The Man of His Dreams

Chapter Eighteen: Kicking you upstairs

Belan could tell that Graff was going to keep stalling for time, and he didn't really care if the story sounded unbelievable, because they were alive and they could figure out the rest later, so he just started talking.

"Graff thought it would be a good idea for us to leave Hallow because we were getting threats," Belan started. "My aunt and his uncle and I think some people working with them wanted Graff to do something and I was supposed to make him do it and they started telling us that we could die if we didn't toe the line."

"And what exactly did your auntie want you to do?" Herdelida said sweetly.

"I never figured it out, really," Belan said, as Graff said, "They want me to stop working on restitution for the Associates. They want me to be a good little Hallow functionary and do nothing to rock the boat."

"You'll have to fill me in on the Associates - restitution?" Herdelida said tentatively.

"Graff thinks that Associates have been treated unfairly and that we ought to get compensated for it."

[You're making it sound like I'm making things up] Graff said, as Herdelida asked, "In what way? How have you been treated unfairly?" with an uncomfortable look on her face, as if she was dreading the way the conversation was about to get derailed.

"There's a case to be made for it," Belan said carefully. "The point is that Graff has been very active in moving for a public inquiry into the history and current usage of the Associates and we've both been warned about it. At first it was me receiving the threats, but they were always about what would happen to Graff. And then he got beat up. And - I guess we fled."

"We didn't leave because they beat me up," Graff said. "A few days ago I interacted a conversation between my uncle and his aunt and I was pretty sure it meant that they weren't going to give us any more time to come around. So I started planning to leave. I got an extra car at the beach house at Hermosa, and stashed a large supply of the water that Belan needs, and announced that we were going to spend a few days up there thinking over all the things we had been told recently."

[You didn't tell me about that bit. What did they say?] Belan asked Graff. He watched Herdelida, She was pretty frantically messaging someone herself.

[They were having a regular spoken conversation at the dinner table at my house, along with my parents. I couldn't stay in the same room with them, it was so awkward, so I started to leave. I had forgotten my warm-clothes emitter so I came back to the house in time to hear Beren tell my mother it was sad but they were going to have to close down the project, and my mother started sobbing so I was pretty sure what it meant.]

[And you're sure they didn't stage that for you?]

[I wasn't at the time but I wasn't going to take any risks, was I? I had to get you out of their clutches.]

[And I suppose you didn't tell me this because you were afraid I'd capitulate?]

{No, don't be offensive. I didn't tell you because I wasn't sure they couldn't overhear us.]

"Where's that breakfast?" Graff said aloud. "I'm getting irritable over here."

"They're bringing it right now," Herdelida said, as the door opened and a uniformed man came in with a couple of paper boxes and two steel bottles of different colors. Herdelida took the bottles as the man handed the boxes to Belan and Graff. Inside the boxes was a peculiar arrangement of something bready and some kind of unfamiliar protein forms and a pile of fruit, some of it familiar and some of it not. [I had no idea we had left the planet and gone to some other system] Belan messaged Graff.

[We might as well have. This is Biomes Authority. They don't do anything the way other people do] Graff answered.

The food was strange, but not bad once Belan adjusted to the different flavor pallette in the bready substance and the protein forms. But he was thirsty, and Herdelida was still holding on to those bottles. "Can we have something to drink? Preferably my own water for me, but anything wet will do. Please," he said, eyeing the bottles Herdelida held.

"Sorry. Just a moment." Herdelida was reading, not listening: Belan could see her eyes tracking. "Okay," she said, looking at the bottles closely before handing Belan the green one and Graff the red one.

Graff and Belan took sips at the same time. Belan was disappointed: they hadn't brought him his own water. But Graff said. "She gave us the wrong ones. Let's switch."

"I didn't know you could taste the difference," Belan said. "Oh yes," he added as the water filled his mouth. The red bottle did in fact have Belan's water in it and it was a tremendous relief to swallow it down.

Herdelida studied them. "That part checks out anyway," she said.

"You gave us the wrong water on purpose?" Graff asked.

"Just gathering information. All right, let's get back to work." Herdelida seemed to be enjoying herself now. "Remember how I asked you to consider giving me recall transcripts? I am going to ask you to send me the transcripts of the conversations where you felt you were being threatened, and also the transcript of - you said you were beaten, Graff?"

Belan kept sipping at the water, keeping his mouth wet all the time. "I said he was beaten," he said, to keep the record straight

"Right. When was the first threat? Can you send me the transcript of that, and then all the others? You might want to talk to each other for a moment. You'll remember that it is entirely voluntary for you to send me the transcripts, but at the same time, once you send them to me, I have them, I know what's on them, and neither you nor I can undo that."

[We may as well,] Belan said. [Unless you can see a problem with it.]

[I'm sure it's completely dangerous. But it's probably less dangerous than failing to cooperate and being sent back.]

"Okay, we'll do it," said Belan. "But it will take a while to dig them up. Do you want to stop for us to do that now, or do you want us to do that later?"

"Oh, later is fine," Herdelida said. "We have plenty to talk about. For example, this water that is so important to you . . . why do you need to drink RNA? That's pretty surprising."

Something flickered in Belan's brain. He couldn't tell what it was, but he was pretty sure it had to do with the water he was still savoring.

[She's not interviewing us alone,] Graff said. [Somebody's listening in and suggesting things.]

[Is that a bad thing?]

[I have no idea.]

"I don't know everything the water does for me, but so far it seems like the mineral balance is actually more important than the RNA. I seem to use the minerals in a different way from - other people." Belan jiggled the steel bottle. There was only a little left. He should be more restrained with it if four carboys of it was going to have to last him for a long time, maybe. It was hard to stop drinking it, though. He craved it more than ever.

[You almost just said "people" like you're not one yourself]

[Yes, I did. But that wouldn't be right, because I think I'm a person even if I'm not actually quite human]

[I think you're human no matter how different you are]

[Flattery]

"It sounds like you've been studying it."

"A little. I haven't had much time." He put the top back on the bottle and passed it to Graff. [Save this for me so I don't forget myself out and finish it off too quick]

"So? What do you think, preliminarily?"

"It's complicated. I think I'd feel more comfortable if we took out time for that."

[You're sounding evasive]

[You don't want to tell her everything right now either]

[No, I don't]

Herdelida opened her mouth to speak, and then her eyes went wide and she began furiously tracking something and subvocalizing so intensely that Belan and Graff could almost hear her. The she fixed them with a Look. "I think you had better pick up the newsfeed from Hallow," she said to them. "You can find it in the northwest branch if you follow the local feed to the junction."

"Why?" Graff asked, but he went looking for the news feed just like Belan did. Belan saw immediately what Herdelida wanted them to see. There was a scene of a crashed private car just like the one that Graff had brought them here in. It was wrapped around a pillar of the Aqueduct and it was smoking. It was hard to comprehend. The Highway would surely never let a car go that far off it, would it? And how fast must it have been going, to be so completely destroyed? Could a car even go that fast if it was off the Highway? Belan shot all those questions to Graff, who said he didn't know, and [Listen to the caption. That's supposed to be us].

The caption was describing a horrible scene that had been discovered in the early morning when the emergency system had alerted the Security Associates, who had rapidly followed the safetybots to the location of the crash. Barely identifiable bodies had been found in the wreckage, but they were identified and the families had been notified and so now so was a grieving community. Graff Fuentes de Fuerte and Belan Beren, two promising students, had apparently stolen Hallow Company property and run away, and after that . . . it was being suggested that it was a suicide pact. Though many questions were to be answered in the next few days as an inquiry was to take place.

[They just wrote us out of the world] Graff said. [But why did they say we stole Hallow Company property? The car was mine]

[It's not the car. The car isn't the stolen property]

[The water then?] At the mention of water, that something flickered in Belan's brain again, and at the same time, he felt a flicker in Graff. Not something in the messages provided by the embeds, not a twitch in Graff's leg pressed to his or his fingers lying on Belan's leg, but a flicker in Graff's - consciousness, or something, but perceptible to Belan in the same way as the flicker in his own mind. Yet another new and strange perception . . .

"No, the Company property is me," Belan said aloud in a sudden moment of clarity. "Or maybe both of us. But at least me. Because I was made by the Company."

"That's obsolete thinking," Herdelida snapped. "Ever since unification, they're not allowed to make claims like that."

Belan blinked at her. Why would she have a personal stake in this? She was a Gate. They weren't supposed to be especially loyal to the Hallows. They didn't have that special relationship with them, and couldn't be expected to go out of their way to explain away their behavior or to be shocked that the Hallows were most likely violating some of the first tenets of the unification agreements.

"They don't make claims like that in public," Graff said. "But in private . . . look, Belan was made for me. My family all knew about it and called him my birthday present. He was supposed to reign me in while serving as my assistant in every way. They designed him to fit me perfectly. They as much as told us that both of us are just like tools to them, not any less replaceable than a knife blade."

Herdelida shook her head. "I'm definitely kicking this upstairs to the Planetaries,." she said. "You're too much for me."

Belan and Graff sat silent, as the news feed now was showing the grieving faces of their parents while a speaker extolled their virtues as young men, as students, and as loyal members of their respective classes. Herdelida seemed to be consulting with her off-site partners again.

Belan was thinking about how he was going to contact his parents to tell them he was actually alive and safe,. But Graff blurted, "That's so vicious. We can't even tell anybody we're still alive, because whoever we spoke to would be in danger after that."

Herdelida tracked the feed for a bit, and then she sighed and said, "As if I needed another reason to be glad I left Gate and Hallow."