“You two! Patrolmen! Wait a minute—”
Hegemonic Police officer Nyx LaisTree stopped at the exit of the station house, his hands already pushing open the windowed doors. He turned, along with his partner, to see a Kharemoughi sergeant gesturing them back toward the dispatch desk. “Damn!” Tree muttered. “It’s Gundhalinu.”
“Relax.” His partner, Staun LaisNion, laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “He’s a Technician; he doesn’t even know our names. It’s probably nothing.” Grudgingly they reentered the obstacle course of work stations, and backtracked through the human gridlock created by the evening’s shift change.
They halted at last in front of Gundhalinu. “Sergeant, we just got off duty,” Staun said, somehow keeping his face expressionless and his voice respectful. Gundhalinu didn’t deserve their respect any more than he deserved to be a sergeant, not when he was barely old enough to spend his pay in the kinds of places they’d just spent their shift policing.
Tree glanced over at Haig KraiVieux, the duty officer observing their interaction from his seat at the dispatch desk. KraiVieux had been a Blue longer than Gundhalinu had been alive, and he was still only a sergeant. But then, he was a Newhavener, not a Kharemoughi. Most of the force stationed here on Tiamat were from Newhaven; but Kharemough, Gundhalinu’s homeworld, was first among equals in the Hegemony. Members of Kharemough’s aristocratic Technician caste tended to advance rapidly within the Hedge’s bureaucracy. They dominated the highest levels of its foreign service, including its paramilitary peacekeeping force, the Hegemonic Police.
“We had plans—”
“They’ll have to wait.” Gundhalinu cut Staun short with the unthinking arrogance of every Technician that Tree had ever met; and he had met a lot of them since joining the Hegemonic Police. The more of them he knew, the less he liked about them. “We need extra men working tonight.”
“Why, Sergeant? Is there some kind of trouble?” Staun asked.
Gundhalinu shook his head. “The Snow Queen has requested extra security at the palace. She’s having a party.”
“Another one?” Staun said glumly. “Why do we have to do guard duty at these things? She’s got all of Carbuncle’s city constables, plus her own private security force.”
“The Winters are celebrating another successful mer hunt, I suppose,” Gundhalinu said. “Since the Queen controls our access to the water of life, it’s in the Hegemony’s best interest to humor her.”
Tree grunted in disgust. Tiamat’s seas were a fountain of youth, from which only the richest and most privileged could afford to drink. The most convenient way of obtaining die extract that humans euphemistically referred to as die “water of life” was to cut the mers’ throats and let them bleed to death.
It didn’t seem to bother die human users that what it all came down to was drinking blood. What was the life of an animal, compared to their own? The kind of people who were willing to pay anything for eternal youth would probably cut their neighbors’ throats and collect the blood in a bucket to get it.
Tree had no doubt at all that the Snow Queen would do it. The water of life was die only resource tins godforsaken planet possessed that was valuable enough to make Tiamat worth the Hegemony’s trouble. And besides, the Queen herself used die drug every day, for free. She had ruled for nearly a hundred and fifty standard years; she didn’t look a day over twenty.
All of which had nothing to do with him personally—but everything to do with the fact he and Staun were stationed here in Carbuncle, and suddenly faced with the prospect of standing guard at the Snow Queen’s palace all night, after patrolling the streets of Tiamat’s starport capital all day. He remembered the last time they had pulled this duty: how they had been forced to watch the Queen’s favorites drink the water of life in front of them and then smash the crystal vials at their feet…rubbing their noses in the fact that two Hegemonic patrolmen wouldn’t earn enough in both their lifetimes combined to taste even a drop.
“Hey, you slugs!” Gil MarDesta came in through the double doors of the station house shouting in their direction. “Get your fubar butts in gear. SudHalek’s waiting—”
Tree shrugged helplessly. He looked back at Gundhalinu as Staun repeated, “Sergeant, we had plans—”
“We’ve already got a party to go to,” Tree said, frowning.
Gundhalinu scowled as their eyes locked. “Your plans have changed, Patrolman.”
Tree glanced pleadingly at KraiVieux, the duty sergeant. “We already signed out, Sarge. Can’t you get him somebody else? It’s SudHalek’s nameday party at RedFutter’s Tavern.”
KraiVieux looked chagrined as Gundhalinu snapped, “I’m in charge of this assignment, Patrolman, not Sergeant KraiVieux. It’s up to me to decide who goes.”
“Then find somebody else, Gundhalinu. You’ve got a whole station house full—” Tree felt Staun’s warning hand on his arm. He shrugged it off and started back toward the exit where MarDesta stood waiting.
He heard Gundhalinu order him to stop; heard Staun call his name, and KraiVieux saying something he didn’t listen to.
“What’s the problem—?”
It took a woman’s raised voice to stop him in his tracks. Staun reached him and hauled him around just as Inspector Jerusha PalaThion came down the hallway from her office.
“Shit,” Tree muttered, before his eyes even registered her face. PalaThion was the only woman on the force. And since Gundhalinu was her assistant, he’d probably been acting on her orders. “We’re dead.”
“Shut up,” Staun said, his sudden tension surfacing.
“What’s going on, huh?” MarDesta trailed after them, typically oblivious to context, as they retraced their way through the milling chaos toward PalaThion. She waited, arms folded, at an intersection they could not possibly avoid passing. Her gaze was fixed on Staun’s face; Tree made himself as unobtrusive as possible in Staun’s shadow.
“Inspector PalaThion,” KraiVieux called suddenly. “Can I speak with you, ma’am?”
Looking surprised, PalaThion turned toward him, and nodded. With a final warning glance in their direction, she went on to the dispatch desk.
Tree glanced longingly over his shoulder at the exit. But Gundhalinu’s stare was still fixed on them like a targeting beam; reluctantly, they followed PalaThion back to KraiVieux’s station.
A pair of Blues coming in off duty shoved their way past Tree, ignoring his protest as they forced a path through the foot traffic ahead of them. The two men squeezed up to the counter in front of PalaThion, who frowned.
KraiVieux’s matching frown at their show of disrespect became a smile of sudden inspiration. “Gilles-Fort and TierPardée—just the pair I wanted to see. This is your lucky night; you’re going to the Queen’s ball.”
“Aw, Sarge.…” TierPardée groaned, raising his gauntleted hands in despair.
“Enough of that!” KraiVieux said. “You both need the overtime, to pay off your gaming tabs. These men will do die job for you, Sergeant Gundhalinu.” He gestured; the same motion signaled Tree and Staun away from the desk again with subtle urgency.
Tree saw his own profound relief mirrored in Staun’s face as they swung around and headed back toward the exit, somehow avoiding even eye contact with either Gundhalinu or PalaThion.
Herding MarDesta ahead of them, they made it through the doors and out into the street without being called back again.
* * *
“Inspector—?” KraiVieux said again.
Inspector Geia Jerusha PalaThion turned back from watching the two relieved patrolmen scramble for the exit like truant schoolboys. Gundhalinu went on glaring at them until they disappeared through the station house doors. Jerusha saw him throw a brief, annoyed look KraiVieux’s way, before he began to give instructions to the men who had replaced them.
She leaned on the dispatch counter, wondering wearily whether the men had been more eager to avoid the Snow Queen’s company or her own. There was hardly a Newhavenese Blue on the force who would look her in the eye when he spoke to her. And even if any of them did, she knew the kinds of things they called her when she turned her back. “The Warrior Nun” was the least humiliating…and probably the most accurate, considering the state of her social life. She glanced over her shoulder a last time at the station doors, and kept the sigh to herself.
“What is it, Sergeant?” she said to KraiVieux. The unexpected somberness of his expression kept her tone neutral.
“It’s Sergeant Gundhalinu, ma’am…there’s been a death in his family.” KraiVieux kept his voice down, glancing in Gundhalinu’s direction as he produced a message transcript. “I just received this file from the starport data center. I thought, since you’re…that is, you’re his superior officer, well, I figured you would be the best one to give him the news.” He looked down as he pushed the transcript at her, avoiding her startled gaze.
Ordinarily she would have expected KraiVieux to deliver a message like this one himself. He was a veteran officer; the Newhavenese Blues who patrolled the streets all trusted him, because he was one of them. That generally made him better at helping them deal with their grief than some counselor called in from down at the Med Center.
But Gundhalinu was Kharemoughi. He wasn’t one of them, any more than she was. She might come from the same homeworld, and even the same city, as most of the men on the force—in her own family, wearing the blue uniform of the Hegemonic Police had been a tradition for generations. But it was a tradition for sons, not for daughters. The women of her family didn’t wear the uniform, they married the man who did. They kept the home fires burning, raised the children, tended the sick and the injured.…
They comforted die bereaved.
With a final glance at KraiVieux’s averted face, she began to read the transcript. It contained a brief, impersonal message saying that Gundhalinu’s Technician-caste father had died, that his oldest sibling was now head-of-family, in possession of all estates and properties. It was signed by one HK Gundhalinu, the aforementioned oldest sibling, and included a copy of their father’s will.
During the time he had been her aide, BZ Gundhalinu had been reticent to a fault about his personal life. She had observed that it was a Technician trait; even when they were with other Techs, men they had known for years, they always seemed to be among strangers. The transcript confirmed the few assumptions she had made about him based on reading his personnel records, and from studying his face with its classically Technician features: He was a third son from an aristocratic family, forced to leave home and make some kind of living on his own because he had no inheritance rights under the laws of primogeniture that bound Kharemough’s upper classes. Joining the Hegemonic Police was one of the few honorable—meaning respectable—career choices open to a younger Tech sibling.
“BZ!” she called, raising her voice over the general clamor as Gundhalinu finished giving instructions to TierPardée and GillesFort. She gestured him down the hallway that led toward her office, where they could find respite from the crowd of officers and civilians, the bookings-in-progress, questions, demands, and loud obscene protests.
As he approached she heard him muttering, “Well, at least I don’t have to attend the damn thing, thank the gods.…” His expression turned guarded as he looked up and saw her face.
“There’s a message from home for you, BZ.” She held out the transcript; said, with painful awkwardness, “I’m…afraid it’s bad news.”
Suddenly his eyes were empty of expression. He put out a hand, supporting himself against the cold, featureless wall, as if the world had abruptly tilted out from under him. When he took die transcript from her, his fingers were like ice. Without even glancing at the message, he said, “My father is dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Jerusha murmured, speaking Tiamatan, as they all did here. And then in her own tongue, she said, “May he live forever in the space of a thousand hearts.”
Gundhalinu’s head jerked slightly, as if it was the only acknowledgment he had the strength for. He looked down at the actual message; read it, and crumpled the transcript into a wad, as though he wanted to crush it out of existence.
He opened his hand again; die sheet sprang back into perfect form and drifted to the floor. A crowd of patrolmen herding rowdy offworlders toward the lockup trampled it underfoot.
“BZ…” she said quietly. When he did not respond, she put her hand on his shoulder and said, more clearly, “Sergeant.” She felt his muscles tense, as if the contact had startled him. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day—”
“No, Inspector.” He turned back, his eyes registering her again. He shook his head. “I’m all right. My father—my father’s been dead for more than two years.” It had taken that long for the news to reach him, with the sublight time gaps at either end of the hyperspace wormhole that linked Tiamat to Kharemough. “There’s nothing I can do about it now.” The words were as empty of expression as his face was.
Jerusha frowned. “You can take the time to let yourself feel something.”
“I don’t want to…” he murmured, glancing away.
He drew himself up. “I don’t want to—to inflict my personal problems on you, Inspector. I can grieve on my own time, if that’s necessary.”
Gods give me strength. Jerusha glanced ceilingward in exasperation. Kharemoughis—“Then the rest of the day is your own time. That’s an order, Sergeant.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He pressed his fist to his chest in a salute, helpless to do anything but obey.
She leaned down, picking up the transcript. He took it from her hand. “Thank you,” he mumbled absently. She thought he said something more as he moved away, but it was lost in the echoing din from the main room.
Shaking her head, she went back into her office and shut the door. Relieved of both the noise and the unwelcome duty, she sat down at her desk/terminal, letting her mind take refuge in the rituals of mundane procedure, the simple, straightforward task of processing right and wrong.
Copyright © 2000 by Joan D. Vinge