Here we begin to see a lit­tle of what is wrong with Cock, per­haps; what is wrong with his life, con­tin­u­ing from the last chap­ter.

Dolen El is prob­a­bly the hard­est char­ac­ter I’ve ever writ­ten, harder even than the free­man Kellis from Beasts of Delphos. While Cock has his quirks, he’s ulti­mately a decent per­son; Dolen El has no such redeem­ing virtues.

Yet he can­not be a car­i­ca­ture. To make him gen­uinely detestable, I have to make him human too. He can­not be a two-​​dimensional scrawl of a Bad Guy; he’s got to have his own moti­va­tions, and they have to make sense and fit into the story.

Truly bad peo­ple do not know they are bad. They know they’re work­ing out­side the socially-​​acceptable par­a­digm, I think; but it’s just too facile to label them as crazy or evil. There’s a lit­tle bit of the truly ter­ri­ble in each of us, and while it’s nor­mal to be prud­ishly incensed by that, if I’m going to tell a good story I can’t let myself get away with pen­ning a bor­ing, flat, dead evil person.

Unfortunately, that makes Dolen El extremely hard to bear — for me as a writer, and prob­a­bly for most read­ers too.

Oh, in case you’re won­der­ing, Blessed is a two-​​syllable word in this context.

Routine, from The Seven-​​Year Mirror by Warren Ockrassa, ©2007

Dolen El paced and scowled at the vis­cast when he knew he was out of range of the pick­ups, furi­ous. “What do you mean, some­one new for me to work with? I don’t need to work with anyone.”

That may be or may not,” Oina said calmly in her minimally-​​accented but eccentrically-​​structured Standard. “It does not mat­ter. This is the nature of the assign­ment and you will accept it.”

Dolen took a breath and then another. Consular brass could be … abrupt. It was not per­sonal; he knew that. But know­ing a thing and not pound­ing a desk in fury … two dif­fer­ent ani­mals. “I was unaware this was a train­ing branch, is all.”

There is no train­ing involve­ment,” Oina said. “Melol Tule is fully com­pe­tent. She is to be your sec­ond field operative.”

Dolen bit back the groan. So much was wrong with that sen­tence. He decided to try the easy part first. “There’s always a famil­iar­iza­tion period while a new agent becomes used to the couri­ers. You know how quirky they can be sometimes.”

That is true,” Oina’s bust nod­ded at him. “Therefore Melol Tule has been appor­tioned vis­cast records of your couri­ers and she is famil­iar­iz­ing her­self with their files. As we have this con­ver­sa­tion she is en route and will be present within the week.”

All right, sec­ond tack. “I wasn’t aware I was in need of a sec­ond field operative…”

Planetwide Castor is our demesne,” Oina said smoothly. “And you have cov­ered its bul­ge­ward ter­ri­tory well.” Dolen nod­ded in recog­ni­tion of the com­pli­ment. Oina was in the ring­lands; as far as he knew she had never ven­tured from the Consulate’s gen­eral office out­side Urbis Fuji. It had never been nec­es­sary; enlight­ened self-​​interest had made him see to that. “We believe that there are suf­fi­cient Blessed poten­ti­ates there to war­rant a sec­ond operative.”

Dolen was gen­uinely sur­prised at this news and for­got about his third protest, which he could not have voiced to Oina any­way, as she and the new oper­a­tive shared a gen­der. He wasn’t very com­fort­able in the pres­ence of women, espe­cially women who might ques­tion the time he spent with couri­ers. “Really? How many?”

Possibly as plural as thirty,” Oina said. “Currently, and there has been indi­ca­tion of mass­ing over the last half century.”

Holy sh…eeoooot, that’s amaz­ing.” Thirty would put the Blessed num­bers at two in about five mil­lion per capita. That was high; it should be nearer half that amount. Blessed indi­vid­u­als, in a uni­verse pop­u­lated by Gem-​​enhanced life, were rather thin in ranks.

It does seem an uncom­monly large per­cent­age, yes,” Oina nod­ded. “And this is the next rea­son for the new agent. Melol Tule will be respon­si­ble for uncov­er­ing the cause of so much unusuality.”

Ah,” Dolen nod­ded, feel­ing some relief. She’d be busy, then, doing things other than step­ping on his toes. “And you said within the week?”

Perhaps later,” Oina said. “Is there a rea­son you would object to assistance?”

No, no of course not, Oina,” Dolen said hastily. “I just didn’t want the Consulate throw­ing okane over the waves. I under­stand now why another agent would be of use.”

Very well, Dolen El. I will be accept­ing your con­tact when Melol Tule arrives there.” The vis­cast winked grey and the imager broke up into mist. Dolen stud­ied the inert plat­form for sev­eral min­utes, won­der­ing how this would affect his life.

Badly, he reckoned.

There was a rea­son he worked Castor, which was a planet that had almost no need for couri­ers, and there­fore no need for agents, and there­fore was a world where he gen­er­ally remained unsu­per­vised at all times. As far as the Consulate was con­cerned Castor was a back­wa­ter, a cul-​​de-​​sac for agents and careers. Quiet. He pre­ferred it quiet.

But the Consulate wasn’t just in the busi­ness of work­ing with cur­rent couri­ers; it also sought out and recruited new ones. Thirty poten­ti­ates was a very high num­ber in a very short time, an out­ra­geous per­cent­age spike, and could get his office, his sov­er­eign domain, cen­tered in attention-​​space for an indef­i­nite period.

Fuck,” he said, clearly enun­ci­at­ing the frica­tive and velar consonants.

==

Home, such as it was, was just a short launch ride from the Consulate sta­tion, and Dolen took it with the same auto­matic lack of atten­tion he used every day. He’d been in Urbis Shinzou for nearly twenty years Standard and no longer noticed much of any­thing around him, with a few half-​​clad excep­tions. He paused at the noo­dle kiosk near his danchi, nod­ding per­func­to­rily to the owner, and had his usual post-​​work fare, udon with miso flakes and gen­mai cha. The roasted rice in the tea always soothed his stom­ach and he needed a lit­tle extra assist today after Oina’s lit­tle delightful.

He fin­ished the noo­dles and departed, tub­ing up to his kou­juu and thumb­ing the lock. The door hissed closed behind him on gas cylin­ders and he stood in his foyer for a long time, numb, before doff­ing his tabi and set­tling in the liv­ing room/​bedroom/​dining space.

A lux­ury flat it was not, but it beat the drip­ping shit out of a barque.

Except…

He gazed through the win­dow, the only win­dow, out of which could be seen the wall of the danchi next door to his.

Barque brats could be heard in the dis­tance, their voices high and merry over the town. He was tuned to them, noticed them as a mother might the coo of her babe, or more accu­rately he noticed them as a toother did the scent of blood in the water.

The apart­ment blocks in the Urbis region, domain of midlevel-​​management type pro­fes­sion­als, did not have much nat­u­rally occur­ring young life.

Of course it didn’t mat­ter much. Even if he’d lived in the Barque dis­tricts he would have had to keep a hands-​​off pol­icy. He had learned early that most boys avoided him. They did not like how he looked at them. He was too frankly apprais­ing and they, not entirely sure why, were unset­tled by his gaze. He’d rarely, in all the years he’d lived on Castor, been suc­cess­ful in any attempt to speak with any of them, let alone … sat­isfy his par­tic­u­lar cravings.

At least not with the wild variety.

He would have been mostly con­tent to just watch, but the par­ents of the Barque brats were as cagey as their off­spring. They didn’t like him either and he was damned if he would set­tle for liv­ing in a Barque dis­trict if he couldn’t even watch the occa­sional boy take the occa­sional nude dip.

And it was stu­pid and non­sen­si­cal of them to shy from him. The way they car­ried on with each other — and the way they took after the vis­i­tors at the resorts. Yet for some rea­son he wasn’t good enough? He wasn’t up to their codes? What did that say about him?

No, bet­ter: What did that say about their pow­ers of discernment?

Ah, that was it, yes. They were just too young, too igno­rant to know what was good for them.

==

One joy­less shower later, Dolen El sat in front of his vis­cast and ate tella flakes right from the box, keep­ing up with the Castoran news­bands. There wasn’t much more fare on the air­waves than was in his kou­juu, but he was a man some­what of habit after all these years on this watery spheroid.

There were reports of minor inci­dents involv­ing tourists, there were many many reports of “enter­tain­ing” things that tourists could see (but there were only so many dou­ble sun­rises or cetate migra­tions one could watch in a life­time, how­ever lit­tle of that life­time might actu­ally be remain­ing), and there were adverts aplenty for resorts, each try­ing its damnedest to hook fish from out of the creel of the other, so to speak.

There were con­stant jump wars — one resort would offer to pay tourists a pre­mium in addi­tion to rates equal to that of another, in the hopes of snar­ing vaca­tion­ers. In real­ity it rarely, if ever, worked. Most resorts booked on reser­va­tion only, months or, more often, years in advance. (One time he had heard of a man skip­ping his third child’s birth in favor of a slot on Castor, because he fig­ured, hav­ing seen two babies born already, the cur­rent wouldn’t be much dif­fer­ent, but a stay on Castor really was a one-​​time-​​only thing. He had booked the room, a sin­gle, five years before get­ting mar­ried. His wife, to Dolen’s mod­er­ate sur­prise, actu­ally agreed with his decision.)

But the adver­tis­ing didn’t hurt; it made the resorts look com­pet­i­tive when in fact they all offered vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal terms all the time. He was fairly cer­tain none of them had ever actu­ally had to make good on any jump-​​offers.

The news ended and he brushed tella crumbs from his blouse, then looked down at him­self and felt a wave of self-​​loathing. He was thicker across the waist than he pre­ferred and always intended to do some­thing to improve his con­di­tion, but never quite man­aged to actu­ally get down to doing it. The clos­est he’d made it so far was pur­chas­ing a small pedal-​​powered water­craft, a one-​​person launch he’d planned to use to get to the Consulate sta­tion daily. But the first day he pre­pared to deploy it a storm had beat up and he felt pru­dence dic­tated a more con­ven­tional mode of trans­port for that morn­ing, at least; the sec­ond day, the waves still looked a lit­tle choppy and steep for his tastes. The third day had bro­ken with a heavy fog, the fourth was a day of solid rain and by the fifth he’d more or less for­got­ten the idea, though it still sur­faced in his mind from time to time like the one turd in the bowl that just would not flush.

His ears perked again at the sound of youth­ful play in the dis­tance. Kids. They didn’t know how lucky they had it. They were so ener­getic, so active all the time, they never had to worry about gain­ing kilos of flab, nor about the looks of con­tempt that could make a man’s life harder than it had to be, espe­cially when those looks came from the very youths he so admired.

The looks were unfair. It wasn’t as though he was affect­ing the tide.

Right there — that. That sense of humor. You’d think the boys would be able to appre­ci­ate it. A lit­tle self-​​effacing, a lit­tle amus­ing, and a smile as a reward. No touch­ing; no, just a lit­tle glance, maybe a happy ges­ture from some lithe young sweet thing, a lit­tle flirty shy flash of the eyes, maybe even a glimpse of that fickle skin, some­times proud, some­times so timid, that sim­ple, lovely thing of which he never could quite get his fill, that bit of body that made boys boys.

But they never…” His voice trailed off as he stared out his win­dow. He was not aware he’d spoken.

He turned in not much later, his rest fit­ful and bro­ken sev­eral times by dreams. He only recalled a frag­ment of one of them, and it didn’t make much sense, though it dis­tressed him hugely. In it he was try­ing to straighten a wire, he wasn’t sure why, that had become bent he didn’t know how, and no mat­ter how care­fully he adjusted it there was always a slight curve in it some­place that made it less than laser-​​linear.

==

The fol­low­ing morn­ing Dolen El’s pat­tern reasserted itself, habit drag­ging him from his nar­row, sway­backed mat­tress and into the light of the out­side world before his mind had fully caught up with dawn, and he went to the Consulate along a route almost com­pletely unremarked.

There was a dif­fer­ence and he almost took it as a sign.

A sin­gle amber mes­sage light was gleam­ing on his desk con­sole and he thumbed the con­tact and let the ID scan­ner peer at his retina, then whis­pered his passphrase into its pick­ups. Satisfied that he was who he claimed to be and that he was in fact alive and still capa­ble of using his voice to prove it, the machine’s proces­sor released the data it car­ried in its lit­tle glassy mem­ory lat­tice. A small engi­neer­ing firm at Urbis Os’ka had some infor­ma­tion it needed car­ried under secu­rity; there were pos­si­ble patent issues involved and the material’s secrecy could not be compromised.

Dolen arranged the meet­ing, secured the office and went in per­son; it was a half-​​day trip but at the moment he still had no staff (which he did not want in any case) to assist him. He lis­tened to the usual state­ments of con­cern and stress­ings of the need for absolute secrecy and total depend­abil­ity that every­one felt it nec­es­sary to repeat, even those who had used the Consulate’s ser­vices many times in the past. He assured the client that the data would be absolutely safe. He accepted the sealed, encoded pack­age and returned to the office late that day, lock­ing it into his under-​​desk vault, and won­dered who would receive the nod for the task.

He car­ried the ques­tion home with him and into the news feeds. That was when the report reached him of the assault of a woman in the Barque dis­trict near Urbis T’oh-K’o, and when the image of the accused was shown he knew his sec­ond sign had appeared. It meant a tremen­dous amount of cover-​​up work but at least his ques­tion had been answered.

He was actu­ally glad; this boy was one of his per­sonal favorites. Delightful body and superb at per­form­ing fel­la­tio. A bit old, now, for his tastes, but that did hap­pen after a while. Even the most lovely flower’s bloom withered.

And it wasn’t as though he hadn’t enjoyed the boy’s dewy petals many, many times before.

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