The front door of the Salmagard residence stood open, letting in the purr of ground cars and the hum of distant flyers, all muffled by Casablanca’s dampeners.
Only one of the three men in the sun-drenched foyer was ready to leave. Ryan waited impatiently as the other two went on talking, oblivious to the time.
“Play it again,” Omar said, pulling on his jacket while John checked his appearance in his holo, trying to fix his hair.
Ryan had seen this recording a hundred times; Omar never got tired of showing it to people. He put the feed up in the middle of the room and expanded it with his fingers, tapping the triangle to play it back. Omar had been the one to record this footage, so the video was from the perspective of the holo on his wrist. It showed him here in the house, several years ago, checking the dining room, then the kitchen. In a few seconds he was climbing the stairs. He must’ve heard something, because he turned suddenly. Ryan appeared in the recording, which followed him into the master bedroom.
They’d been drawn to a noticeable rustling from the largest closet, where a small, white, shapeless mass wiggled on the floor. The struggle went on for a moment before the head of a tiny girl emerged from the white fabric.
Tessa’s enormous eyes turned toward the camera, and she stared without blinking.
Ryan and Omar’s attempts not to laugh had been clearly picked up by the holo.
With a perfectly serious expression, the child considered her mother’s ceremonial dress whites, which were much too large for her. It wasn’t clear how she’d gotten them off the hanger, which should’ve been up too high for her to reach. She deliberated gravely for the better part of a minute, then her little hands emerged from the folds, examining the various medals. She settled on one that looked like a golden star with a green gem in the center, the Order of Service. She looked up at Ryan and Omar, gazing directly at the feed.
And started to put the medal in her mouth. The feed cut as they had rushed to stop her.
Omar waved it away, and John gazed at the air where it had been. He hadn’t been around that day.
“That’s definitely our daughter,” John said. “What did her mother say?”
“She said that medals have very little nutritional value. Let’s go,” Ryan told him impatiently, beckoning.
Yawning and shaking his head, John followed them out into the sunlight. Ryan shielded his eyes and peered up at the stratoplatform blocking out much of the sky over Casablanca. Everyone wished it would move on soon; it was an eyesore.
They strode out onto the flatway. As the gate shut behind them, a convoy of several overly long, downright gaudy ground cars quietly rolled past just a few meters away. This was a good neighborhood, but some of the newer residents were downright gaudy.
It was only a five-minute walk, and they were running late, but John insisted on teas from the café at the huge intersection in front of the mosque. This part of town was becoming was becoming quite the architectural patchwork. Casablanca worked hard to keep the historical buildings intact wherever possible, but more and more were becoming the new, nakedly-Evagardian ones, and the contrast was distracting and unsightly.
As they approached the high walls that surrounded the schools, the flatway became more crowded with other parents. They sipped their tea as the gates swung open, skin tingling as they were scanned to confirm their identities and that they carried no weapons. It was a familiar ritual; they went through it twice a day, six days a week.
Each school was housed in a tower, but the administrative part of the campus was more ordinary: a block of a building with a fifty-meter tall statue of the Grand Duchess on top, holding a sword. It was supposed to be some kind of homage to a larger statue in Russia. It was impressive, but even a military family like the Salmagards considered it a bit much.
The lobby was deserted, and a guide path lit up to show them the way, as though they hadn’t done this before. They entered the lift and rode up.
Assistant Principle Vargas waited in her office with a tray of tea for them.
“Oh,” she said as they walked in. “You already have some.”
“I’ll take more,” John said readily, putting his cup aside and picking one up from the tray.
“Gentlemen. Welcome back,” Vargas said, and it always irked Ryan the way she didn’t even pretend to be happy to see them.
“You want to explain this?” John asked bluntly, opting to go straight to open hostility. To be fair, it was exactly what Tessa’s mother would have done. Omar nudged him and spoke up quickly.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he cut in, and Ryan nodded agreement, then gave John a look.
“It’s all right. You aren’t the first angry fathers I’ve had in here. You won’t be the last,” Vargas replied, coming around the desk to perch on it. She took a cup of tea for herself. Her office was all standard except for a birdcage hanging in the corner. At least the bird was asleep today.
“Tessa is not an introvert,” Ryan stated flatly.
“I know that.” Vargas took a drink, then put up a conciliatory hand before he could go on. “And I would never say that she is. That was bad communication from my office, and I apologize. She is not an introvert. But her bearing, her demeanor—the confidence isn’t there.”
“We had an understanding,” Omar said.
“That’s it. That’s the thing,” Vargas told him flatly. “You had an understanding. Your daughter has the face of the Grand Duchess. And I don’t know the details. I don’t know them because nothing has ever been communicated with the school about it. I can read between the lines that there’s some kind of initiative at work here, that doors are opening for her—but I have nothing in writing. So there’s no understanding here. You might have one, but that’s between you and whoever convinced you to put that face on her.”
“But it just makes sense. Am I crazy to say that?” Ryan asked, holding her gaze. “She has the Grand Duchess’ face. Why would she not play the Grand Duchess?”
“I’m right there with you, Mr. Salmagard. I was thinking the same thing from the beginning. I wasn’t asking why I should let Tessa have the role. I was just making sure there wasn’t some reason that I shouldn’t, and I found one, maybe the only one that could matter: she wouldn’t do a good job. I’m not crazy to make a change on those grounds.”
“But the Guardian?” John put his hands on his hips. “It’s kicking her when she’s down.”
“She’s still one of the Heroes,” Vargas pointed out. “Tessa is a solid athlete, and I suppose she’d better be, since you obviously aspire to the Service with her. But she’s shy. The Grand Duchess was many things, but she was not shy.”
“Tessa’s not shy,” Omar argued.
“Then she comes off as shy, and that amounts to the same thing. This isn’t your ordinary school play. You know what the expectations are for our production of Heroes of the Unification each year. You know the sorts of people that will be in that audience. We’ve always done a good job with this thing, and that will not change on my watch. The decision’s made, gentlemen. I will note the objections of the Fathers Salmagard in Tessa’s student file, but I’m not changing my mind. It’s done. She’ll portray the Guardian, and she’ll do it well. It plays to her strengths. It’s a physical role with basically no lines. It’s perfect for her.”
“Okay, have you forgotten the part where she literally has exactly the face of the Grand Duchess?” Omar protested.
“You’re overreacting,” Vargas said calmly. “This was never a sure thing. Nobody from my office promised you anything.”
“Do you know what you’re doing to us?” John demanded, pointing at Ryan and Omar and himself. “Do you know what our wife will do to us if Tessa doesn’t get this?”
“That sounds like a personal problem.” Vargas took another sip from her cup. The bird in the cage fluttered briefly, and then the heavy silence of the office returned.
Five minutes later the three of them were standing in the corridor, Vargas’ door shut firmly behind them. They dragged themselves to the lift and rode back down, crossing the lawn to the Belle School. They had failed, and now they were late.
Tessa stood alone, waiting. She had turned ten a month ago, but Ryan had a feeling it would be a while yet before she looked ten. That was probably part of the problem. Even grown, she would not be very tall. The actual Guardian had also been small, but that alone wasn’t a good enough reason for this. It certainly wouldn’t be enough to convince Tessa.
She had on her usual look of guarded neutrality, but there was a flash of relief when she saw them coming.
“Hey!” Omar called out, spreading his arms, and she trotted over and hugged him. Ryan and John arrived and got their hugs out of the way.
“How we doing?” Ryan asked, sinking to a crouch in front of her. “What’d you get?”
The mask of propriety returned. “The Guardian,” she replied uncertainly.
“Nice.” Omar glanced at the other two, then back at her. “That is amazing.”
“I thought I would be the Duchess,” she replied, avoiding eye contact.
“Why would you want to be?” John asked, joining Omar.
“What?” She looked puzzled.
“Tessa, the Duchess might’ve saved humanity, but she also never shut up,” John told her frankly, and Ryan elbowed him. “No, I’m serious. You’d have to learn so many lines if you were her.”
“True. And she didn’t get to do anything exciting. At least, not like the Guardian. You’ll get to do all those fights,” Ryan said brightly.
“Did they let you play with a sword?” Omar asked.
“You don’t play with swords, Dad.” Tessa gave him a reproachful look. “They’re weapons.”
“Good point. Get it? Point? Anyone?” Omar asked.
“Is it all right to be the Guardian?” she asked, ignoring him.
“Is it all right?” Ryan raised an eyebrow. He looked over his shoulder. There were still plenty of parents and kids heading out the gate on foot. “Any of these families would kill to have their kids get to be any of the Heroes. It’s a huge deal.”
She didn’t look convinced, but she started trudging toward the gate. They followed. This wasn’t good.
“Should we stop?” John asked on the way back, pointing to the gelato place that Tessa liked.
Their daughter shook her head. She stayed in the front hall when they got back to the house, still wearing her hat.
“You want to take that off?” Omar asked worriedly. Tessa would always get like this when she was afraid she’d disappointed someone. She absently removed the hat, and he took it and hung it up.
“Should we call Alice over?” John asked.
Tessa shook her head again, then looked up at them.
“Can we talk?” she asked.
Omar put his hand over his mouth, and John gave him a warning look.
“Of course,” Ryan told her, glaring at them both as he steered her into the sitting room. She perched on a sofa, and the three of them took their places, John in his chair, and Omar and Ryan on the other sofa. Omar was getting a call, but he quickly silenced his holo and dismissed it. It wasn’t every day that Tessa called a conference.
“What’s wrong?” Omar asked. He already knew, but it was better this way.
“Why is everything about the Unification?” she asked.
That wasn’t what any of them had expected. They exchanged several looks among themselves, and John cleared his throat.
“Well, it’s where history begins,” he said.
“But it’s not,” she replied, turning her stare on him. “There was the Emergence before that.”
“Well, yeah.” He shrugged. “I guess.”
“What about before that?” she pressed.
“You’re talking about Earth history,” Omar said, pointing at the floor.
Ryan frowned. “There’s a lot of it. I mean, we were here for a while before the Empress put things together.”
“Some kids at school were talking about the Emergence. Or before the Emergence,” she said.
Omar fidgeted with his hands, and Ryan didn’t blame him. This wasn’t a conversation he’d been prepared to have.
“You mean the Atrophy,” he said, and Tessa nodded.
Ryan sighed. “There’s a big, new drama about it on this week. That’s why everyone’s talking, isn’t it?”
“Can I watch it?” Tessa asked eagerly. This was what she had to be angling for.
John snorted, and Omar made a face. Ryan kept his smile in place, but shook his head.
“I don’t think so, Tessa. Maybe a little too scary for you.”
“Why didn’t they teach us about it?” she asked.
“They will. You’ll learn about it in eighth grade. That’s still when they do it, right?” Omar asked John, who nodded.
“But no one talks about it,” she said. She wouldn’t let this go.
“Well, that’s normal. Um. It wasn’t pretty,” Omar told her.
“I don’t understand.”
“You remember that recording I have of you trying to eat your mother’s medals? Would you want me to go around talking about it?” he asked, and she shook her head rapidly. “The Imperium feels that way about the Atrophy. It’s part of our history. Maybe not our favorite part,” he added. “But it did pave the way for the Emergence. And it wasn’t long after that—well, you know. You know the rest.” Every Evagardian knew the story of the Unification by heart.
“We were actually waiting for your mother to come home so we could watch that,” John said.
“I want to watch it too,” Tessa said stubbornly.
“Not happening,” the three men said in unison.
She looked crestfallen. “Other kids are watching it,” she grumbled. “At least tell me what happened.”
Ryan considered that. “Um,” he said, thinking hard. “Um, okay.” He leaned forward, and she eagerly met his eyes. “Okay. So, this was a long time ago, right? It was back when there was just Earth. All the people in the whole galaxy were right here, on this planet, all over it in different places. Speaking different languages, fighting wars with each other—all that weird stuff.”
Tessa nodded, eyes shining.
Ryan glanced at John. “Am I doing it right?”
“Yeah, do it. We need snacks.” John kicked Omar’s shin.
Omar rolled his eyes and went into the kitchen.
“Right, so like I was saying.” Ryan watched Tessa take a throw pillow and hug it, still staring at him. “So… okay, look.” He used his fingers to make a circle. “There was a special place on Earth. And the people had closed it off. Sealed it so no one could go in.”
“Why?” Tessa asked.
“Because there was something important there.”
“What?” she demanded immediately.
“It’s complicated. But they sealed it off, right? And some men went in anyway, very dangerous men. See, that place was dangerous, so if you wanted to go there, you had to be dangerous too. Make sense?”
“And they went there to get this important thing?” she asked.
“Right. And so there’s all these dangerous men,” Ryan told her. He thought for a moment, then held up one finger. “And then there was one woman.”