Keita Tafari was used to nightmares. They were part of the package that came along with having a hikmaic gift of a certain strength. Like any Wolf, if he’d been asked if they bothered him, he would have shrugged and said it was just part of life.
“But between you, me, and and the nima,” he said to his reflection in the bathroom mirror, “I’m ready to be done with this interval and have things back to normal.”
He studied his face, trying to decide how obvious the lack of sleep would be. The little wrinkles around his eyes and mouth—the first sign that he wasn’t exactly young anymore—those got more pronounced after a bad night. The skin beneath his eyes looked saggy, but you’d probably have to be close to notice that—closer than anyone had been for quite some time. On the whole, he could probably pass for okay.
This was all vanity, and he knew it, but he had so few things to cling to these days, his appearance might as well be one of them.
He went through the rest of his morning routine in a house that was strikingly silent. In part because he was the only resident, but there was more to the emptiness he felt. This house that existed in a quiet neighborhood of a quiet city on a quiet planet—it was in utter contrast to all the years he’d lived on the Hub,
The Hub was a space station and, despite every best effort, was never completely silent. Rumbles and whines of machinery were constant background noise; the voices of a thousand people packed in the small space were a constant murmur through the walls and the floors. The station itself creaked and moaned like it was breathing, the structure always tugged this way and that by the pressures and pulls of space. It was strange, now, to be on this world, in this silence.
It was strange to feel so alone.
He selected the day’s clothes from the closet on the right—where shirts and slacks hung in perfect, military precision. The closet on the left, he ignored, as he always did. The short mountain autumn was in full swing, so he found appropriate layers and then was back at the mirror making certain he was acceptably put together.
Vanity was a better excuse—a safer excuse—than boredom. Than the thought that, if he didn’t use these extra minutes to make certain he was free of wrinkles, that every seam aligned as it should, he’d have nothing else with which to fill them.
Having spent as much time on his appearance as he could justify, Tafari head out the door, on his way to the hospital at which he volunteered—the next item on the agenda for project “find a way to fill more minutes.”
A cold drizzle came down outside, falling from a heavy blanket of low-hanging clouds that obscured the mountains that surrounded Weissberg. Higher up, this rain would be snow, turning the peaks white, but in the city, fall colors were still bright, bursts of russet and gold scattered along the streets and among the buildings.
Tafari liked the clouds, their low, misty gray like a ceiling. He’d grown up on Bulwark and spent most of his adult life at the Hub. Open sky was still unnerving. Too big, too empty, too much.
Weissberg wasn’t huge compared to other places in the Empire like Kanto or the City of Lights, but it was one of the largest cities Cradle had to offer. Tafari liked the size, the anonymity as he walked down from his neighborhood and into the city proper. No one called his name or tried to talk to him. Even better, no one shied away; no one tried to hide from his gaze or met his eyes with an angry, defiant glare. Everyone else was focused on their own life and had no interest in his.
Even in this cold, miserable wet, the streets were thick with Wolves going about their business. It seemed every other Wolf in Weissberg had business to be about. For the pack was mantra and life. No one wanted to feel like they weren’t doing their part. Some part. Any part. To do any less was failure, betrayal of the clan that had given them life.
Tafari made it to the hospital. Weissberg had plenty of hospitals—Cradle was thick with them—but this one was unique in its purpose. The rest were active care facilities, putting front line soldiers back together so they could return to the never-ending war with the demons. This one, the only care it provided was palliative, and while its rooms were full of old people and young people alike, they were all here for the same purpose. They were all here to die.
Tafari signed in at the front desk and made for the north wing. He maintained a regular schedule, a rotation that meant he got to see most patients at least twice a week. He’d talk to them, read to them, listen to their stories—try to bring what happiness he could as the last moments of their lives ticked away. To make sure they knew that someone saw them. That they weren’t alone.
This was the dark, twisted cruelty of for the pack. For the pack only lasted as long as you were bringing value to the pack. Once you couldn’t help, once you become a burden, you got shoved away into a dark corner and abandoned, left on your own to find meaning to fill what too-short or too-long hours you had remaining.
Once you pissed off Lord Faust….
A soft, quick bark pulled Tafari out of his dark thoughts, and he turned with a smile to greet Lifen and Brutus. Faust Lifen ran this hospital. Tafari had never met a more ruthless administrator—Lukas included. Lifen kept this place that nobody wanted to talk about or think about in enough funds to do its work, and she managed to do that while still being on first-name terms with every patient in the building.
At her side was Brutus, the guide dog that she was never without. Brutus did plenty of work himself. Beyond helping Lifen through her day, he had an uncanny sense for those patients who were close enough to death to measure their time in minutes, rather than hours, and helped make it possible for Lifen to be with most of them when they passed.
Lifen didn’t believe that “for the pack” ever ended. There were a great many things Lifen didn’t believe. “Tafari, are you here again?”
Brutus had given him away with that greeting that was reserved just for Tafari. That was almost as common as the question from Lifen. “I’m here every day. When are you going to stop being surprised by it?”
Age was beginning to stoop her, and Lifen’s hair had long since gone gray, but there was force in her body and she wasn’t afraid to direct that energy at him. She pointed at him, her face set in the glare he couldn’t actually see with her eyes hidden behind opaque black lenses. “When are you going to stop pretending you’re one of the dying ones?”
She was in a mood today. “What’s going on?”
“You people. You come in here. You get my patients all riled up.”
Tafari wasn’t in the habit of riling people up, but it didn’t seem like he’d get anywhere arguing about it. “Us people? Is someone else making the rounds?”
She jerked her thumb back over her shoulder, in the direction of the East wing. “Some historian from off-planet. Wants to hear stories. He upset Taraji, making her relive the demon encounter where she lost her legs, and he spun up Kurt until he’s yelling about invasions again and none of this is making my day any easier.”
“I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
“If you can manage not to make my job harder, that would be a start.” She walked away, still grumbling, Brutus at her side, and Tarfari changed his direction. He could do Lifen one better, and try to solve her historian problem.
Unlike his home, the hospital was never quiet. By now, the noises were very familiar. The constant background murmur of conversation from doctors and nurses, patients, and AIs. Screens everywhere—on walls, on ceilings, or in portable form—played media at a variety of volumes. Threaded through all of that the beeps and hisses and hums of the monitors and respirators and pumps that kept people alive. It was all familiar, comfortable—Tafari’s new home territory.
The stranger was easy enough to find, sitting in one of the media lounges with Zhang Tamara, who brightened as soon as Tafari stepped into the room. “Tafari! Come meet my new friend, Philippe.”
The stranger looked less thrilled by the interruption. Tafari looked him up and down. The crest on his shoulder marked him as a Dragon, and his exquisitely tailored clothes marked him as someone who spent a lot of time at court. Probably. Certainly no one who belonged here on Cradle.
“Nita Philippe,” Tafari greeted him. “You’re a long way from home.”
Philippe smiled broadly. It was the sort of smile that made Tafari instantly mistrust this man. “Not at all. The Empire is my home, and my passion.”
“Well then. I’m afraid I’m here to ask you to tamp some of that passion down.”
“What are talking about?” Tamara scolded. “He’s just asking questions.”
“Questions that are upsetting some of the guests here.”
“Forgive me,” Philippe said with a contrite bow of his head. “My intent is not to cause trouble. But the soldiers here, they have so many interesting stories to tell.”
Tafari was experiencing a strong, visceral dislike of this man. The kind of feeling that, in the old days, would have led to dragging him in for questioning. He hated that he could still feel that way, that suspicion came so quickly and so easily when, in truth, he was probably just annoyed to find this stranger in his space, causing trouble for his friends.
“Be careful, all right? If they want to talk to you, I can’t stop them, but remember, this is supposed to be a peaceful resting place, and a number of the soldiers are not comfortable reliving the experiences that brought them here.”
“Of course, of course. You’re right. I’ll try to be more careful.” Contrite. Unctuously so. It set Tafari’s teeth on edge.
This man was going to ruin his day. So much for pleasant talks with people. Instead, Tafari was going to keep an eye and an ear on Philippe until he was gone.
It was an easy thing to take up a position outside the lounge, where he couldn’t be seen by the people inside, but close enough if he called on the nima to ratchet up his sense, he could still hear everything Philippe was saying.
Thus, he spent the day spying, feeling increasingly foolish as he did so and Philippe simply made rounds through the hospital, asking people about battles they had fought in, about what it was like to be a Wolf on the front lines, about their families, about vacations they’d taken here on Cradle. Nothing sinister. And he genuinely seemed to be more careful, not pressing any issues that put anyone on edge.
Still, Tafari was happy to see him go at the end of the day. Even more so when Philippe mentioned to the desk nurse that he would be moving on.
A wasted day, perhaps. Another set of minutes, and hours that were now gone, but at least it had been a bit of a break from routine, and gave Tafari something to think about as he made his way home to his quiet house, his quiet life, and all the empty minutes to pass before it was time to do all of this again.