Corridors shortened the trip, but it was dawn in Arabia when Ice woke from dreams of hundreds of whispers in his mind. The train was slowing. And the whispers louder.
Well, short of leaping off the train and running for it, I’m going to finally face the One.
But I need to know about this . . . I don’t even know what to call it.
:: Nor do we. ::
The whispering died away, as the single coherent thought reached out to him.
:: We have lost people. We can barely feel them now, and they . . . are no longer part of us. We do not know the cause. ::
Ice swallowed. :: Agfu? :: he got up and walked off the almost empty train.
:: Yes, he is one. And now about to be handed much power. We . . . are uncertain what steps to take. Perhaps we merely need to sit back and see what a President without connection to the One can do ::
Ice blinked around the small garden he’d somehow walked into.
A man seated at a small table. Old enough to show his age, but still dark haired.
Two plates, two chairs, one empty.
The man pointed at the chair. “Join me for breakfast. I am Emre.”
Ice jerked to a stop. Hesitated, then stepped forward and sat.
“So. Kaat’s son. It’s taken you awhile to lose that anger we felt in you, when you first came to the One World. But I was glad to know that my Kaat still lived.” The Prophet picked up a fork and poked at the food in front of him. “I have almost persuaded the cooks that I can eat regular food.”
Ice eyed his. “On Earth, it’s a regional favorite. Grits. I never really like it.”
“Grits! Yes, that’s the word. I hate not remembering, but when you live a long time . . . you have to.” Dark eyes studied him. “So, what to do about this withdrawal from the One? I am uneasy, yet, apart from their wariness of you, and their attacks, they have done nothing wrong.”
Ice nodded. “I do not think Agfu will be a good president, and he’s gathered around himself more people like him.” He poked the girts with his fork. “Is this just an effect of the breaking of the One Hive Mind? I’ve been back and forth to Tall Trees Colony, I’ve been to Embassy. Nothing, no one, affected me like Agfu and a couple dozen others.”
Emre shook his head. “It started before the break, and has added just one of two people a year. This is different. And beyond our experience.
“People, when they sleep, they cycle in and out of the deep sleep state were we can barely feel them. And just a few, never return. Oh, we can see through others that they are on their feet, working, playing . . . but we can barely feel them.”
Emre eyed him. “We need you to watch this new government. To act as our agent in doing whatever needs to be done, if it needs to be stopped.”
Ice stopped breathing.
A faint twinkle in the old man’s eyes. “Well, if you’re not hungry, you might as well head back. And belatedly . . . welcome home, Grandson.”
26 Shawwal 1420 yp
Short on sleep, and still in his rumpled tux . . . Ajki had sent a car to meet him as he staggered off the train in Damasq. Ux tossed him a grin. “Ajki wants to talk to you. Said he didn’t care how sleep deprived you were.”
“Ugh. This is going to be an interesting five years. I guess you guys are reorganizing who to guard.” He rubbed his eyes. “Last night, Madam Xiat and Madam Raod were both planning to move almost immediately.”
“Yeah. We’re—all the Black Horse and agents—going to miss those kids, and both ladies are class acts. Well, Xiat was one of us for decades, and we already knew Izzo. And Ox was a honor to work for.”
“And now you’ve got Ehfa.”
“Yeah, from what’s on the Black Horse gossip circuit—don’t tell anyone we’ve got any such thing—we’re getting a serious drop in quality leadership.”
“Ouch. Well, who needs sleep, right? I can catch up in three days when Uqqy fires me.”
A huffed breath from Ux. “We’re all wondering if Ehfu’s going to request the Army to recall any of our leadership and send in new officers.”
“Crap. Well . . . so long as he doesn’t crash the economy or start a war, we’ll all survive.” Ice swallowed. “Right?”
Ajki enjoyed a moment of amusement as he noted that Ice, in a rumpled tux and uncombed hair looked even more than usual like a model for book cover hero. And an air of not having noticed his magnificent self might be a bit inappropriately dressed and groomed for the office.
His secretary, a little red around the eyes, waved him straight through the open door.
Ajki was alone. His big computer in front of him. “Grab a chair. I’m almost finished completely erasing decades of political and personal dirt on anyone I might want to pressure someday.”
Ice took a seat silently.
Not to mention decades of institutional experience, being shown the door. What does Uqqy know of IR? He’s been in the Ministries, local government, a founding member of the One First party. Thinks he can do my job? Well, good luck. If he keeps most of my people and will listen to them, he’ll do all right.
Akji shook his head, opened a small box, removed a small chip, and inserted it. Hit a few buttons and set it aside. A deep sigh. “Factory reset. So to speak. Factories don’t make machines like this. So. Tell all.”
“The One doesn’t know what’s going on.”
“The Prophet Emre told me it started before the break. One or two people a year just shutting out the One. They don’t know if it’s a threat or not.”
The boy swallowed. “He, Emre, said . . . I was to act as their agent in this.”
Oh. My. One. “Well, there you go. A new job when Uqqy fires you.”
Ice’s calm superior demeanor sagged. “No offence, Boss, but would you mind firing me? I mean, I can see Uqqy figuring out how to do it without severance pay, and . . .”
“Still saving to buy into a Colony?” Oh, Ice, I don’t think you’d like it.
“Do you even grow houseplants?”
“I got tired of killing them.”
Ajki got his humor back under control. “I’ll think about it. Now go home and catch up on your sleep . . .”
Movement in the outer office caught his eye. Shit. Already. He stood up and stepped to the door. “Uqqy, good to see you ready to go. Would you like a tour?”
Uqqy stepped into his personal space. “Let’s have a little private chat first.”
“Certainly.” Ajki stepped back into the office. Ice was standing looking like a bright intelligent young man without a sign of disliking the man who was looking him up and down.
“And you?” Uqqy pointed at Ice. “I suppose you voted for your Rumacova.”
“Actually, I voted for Izzo.”
Uqqy’s face flushed. “You are fired!”
Ice just raised his eyebrows, and looked at Ajki.
Ajki cleared his throat and stepped in. “Icka Withione Sycamore Tall Trees. As of the twenty-ninth of Shawwal at eleven fifty nine, your employment with the Government is ended. Go clear your office, and leave the building. Now. Do not return.”
No a sign of amusement, a minimal nod. Ajki hadn’t the faintest doubt the boy’d caught the thumbs down, up, and down on those last sentences.
“So, Uqqy, have a seat.” Ajki waved him to the head of the table. “How can the old director help the new?”
Ice stepped around Uqqy, got an “accidental” shove from a flunky and walked out of sight.
All right. Fly free, Agent of the One.