CHILD OF FIRE AND BLOOD
“Welcome back to Aerel Keck Live! Tonight, my guest is a genius of technological innovation and marketing,” the charismatic talk show host addressed his audience, “and one of the wealthiest men in the world.”
Bright studio lights shone down on him from thirty feet overhead. He basked in the familiar heat as he adjusted his tailored suit jacket and played at making tense faces to the audience.
“I may be underdressed for this. Anyway, if you ever use computers or especially one of these handy little Smarties--and who still doesn’t have one, right?”
“I’ve got mine,” a pudgy, odd-looking man laughed from the edge of the set, “though I’m not quite sure what to do with it yet.”
“So, Hedloe, the only thing separating you from an Etinen farmer is the suit,” Keck joked, smiling to the crowd’s laughter.
“That and I was able to get past security,” the self-effacing sidekick quipped.
“Well, our audience probably knows the name of tonight’s guest and that he’s responsible for not only confusing my poor co-host, but putting these clever little conveniences into all our hands. Let’s get him out here to tell us what we can expect in our future. Give a big welcome to Taril Bont!”
Thunderous applause filled Keck’s ears. He never tired of that. His show’s producers certainly scheduled guests to draw viewers, but Aerel Keck knew in his heart that people were watching the show for him. He was the host, after all, and the best entertainment on the screens late at night. It was his name on the show. He would be sure to remind them when contract renewal time came up next month.
The charismatic host smiled at his guest as he welcomed him and the two men dropped into plush chairs, angled so they could converse comfortably and offer the audience a sense of inclusion.
“So, Taril…may I call you ‘Taril’?”
“‘Master Bont’,” he laughed.
“A lot of people, I hear, are saying that you’re very close to becoming the world’s richest man. Any truth to those rumors or did you blow the fortune paying to have all these bodyguards here tonight?”
“There sure are a lot, aren’t there?” Bont replied. “I got a volume discount I couldn’t pass up. What I saved I used to pay for that rumor about my having money.”
“Oh, no,” Keck said over the audience’s laughter. “Hedloe, we’re going to need your collection bowl again.”
“Honestly, Aerel, my accountants keep track of the money,” he continued. “One of them did use the phrase ‘dragon horde’, though, if that’s any help.”
“Well, it sounds like Hedloe can keep his bowl,” Keck said. “Which is good because I think that’s about as much technology as he can handle.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Bont said. “We’ve got a lot of great things coming to the market this year.”
“Now, it seems that some people don’t like that,” Keck said. “Some of your detractors say you’re out to dominate commerce and control the flow of information.”
“Well, I do like selling things,” Bont replied with a chuckle, “but I’m just doing business. If people don’t think I’m offering helpful developments, all they have to do to let me know is stop giving me money.”
“Right,” Keck said. “It’s not like you’re in organized crime or something, leading people into the store at gunpoint.”
“Exactly,” Bont said, “and if anyone else has a better idea for doing what I do, all they have to do is release a better product.”
“Or sell it to you so you can make money off that, too,” Keck laughed.
“That’s right, I like making money,” Bont smiled. “The thing is, though, my company’s prosperity has been good for a lot of people, for the economy and Zadiasam as a whole. This country has flourished through centuries of hard work from its people, through war and adversity, striving to build a united nation of disparate voices and ideas. That work has yielded a land of strength and people with a unique national identity that everyone here should be proud to be a part of,” the tycoon proclaimed, enthusiastically pointing at the audience.
Taril Bont’s words were, as he expected, met with cheers and applause. He paused to rock in his chair and smile humbly before joining in to applaud the crowd. Keck realized he was in the presence of a skilled manipulator, but decided not to challenge him on it and run the risk of having his guest turn on him. He might have done it with someone else, but not with a guest who might be able to have the audience side with him.
Miles from Aerel Keck’s studio, halfway across the capital city, a bored security guard engaged in his usual ritual of sitting at his post and watching the host conduct his latest celebrity interview. While the Onola Port security computer cycled its attention from one camera to the next, the veteran guard sipped from his tea, watching one of the millions of SmartVUR equipped Smarties following the broadcast across the country.
“I’ve been hearing talk in the realm of current events,” Aerel Keck went on, doing his best to keep control of his show, “that our government is close to holding a conference with Alban. They’re supposed to be talking about matters of peace and trade between our nations. What is your position in all of this? Are you concerned about the influx of competing products or are you more excited about the possibility of new market territories? And if that new market does become an open target, how do you forsee the impact of sharing our nation’s technological treasures with a potential rival nation such as Alban?”
“Wow,” Bont responded. “You really took a running start for that one.”
“Sorry,” Keck said amidst the audience laughter, “I missed my stopping point on the prompter. There’s supposed to be an instruction that tells me to take a breath.”
“It’s alright. Actually, I’m quite content to wait and see how the conference works out,” Bont said. “If we’re ready to share, then my company will proceed with that. I’m confident that we’ll be able to empty a warehouse or two once we have people show their snowmen how to use first generation Smarties.”
“HA! I see I’m going to have to hire my writers back from you,” Keck said.
“Nothing to worry about, I just contracted them on a joke-by-joke basis,” the guest said.
“I tried something like that with my first wife,” Keck said, “but the second one wouldn’t sign. I hadn’t thought to try it here.”
“Anyway, we have our lives put together pretty well here,” Bont continued on the handheld screen. “Azirta is a shining gem, with a standard of living that is a beacon to the world. This is one of the greatest countries that has ever risen on the face of Tarakk because all of Zadiasam has rallied its strengths to make it that way.”
“Careful,” Keck warned his guest, “or they’ll drag you off to serve in Parliament.”
“We need to be careful,” Bont continued over the laughter, “that we don’t fall to harboring and feeding foreign enemies. Helping allies to make the most of their own nations, means diminishing the risk of allowing them to consume Zadiasam’s hard-won abundance at the expense of her citizens which would only serve to weaken our greatness!”
“Damn right,” the guard mumbled, rising from his cushioned seat to step out of his security station and into the cool night air. “Thunder? Hmmm…no rain…”He looked to the western sky, inland over Azirta’s famed skyline of a million lights. Unusually, the night framed an odd glow as though another sunset had settled upon the Upasha District.
“What the Hell?” he asked himself, his mind racing as the sound of another rumble reached him. The glow nagged at him, growing brighter as more thunder roared and he heard himself say, “Explosions.”
The security guard found himself staring, mesmerized by the glow that he imagined must be the result of a growing blaze consuming buildings on Azirta‘s west side. For a moment, he wondered about the emergency responders racing to rescue the many lives being endangered both inside and near the structures burning in the night. He wondered just how big a blaze must have started for him to see and hear its effects so far from the Upasha District. With his attention focused across town, the blow to the back of his head caught him completely by surprise.
Azirta’s east side sprawled along the calm waters of the Onola Straits, crossed at the narrowest by a pair of two-mile-long bridges connecting the mainland with the sheltering Sun Island. Thus protected from the open waters beyond the island’s east coast, the heavy shipping traffic in and out of the busy harbor usually only faced dangers from poor navigation. Late at night, when ship traffic was at its lowest, the harbor’s biggest problems normally came only from people working the docks who were too weary to work well.
The footfalls made just more noise than falling rain, coming too quietly and too rapidly to be recognized for what they were. There was a flurry of motion, registered just out of the corners of tired eyes, that preceded the sudden collapse of three security guards at two checkpoints and another on patrol, all overtaken easily. Their limp bodies landed with soft thuds that drew no attention. With law enforcement and military personnel occupied on the far side of the city and dock security neutralized, the cargo ship Horizon presented an easy target. In only a few minutes, the ship’s skeleton crew had been subdued, also. Their attackers moved as an irresistible force, leaving unmoving bodies--injured, unconscious or dead--in the wake of their ruthlessly efficient onslaught.
From the main deck of the silenced vessel, a lone man held a flashlight over the rail and flickered its beam out over the night’s cool water. In less than a minute, whispering through the air, a personnel transport ship approached flying low over the water and rapidly closing on the Horizon like some great black aquatic bird riding invisible currents of air as it searched for food below. The stealthy airship carried itself on fields of electromagnetic energy generated by concealed electromotors, their normal glow and insect-like buzzing undetectable to any casual observer. As the aircraft rose to the level of the cargo ship’s deck, it hovered into position beside the cargo-laden Horizon. With trained military efficiency, a dozen black-clad men in tactical gear burst from the side of the airship to alight gracefully on the Horizon’s deck. Even as the last of the newly arrived men set foot on the docked ship, their aerial transport spun and dove back toward the water’s surface to disappear as it had come.
“Dennon Pory?” one of the new arrivals probed among the men watching them board.
“Here,” acknowledged the flashlight-holding man who had signaled the aircraft.
“The ship is secure?” the leader of the tactical squad asked him.
“Yes,” Pory confirmed. “That’s why I signaled. No problems. My men are offloading our share and releasing the mooring lines. We should be clear in about ten minutes, well before you’re ready to head out to sea.”
“See that you are,” the response came as the tactical team leader signaled his squad to hurry to their designated assignments. “The motors go hot in twelve minutes. Once we move out, we’re not turning back for stragglers.”
The sound of another furious explosion rumbled across the warm night sky like rolling thunder, sending tremors through the city that could even be felt on the heavy ship.
“Frozen Hell! You were supposed to be creating a diversion, Pory, not burning down the city!”
“It’s the Upasha district’s power station…a planned target,” Dennon Pory explained, “though I have no idea why it’s exploding so violently.”
There was a moment’s silence before the tactical team’s leader started laughing.
“Doesn’t matter to me as long as we’re out on schedule. You men have your own fight. Go ahead and burn it all down.”
“Yeah…thanks,” Pory said.
Everyone moving swiftly to their tasks in the night, the heavy cargo ship pushed away from the docks in accordance with the wishes of her new captain. Propelled by tremendous electric motors, the Horizon moved inconspicuously out of the harbor and back into open water.
On the mainland, two trucks laden with shipping crates drove away from the waterfront and deep into Azirta to disappear into the city. More tremors shook the ground as the area surrounding Upasha’s power station continued to burn violently and the sky brightened with another fiery explosion. From the passenger seat, Dennon Pory looked inquisitively at the driver, a man whom he could remember struggling alongside for years.
“Weird to be so bright this late, eh?” he laughed. “Maybe if it’s bright enough and loud enough, these people will finally wake up and hear us.”
“Dawn of a new day, old friend,” Pory said. “It’s a good sign when the same old explosive does three times the damage.”
“The Golden Lord and his goddess bless us,” he told Pory excitedly. “Free Etinen!”
“Yes, that must be it,” Pory confirmed. “With the favor of the ancestors and the empowerment of the gods, a free Etinen must await us indeed.”