Prefect Cortherien removed his red skull cap and activated the privacy mode on his console. He turned to embrace Hickory. ‘My dear, how good to see you again. You're looking well. Teaching must agree with you.' He took her by the shoulders and looked warmly into her eyes.
Hickory thought his conclusion a little fanciful. At forty-three, she was still in her prime, but she had let herself go a little. Ten years ago, she mused, some might have called her pretty - never beautiful. Now, too much wine and not enough exercise had added a few inches to her waistline and her thick red hair, cropped square at the ear to negate her natural curls, accentuated the sharpness of her nose. She smiled pleasantly at the Prefect. It had been three months since they last met. 'Good of you to say so, Pierre, even if it's not true.'
He frowned at the familiarity, then turned it into a smile to match hers. 'Your father called in the other day. He asked me to pass on his best wishes, and says he hopes to be able to spend some time with you on his next visit.'
Hickory kept the smile fixed on her face and walked to the window behind the Prefect. She gazed at the vista of New Rome. The metropolis and surrounding countryside had been heavily bombed during the war but the seven hills upon which the original city was built had survived. The United World Government had decided to make New Rome their capital. Now, glittering towers of plastic and glass dominated four of the seven hills, servicing commerce, education and art, and administration. The Interstellar HQ and supporting complex where Hickory taught was further away, on the outskirts of the city.
‘Quite a sight, isn’t it?’ said Cortherien, nodding towards the multi-layered suspension roads that twisted around the buildings and each other. ‘How did you cope with the public transporters? It’s a shame private vehicles aren’t allowed inside the city boundaries, but it does make for a safer and less congested environment.’
‘To be honest, once I was inside the capsule I couldn’t tell I was moving,’ said Hickory. ‘I see they haven’t got rid of the village yet.’
Quirinal had been the first area to be rebuilt. It catered for the domiciles and services needed for the construction workers—a pre-fabricated shanty town that was supposed to be demolished once the work was complete, but lived on still.
‘No, but the restoration of Palatine is yet to be completed. It lay in ruins for years after the war ended. Little of the original archeological site remains but ancient Rome is being resurrected, dedicated to the tourist dollar.’
'That's nice,’ she said flatly, then returned to the previous discussion. ‘What did he come to see you about?' She hid the disappointment that clutched at her. She had scarcely seen her father in the last twenty years. When her mother died giving birth to her younger brother Michael, her father had off-loaded both his children to his sister Maddie. George was a flag officer in the navy, and rarely made it back to Earth. However, the fact her father had been in the neighbourhood and hadn’t bothered to call served to twist the knife that he had planted in her heart when she was six years old.
Cortherien looked at her keenly. 'Your father does care for you, you know. As an admiral in the Intragalactic Agency, he carries an enormous responsibility. Over forty known planets are at a comparable stage of development to Earth. I don't want to preach at you, Hickory, but you know some of these are not friendly and your father is the person responsible for neutralising potential threats. He can't just drop everything and come home, much as he would like to.' He patted her on the shoulder.
It wasn't quite as simple as that, Hickory reflected. The IA wasn't an elected body. Its main focus was on expanding trade opportunities. Inter-species collaboration was an end result not the primary reason for its existence, although that didn't mean the dangers were any less formidable. 'I know,' she said, 'but given he was here on campus, how much of his valuable time would it have taken just to say hello.’ She would bet he had found the time to catch up with Michael, his golden-haired, blue-eyed son.
She felt the sting of being second choice.
'It's not your fault, Prefect. It's just a little disappointing that my father doesn't think his daughter worth a visit, although I shouldn't be surprised. It’s unusual he would even remember I was teaching here.' She paused, struck by the truth of her own words. The Prefect was concealing something from her.
Hickory was one of the new breed of humans that had evolved following the New Dark Age, born with nascent empathic ability in the receptors in her brain. This phenomenon had gone unnoticed until she was six years old, when she was hospitalised suffering from acute anxiety and shock. The examining physicians concluded her trauma was in some way linked to her mother’s painful death whilst giving birth to her second child. Hickory had been living six blocks away from the hospital at the time.
By the age of sixteen, her spontaneous piggy-backing onto other people’s thoughts had developed to the point where it was impacting her sense of reality. She spent the next five years training in meditation techniques. With the aid of the new PORO program, she learned to moderate the intensity of her empathic responses, though strong emotions still broke through her training at times. A side benefit of her ‘condition’ was she could usually tell if someone was lying simply by listening to how they responded to her questions.
'That's probably enough about your family issues, Hickory. We have more to concern ourselves with than whether your father loves you or not.'
She knew the barb had been aimed to deflect her from the truth. Cortherien was well aware of her talents.
‘Admiral Lace brought me disturbing news from the far side of the Eridanus constellation. There’s a planet there named Prosperine—the fourth of six orbiting a main-sequence star about 20 light years from Earth. Prosperine has an Oxygen-based atmosphere, and a dominant humanoid life form. The anthropologists tell us the species has developed from an oviparous ancestry.' He walked to his desk and took a packet of cigarettes from his drawer. ‘Disgusting habit, I know,’ he said, lighting one and inhaling deeply. ‘But it calms my nerves.’
Hickory’s eyebrows rose. 'They’re descended from birds?'
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