Sequel to Broken Slate
By Kelly Jennings
Chapter One: Siq River Estuary, Port City, West Country
Filled with cool green light and plants and trees in huge terracotta barrels, the sunroom hummed with the sift of bees and the warble of water. Over near its north wall, among the potted mulberry trees, Jeno Lord Harper stood scratching a ginger kitten under its tiny chin. Martin balanced on the threshold, looked about himself. Lord Efram had said she would not leave him alone with Harper. She had promised.
“Come in, Martin,” Harper said. His North Country drawl was pronounced, which meant he was either amused or angry. Either could be dangerous. With a last scritch under the kitten’s chin, Harper strolled over to a silverwood table spread with delicacies arranged around an enameled samovar. “You’re looking well.”
“Sir,” Martin said warily.
“With all of Efram’s complaints, I expected to find you at the brink of death.” Harper speared a bit of moon radish with a tiny wooden sword, nodding at the rest of the food on the table. “Hungry?”
Martin was, in fact. He and Liko had only just arrived in Port City, after traveling for thirty-six hours on an express train down from the Zhayr Mountains. Thirty-six hours in a contract labor truck. What food had been available, he wouldn’t serve to pigs. Pigs wouldn’t eat it, either, he bet. On the other hand, this table here held the sort of finicky crap Lord Holders favored: indigenous mollusks dusted with a peppery orange spice, sea dab wrapped in figs, raw vegetables carved in the shape of beetles – nothing Martin saw the point of eating.
Harper crunched his radish. “You’ve read those files?”
The inside of Martin’s stomach flushed hot. He poured himself some tea, hoping to hide that reaction. He had not read the files Harper had given him, weeks ago now. In fact, he had done his best not to even think about the files.
“Lord Oxford is hosting an End party,” Harper said. “Most of the Committee on Forests and Fishery will be there.”
“This End?” Martin glanced up, before he could stop himself. “Tomorrow?”
Harper’s eyes narrowed. Rubbing his palm against his trouser leg, Martin looked away. Harper speared a prawn wrapped in a chicory leaf. “The reception is tomorrow night. You’ll review the files before then.”
“I understand Efram allowed Liko to accompany you.”
“He won’t interfere in your duties.”
“I’m not asking a question, Martin. I’m making a promise.”
“Yes, sir,” Martin said evenly. “I understood that.”
Harper dropped the little wooden sword onto the tea tray. “You didn’t read the files. But you do understand the job?”
Martin focused on the world outside the sunroom windows. Like most Lord Holders on Julian, Keiko Lord Efram and her family had held this guesthouse in Port City for generations, so that they would have somewhere to live while Parliament was in session. Built on six hectares of walled land, the house had its own Earth-source gardens and orchards. Outside this sunroom now, three of Efram’s contract labor worked in these gardens, their backs bared to the sun.
“Was that yes, sir, Martin?”
“Six of Kadir’s on Forests and Fishery,” Martin said, watching the cots. “Four of yours. That’s math even an idiot chip like me can do.”
“I need you to move a vote.”
“I understand the job.”
Harper regarded him. “You brought proper dress, I hope.”
“Lord Efram has my gear.”
Harper stood. “Get that hair cut before the End.”
He walked out. Martin retreated from his path, three full steps. He kept still until the sound of Harper’s steps faded. Then, his muscles were loose and twitchy, he returned to the table and gulped down his tea. His skin was damp with sweat and his heart banged hard. Hunting his medkit from his pocket, he counted patches. Only six Alizodon left. Half a sheet of anxiolytics. A single sheet of Opix. He put two of the anxiety patches on his belly, two Opix, and a single Alizodon. When the kitten bounded up onto the table, he jumped. “Crap,” he told it.
It paced sniffing among the dishes on the table. Martin watched it, feeling lightheaded. Despite how fast they bred, cats were a luxury item on Julian. They could not be persuaded out of hunting the various toxic reptiles and insects native to the planet. Sitting down at the table, he poured more tea, watching the kitten eat smoked eel fastidiously.
“Martin!” Lord Efram crossed the room and caught the animal. It squalled an objection. “You can’t let them eat off the table.”
“In shit I’m in charge of the livestock?” he objected.
Efram settled into one of the wrought iron chairs, the kitten gathered into her arms. After a moment, as she chaffed the back of its neck, it settled rumbling against her. Slender and dark, Keiko Lord Efram had held Martin’s contract for the past three years – ever since Lord Harper had given her command of Rocky Point Academy. With the Academy came ownership of all the contract labor held by the school.
This was only ostensible ownership, of course. When Lord Harper recruited Martin, he explained that Martin would remain in the contract labor system. Harper said that almost all contract labor in the network were still under contract. He said that this left them free to work jobs undercover. He said it was what the Revolution needed from them.
Martin watched Efram moodily, thinking of the young idiot he had been when Harper recruited him. “When Harper first knew me,” he said, “he used to call me a spoiled kitten.”
Efram crooked the corners of her mouth dubiously, casting a measuring glance over him.
“It was a few holders back,” Martin admitted. The patches were making him feel better.
“How did the meeting go?” Efram asked.
“Fine. Except for the bit where you said you’d be here and you ain’t.”
“It was about Forests and Fishery?”
“Liko was wondering about the bistros,” he said, “down there South End.” Efram’s frown deepened, and Martin added, “Whether he and I might be let down to them tonight, maybe.”
Efram tugged the kitten’s ears. “You can’t go alone.”
Because of the escort ordinance, she meant. This was a new thing in the cities, ordinances limiting what contract labor could and couldn’t do. One ordinance in Port City required any cot who went more than a quarter-k off their own grounds to have an official escort. As a solution toward combating sabotage and insurgent activity, it didn’t make sense, since most of the jobs done by the network took place in the mountains or up north on the big farms, not in cities. But holders weren’t big on sense.
“You could come with us,” Martin suggested.
“Oh, that seems likely.” Efram picked a fragment of eel from table and fed it to the kitten. “I’ll have a boss take you.” Martin grimaced, and she added, “It’s that or I send my Security along. I assume you prefer a boss.”
He would prefer not to go all. He knew how much Liko wanted to go, though.
“What about the meeting with Harper?” Efram asked again.
“Well, apparently someone told him how whiny I’ve been lately. Thanks, Keiko.”
Efram started to speak, and shut her lips. The bird-wings of her brows drew straight. She put the kitten on the floor. “You do realize that you only attack when you need a distraction.”
He finished his tea. “Sometime I do it when I’m high.”
“Distraction from what, though. Something else Harper brought you here to discuss?”
“Probably something I ain’t want you to know. Why else try to distract you from it?” He got to his feet, scrubbing his fingers through his hair. “Harper says I need a haircut.”
“That remark about the kitten,” Efram noted. “That was another attempt to distract me.”
Martin grinned. “It was,” he admitted. “What about the haircut?”
“And a shave. You look like a hill cot.”
“Maybe that’s a good look on me?”
“It’s not.” She poured tea for herself. “I’ll arrange the escort.”
“A nice boss, if that’s possible. I don’t feel like getting kicked around.”
“No manager in my employ –” Efram began, and shut up. He grinned sidelong at her. “What else did Lord Harper discuss with you?”
He ambled toward the mulberry trees. The patches had kicked in, and he felt very good, light and easy, as if he could handle anything. He reminded himself that this was the drugs, not the actual situation. “Liko.”
Efram was quiet, probably thinking this over. Rising, she came to stand beside him, gazing out at the garden. The smart glass spilled clear green light across the high arch of her nose and her elegant cheekbones. “If he’s using Liko to threaten you – is that what he’s doing?”
Martin said nothing.
“Is he, Martin?”
Martin shrugged. “You know Jeno. He ain’t do anything so straightforward as a threat.” Efram gazed out at her gardens, where her cots laughed over a basket of fresh-dug onions. “Listen,” Martin said. “I need more of that patch. Alizodon?”
Efram was still watching the gardeners. “Why didn’t you say so before we left the Academy?”
“I just noticed I was low,” he lied. In fact, ever since he had understood the job Harper wanted from him, he’d been overloading his patches – doubling them, even tripling them. He knew that Wright, the physician at Rocky Point Academy, would never give him more so soon. “Is it a physician here?” She frowned, the line deepening between her eyes. “I need some of the others too. The anxiety patches?”
“I’ll look into it. Meanwhile. What else does Lord Harper want from you?”
Martin turned away. Walk out the door, he thought. Just leave. Unfortunately, Efram was his holder. He could no more walk away from her than he could step off the edge of a cliff.
“I know it’s something. You wouldn’t be working this hard to hide it otherwise. Tell me what it is.”
And that was that. A direct order from his holder. Do what you’re told. It was the first rule he had been taught. He shook his head. Then he told her what Harper wanted him to do.
“You must be mistaken,” Efram said, when he had finished. He watched the floor between his boots, the red tiles cool in the cool light of this room. “Martin. That can’t be right.”
He glanced up at her. She looked perfectly serious. After a moment, he wet his lips.
“You must have misunderstood,” she insisted. Then she narrowed her eyes, studying him. “Is this…This is what’s been bothering you, these past weeks. This is what’s been causing the nightmares. Isn’t it? Martin. Why didn’t you come to me sooner?” He looked away from her, and further away. She shook back her hair. “I’ll speak to him,” she said. “Now come along. I don’t have Alizodon on hand, but we do have anxiety patches.”
### ### ###
That night, Efram sent along both her junior-most boss, a beet-skinned lout named Calvin, and Tamly, an aficionado of the South End bistros. Efram said Tamly knew everything about music in the city. It was hard to decide which boss was most irritating. Calvin was clearly more dangerous.
The South End of Port City was a low-lying strip of shops and bistros built along the river toward the port. Most shops at this end of the city were as old as the settlement, and smelled like it too. Low-roofed and small, they were built of local limestone and brick. Far down by the port umbilical were the bistros Liko itched to visit. Music spilled from their open doors and through the empty frames of their broken windows. Lights here were solar, not smart, and screens were patched with wrappings off shipping containers. The narrow streets were crowded with free labor, small holders, and tourists – mostly Republic Navy, but some Orleans-Vijo Combine agents. In among this crowd, cots hauled crates and baskets, wheeled kegs, maneuvered short haulers piled with cargo. Above them, tattered canvas awnings popped in the wind off the river; above that, in the bright clear night sky, the big moon rode fat and silver-green, while the little moons lay low along the Siq Mountains to the north.
Liko wheeled, high-spirited with the music and the crowds, to loop an arm around Martin’s neck. “Tjiano,” he said. “This is wonderful. I know you hate it.”
Martin did his best to smile. He hated music, and hated worse having these bosses down their necks. Liko bit his ear gently, and ran to catch up with Tamly.
They worked their way along the river. Every bistro they went into, Tamly buzzed over the playlist: this musician he was sure Liko would like, this one was a hot ticket, this one, well, maybe. Bistro after bistro after bistro. Liko was right; Martin hated it. Despite the patches Efram had given him, the racket of the music grated him raw. Past midnight, in an especially dank place, he swallowed his rum and cut his eyes at Calvin, looming by one of the broad load-bearing brick pillars that crowded this tiny basement. The boss’s disgruntled attention was on a table where two OVC agents were splitting a block of smoke with a free labor child. Martin took his empty glass to the kit in the corner. When the bar boy came over, Martin gave him the glass and slipped out through the service door.
It was blissfully quiet outside, the chill air crisp. That was Port City: cool days, cold nights. Trailing his hand along the brick of the alley wall, Martin made his way toward the far end of the alley, where a cross-street ran towards the river. A huddle of cots had collected on the scullery steps, passing around a satsi pipe. They glanced up, their expressions not unfriendly.
He leaned on the alley wall, inhaling the scent of the smoke. The cross-street was wide enough that moonlight reached down into it, dancing green on the water in its central gutter. After a moment, Martin pulled out his flask, filled with rum thieved from Lord Efram’s study that afternoon, and held it out. The nearest cot lifted her cup. Another held out the satsi. Martin took a hit, sliding down to rest on his heels. It was rough smoke, probably barracks cured, but he’d never had smoke he didn’t like. They talked while they shared the smoke and rum. Martin was out here mainly to get away from the music. But also this was standard network procedure: No one ever won a Revolution, Jossa was always saying, by putting bullets through heads. They’d win this by changing hearts and minds. So talk to every cot who wasn’t already a recruit, she said. Talk to free labor. Talk to Security and Lord Holders. Tell our stories, she said; but also listen to their stories. That was how they would win this revolution: by listening to the people.
Martin told these cots what had been happening in the North Country – the bad winter; how the bosses were underfeeding the field workers; he told them about cots on a pig farm, who, sick to their teeth of a bad boss, had laid for him one night in the dark, killed him, cut him up, and fed him to the pigs; and then jinked the account books to make it seem that he’d kited off to the Islands. He told about the job he and Dallas and Will had run on a Labor Security depot the week before, which had scored them, besides the crates of ordnance which had been their main aim, six Inline Vehicles, plus spare fuel cells for each.
He didn’t tell about Will getting wounded. This was something else Jossa banged into them. Not lying, she said. Just, you didn’t have to tell everything.
In among telling his stories, he listen to their stories: storms shutting down the port; Full Security shooting street rats; how bistros up and down the river had been steady hiring. “Twice the rate at least, is it?” the young cot said.
The cot next to her held out her cup out for more rum. “That’s due to all these down off the squat,” she opined.
“Navy?” Martin asked. Squadron could also mean those off Julian’s Squadron, but Julian Guard wouldn’t increase the number of customers at some Southside dive.
“Right, Core squatters.”
“More than usual?
“Plenty more. Thick as ticks.”
The cot was about to continue when a sharp whistle cut the air. Martin jumped. Calvin, down the alley by the service door, pointed at Martin. His broad face was furious. “Shit,” Martin muttered. Dropping the flask into his cargo pocket, he got to his feet and started up the alley. Behind him, the cots were silent.
“What were you doing down there?” Calvin demanded as he drew close.
Martin shrugged. “Nothing. Talking.”
Calvin caught him by the collar and banged him into the alley wall. “Sir.”
“Sir,” Martin said sullenly, his head down.
Calvin slapped his ear. He dodged, shooting the boss a wary glance. “What were you doing?” Calvin insisted.
“Nothing. I ain’t. Just talking.”
Calvin slapped harder. “Talking about what?”
“Contract shit. Nothing.” He hunched his shoulders, his ear stinging.
Calvin jerked open the service door. The music slammed loud. Grabbing his collar, Calvin hauled him to the table where Liko and Tamly sat banging their cups as the vocalist finished her song. Without a pause the drummer changed tempo and the trio veered into another number, this one even more screechy. Martin balked by reflex as the noise hit him; Calvin shoving him into an empty chair. “Sit your filthy ass down.”
When he shifted his weight, like he might disobey, Calvin got a fistful of his hair. In Martin’s ear, he hissed, “I can take you back out of here and beat the piss out of you.”
“Do I need to do that?” Calvin demanded. Martin shook his head. Calvin shoved him again, and retreated to the brick pillar. Martin watched him sidelong. Liko and Tam leaned together, conversing in shouts under the music. The bar boy, coming around with fresh drinks, gave Martin a sympathetic glance.
Up on the stage, the trio finished screeching. The vocalist leaned forward to shout something. Martin, still angry, didn’t hear what; but Tam shoved at Liko. “Do it!”
Liko, drunk, laughed. “You’re high.”
“Go on. Do it!”
The woman, skinny, her face paint sparking under the dark light, shouted at the crowd: “Someone out there must have eggs! Get up here and start singing!”
Tam shoved Liko. “Get up there and start singing!”
“You shit,” Liko said cheerfully and, rising, bounded to the stage. “Hoya, cots!” he yelled. The room went flat silent. Liko made his eyes wide. “What’s it? You don’t want the Revolution?” The silence thickened. Liko adjusted the sint, bringing out stray chords. “Who can blame you?” he said: from under his hands a melody, pretty as spring. “All these politics – ain’t we just get high?”
Someone cheered, out in the room.
“What so?” Liko agreed, sliding the music into minor, unsettling chords. “If only they would let us be.” Martin cut his eyes at Calvin, whose jaw was set. Liko shifted to a dancing melody. “Song from the island where I was born.”
After only a short skip of an intro, he launched into quick, intricate lyrics. Martin knew this one. Liko was always singing it lately – a ballad about a fisher family who lose their boat in a bad storm and end up sold to the islands. It started with the mother fretting over her children at sea – the refrain asks where they are sleeping, lost far out there on the waves. At the end, when they have been sold to the Rice Islands, she wonders where they sleep now, wishing them in the sea, wishing they might sleep in its sweet depth. Despite the lyrics, the melody was merry.
Halfway through the song, Calvin started for the aisle toward the stage. Tamly beamed, oblivious. Martin thought about going back outside. Instead, he reached over, took Liko’s glass, and drank what was left in it.
Liko finished the song. The bistro was so silent Martin could hear the clatter of glasses being washed in the kitchen. No one left, though. In fact, more people were crowding in: cots and free labor, Service class. These blocked Calvin’s way. He cursed at them, and they shifted slightly. They neither met his eyes, though, nor let him pass.
“One more,” Liko told the vocalist, who stared at him like he was a yellow snake. Smiling, Liko shifted to a fast, hard melody. “This is from the North Country. Learned it after I got sold up there.”
Martin, who knew what was coming, finished Tam’s drink too. Liko launched into “My Brother’s Blood.” Martin had only heard one this sung in the hill camps, and never by Liko alone – everyone sang, or rather yelled, it along with Liko. He had never heard it like this, sung in a room so silent, the anger in the words so clear. It was about a North Country field cot, sold off young with his brother to one of the giant farms on the high plains. Their mother screams as they are dragged from her. The farm is brutal. They work long hours on little food and less sleep, day after day under the stick of the bosses, until finally the brother dies in an accident with a farm machine, as happens on such farms.
“He cried for my help as his blood spilled like oil,” Liko sang:
“Spilled like water, spilled like life, like our dreams in their soil.
He died in my arms on that North Country farm –”
the melody grew harder:
“And they tossed him like trash in a North Country pit
And beat me to work with their sticks and their whips.
And my brother’s blood cries yet from that North Country field,
As my brothers die yet in the North Country mines
Die in quarries, die in swamps, die swift in their ships;
In the factory dust, my sisters cough blood;
And out in the islands, they shoot us like sheep.”
Liko paused to play a quick, furious riff. This was where, up in hills, everyone began shouting the lines with him. Here, no one moved. Liko leaned toward the feed. Martin expected him to shout, but he didn’t. He gave up the next lines easily, very nearly not singing at all:
“Will you rise, will you rise?
For the blood of my brother,
Spilled like filth in their fields,
For his bones in the pit?
Will you rise for those living under the stick?
Our sisters who die grinding bread for the rich?
For every dead father, every dead son,
Will you rise for the children crying hungry alone?”
More strongly now, hitting each word hard:
“So her screams will stop waking me,
So the stick will stop breaking me,
So the children can sleep.
So the miners and fishers can rest from their dying
So the blood of my brother, oh, the blood of my brother
So the blood of my brother will lie quiet at last?
Will you rise?”
He stopped, stopped the music, stopped the song, stood with his eyes shut in the dark light. Then he sang the last line, flat, furious: “Will you rise?”
In the hills, every cot was shouting by now. Here in the bistro, utter silence. The drummer and piper in the trio had stopped playing some time back. They sat as wide-eyed as the vocalist. Liko, his smile ghosty, glanced sidelong at them, made a motion like a bow, and stepped from the stage.
Calvin surged furiously toward him, and behind Calvin someone howled, raw and deep: “Shitting boss!” and slammed something into his head – Martin didn’t see what. It hit hard: Martin jumped at the loud thunk. Calvin dropped among the tables. As if this had been a signal, all through the bistro cots flung themselves into action, attacking holders and tourists, anyone at all – Martin saw Tam get punched. The OVC agents scrambled into a corner, their faces taut with fear. He himself bolted out of range, getting his back to the wall. He looked for Liko, but couldn’t see anything in the melee. The route to the alley door was clear, so he went that way.
From the doorway, he saw Liko near the stage, climbing over tables. Martin yelled his name. Somehow Liko heard. Martin waved. Liko grinned. But he came, leaping table to table, and landed in Martin’s arms. Martin threw him out the door and shoved it closed behind them.
Liko was laughing. Martin grabbed his hand and hauled him up the alley. “Wait,” Liko protested, looking back. “They’re my people!”
Martin hauled faster. They hadn’t gone more than two streets before half a dozen Squid shot past them on the way to the riot.