Stardrifter: "All He Surveys" Vol. 1
A Brief Excerpt
He was just getting out of a large aircar, and looked directly into the ring he wore on the index finger of his right hand. He was in the midst of people, a walking crowd, many of them guards, some functionaries, and most, sycophants. Tall office buildings, luminous in the rising sun, surrounded them all, many rising taller, but none grander than this, the Imperial Commercial Exchange. Faced with a type of smooth, hard, dark stone, often called barsie marble, but more akin to a type of Terran granite, it contrasted with the modern buildings, which featured lots of glass and steel. This was a moment from the very start of a long day, and he spoke in perfect Ceicion.
"My dear Gran Patro, I hear you are reluctant to receive the, ah, public honors..."
What was this?
He looked to his feet.
Dog feces! He cursed openly.
One of the employees — or a member of court more like — must have taken to walking their animal on the roof. The elevator traveled in both directions; they could have just as easily walked the dog on the street.
He cast a flared strike with his eyes at one of the sniveling toadies, who, entirely mortified, immediately produced a handkerchief, and bent to clean the filth from his shoe. Such a shame. Real leather. He didn't have to mention that this should never happen again. They would see to it. All the others around him squawked and flapped their wings upon this outrage, but their voices were largely muted to his ears and insubstantial; a special setting on his audials that dulled cacophonous noise. It made life among these toadies and flatterers so much easier.
He looked to his ring again.
"...ah, what was I saying? Yes! You shrink from the celebrations due a hero of the Realm. This, I understand. Perhaps, better than any. But your duty to this office did not end when the battles did. The average people in your patch of space have had precious little to cheer about as of late."
The man passed through some substantial doors leading down a long walkway, and then to a bank of elevators. He might not have heard them profusely apologizing for the dog crap, but he was still flanked by a sideshow.
The long corridor was a fronting for a long battery of security sensors, scanning for, well...everything: weapons, radiation, diseases, dangerous chemicals, even the telltale outward signs of malicious intent, as assessed by a dedicated AI programmed to assess human body language. In the past these were always turned off when the man and his people came through. Recent events implied that added vigilance was not unwarranted, so they were now scanning everyone but the man, himself.
Just who was this person he was recording a remote message for, anyway?
The reports had seemed thorough, but they only ever told part of the story. Should he order a direct audience?
Perhaps that would be too much. Too much signaling. Too much politics. The fellow was flavor-of-the-month, but such things were transient. He spoke on.
"Today, I give them you. Stand there and do nothing. Accept their platitudes, and whatever else they beg for, then wave to the mob and to the cameras. The event will be transmitted across the breadth of the Empire. Yes, yes, it's a performance! What of it? It's my command, and it will be obeyed. But I also ask a favor...smile, if you can. Happiness is not hard to counterfeit. Endure their adulation, then retreat, and find your solace in a quiet room. I do it all the time."
The elevator doors all opened before them. The man and a few of his close associates entered, along with a couple guards. There was plenty of room, but the others in his group would use the lifts to either side. One didn't need surplus ears listening in on this next part.
The doors closed, and he brought the camera pickup close to his face, still looking directly into it, still searching for the recipient of his attention, and for understanding across those hours, those days, and all those many stars. He whispered, the ring pickup automatically raising the recording gain to catch his words, which were hardly above a breath.
"The course of events have been tracked and plotted. Many agree. What you managed to do out there may well have curtailed a much larger conflict in the future. We'll never know for sure; knowledge no one will miss. But I am in your debt. That does not happen often, and I dislike it immensely, so I will repay you in coin of equal value: truth."
He cocked his head, and his brows lowered like a sky under the sudden threat of squalls.
"Yes, I am grateful, but the Collage is restless. You are new, and very different, which means change, something they cannot abide. They may seek to use you to their own ends; barring that, they may seek to destroy you. I won't oppose them, either way. It's not in my own interest to do so. I've no idea of your ambitions, but the families are convinced that you have a taste to rise, meaning they must, perforce, seem as the rungs of a ladder to you. Ambition is a hydra, and you've just cut off a head; we know what follows."
He thought about that, and shook his head in annoyance at himself.
"Please do forgive the florid language. It's a danger of the title. Truth must be plain to be of value, so here it is: step lightly. You've fewer friends than it may seem. Some of them, close."
Then he chuckled, dispelling the gravity of the moment: it was far too nice a morning in this wonderful city, upon this delightful world, to be so foreboding. He brought the ring away from his face, dropping the conspiratorial tone. He offered a smile, the authenticity of which even he was unsure.
"And really, do at least try to enjoy yourself! I'm told that everyone has gone to so much trouble."
He looked away then while cutting the call, facing forward with an eagerness, a hunger, a silent prayer to be free of intrigue, if only for some few minutes.