Ask any schoolchild who the first victim of the Besynian Revolution was and they’ll say Cube Atticus. Because that’s what the history books tell us; that’s what Cube Atticus’ grave marker says: First to Fall for Freedom. And it’s true in the sense that all sophistry is true. As with all stories, it depends on who’s doing the telling.
An hour after the unexpectedly fatal skirmish at Crown Sovereign’s base of operations on Colony 842b, Vich Pevich led her remaining friends back into the bar at the Fire Side Club. She advanced toward a dimly-lit corner where her on-again, about-to-be-off-again friend Madigan Bly still sat, and Vich would’ve swung at him, if her cousin hadn’t grabbed her. Instead, she cursed a black streak blue.
“There’s been enough violence tonight,” her cousin Jeffers said, before freeing her. He’d put some sting into his words, which Vich considered wildly undeserved.
“It’s his fault.” Vich pointed at Bly. “You knew this would happen. You knew.” The accusations, so true and righteous, tasted of salted flame as they flew from her mouth.
Her cousin sat next to Bly, forcing Vich to keep her distance–and, she noticed, covering himself with shadows. Jeffers Fondago-Pevich was the wily one in their family. He spoke softly to Bly; carefully lacing vinegar words with honey to draw out a confession. “Why didn’t you warn us it’d get ugly? Cube’s dead, Bly. Dead. Over a camel. ‘Storm the castle, avenge the beast,’ you said. You shouldn’t have encouraged us to go.” Jeffers shook his head. “We could’ve all been killed. We’ll be lucky if we’re not arrested.”
“I was drunk. I’m still drunk. I can’t ‘see’ when I’m hammered.” As if to underscore his point, Bly picked up his ale and drank. He needn’t have. He already reeked of the stuff.
Vich slumped into a chair. Things hadn’t gone according to plan. Not that she’d had one; mostly, she’d been furious that the Crowns had impounded her pet and joined the Equitist’s protest against the Rule of Home as a lark. If only her roommate — an Earth studies major who actually believed all that nonsense the Equitists spouted (gah; was there anything worse than low-luck colonists railing about exploitation? This planet was settled for the explicit purpose of exploiting its resources. Commercialism was the only reason any of them existed) — if only Fibs hadn’t invited them along. Fibily Jantz kept her half of the room spotless and was nice enough, but once Cube had heard about the protest he’d said they had to go, if only to see Talbot’s face when he spotted Vich in the crowd. Cube claimed it’d be a blast, and Vich had to admit she’d liked the idea of her Crown-of-an-ex thinking their break-up had driven her to Equity. (Crowns loved to lord their Earth-births over star-borns and Talbot was nothing if not a model Crown with an eye on an upper management position. And the look on his face when he’d spotted them! So tasty. Then everything’d gone black-hole bad.)
But Vich resented her cousin’s implication that Cube’s death was her camel’s fault. Sobeit hadn’t started the riot; Sobeit was dead, murdered. “Cube’s dead because he threw a bottle at an Earther.”
A swollen-eyed Ralyn Derbish, Cube’s girlfriend and the last of the ‘avenge the beast’ quartet, finally reached their table and swept an angry arm across it, knocking off the empties littering it. As they hit the floor, the glass bottles burst into a flurry of freshly-cut grass that caused both Peviches to sneeze. “Synesthete or not, Vich Pevich,” Ralyn hissed, “you don’t have to say every star-damned thought in your head.”
“But it’s true,” Vich said, and the truth tasted so good, she couldn’t stop herself from speaking it.
Then Ralyn’s talent wobbled and everyone was briefly distracted as the blades of grass that had settled on skin and table and floor glitched back into ground glass. “Sorry,” Ralyn said, and Vich thought the apology sincere (and laced with that particular touch of embarrassment known only to star-borns when their talent sense flops). But Vich had misread other people’s words and intent before, most notable Bly’s earlier encouragement to attend the protest in Sobeit’s honor. Avenge the beast, indeed. The mere thought left now left a soured ale film on her teeth.
History–like war–changes a person; separates the scrap from the salvage, makes heroes of some and villains of others. In her memoir, Evening of Our Discontent, Baily ‘Vich’ Pevich wrote: “The night Cube fell for freedom, we were a mob. By morning, we were revolutionaries.”
Of course, that was written after the war, after she held sway in the House of Constituency, after she earned her nickname of The Gilded Tongue.
“How much trouble are we in?” Ralyn asked as the Fire Side’s barkeep distributed another round of bottles to their table. “Stars! This’ll kill my parents.” When the Crowns had fired upon the crowd, Ralyn had whizzed their violence into violets–but not before Cube was hit. Unauthorized transmutation was a felony; transmuting Crown Sovereign property was, more or less, an act of war. And Crowns were unlikely to care about the distinction between attending an Equitist rally and being an actual Equitist. “Do you think I’ll be transported?”
“We’ll probably all hang for treason,” Vich said. The idea both scared her and re-ignited her sense of injustice. Crowns did whatever they wanted and justified it with some stupid policy. Maybe the Equitists had a point about the ‘Rule of Home’ creating an unfair imbalance of resource and privilege. Impounding a camel, for star’s sake. “It isn’t fair–” she paused to savor the taste of her indignation when Jeffers knocked the bottle out of Bly’s hand, surprising everyone.
It shattered against the wall. “Stop drinking,” he yelled at Bly. “We need to know what’s going to happen. We have to figure out what to do.”
“Your problems are not my concern.” Bly stood; staggered as the full effect of the alcohol–and Jeffers’ words–hit him. “You owe me a beer. I’ll collect tomorrow–if you’re not in jail. Or dead.” He went to leave.
“If you don’t help us,” Ralyn said, “when we’re arrested, I’ll tell the Crowns you were there.”
Forget the rhetoric. Watch the footage of First Night showing Cube’s fall; of Vich Pevich leading the Ragtag Firsts over the hill at Laaderdam; of Jeffers Fondago-Pevich at the Derbish trial; of Madigan Bly defacing the Crown Sovereign emblem during the Earth Day ceremony. See how young our Founders were when they challenged Crown Sovereign and its policies. No one was citing Jantz’s Treatise on the Consequences of Patronage on the Star-born then. If you asked Vich Pevich, her who was there on First Night, her who stood with Cube Atticus and Ralyn Derbish and Jeffers Fondago-Pevich and Fibily Jantz against the Crowns, she’d tell you what united the Founders, what sparked an interstellar war was naught but fear and desperation. And perhaps, love. (Of a badly tempered camel.)
“I won’t be sober for hours yet,” Bly said, back in his seat, hands clasping a cup of Caff-n-ate. “The future is being written now. It’ll be too late to avoid.”
“You weren’t drunk when you gave Vich the camel. What did you see that day?” Jeffers normally didn’t push, but then, Vich thought, of all of them, he had the most to lose. Her cousin was employed at Crown Sovereign’s mining enterprise, a position his mother had fondagoed despite him being second generation star-born. His trick was something the Crowns didn’t categorize as star-born trickery, thus making Jeffers ‘as dependable as an Earther’ but, more importantly, acceptable for employ (not to mention the Fondagos were not simply colony-level rich, but Earth-rich). So if anyone’s words could sway Bly, it’d be Jeffers’. Jeffers’ tongue could flavor speech as good as Vich’s could discern it.
“I saw that she’d love that thing more than she’d ever love me.”
Vich doubted Bly remembered that night the way it actually happened. They’d gone to the port on a dare (of Cube’s, of course) and Bly talked his way into a poker game with some nauts. Using his ability–which Vich considered tantamount to lying–Bly won every last cred off them. And a camel. It smelled. It drooled. It made the most hideous noise. Bly handed her its reins and said, “He’s yours. You’ll love him.”
Vich looked at the camel and knew it was true. “So be it,” she said, and the camel harrumphed at her. “You like that? Then it shall be your name.”
She also remembered Bly saying something about how the camel would change their future, but at the time, Vich assumed he meant the future of their relationship, not the actual future. Now, narrow-eyed, she sat across from Bly in the Fire Side and watched him rewrite the past. It made her wonder how often he recast history to achieve the future he wanted. Was it really surprising Crown Sovereign refused to do business with anyone having star-born sight? It was a policy she ought to consider adopting.
“That night, I saw our moons cross,” Bly said and Vich snorted. Bly thought he was in love with her, but he wasn’t–not now and not then. She could tell when love was true and when it was imaginary: she tasted the difference. Bly’s declarations were like seven layer cake–too sweet to last.
“Stop dissembling and confess,” said Vich. Her order reeked of mud and mold and pique. She was as vexed at herself as she was Bly. Of all people, she should’ve remembered that some words have several meanings and so could be misleadingly flavored. Turned out, Bly had learned something in their time together: how to make his tricks work on her. For once, she thought Crowns might have the right of it when claiming star-born senses untrustworthy folderol. “You saw this. I know it. I can taste it. So can Jeffers even if he isn’t as blunt. For once, just speak the star-damned truth. You let Cube Atticus die. Why, Bly? What do you get out of it?”
Both Jeffers and Ralyn told her to shut up. Bly wore his sad little look and Vich knew he was starting to foresee.
“Youth has its truths; old age its secrets.” So said Ralyn Derbish in her Lifetime Achievement for the Advancement of Humanity acceptance speech. If you watch closely you’ll see her eyes flick over the audience and rest upon Vich Pevich. Who doesn’t flinch. But look closely at Pevich’s eyes and tell me what you see, blazing there.
Bly said, “I saw two roads: one to greatness and one to happiness.”
“Happy? This isn’t happy,” Ralyn screeched and Vich feared Ralyn might transmute the entirety of the bar. Into what and for how long, who knew?
“I chose greatness,” Bly said. The scent of hops perfumed the air. “And I’ve been paying ever since.”
“You knew about Cube?” Vich said, vindication tasting like sunshine and crisp, imported greens.
“I knew. The moment you took Sobeit’s reins, I knew.” Bly lifted his head and met Ralyn’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Ralyn. First Night was bound to happen and Cube died all ways. This had to hap–”
“First Night? What the bleeding star is that?” Jeffers snarled at the same time Ralyn demanded, “Will. We. Hang.”
Bly answered, “Some of us. Maybe. It all depends on Vich.”
And every last one of her friends turned their eyes to her. “Me?”
“You knew Cube best,” Bly said and that was the rottenest lie he’d told yet.
In the coda of the Twelve Demands, anonymously co-authored by Jeffers Fondago-Pevich (who would become the third First Executive of the Commercial Free Republic of Besynia) and Fibily Jantz (the first First Executive), it says, “It is not that we think freedom should be ours simply because we demand it, but because it was always ours. We were born to it as is every child, and when it is restricted, we–whether born on Earth or amongst the stars–shall fight to reclaim it. We must, for it is ingrained in our marrow, it whispers in our every breath; it colors our every thought. Freedom, so be it.”
The week prior to the Demands first circulation, a seized camel died of dehydration at the Crown Sovereign impound lot.
The morning of Cube Atticus’ funeral, possession of the Demands was decreed treason. Later that day, Vich Pevich and the Ragtag Firsts fought the first battle of the Besynian Revolution at Laaderdam. Rumors say the insurgents’ faces were streaked with funereal ash. Most say it belonged to Cube Atticus; a drunk once claimed it was a different sort of mammal altogether, but upon sobering up, said he was joking, not rewriting history.
Vich spotted the Jantzes, father and daughter, enter the Fire Side Club and head for the backroom. She’d seen her roommate thrusting a placard through the gates at the protest; not surprisingly since Fibily’s father was an organizer of the movement. The Jantzes probably had a network of people willing to hide them from the Crowns. Lucky bastards. If Vich’s aunt couldn’t bargain freedom for both her and Jeffers–and it was more likely Aunt Fondago would hang her niece to save her son–Vich’s only chance lay in convincing her Crown-of-an-ex Talbot to overlook her crimes. Not very likely with her propensity for truth-yelling and his for catalyzing. This whole debacle was his fault.
His and Bly’s.
She really needed to pick her partners better. As delectable as their words were at first taste, the relationships always ended on a bitter note.
Talbot–an Earther if there ever was–had never liked how she dragged Sobeit everywhere and the minute he found out Bly had given her the camel, his hatred of Sobeit tripled. Then Sobeit spat on his uniform in front of a junior officer and he lost it, wanted to arrest the camel for assaulting a Crown Sovereign officer.
Standing in the looming shade of Crown Sovereign’s administerial offices–a star-shaped building, the tallest and widest on all of Colony 842b, made of matte black basalt-she’d said, “Don’t be an ass. You can’t arrest an animal for drooling.” The rest happened so fast. Talbot grabbed for Sobeit’s reins. Sobeit tried to bite him. Vich pushed herself between them and Cube pulled her back.
“Vich,” Cube whispered in her ear. “If you touch him, they can arrest you for assault.”
So Vich spoke the truth that lost her her camel: “You’re jealous. Of a camel. Want me to put a ring in your nose and parade you about town? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
The junior officer laughed; Talbot’s spine turned to titanium alloy. Pride was the only talent Earthers had and they clung to it mightily. Especially when soaked in the stench of their rival’s slobber. “May I see your license and registration?” Talbot said.
“What?” Vich asked. Cube’s arms loosened around her, but didn’t let her go.
“For your conveyance.” Talbot pointed at Sobeit. “Is it licensed? If not, it’s going to impound.”
Vich heard the resolve in his voice and panicked. “He’s not a conveyance. He’s a pet.”
“He’s a beast that conveys things. You can ride him. And you’re within three meters of a street.”
“You can’t. Go on, try. Get on his back. Try to ride him. Try it!”
Instead Talbot made the junior officer pick up Sobeit’s reins, and Vich realized this was really happening: he was taking her camel. And she started screaming about Talbot’s bravery having the half-life of francium and other truths better left unsaid. Cube should’ve gagged as well as restrained her.
Cube. If only he hadn’t thrown that bottle. If only he hadn’t died. His body was the one string that tied the rest of them to the protest. Talbot had seen her there, sure, but he wouldn’t dare say anything because it’d reflect badly on him, maybe mean a demotion. Earthers were supposed to know better than to succumb to the sensory trickeries of the star-born.
Bly was also eying the Jantzes. As if they were the answer to everything–and maybe they were.
Vich stood, her chair crashing to the floor. Everyone, including the Jantzes, jumped. Vich waved her roommate over. “Have a drink with us, Fibs.”
Fibily glanced over her shoulder. “I shouldn’t. I have to–” Vich righted her chair and steered Fibily into it. The future was going to happen–now, if Vich had a say in it and, according to Bly, she had all the say.
“We’re reminiscing about Cube,” Vich said. Ralyn shushed her, Jeffers’ eyes went wide with disbelief and Bly–he smiled. Vich ignored the fetid taste in her mouth. Hopefully, the alcohol would wash it down. Right now she had to convince Fibily to shelter them from the Crowns. Maybe if they hid out long enough, Jeffers’ mother would pull some strings and bury the incident. Vich signaled to the barkeep to bring them another round of drinks.
Fibily looked like thin ice about to shatter. She put her hand over Ralyn’s. “I’m sorry. It was supposed to be a non-violent protest. We never thought the Crowns would. . . . Poor Cube. I saw him fall. I saw you save us, Ralyn. I’ll never forget that. Purple petals covered in blood.”
They shared a moment of strained silence while the Fire Side’s barkeep delivered more drinks. “I didn’t know your friend was an Equitist,” the barkeep said. “May he rest in freedom.”
Vich almost snapped. Cube didn’t believe in Equity, but for the first time, she swallowed her words. Bly had always claimed the day would come when she’d eat her words–even if she hated their flavor–because vengeance, he said, tasted delicious. It was in part those words that had convinced her to go along with Cube to the protest. She’d wanted vengeance against Talbot, vengeance for Sobeit. She’d gotten neither, just a host more troubles.
Treason, she mouthed the word, let it swirl around her tongue like a luxurious Crown-imported liquor.
If the ‘free the beast’ quartet were going to hang as Equitists, they should at least enjoy whatever privileges the Equitists had managed for themselves. Also, if the Equitists had their way, the Crowns would fall–and their rules with them. No one could be held accountable to a policy that no longer existed. Here was their way free of this mess.
“Cube fell for freedom,” Vich said. Freedom danced on her tongue, it didn’t quite have the full-bodied flavor of truth nor that of a lie. She savored its bittersweet tang, willed herself to believe, to enjoy its piquancy.
Jeffers stared at her as if he, too, tasted the odd flavor; he probably could–working with Crowns he was more prone to dissemble. She thought, It isn’t a lie. I can make it true. It will be true.
If she found the right combination, everything would work out. No one would hang; the ‘avenge the beast quartet’ would go free.
“Vich Pevich, what’re–”
She cut her cousin off. “For freedom,” she said, and raised her glass in toast, liking the taste of freedom better this time, thinking it could fast become her favorite–if only it were a tad sweeter. She’d flavor it with other words. Not Equity, she wasn’t able to swallow that brackishness and maintain a straight face this night. “We’ll fight.” That pleasantly prickled her gums. She added words whose connotations she already loved. “For Cube. For truth.”