aspects of the Federation that worked well. They used to call it the fedcore, now it’s just the datacore. It’s what holds the
systems together.” His eyes shadowed over with remembered pain. “Even more so now that everyone is questioning the reliability of the gates.”

  “You’re not going to blame it on the rogue Varkan?” Lilly asked.

  “In this company? I’d be a fool to.” He glanced at Catherine and smiled.

  Catherine gave him a small smile back. She was beginning to relax around him, for he was not like most people, who tended to stare at her and want to ask her questions about her childhood and if Glave really was her father. Kemp, on the other hand, had been merely friendly.

  She barely remembered him from the one trip they had made to deliver him to Soward underneath the Cartel radar. That had been decades ago. She did remember that he and Bedivere had been very close throughout the journey.

  It pleased her that he and Bedivere were hitting it off again. Bedivere did not have friends, for humans who could deal with him as just another person were hard to come by. Kemp seem to have no objections to his true state as a sentient computer and the banter around the table was easy and free of undertones.

  Even Brant and Lilly were unbending enough to laugh and play foil to Kemp’s conversational leads.

  Kemp was very attractive in an overwhelmingly masculine, physical way. The dark coffee of his skin gleamed under the subdued lights over the table. The shirt he wore was tight across his shoulders and short enough that when he stretched, his abs displayed the divots and mounds of a very fit man.

  Catherine had caught Lilly glancing at him speculatively once or twice and wondered if Brant minded Lilly wandering from his bed. Yet Kemp paid no more attention to Lilly or her than he did to Brant and Bedivere.

  “If Bedivere was not sitting there, would you have a different opinion about what happened to the Soward gates?” Catherine asked Kemp curiously.

  “Would you?”

  Catherine shook her head. “I don’t think Jovanka knew what she was doing. Not completely. In the end, she was just trying to get away, the only way there was left for her.”

  Kemp’s eyes narrowed and he studied her speculatively. Then he shifted subjects adroitly. “Jovanka is an interesting name. Does anyone know where it comes from?”

  Catherine settled back in her chair and let the conversation drift. Clearly he had not wanted to respond to speculation about Jovanka. As he was from Soward, that was perhaps understandable. The first thing he had done when Bedivere had shown him downstairs to his room was tap into the datacore and search for family members.

  The house AI had reported his searches, which was the first time Catherine knew that Bedivere was tracking his movements inside the house. Bedivere was not so caught up in the old friendship that he had abandoned caution. Neither had he touched alcohol at the dinner table. He seemed to be as relaxed as everyone else and laughed in all the right places, yet he was alert, nevertheless.

  Once dinner was finished, Brant and Catherine recycled the tableware and shut down the galley. Over the years it had been established that Brant was a better housekeeper than Lilly, who was much better with circuits and crystals, with a tool in her hand. So Brant provided most of the domestic labor the house AI couldn’t complete and Catherine added her share.

  Bedivere would do the work if asked to. However, he seemed to be unable to see dirt and clutter even when he was tripping over it. It was one of the ironic quirks in him that she loved. He was so logical in his thinking, that the little bit of dirt she had to clean up around him made him seem all the more human.

  Kemp came into the galley with an over-looked glass and put it on the cabinet next to her. “I’m glad I found you here. I was wondering if I might have a private word?”

  Brant shrugged. “Don’t mind me.” He left, leaving them alone in the kitchen.

  Catherine looked at Kemp expectantly.

  “It’s about Jovanka,” he said slowly. “I didn’t want to speak of it in front of Bedivere, but I’ve seen some of the evidence. I know someone, who knows someone…. You know how it goes.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. “The computer was showing signs of instability months before she leapt through the gate. They even had a counselor talk to her. She was delusional. She thought people were trying to kill her.”

  “What are you saying?” Catherine asked, even as her heart sunk.

  “She really did go rogue,” Kemp said. “They did everything they could to help her. It wasn’t enough.”

  Catherine shook her head slowly. “That doesn’t make sense. The Varkan are incapable of lying when they first wake. Everything she told us was logical and coherent.”

  “And how long had she been awake? Do you know? It’s the Cartel we’re talking about. If they had unshackled a computer and she woke, do you think they would tell anyone? For all you know, Jovanka could be older than Bedivere.”

  “Then we would’ve heard about her before now, even if she was on Soward. Something like that couldn’t be held secret for a very long.” Catherine spoke with conviction, because she had seen too many deeply held secrets explode and destroy lives.

  “Not if Jovanka cooperated in maintaining the secret. She would have been as scared as Bedivere about revealing herself before the Federation fell. Now the College is toothless and Bedivere’s true nature is common knowledge. Hell, he’s famous. Here’s the thing, though. Let’s say she is as old as Bedivere. Perhaps this disintegration is how the Varkan age. Perhaps dementia is in every Varkan’s future.”

  Catherine shook her head. She wanted to argue against it forcibly, except there was a tiny seed of doubt in her. She hated that doubt. She wanted to squeeze it out of existence and pretend it had never been there. Yet it was growing even as she tried to deny it.

  “Think about it,” Kemp said. “The two computers, the earlier ones. The Birgir Stoyan and the one before it—the ones that really went rogue. Do you know how old they were?”

  Catherine felt cold. If Jovanka had really been that old, it would explain why she had been able to find Interspace by herself. She just didn’t want to believe it. “The Birgir Stoyan was well before my time,” she said weakly. “The Ammonites destroyed all the records. No one knows for sure what happened back then. It was before the Interregnum, anyway.”

  She was talking too fast. Saying too much. She made herself shut up and just looked at Kemp. “Is that why you’re here? To warn me?”

  “I really am stranded,” he said. “Everyone knows where Bedivere can be found. It’s the most well-known fact in the core worlds. With the Cartel trying to mop up the mess on Soward, I can move freely.”

  “So you thought you would drop this in my lap to pass the time?”

  Kemp moved a little bit closer toward her. “I’m not trying to frighten you. Glave knows I’m not trying to make you angry, either. You don’t have to tell me all your secrets, although I know you know more about Jovanka than anyone else does. That makes me think that Jovanka and Bedivere knew each other.” His voice dropped to a low note. “I like Bedivere. I always have. So perhaps I am trying to warn you, in a way.”

  “Catherine,” Bedivere said.

  He was standing at the door, his fingers gripping the frame. How long had he been there?

  “Do you remember where your room is?” Catherine asked Kemp.

  He nodded.

  “Good night, then.” She brushed past him, only now realizing how close to her he had been standing.

  As she moved past Bedivere, she shivered. She couldn’t help it and she hated herself for it.

  * * * * *

  “How much did you hear?” Catherine asked Bedivere as soon as they reached the security of their bedroom.

  “Enough,” he said. “You don’t have to explain anything, Cat. Not to me.”

  Surprised, she studied him. “I don’t think you heard anything at all,” she said slowly. “I think you saw me standing close to Kemp. That is why you’re looking at me that way.”

  Bedivere gave a dry laugh. “Are you saying I’m jealous?”

  “Jealousy is a waste of gast
ric juices,” she said tiredly. “That doesn’t mean that if the right circumstances arise, you won’t feel it.” Bitterly, she added, “Doubt can hit you from the most unexpected angles.”

  “Then what were you talking about?” Bedivere raised a brow. “Me? Or Jovanka?”

  Catherine hesitated.

  Bedivere saw her pause and scowled. “When have you ever not been able to talk to me about anything?”

  “You’ve been under huge stress the last few days and this, it’s…. She drew in another breath and girded herself. “You’re right, if we can’t talk about anything we want, then this stops working.” She briefly outlined everything Kemp had said. She held nothing back. “I hate that he made me doubt myself,” she said fiercely. “I hate that he’s made me question anything about you.”

  Bedivere took her head in his hands and kissed her. “Kemp is right. There is room for doubt there. That is, if you only work with the information that he has. You’re forgetting something, though. Jovanka couldn’t have been as old as he thinks she was. There were things she did not know. Words. Human interaction. It was all new to her. If what Kemp is saying is true and she had been working with the Cartel to hide her from the rest of the core worlds, then things such as manners and words would have been known to her.”

  Catherine realized she was biting her lip and made herself stop. “What if she really was delusional?”

  Bedivere looked at her steadily. “If she was, then we may have to face the possibility that dementia is the fate of all Varkan. Including me.”

  Catherine gave a soft moan. Her eyes were stinging. “Don’t say that.”

  “Why not? If it is a possibility, then we should be braced for that.” He gave her a small smile. “I am not prepared to acknowledge the possibility until we look into the details. I think we should make the trip to Soward. Then we bribe, cheat and steal any information we can, from anywhere we can, that will answer your doubts.”

  Something shifted inside her and Catherine felt a great sadness. “He has discolored things between us. I hate him for that.”

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