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Caveat Anthem

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Cheryl Ruggiero



Drums throbbed and pulsed out an open window on the second floor of Julliard West.  BOOM-buh-BAH-buh!  BOOM-buh-BAH-buh! My steps shortened to dance along before I could stop myself.
 
I’m a big guy, tall, blond, and solid, and when I dance, everyone stares — in alarm.  Other pedestrians were staring now.  I added a hip bump and enjoyed the scandalized scowl on the matron just passing.  BOOM-buh-BAH-buh.

Wait.  Open window?  Who opens windows in this city?  I looked up, dancing in place.  It was her.  My God, she was gorgeous.  Big, strong, curved everywhere, even her forearms that were dancing the jimbeh were sculpted muscle rounded by pure womanless.  She had skin of deep, deep, deep brown with a glow like sunset on gold, eyes like pools of midnight.  I’d seen her twice before — once through the window of a skim-limo that slowed as it passed me (no ID anywhere on that vehicle’s surface), and once at the Millennium Fountain, a moment of meeting glances before large ebony guards stepped closer around her, carrying not only beam weapons but swords across their backs. 

I have some skill at finding things out (it’s my job), but I had not been able to find out who she was.  BOOM.  She stopped.  I felt as if my power cord had been cut. I stood stock still.  She smiled at me and I experienced power of quite another sort.

A hand grasped my arm, and I looked down to see pale fingers not coming close to closing around my bicep and heard a low grumble:  “It ain’t nice to stare, Anthem.  Come on down to the Carton for a drink before you embarrass yourself.”

I knew his voice and didn’t need to turn and look into his face.  I pulled away.  “No, thanks, Cumber.”  I looked up again at the window, but she was gone, and shiny plastiglass reflected the afternoon’s gray sky.

Cumber growled, or tried to, around a voice that broke like rotten ice.  “Ike wants to talk to you, Anthem.”

I kept it short.  “Ike can fly a bike.”  He took my arm again, and I crooned, “I’ll start by breaking your thumb.”  He let go. 

I buttoned for a cab and one shushed to the curb in about three seconds — good luck, that.  “Tell Ike maybe he needs to look for a new venue, Cumber.” 

I got in and blanked the dome as the cab whooshed away.  I wanted some privacy.  I wanted to ponder her lovely arms, but thoughts of Cumber actually having the nerve to touch me kept intruding.  If Ike had told him to get physical with me, then Ike was getting serious.  My usual investigations involved nothing more than embarrassments, but Ike was another class of embarrassment altogether.  I hated to let a gutter-feeder like him deflect me in any way at all, but maybe I needed a dodge of some kind.  Damn.

#

My dart had just thunked satisfyingly into my DNA dart board between Kynthian’s rich guanine and her privileged adenine when the lady herself peeped my door sensor. 

Her usual entrance line was “Projectiles!  How Neanderthal you are, Cav!”  But the board on the back of my closed door, plus my habit of throwing while thinking — and I was thinking both hard and fruitlessly about Ike — kept her from minxing in any time she liked, and that was just how I liked it.  You can’t tell your boss to keep out, but you can make her want to.

Kynthian Legercitti fancied herself — fancied! I can just hear her saying “What an anachronist you are, Cav!”  She fancied herself a rebel, a gadfly, an unpluckable thorn in the side of her elevated family circles.  And the Noses, as I anachronistically call them, since they go around with their snoots so uptilted they’d drown in the rain (if they ever actually let such an uncontrolled substance make contact with their protected persons) — the Noses do need the “research agency” Kynthian invented and made a success.  Gotta give her that much.  The Noses get wild hairs up theirs just like the rest of humanity, and they need discreet…um…researchers.  

When the Snoots deal with Kynthian, they can feel like indulgent aunties and uncles cajoling a spoiled darling, making the spunky younger scion feel important while she saves their bio-sculpted buttocks from painful contact with their own consequences.

In contrast, when they deal with me, oh, their buttocks tighten right up, along with every other moveable part, if they know what I am, and most do.  So that’s why she’s the boss — that and the undeniable fact that she found and recruited me whilst I was shooting freshwater-adapted sharks from a Lake Erie rock jetty and shooting up stimulants on no fixed schedule.

And all the Noses do know who and what I am.  How could they not?  My noble father made sure they would: he named me Caveat.  Warn everyone, he announced.  And his disarming honesty got him what he wanted: an unheard-of third begetting. 

I was born second, you see, in a power-shorted airship in a sandstorm.  My father and mother must have felt impervious to chance when they set out from their pied-a-terre in Morocco for their new investment, a Kilimanjaro resort.  A power short somewhere west of the Nile, of course, could happen only to other mortals, and who ever heard of an early delivery?  Mother actually had to scream and writhe and gasp and bleed and let primal urges squash me out into the world.  There was no kit to process my cord, no power for cryo, even if they’d had a kit.

I’m told we endured for two days on the water in the ambience system, an afternoon’s worth of exquisite saffron pastilles, and that most primitive of nutrient sources, my mother’s milk.  She worried at first, because she had biosculpted her breasts and thought there might be damaging chemi or bio in the milk, never having intended that her mammaries would do anything so backward as lactate.  But then she realized there was to be no rescue within hours, no power, no cord-blood fetal stem-cell storage and therefore no backup for me, adult stem-cells having finally proved incorrigibly unstable for developing new organs.
 
There would be no growing replacements should I rupture a spleen, shatter a limb, grow a cancer, outlive a heart, or go gray in the hair.  Instead, I will die, probably around age two hundred, even with all the non-stem therapies I could surely shame my family into paying for.  No worries for Mom about the milk, then. It hardly mattered.

So I am Caveat Anthem.  And let the Anthem family, and the rest of homo sapiens extensioris, beware.  I smell of an earlier mortality than others of my kind will have to face.  Watch out. It might be contagious.

#

I left the dart in the DNA and told the door to admit the boss.

“Suit up and meet me at transport.”  That’s all she said before popping back out again, with no remarks about my primitive pastimes.  No color in her face, either.

I decided it was smart to make like an employee and just get moving.  Her mood and her complexion were alarming. 

So I suited up.  Chemoassay chips, system sniffers, text digesters, fund finders, image fractors and more…all in extruder pockets.  Cardweapons (very discrete but very effective) were almost never needed, but after that one time (another story) we always pack them.  Recorders and transmitters and, well, a whole arsenal of gear inserted into an expensive charcoal-gray heat/cool bodysuit and boots, then graced over with the shade-darker sleeveless coat that’s in fashion these days: they call it a skaff.  Looks silly as hell, but it’s convenient. Nobody can see what you’re carrying underneath, and some of us know how to program the fabric to disguise our cargo as far as scanners are concerned.
 
I, for example, make my weapons look like library readers and fund cards, my other gear like the comm toys of an obsessive networker.  Makes the Noses more comfortable: if I’m walking mortality in their eyes, at least I appear to be a rich corpse.  No point in letting them know that my fund card could make them into real corpses with a flick. 

Of course, there’s not much murder done these days, not with bodies so reparable, Nose lives so long, and family revenge a legal pursuit. Not that everybody can afford to make use of the stemgenes, of which worldwide law maintains one copy for every conveniently-born person — which means most everyone but me. 
 
Kynthian exited the magway at the Westlake turnoff and then took the side duct for wealthy West Close.  I was not happy.  My father and mother have a compound in West Close.  I was even less happy when we stopped at my very own parents’ aesthetically marvelous bluebeam gate.  I hadn’t been home in years.  They were just as pleased about that as I was.

I didn’t bother to protest.  It was clear that Research Agent Kynthian Legercitti was seriously worried and wanted no lip from me.  I tightened my own moveable parts and put the safety on my emotional triggers.

We were conducted to one of the vaults, an underground salon that blended rock-and-carbonmetal security with the luxury of vat-grown furs, wooly Andean tapestries in a hundred shades of red, and crystal decanters of exquisite liquors.  On a settee covered in vat-mink, sat my father, mother, and brother.  Father stood when we entered and opened one arm to Kynthian, who was related to him distantly by marriages of cousins.  Mother put her hand to her head to show she was too burdened by the gravity of the situation to rise.  My brother started to stand, but then turned to Mother and took her hand instead.

My brother Alex.  My replacement.  (Our sister, the eldest, was not there.  She has a small country in the Northern Rockies to run, after all.)  But my brother…how do I feel about him?  Sometimes one way, sometimes another. 

He was gene-tweaked the same as I was, since they’d liked all their choices when they conceived me.  He’s only two years younger, and since I’m pretty healthy all things considered, looking at him is almost like looking into a mirror.  But the fellow in my real mirror would never look at Mother with that sincere concern, or at me with the pale-faced fear beneath the gold hair and lapis-blue eyes that Alex has now turned upon me.

Father brought drinks, and I pretended to enjoy mine, though I didn’t really swallow much. I wanted to stay clear-headed.  This place had always been a psychological battlefield.

He took a deep breath.  “No point in delaying.  Kynthian, Alex has been kidnapped.  The demanded ransom is impossible.”

I was looking at Alex.  “He looks completely present to me.  Or is this a projection? Or perhaps a clone?”  There have been no successful clones of a full human being, of course, so this was a rhetorical jab of little worth.

“His stemgenes.  Taken.”

“You have backups, of course.”

“They got them all.  All five sets.”

Five!  This sib had to be one of the most expensive humans on the planet.  I guess that birth in the desert scared Mother more than I thought.  “Five?  Where were they?”

“Here, of course, in this very vault.”  He pointed to a panel in the wall, behind which was surely a container that could repel any entry and would survive a nuclear blast.  But of course the cryo maintenance would need tending, and not by Father or Mother.  That would be the first avenue of inquiry: the cryo-tech.  “And Boston, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, Alexandria.”

“All?  They got them all?”

“All.”

“Inside job.”

“Obviously.”

I let Kynthian say what next needed saying.  Better from her than from me.  Her voice held just the right tincture of scorn and incredulity, along with the politeness she put on like a mask.  “What is it they want that’s so impossible to pay?  You’ve got plenty of everything, more than you could use in ten unending lifetimes.  This is about your son.”

“What they want IS our son.”  These were Mother’s first words of the visit.

Turned out, to make the tedious part of the tale shorter, that the newly sovereign King and Queen of Nubia (having gotten the idea after the Kingdom of Hawaii successfully re-established itself twenty years ago) wanted the Son of Anthem as consort for their Daughter of the Nile. 

Nubia’s entire wealth could have hidden in one of my family’s sub-accounts and hardly made a difference, but with a hefty injection of start-up funds, they could corner the world wind and solar market, what with vast tracts of desert, not only those lining their Nether-Nile regions, but in the rest of the desert they’d extended claim to a year ago.  Nobody opposed them.  Nobody wanted sand with no more oil under it, and nobody wanted to build in the intolerable heat of the Sahara that had expanded to the sea-bitten coast of the Mediterranean and made abandoned wasteland of half a dozen former nations.  The new Nubian territory extended all the way across the bulge of Africa to the Atlantic.

“Why Alex?”

“Why indeed?”  My father seemed a little more self-possessed.  “They have their concocted titles and vast land but no money.  We have money.  And of course, once they have Alex, they’ll have a claim to keeping his genes as well: they’ll be family.  So they can keep on demanding whatever they want.”

“Prince Alex. It has a nice sound to it, Father.  Your development money would bring a handsome return, eventually.  There’s a lot of sun and wind in the new Nubia.”

Mother spoke up.  “My son will not spend the rest of his life in…in…some desert pesthole of a palace!  The Nubians — they are so primitive — they…they expect…lifelong fidelity!  And they…they behead adulterers.”  Mother never ordinarily stuttered.  She was more frightened than I’d ever seen her.  “Alex is already engaged to Keirsey Boston.  The Bostons would….we have mergers planned that will…”

My Father laid a hand on her shoulder and she stopped talking.  He took up the tale. Or rather, he handed out the orders.  “So Kynthian, my dear, you’ll find our traitor, and Caveat,” he suppressed a shudder when he said my name, “you will retrieve the genes, from the inside.”

“Inside?”

“We will give you to the Nubians.”  He let only seconds go by for me to get my breath back before continuing.  “We’ll keep your brother out of sight for a time, marry you as him, and they won’t know the difference.  They can’t have decent science to sniff you out, even if they have Alex’s genes in their hands, as your genes are almost identical.”

Of course I protested, almost as loudly as Kynthian.  Nubia surely wanted Alex, Son of Anthem, not me, and I was sure they were smart enough to figure out the ruse eventually.  If they beheaded adulterers, what would they do to a fraudulent bridegroom? And my family could hardly go through with the Anthem-Boston nuptials, which would be worldwide news, if Alex was supposed to be married to The Daughter of the Nile.  When the substitution was discovered…

“What can they do?”  My Father looked even more comfortable now.  “When you recover Alex’s stemgenes, then they will have no hold over us.  The Nubian Lion can roar all it wishes, but it will have no teeth.”

I considered it — calmly, to my own surprise.  “It won’t matter to anyone that the Nubian Lion will still have me between its claws, of course.”

Everyone was silent.  Everyone knew that nobody could threaten my family with anything having to do with me, as I was a dead man already. 

“Of course.” I said it again, just to avoid having to hear them say it.  Kynthian was sputtering with rage. She really liked me, in a bossy sort of way.
 
Father handed me a softscreen.  “Here she is.”  An image formed and brightened.

It was her.  It was her.

I stared at her glowing skin and longed to touch it, even on the screen.  Her generous mouth smiled in a way that shook my belly.  The vid showed her standing between a majestic man and woman wearing sarongs of cloth-of-gold.  She waved to a crowd that was out of the picture but could be heard cheering and singing.  The motion of her arm was sweeter than an ocean swell.

I had to force my eyes away to take in the well-armed guards behind her.  I thought of her arms, and of Ike. If Ike had his way, I might not be long for this world anyway. It was time for a get-away.

Beautiful bride or death, beautiful bride or death — what should I choose?

“Of course,” I said.  “We must save Alex’s genes.  Set it up.  When do I meet my bride?” 

Kynthian stared at me.  I wouldn’t tell her what I was thinking.  If it was money the Nubians wanted ultimately, I knew I could get some out of the Anthems.  I was not a bad specimen, gene-designed to be large and imposing, and I kept my muscles in shape. By the time the Nubians learned of the ruse, perhaps…

The family rose as one and left Kynthian and me to our jobs in the cryo-keep.  Kynthian’s face was still red with rage.

“How could they — how can you —”

“Prince Caveat.  Has a nice sound to it, does it not, Kynthian, my dear?”

“You — you can’t —”

But I could.  I thought Keirsey Boston deserved Alex, and Mother, and Father.  And I thought they all deserved whatever discomfort might accrue between the two betrothals.  And I thought the Daughter of the Nile deserved better than Alex.

 

Usually I wouldn’t bring much of a dowry with me, not the real me, anyway.  But this situation could be maneuvered so that wasn’t a problem.  I wondered whether they staked liars out on the sands of Nubia, or fed their livers to vultures.

 #

As Kynthian and I both expected, the mole was the cryo-tech.  My family could hardly fathom that anyone would turn away from the lavish pay and living quarters they extended to so vital a retainer as the cryo-man.  And nobody married for such a passing fancy as love when they expected to live forever, so love would never have occurred to them as a motive.

The cryo-tech, with his hand on the codes, found it simple enough to get the other cryo-banks to forward the precious deposits to the home lab, and then to carry it all away to the new love of his life, the personal maid of the Nubian Princess currently inhabiting the top floor of the world-famous Lakeshore Pinnacle, whose glass spire was within sight of our own family town-tower.  At least we knew that the genes were in capable — if culpable — hands.

I wondered whose hands had been on the wheel of this caper: the Daughter of the Nile’s or her parents’.  If it was the Daughter, if she was that ruthless, then my marriage bed might well be my coffin.  But heck, I was a dead man anyway.

#


Without pre-nuptial fanfare, the bride’s parents put on a small, private, but lavish ceremony at the Pinnacle with a surprising amount of gold in the gowns and garnishes, apparent in the vid releases. 

The Son of Anthem was joined to the Daughter of the Nile, every phrase repeated three times and each of us blessed three times with the Nile’s sacred water, our bodies wrapped together at the hips in a single gold-embroidered marriage shawl.  Oddly, I never had to lie and say “I, Alex” at all: it was “the Son of Anthem” all the way through, even on the contracts, as it was “the Daughter of the Nile.” 

All of the bride’s party looked like mahogany giants: the scimitars they carried may have had jeweled and gilded hilts, but they also had very serious and very naked Damascus steel blades.  And there were other men in black body armor with force weapons.

And I still did not know her name when at last she lifted the gilded veil, when we were alone in the gold-draped nuptial berth, with guards at the ends of the hall to protect our privacy — and prevent escape.  My bride’s eyes were deep pools of desire, and her rich arms were as strong as mine.

And I found I could not lie with her and lie to her. 

And I found myself talking in archaic pentameter, or whatever they spoke when mortality made the wedding bed sacramental.  Such solemnity can do strange things to one’s vocabulary.

“My bride,” I breathed, “I must tell you the truth.  If you will, call your men at arms and let them slay me, but I must tell you my name.”  Desire — dare I say love even? Yes I dare, for I am such an anachronism, such a Neanderthal.

She moved her strong hand up my bare spine and her fingers, powered by much percussion on the drums of her homeland, wrapped softly around my throat, thumb on the choke point below my larynx and fingertips upon my cervical vertebrae.

I lovingly copied her gesture, and the pulse of her throat thrilled my palm.  The flame of the sacred torch above the bed danced in her dark eyes.  She waited, the heat of her a great and powerful calling.

I temporized.  I wasn’t ready to die just yet — she was too beautiful.  “I do not know your name.  Is it a tradition with your people that the bride’s name is not given until the wedding night?”

“I have no name but Daughter-of-the-Nile.  I once had another name, but when my father and mother came to the throne of our ancestors, I gave my name away and became the Womb of the Nation’s Future.  All call me Daughter, save you.  You may call me Wife.”

“Wife.”  My body was liking the sound of it.  And she knew it.  “Wife, my Princess, I must tell you my name.  Forgive me, for I am yours in love forever, and I will bring you all the riches that you deserve, in time.”


“Forgive you?  Riches?  I wish the riches of your loins.”

My loins thought that an excellent wish and were most anxious to grant it.

Her voice was like a summer night, like honey, like fire.  “I want sons and daughters with the might of my heart and the fire of your wrath.  Oh, yes.  I have seen the wrath in you, my Warrior Consort.  Riches — you mean money?  We shall have money, no question.  But it is you I want.”

I almost held my tongue.  But I couldn’t.  “I am not Alex.”

She looked puzzled.  Then she licked my lips.  That almost ended the conversation right there.  “Of course not.  You are Caveat — a warrior’s name, a warning, a threat.  Caveat, Son of Anthem, Consort of the Daughter of the Nile.”

“You — you know?”

“How should I not?”

“My family, they thought you wanted Alex for their money, since it was his stemgenes you stole.”

“Well, my Husband, you had none to steal.  We knew some pressure would be necessary to make them give us the Son of Anthem, since their wealth is so vast that they’d hardly consider us more than upstarts.  They’re wrong, of course: our Kings and Queens ruled millennia before your family’s wealth ever rose up out of the oily dust of the so-called New World.  But of course, they don’t seem to know much history.”

What could I say to that?  She was right.  It had never occurred to my Nose parents that “the Son of Anthem” might mean me.  It had never occurred to me, either.
 
“They assigned me to deceive you and steal back my brother’s stemgenes.”  I sat up to keep her wonderful hips from making further speech impossible.  Her hand stayed at my throat.

And then things I never knew I could say poured out of the lips she had licked.  “I agreed because I had seen you, and I knew I might die for it, but then I will die anyway, as I have no stemstores.  I would die willingly to be yours, even for this one night.”  I meant every word.

She smiled, and her hand left my throat and stroked down my chest.  “I never wanted Alex.  I wanted you.  From the window in this very chamber, I saw you running through the crowd below, parting the scurriers like a lion among goats.”  (I remembered that chase about a year before, but that’s another story.)  “I saw you and I wanted you.  But my father would never allow me to marry any but a Nubian.  I urged upon my father the acquisition of the Belt of the Lion, the desert land that runs straight to the Great Sea, so that I could have you.”

“Ummm…I don’t see…”

Her laugh was deep, like earth moving.  She pulled me down beside her.  “You were born there, in the sands west of our Ancient Kingdom.  In our New Kingdom, that land is now Nubian, and so are you.  And you are mine.”

#

My family had planned to keep it all a deep secret.  But the cryo-man bragged on how he had foxed the powerful Anthems, and the case made the news and scared all the Noses snotless.

Just as well it went public, because we had a public announcement of our own to require of the family: as a condition for returning the genes, we insisted that follow-up coverage of the wedding announce my name: Caveat.  That solved the dilemma of Alex’s betrothal under his own name, but somehow none of them expressed any gratitude.

My Wife had no interest in the stemgenes after our wedding night.  She already had investors for the wind and solar arrays she dreamed of, and an engineering degree to design them with.  I project that we may pass my family in fortune by the end of this century.

And she had no qualms about my mortality.  She is mortal too, as are all in her family.  “A couple of centuries is enough for any monarch,” she said softly, as she stroked her fine belly, where one day a new monarch would grow.  “After that, the heirs would become restless.”

We took the genes to Alex’s wedding as our gift.

It was a fine thing walking into the glittering assembly at the Cathedral of the Century: the Daughter of the Nile in a gold sarong, a real-leopard cape, and a millennia-old gold-and-ivory crown. I was dressed the same except that my crown was a war helmet: imposing, imperial, astonishing…I just don’t have the words for it, and neither did anyone else.

 

When we strolled up to chattering champagne-sippers at the reception, they stood as still and silent as I had on that wonderful day when my future bride’s drumbeat seized me utterly and stopped me in my tracks.  When we walked away, I could smell their fear. 

It was better than bourbon.

I am now named not only Consort, but Warrior of the Nile. We employ Kynthian to research potential enemies (among whom Ike does not even make the bottom of the list), and I still have my dart board.  My Royal Wife, the Daughter of the Nile, likes it very much, and she is very good with a dart.

The Kingdom of the Nile has a golden future, for the Daughter of the Nile has the cunning of the sphinx and the strength of the crocodile’s jaws.  She also has me.  And, as Kynthian’s archives could tell anyone about my -- shall we say -- Warrior Moments: Caveat Anthem!


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2012-09-29 18:35:58
Excellant story. very unique. great integration of primative and advanced tech!

2012-07-27 07:20:26
Very Good read! Clever!

2012-07-03 01:45:12
Great story with a nice twist. Well done!




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