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Authors: Tracy Cooper-Posey

Tags: #Science Fiction Romance

Cat and Company (6 page)

BOOK: Cat and Company
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“I’ve been Celestial’s elected mayor for a while now,” Nichol replied. He sat back down and rubbed his chin, his hand making a rasping sound as it passed over the whiskers there. “Lilly and I were just talking about moving the village.”

“To where?” Bedivere asked curiously. Connell pushed him toward a chair and Bedivere made himself sit down.

“To the sun side,” Lilly said. Her voice was expressionless. Bedivere knew from her neutral tone that she wasn’t happy with the idea.

“The gardens are there,” Bedivere said. “They need the sun.”

“And the farmers hold every other village to ransom with their produce,” Nichol replied. “We only ask for the ability to grow some of our own crops. We have the room and we were the first village here. That should be acknowledged.”

“You don’t have any soil to grow crops
in,
” Bedivere pointed out. He said it calmly, hiding his exasperation. The First Five were constantly harping about the privileges they deserved for having been here the longest.

“Soil can be generated,” Lilly said, her tone also calm. “Monopolies are not healthy.”

“Free economies have a way of dealing with monopolies,” Bedivere shot back. “As long as they’re left free to operate naturally. You’re not really considering this, are you?”

Lilly was still standing, he realized. She looked at Nichol. “It might be better if we pick up this discussion at another time, Nichol. Bedivere needs time to settle in.”

Nichol got to his feet immediately. “Of course.”

“We’ll arrange a time for as soon as possible,” Yennifer added. She was also still standing. She glanced at the AI, who nodded.

Nichol nodded congenially at everyone around the table, then stepped down onto the main section of the room and headed for the door. Yennifer followed him.

Bedivere frowned, watching, as Yennifer caught up with Nichol just at the door. They stood speaking quietly, then Yennifer kissed Nichol and opened the door for him.

Bedivere glanced at Brant and Connell, surprised.

“A few years now,” Connell said.

“I still can’t figure out if he likes her or if he just likes the optics,” Brant added.

“Optics?”

Connell grimaced. “A Varkan on your arm looks…progressive.”

Bedivere tabled that for later consideration. It was more evidence that things had shifted and changed while he had been gone.

Lilly was stacking boards, her head down, her curly hair shielding her face so that Bedivere couldn’t read her expression. The AI had disappeared.

Bedivere spread his hands on the table, feeling the coolness of the surface against his palms and the solidness of the structure. “You’re really going to agree to shifting a whole village, Lilly?” he asked carefully.

Yennifer had nearly reached the table. She halted. “I should come back later,” she said, backing up a step.

Bedivere glanced at her.

Everyone else was shifting, uneasiness settling over the table like a low-lying mist. It cranked up the tightness in his chest once more.

Lilly held her hand out toward Yennifer. “No, don’t go. We have lots left to do today.” She turned to face Bedivere squarely. There was a small furrow between her brows. “Not that I have to explain myself to you, but Nichol’s village is willing to pay a lot of money to move to the other side of the city.”

“You’re taking
taxes
now?” He was almost breathless with surprise.

“I’m thinking about it,” she shot back. “I have to generate revenue somehow and taxes are the simplest way to do it—”

“The tethers were bringing in more than we could spend,” Bedivere said.

“Sales of the tethers have almost halted,” she shot back, dropping the boards back onto the table. “Varkan want to buy a tether from
you
but you weren’t here, were you?”

Her hand on her hip was white with the pressure she was exerting.

Bedivere sat breathing heavily, adjusting to her sudden anger.

“If you do let Nichol buy a premium position in the city, Lilly,” Brant said quietly, “you’ll be setting a precedent. Every village will be vying for favored positions, competing with each other. There’s only one sun side.”

She rounded on him, her jaw tight. “You’re in no position to offer advice, Fareed Brant.” She looked at the three of them sitting at the table, a sweeping glance. “
None
of you. You left me here to run this place. You didn’t even bother to check if I
wanted
to. You just left me holding the bag while you ran off on your adventures. You gave up any right to tell me how you think I should do my job.”

Brant pressed his lips together, watching her. He looked at Bedivere then sat back in his chair, distancing himself. Bedivere understood what he was doing and why.

That left it up to him. He tried again. “I’m not telling you what to do, Lilly. I’m just wondering if you haven’t lost sight of what I—what
we
were trying to do when we set up Charlton. An open economy, complete freedom for everyone including the right to get themselves killed in whatever way their stupidity dictates. Taxes are the old way of doing things.”

“And the old ways worked for thousands of years,” she shot back. “I did the best I could and that’s what I’ll continue to do. I didn’t have the great Bedivere X to call on for his wisdom and guidance. You pushed Catherine at Devlin and fucked off yourself. I don’t know how you have the gall to even make a
suggestion
.”

Bedivere froze. All except his heart, which skittered along unevenly. He watched, unable to speak, as Lilly swept up the boards again, stalked down to her desk and dumped them there. “We’ll work in your office,” she told Yennifer and both of them left.

The door shut quietly behind them.

“I’m sorry, Bedivere,” Brant said. “I know she doesn’t mean it.”

Bedivere shook his head. “It’s Lilly. She meant everything she said.”

Connell was watching him, his face unhappy.

“And she was right to say it,” Bedivere added.

Connell sighed.

Neither of them tried to argue.

Bedivere got stiffly to his feet. Tiredness was gnawing at him. It was the sort of total exhaustion that made him feel like he was made of lead. “Is anyone using that room?” He pointed to the narrow door behind the piano.

“That? That’s a closet,” Brant said.

“It’ll do just fine,” Bedivere assured him. “I’m going to print a bed then sleep for a week. Maybe more.”

Chapter Six

The Hana Stareach. FY 10.187

Catherine permanently erased Yennifer’s message, put the board face down on the table, and sat up with a bright, interested look on her face while her body and brain churned. Nothing anyone was saying around the board table registered in the slightest.

Bedivere was back.

She tried to sort out her feelings. It was a hot soup of unclassifiable emotions. She could barely sit still as they prodded her.

The meeting broke up ten minutes later, for which she was eternally grateful. Dignitaries filed out of the big boardroom. The room was one of the grandest on the
Hana
, designed to impress and intimidate visitors, with its ranks of pillars and walls and ceiling of glass that revealed the stars beyond.

Devlin leaned toward her and spoke in an undertone. “Did you get bad news a few minutes ago?”

She shook her head. “It’s nothing. My AI screwed up my lunch order.”

Devlin smiled. “You need to scrub that AI and get another one. It’s woefully inefficient. We’re heading for Gry next.” His smile slipped just a little. “Another round in the ongoing war over the interpretation of Glave’s meaning of the word ‘human’.”

“The Ammonites know they’re losing,” Catherine told him. “That loss will bring an end to the very meaning of their lives. They
have
to fight it.”

“You may have to remind me of that every five minutes. No one can make me as angry as they can with their unquestioning platitudes.”

Catherine got to her feet. “I’ll be back for the Ammonites,” she told him. “I’m just going to my room for a moment.”

Devlin turned to speak to the senior Varkan still sitting at the table, laying the groundwork for the Gry meeting, as she left. She hurried through the passages down to the next level where her stateroom was located. Her heart outpaced her.

Bedivere was back.

What did it mean
?

* * * * *

The tap on the door came a microsecond before the door opened, which meant Brant wasn’t looking for permission to enter.

Bedivere put down the board he was reading, resting it on his chest. He tucked his hand under his head.

Brant nearly bumped his shoulder against the shelves that started just inside the door and stepped out of the way of them with a startled glance upward. The shelves had been there when Bedivere moved in and he hadn’t bothered trying to get rid of them. There were boxes and items on the shelves that no one seemed to be interested in, so he was never disturbed.

Brant’s side step brought him to the foot of the bed Bedivere was lying on. Brant looked around the room. “I’m surprised a bed could fit in here.”

“I gave the printer the dimensions.” Bedivere shrugged. The bed was narrow and shorter than he was used to, although it held him up and allowed him to sleep.

“There is a perfectly good suite across the room and it’s empty,” Brant pointed out.

Running water. Trees. Dappled light. Peace. Warmth. Softness. Her scent….

Bedivere took a deep breath and shook his head. “No, thank you.”

Brant crossed his arms. His eyes narrowed down thoughtfully as he considered Bedivere.

Bedivere waited him out. He had time.

“What are you doing, anyway?” Brant asked.

He was going to come to his point from the side. Bedivere rested his hand on the board lying on his chest. “Reading about the destruction of the Last Gate.”

“That was nearly a hundred years ago,” Brant pointed out. “They never learned what happened and who did it back then. You figure you can out-smart everyone now?”

“I was curious. We always thought that Kare Sarkisian escaped into the Silent Sector and he’s never turned up again.”

“If he was in the Sector when the Gate was destroyed, then he’s still in the Sector and probably stone cold dead by now,” Brant replied. “So you don’t have him to blame for your woes this time.”

Gloves off
, Bedivere thought. He put the board on the floor and sat up, resting his back against the wall behind him. “That’s why you’re here? Time for your pound of flesh now?”

Brant blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“Lilly took her bite. Connell won’t talk to me directly unless I ask a direct question. You’ve been holding it in for weeks now. I figure you’re overdue.”

“Lilly apologized right after,” Brant said hotly.

“And I thanked her for it.” Bedivere made himself shut up and wait.

Brant stirred uneasily. “You think I really want to slap you around for leaving?”

“Don’t you?”

“Hell, yes. I want to beat you up for scaring the hell out of everyone. Lilly
mourned
you, you know. She thought you were dead.”

Bedivere sighed.

“That doesn’t mean I’m going to give myself the pleasure of taking a swing at you. Because that’s the only reason I’d be doing it. To make myself feel better.” Brant shrugged.

“So why are you here?”

“Because no one can find you out there, beyond this door. You’ve been hiding in here for weeks. You creep out when you think there’s no chance of running into anyone and having to look them in the eye.”

“Lilly said she could run this place just fine without me. It’s not like my absence is bothering anyone.”

“Did the savage pits deprive you of all intelligence, Bedivere? Because that’s
exactly
what you’re doing. You’re bothering
everyone
. When you weren’t here, we coped. We had to. Now you’re here and you’re…this…it’s not living.”

Bedivere met his gaze. “I tried doing it my way. You came and stopped me.”

Brant stared at him, his eyes wide. “So you’re going to lie here until entropy drops you?”

Bedivere sighed again. It would be very easy to just say yes and shove Brant out the door and close it. It was what he wanted to do. He didn’t like the swirling anxious feeling in his stomach or the ache in his chest that happened every time he was forced to speak to anyone.

He didn’t like the yearning that came with it and the whispering temptation that followed.

This was Brant, who had followed him to hell and pulled him out. He deserved an honest answer, not the easy one. “I don’t know,” Bedivere said quietly. “Something might come along.”

“If it does, you’re going to miss it, hiding in here,” Brant said dryly.

“Yennifer and her assistant, um, Zoey. They keep me updated.”

“I bet you turned the audio off, though.”

Bedivere considered Brant, startled. Was he that predictable now?

“Did Yennifer tell you that Connell is holding dozens of Varkan at bay with a whip and chair? They’re all demanding time with you. They all want to see you. Touch you. Make sure you’re really back.”

“I’m not their totem,” Bedivere said shortly. “I never was.”

“Tell them that.”

“You tell them. They’re better off with Devlin, anyway. He’s good for them.”


So were you!
” Brant’s voice was low and fierce. His eyes gleamed with anger. “There isn’t a single Varkan out there who doesn’t owe his or her very existence to you!”

“I gave them a means, not life itself,” Bedivere replied. “Besides, Yennifer tells me that Gu-Xia Gammon have picked up the slack. They’re printing out tethers faster than we ever could.”

Brant drew in a breath and let it out with a gusty sigh.

“I’m
fine
,” Bedivere told him quietly.

Brant shook his head. “No, I don’t think you are.”

He left, anyway. When the door closed, Bedivere picked up the board and started reading again.

Reading was one of the few distractions he had left.

* * * * *

Connell was the next one to arrive.

He turned up two days after Brant left him alone, sliding into the room without even knocking. The shelves rattled as he ran into them.

BOOK: Cat and Company
7.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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