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Shohreh looked up from her desk upon hearing Glynna’s distinctive rap on her office door. The rhythmic sequence was one Glynna swore had come from Earth, and Shohreh had no reason to doubt it. She did feel, however, that the five-rap series was somehow unfinished, and wondered if, perhaps, was part of a larger whole, the only surviving remnant of a pattern now lost to the ancestors.
Since she’d no more answer now than she had in all the years of responding to Glynna’s knocks, Shohreh opened the carved wooden door and allowed Captain Pitte to enter, noting that, despite the obvious exhaustion, there was an easiness in his expression that had been lacking in their first meeting.
Glynna bowed and departed, leaving Pitte looking around himself at the office, though she considered it less office and more a treasure box of comfort—a kind of reparation for being delegated to the reams of paperwork her position required.
The floor, covered with thick woven carpets, helped hold warmth on a plateau that, even during high summer, remained cool. She’d covered the granite walls with pen and ink drawings contrasting with soft tapestries in shades of green.
Deep cushions in jewel tones lay scattered around the low desk, upon which a brass teapot and bright red cups steamed with the mint tea she’d poured just before Glynna’s knock, and the lamp overhead gilded all with a warm glow while the fire in the hearth added both heat and a friendly crackle of flames.
The window behind her desk was half-draped, revealing only a sliver of the dark wilderness beyond, where the clouds drifted in tatters as the first sliver of Ma’at rose into the crystal field of stars.
“I am pleased to see you again, Captain,” she told him once his eyes returned to her. “I trust your injured are on the road to recovery?”
“Yes,” he said, the relief cresting in his eyes like a wave. “My first mate is past the crisis and sleeping comfortably, and Dr. Montagne assures us Rory’s hand will heal soundly.”
“Edwin has a great deal of triage experience,” Shohreh said, gesturing him to the cushions at her desk. “And your mother-to-be?” she asked, though she already knew, for Anya made her report hours ago. But by speaking the diagnosis out loud, Captain Pitte made it more real for himself.
“Jinna is well. And the child also. And your Dr. Dvorak… I wasn’t aware sensitives had the ability to make that sort of determination,” he added, his expression shifting from relief to curiosity.
“Not all can,” Shohreh said. “We are fortunate Anya chose to use her gift so productively. Only last month she Sensed an abnormality in one of the marshals’ heart that, left untended, would have killed him.”
“An amazing gift,” John said. “And, I would imagine, a burden.” He folded himself onto one of the cushions and looked up. “Is that why she chose a life in the Keep rather than a city posting?”
“Perceptive of you, Captain.” Shohreh pushed one cup in his direction. “And yes. While Anya’s skills would benefit any hospital, the strain of so many injuries, so much pain, so much death, might well have driven her mad.”
“But not here.”
“Not here, no. We have our share of traumas, and the Keep provides ample fodder for a family practitioner, as Tariq could attest…were he more inclined to conversation.”
“Did he grow up here?” John asked, sipping at the tea, savoring the bite of the mint, much fresher than the concoction he and Jinna had brewed when she’d first boarded the Errant.
“Here, and in Nike, with his father,” Shohreh said.
“Forgive me.” John set the cup down. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“If I believed you prying, I would not have answered,” she said with a smile. “Not every liaison is permanent,” she explained. “Sayyed and I began as friends, and friends we remained until his death. And though I opposed his choice of career officially, unofficially we came to an arrangement that suited us both.”
“Sayyed was in the shadow trade,” John said. “And Tariq kept up the family business?”
“On both sides,” Shohreh nodded. “And, as with his father, while I cannot officially recognize his work in the shadows, I can make use of his skills and connections for the general good. Plus, it makes the Landing Day party reunions less incendiary if we can all get along.”
“I imagine it would,” John said, turning his cup around on itself. “Only—” he began, then stopped himself.
“Go on,” Shohreh prompted, raising her cup. “If you tread too close to the hive, I won’t sting.”
“Very well,” he said, though he didn’t continue right off, but let his eyes drift to the window and the glittering sky beyond before returning her gaze. “Only I wondered, what do you mean when you speak of the general good?”
Her head tilted and the braid on her shoulder rustled the fabric of her tunic. “I would think that obvious.”
“Yes, but no.” He pushed his cup aside and rubbed his hands on his knees. “Take this business with the calculator.”
The amber eyes narrowed, but more in amusement than censure, and she crossed her hands, one atop of the other, on the table. “What of it?”
“From what I can piece together,” John said, “it was at your behest Sameen stole the device in the first place.”
Shohreh nodded once, but said nothing.
“Except, how did you know it existed?” Her lip twitched, and he wondered if he’d stepped too near the hive, but he kept on. “Perhaps,” he suggested, “not all Keepers wear the saffron and scarlet?”
The barest dip of her head might not have been an admission, but neither was it a denial.
“And if that’s the case, perhaps such a Keeper spent some time with a radical technocrist… but no.” His brow furrowed as he considered the angle. “Galileo’s Sensitivity would have made that difficult.”
“Galileo is not the only technocrist in Nike,” Shohreh offered.
John smiled. “Of course. So, the theoretical Keeper in technocrist clothing learns of—”
“Suspects,” she offered.
“Suspects,” John corrected himself, “the existence of a piece of illegal tech.” Here he leaned forward. “Why not simply inform the local authorities? Let them make an arrest and put an end to the affair?”
Now she leaned forward. “Why do you think?”
He thought. “Because then it would be real,” he said. “The public would be aware the calculator had been created. And if it could be created once, it could be created again.”
“And the affair wouldn’t end,” she told him. “It would be only the beginning. The technocrist movement has, to date, remained on the fringes of society; even in the Coalition states they are barely skin on the pond, but that would change the second that theory became practice. The movement would grow, and push for a repeal of the Apian laws against advanced tech.”
“And those seeking to profit from the advances,” John continued the thought, “would add their weight to the technocrists. Those in opposition would step up and we’d see dissent throughout the Colonies, and likely the Coalition as well,” he added, recalling Eitan’s argument in the galley, when they’d first discovered the calculator.
“If Earth’s history has taught us anything, it is that greed preys on the conscience. Dissension would be the best scenario,” Shohreh averred, sitting back and taking up her cup again. “At worst?” she shrugged and sipped her tea.
John considered that, knowing she was watching him over the rim of her cup. “So the Keepers, through Tariq and Sameen, appropriated the calculator to preempt even the possibility of a civil war.”
“Having yet to recover from a decidedly uncivil war between the Colonies and Coalition, can you blame us?”
“No,” he said, tapping the desk lightly. “No, but I wonder if there isn’t more you could have done.”
“Oh?” She set her cup down, so gently he barely heard the thump. “What sort of more?”
Definitely too close to the hive, but having stepped into the apiary, he figured the best way out was through.
“As you said, greed preys on the conscience, but greed is oftentimes the byproduct of want.” Certainly that had been the case with Galileo, from what Eitan shared of Kane’s early life, while he and John waited for the Keepers to tend their wounded.
Poverty, starvation, the loss of a beloved sister—dark seeds planted in the youth and come to fruition in the man.
“Poverty is the source of many ills,” Shohreh agreed.
“So why allow it?” John asked, meeting her gaze. “You Keep the Apian laws, your marshals rival many a standing army, and you have representatives in every major city on the continent. And yet you stood by while the Coalition waged war on the Colonies, and continue to stand by while ristos prey on commoners and purchase politicians to forward their own ends. I have a young woman on my airship,” he continued, gesturing in the direction of the Errant, “fleeing a man who believes himself so untouchable he could take her child from her, without consequence. If Keepers care so much for the people—”
“But we don’t,” Shohreh cut him off mid-rant, and the calm statement struck him like a bucket of ice-cold water.
So much so he actually shook himself before asking, “I beg your pardon?”
“We don’t care for the people,” she told him. “An understandable misconception, as certain branches of our organization provide humanitarian aid when and where possible. But as a whole? We are not here to make Fortune safe for humanity. We are here,” she said, lifting her pot and pouring out more of the fragrant tea into both their cups, “to keep Fortune safe from humanity.”
“But,” John began, then stopped because he had to search for the words. Once he found them, he looked up. “Why intervene at all? If you’ve no concern for the people, why send Sameen after the calculator?“
“For the same reason Apian law forbids advanced technology in the first place,” she told him. “To prevent the destruction of Fortune by those who inhabit it. At the present state of technological development we have equilibrium. Certainly, there were some difficult decades after the discovery of crystal, but its sustainability and volatile nature prevented it from shifting the balance too far. Yes, the Coalition may attack the Colonies over crystal rights, or there may be riots in the slums of Harp and Midas Fever can strike at any time and people will inevitably die—but the planet will survive.
“Introduce one piece of advanced tech, however,” she continued, “and we are in danger of following the same geometric progression that led to Earth’s demise. And that,” she said, taking up her freshened cup, “is why I asked Sameen to steal the calculator.”
She finished speaking, and after a beat John’s eyes dipped and watched his hands reach for his own cup. The mint tickled his nose and the bright tea danced on his tongue.
As he swallowed, he felt the warm liquid fail to break through the ice forming in his sternum.
“You disapprove,” Shohreh guessed, studying him.
“Not entirely,” he said, though his voice was uncertain. “Only, now I understand your priorities, I don’t know if you’ll be interested in what else I learned, regarding the calculator.”
Her expression stilled and became cooler than he’d seen it yet. “I am interested in anything you might know regarding the calculator.”
“In that case,” he said, “you’ll want to know Galileo wasn’t operating alone.”
“Of course not.” She waved that aside. “You already handed over his accomplic—”
“Not the people who worked for him,” he cut her off. “I’m speaking about the people Galileo worked for.”
“What makes you assume he worked for anyone?”
“First, the fact Mary and Colin only referred to Galileo as their contact—not their employer or their client, but their contact. And once, during the boarding, Colin said as much, when he reminded Galileo he wasn’t the one paying for their services. So, if Galileo wasn’t funding the retrieval effort, who was? And while I’ve little doubt Galileo built the calculator, he doesn’t appear to have the means to purchase the necessary components, most of them quite dear. All of that, plus his unstable personality, tell me Galileo Kane might have his arm up to the elbow in stolen comb, but he wasn’t working on his own. Which means someone out there, or someones, will presumably try again.”
Silence fell between them, thick and stifling as an Air Corps blanket.
At last Shohreh shook it off. “If that is indeed the case, rest assured we will maintain a careful watch on Nike.” Here she leaned in again. “You know, we could always use another set of eyes out there.”
“Thank you,” John said, “but on the whole, I believe Errant Enterprises is better suited to working for the people you don’t care about. Who knows?” he asked, pushing himself to his feet and automatically flexing his left knee, which had gone stiff. “It may be if we do a good enough job watching out for each other, you won’t need to watch us so carefully.”
Shohreh accepted his response and his bow with equanimity, and, once he’d left, drew another cup from under the desk.
By the time Tariq pushed through one of the tapestries hanging over the wall to her left, she had his tea poured.
“I told you he would say no,” Tariq offered, kneeling opposite his mother.
“So you did,” she said, easing back on her heels with a sigh. “Still, the crew of the Errant may prove useful, should the need arise. And meanwhile, I imagine the good captain would not turn his back on the occasional referral.”
Tariq, after taking an appreciative sip of his tea, set down the cup. “I cannot imagine,” he said, “why everyone always thought Father the devious one in the family.”
“I’ve no idea,” Shohreh said, her expression all innocence before she continued. “But on to more important matters. When are you going to bring the family up for a visit?”