copyright (c) 2006, Don Sakers

Hunt for the Dymalon Cygnet

By Don Sakers

Part 7

On the way to the hotel, Rita worries that she won’t find the right room—but as soon as she enters the lobby, Daisy announces, “The Junior Delegates reception is in the South ballroom. Go up the escalator, turn left, and follow the corridor to the end. The ballroom is on the right.”

The broad, carpeted corridor is empty, lonesome in the peculiar manner of public spaces accustomed to lively crowds, when the people are elsewhere. As she reaches the ballroom doors, though, Rita hears the deep, throbbing beat of music; standing for a moment outside those doors, she feels dark wood and brass fixtures pulsating to that same beat. She takes a breath, then pulls a door open and steps through.

The ballroom is cavernous and dim after the well-lit hallway. It is warm, and the air is alive with a dozen heady smells: clove and cinnamon, pungent perfumes, human sweat. The music, hard-driving and roaring, fills the air as palpably as steam in a sauna.

A dance floor area is crowded with bodies; around it, scattered tables and chairs are more sparsely populated. Beyond the dance floor, a dark figure sits hunched over a complex of sound machinery.

“Hello?” A bearish man appears at Rita’s side, towering over her.

“H-hello. I’m looking for Jannet Hoister.”

He nods, and gestures to the right. “She went that way.”

“Thanks.” Rita moves in the indicated direction. After a few steps, she stops as Daisy sounds a quiet alarm in her ear.

“Attention. This unit is no longer connected to the infogrid. Only offline services are available.”

Rita turns back to the bearish man, who regards her with a quizzical look. She gestures vaguely. “My Angel….”

He nods. “We have blocks up. Tonight, this room is international territory.” The corners of his mouth twitch. “You’re not in Kansas any more.”


“If you want, I can set you up a bypass.”

“No, that’s fine. Thank you.” She moves off, swaying with the music’s beat. Daisy’s offline status gives Rita an unusual opportunity; she clears her throat and says, “Daisy, unit power off.”

“Confirm unit power off.”

“Power off confirmed.”

“Unit powering off. To power up, touch the unit with a forefinger steadily for five seconds.” With a final beep, Daisy goes inactive. And Rita smiles.

For the first time in years, Daisy is no longer watching, recording, reporting to distant AIs. To be sure, once Daisy is back in contact, the unit will tattle on Rita—and a deliberate, unexplained blackout will cost Rita many redemption points.

But—perhaps—not as many as a true record of what Rita says and does tonight.

With an unaccustomed feeling of liberation, Rita moves deeper into the room, past the dancers and toward groups congregated around scattered tables and chairs. Nostalgia stirs; she remembers this scene from her college days, from nights when she was an Intern for poor Carrie Ramierez, from that part of her life that she usually thought of as the vague “before.”

Ahead, she recognizes Jannet Hoister standing in a casual group of half a dozen or so, and Rita’s heart leaps—then a moment later it plummets as Jannet throws an arm around a young man next to her and gives him a quick kiss.

For an instant, between one heartbeat and the next, Rita considers turning around, leaving, passing through the doorway back to Kansas. Then the moment is over, and she pushes forward.

Jannet looks at her, their eyes meet, and with a smile Jannet waves Rita over.

As she steps within a meter of the group, the pounding music fades until barely audible.

Jannet laughs at Rita’s expression. “Noisy for dancing, quiet for talking.” She gives the young man at her side a mock slap. “Not that anything can keep him quiet for long.”

“Hello,” Rita mutters.

Jannet takes her arm from the man’s shoulders and holds out her hands to Rita. “I’m glad you were able to come. Here, let me introduce you.” Grasping Rita’s hand, she turns to the group. “This is Rita Cuervo. She’s the teacher I was telling you about. Rita, this is Girald Chen, Junior Delegate in the Central America seat; Ray Schmidt, in the Schmidt Foundation seat; Elaine Stockard, here courtesy of Wal-Mart; Tadj Kimmitt kwa Ellenndan, Cairo; and Thea Leonov, who should be in the Coca-Cola seat, but whose Dad has too much of a rod up his butt to let her.”

Rita desperately tries to match faces to names. She is out of the habit. For far too long, she’s relied on Daisy’s impeccable memory and unobtrusive visual and aural prompts. The Junior Delegates are a mix of ethnic types and outré costumes. They all seem to be of the same early-twenties age as Jannet, and Rita isn’t even sure that she can tell the boys from the girls. “Pleased to meet you all,” she croaks. Then, with a quick count, she realizes that Jannet has not introduced the young man next to her. “And you’re…?”

Jannet smiles, not releasing Rita’s hand. “He’s my older brother, Jaison. And Jais, I saw her first, so hands off.”

Brother. In spite of herself, Rita smiles. Jaison is taller than Jannet, but his skin is the same caramel color and his features clearly akin to hers. His hair, dyed a bright yellow, is cropped very short, and his broad smile is infectious. He shoves Jannet gently. “Nada prob, Sis. I was just being polite.” Turning his head to Rita, he stage-whispers, “If it doesn’t work out with Sis, give me a call.”

Rita, along with the others, laughs.

Jannet shoves Jaison in return, then says to Rita, “Did you have a chance to eat? Are you hungry?”

“Well, I did come right from school. There was a meeting that ran late, and I didn’t think to stop for anything on the way.” Didn’t have the ration points, was more like it, but Rita wasn’t going to say that.

“Come on, there’s plenty of food.” Jannet pulls her off into the gloom.

In a corner of the ballroom are tables laden with food, everything from the ubiquitous fruit-and-vegetable trays to tiny sandwiches, stacked platters of hors d’oeurves and various finger foods, an intriguing selection of mini-desserts, and—miracle of miracles!—two enormous urns of coffee surrounded by large porcelain mugs. Rita pours a mug and swallows gratefully. “Oh, that’s good.”

“It’s Colombian. The Council gets some perks. Here, try some of these. Tell you what, let’s take some of everything back to the table. I know those gluttons, they’ll eat it all.”

In no time, Jannet has three large plates piled impossibly high; juggling two more modestly-laden plates, Rita follows her to the table.

As they re-enter the quiet zone, one of the young men—Tadj?—is holding forth, “I am given to understand that the potato is a noble creature, which will often sacrifice itself if the herd is in danger.”

A dark-haired fellow with elfin features laughs. “I’ve never seen a potato do that.”

Tadj waves dismissal. “Ah, but you’ve only had experience with domesticated potatoes. In the wild, they’re completely different.”

Jannet takes a chair, pats the empty seat beside her. “Sit down, Rita. We have a simple rule about Tadj: don’t pay attention to anything he says. Follow that, and you’ll get along fine in this group.”

“Actually,” says another, “That’s a good rule to follow with just about all of them.”

Jannet sticks out her tongue. “Especially with you, Girald.”

Girald, who seems at once younger and older than the others, spreads his hands. “You see? Getting this group to talk about anything of substance is like chasing the last digit of pi. It isn’t going to happen in this lifetime.”

Now that she has a chance to look more closely at Jannet’s friends, Rita sees that they are all young, younger than herself, late teens to mid-twenties. Many of them wear fantastical makeup: tattoos that glow, or that move slowly across the skin, unusual hair and eye colors. Headbands of various types seem to be in fashion. And everywhere, Rita sees the same ragged starburst design. On Jannet, it is a gold lapel pin; others wear it as earrings, decorative hair combs, tattoos, and even drawn across one lad’s cheek in silver spidersilk. The design tugs at Rita’s memory. She senses that it ought to be familiar, but she can’t place it—and without Daisy’s reference banks, she has no hope of recalling its significance.

A chubby woman with rainbow-striped long hair leans forward. “All right, you want talk with substance? We’ve all had most of the day to observe—what do you all think of North America?”

There is an uncomfortable rustle around the table, and several eyes dart to Rita, then away. Rita feels herself freeze in mid-bite.

The elfin young man clears his throat. “One…er…hesitates to speak, for fear of possibly giving offense.”

Rita deliberately finishes her bite, chews, swallows. “Please don’t feel awkward on my account,” she says. “I’m interested to hear what everyone has to say. I…I can only imagine what the rest of the world thinks of us.” She grins weakly. “We don’t get a lot of foreign commentary, as you can imagine.”

“It’s forbidden?”

“No. Just…not encouraged.” Rita lowers her eyes and feels her grin fade. “Look, I feel as if I should be apologizing to all of you for the way my country behaves. Believe me, we’re not all like….”

“Like what?” Jannet prompts.

“Like…the way we must seem to you,” Rita finishes dejectedly.

The chubby woman nods, and takes Rita’s hand across the table. “We all understand how you feel. My father represents Coca-Cola on the Council. Coke pays for his seat. They pay his salary, and mine too. That doesn’t mean that I approve of everything the company does, or that sometimes I don’t feel like apologizing to the world.” She looks around the table. “We’re in similar situations, all of us.”

“Thank you…I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.”

“Thea.” She squeezes Rita’s hand, then releases it. “On with it, then. We’re here to share what information and impressions we’ve gathered today. Rita, we’d appreciate it if you would be our reality-check. Let us know if we’re off on the wrong trail or something?”

“I’ll try.”

“Who wants to start?”

Jannet leans forward. “I saw a gradeschool full of children who seemed well-disciplined and quite polite. Those at the assembly asked fairly intelligent questions.” She chuckles. “They did have a little trouble when I told them I was a non-theist. Outside their realm of experience.”

Girald frowns. “How in the world did that come up?”

“One little boy asked me what my religion was. It’s a matter of great importance to them, apparently.”

Rita jumps in. “At the end of the year they’ll be choosing their religious affiliations. So naturally, they’re interested in all the alternatives.”

“I got the same question, repeatedly.” Tadj frowns. “From adults as well as children.”

Around the table, others agree. Thea sums up, “So we all pretty much found a pervasive concern with religion. Interesting.”

Rita, feeling like she’s defending her home, says, “What’s so interesting? Surely it’s a topic of conversation where you come from, as well?”

Thea frowns. “I’m afraid not. Today’s the first time in years I’ve been asked about my religious beliefs. I almost didn’t know how to answer.”

Jaison, with a grin, asks, “What did you tell them, Thea? Twelfth-Level Priestess of Astarte? Handmaiden of Kali? Reformed Druid?”

“I said that I was baptized in Chrislam. That’s true enough.”

“As far as it goes. Did you tell them that you’re excom-municated on three continents?”

Jannet sighs heavily. “Be quiet, you two.” She turns to Rita. “It’s true. The whole religion thing is just not that big a deal. Organized religion has always been something of a joke in the Nexus, and—”

“Nexus?” Rita echoes. With dawning comprehension, she looks again around the circle of faces. “You’re all Nexus. Of course. That’s what that starburst design is.” A chill runs up Rita’s spine—whether of dread or excitement, she cannot tell—and her mouth falls open. “Y-you’re all spies. Nexus spies.”

Girald rolls his eyes. “Oh, please. See what you’ve done now, Jannet?”

“Just bide a mo, Girald, will you?” Jannet meets Rita’s eyes. “Rita, we’re not…no, let’s try this a different way. First, you tell me what you think you know about the Nexus.”

All eyes are upon Rita as she answers. “It’s a shadowy international organization—no, make that ‘interplanetary.’ Their goals and methods, if not strictly illegal, are certainly questionable. The Nexus secretly controls much of the world’s economy, and has fingers deep into politics just about everywhere.”

For a few heartbeats, there is silence, as they all continue to stare at Rita. Then, as one, they burst into laughter.

Jannet wipes her eyes. “I’m sorry, Rita. It’s rude to laugh at you. It’s just….” She shakes her head. “Honey, if the Nexus was as secretive as all that, why would it openly control the majority on the Council? Why would we all go around wearing the Starburst like this? Believe me, the Nexus is as aboveground as your Conservative Party.” She touches her pin, and its radiating lines sparkle at the ends. “Do you know what this symbol is?”

“Just that it stands for the Nexus.”

“It’s a map to the Solar System. The lines represent the distance from Earth to each of fourteen specific pulsars. On this scale, there aren’t any nations or continents or even planets—just the human race as a whole, all in one little speck. That’s what the Nexus means. We’re all one race, one tribe, one family. When we believe anything else, we’re just kidding ourselves.”

Such talk sounds familiar, and Rita struggles to remember when and where she’s heard it before. The answer comes to her slowly: she’d heard people talk that way with Carrie Ramierez in Congress, in those golden summer days of the time Before.


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