Ben had put off entering the room long enough. He had done every errand he could think of, tying the parcels of books together tightly and performing a ritual double bow with a flourish. But he was out of books and so taking a deep breath he entered the refectory. Immediately his personal tutor began to rise, Ben didn’t acknowledge the ascent and the tutor sat continuing the conversation with newly returned pilots.
He made a beeline for the head of the queue, he was on a purely liquid diet due to his imminent departure. It wasn’t official, it was what he did, a ritual. Bitter Koka Rootbeer was on the left and hot chicory seed with peppermint on the right. As he was chilled to the bone, suddenly, he took the latter and then turned to see all the tables.
At the very end of the first row was a space but it was close to the Deputy High Commissioner and very close, in fact next to Clarissa Arthurs. Clarissa was allegedly the confidante of the Deputy in all senses of the word and anything said to her went straight back, but like those double bows, a little flourish was added along the way.
Ben knew that the Deputy had not wanted him on this voyage, he wasn’t the only one with eyes and ears in the building. In fact, only a few hours earlier one of his first mentors had suggested caution around the said Deputy. There were a lot of people rooting for Ben, he was the first of his kind to be plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight. The limelight he detested but he knew that the piloting skills in the lower, lower quadrant were needed for the empire to succeed.
He cautiously sat down facing Clarissa and noticed for the first time the scars of sacrifice across her brow, he began to exude empathetic waves in her direction but she turned full face to him and spat,
“Ben tell me about you. I don’t know you.”
As the words were passing through ether between them, Ben noticed in the corner of his eye, the Deputy High Commissioner was listening. He was visibly rocking backwards in his chair to hear every word.
Ben pondered on this as he told a little, as little as possible, to Clarissa. She was going to add to it anyway so although he told the truth, he told it sparingly. The last time he had been on earth he had seen a live broadcast of an execution but prior to the death, the convict had sat in a seat with a bright light above him and was questioned. He had this image in his head and although he wasn’t facing death he laughed to himself that at least the prisoner knew why the questions were being asked. Clarissa continued her barrage of questions, leading him down paths he wasn’t sure the Deputy High Commissioner needed to know.
And then there was the bigger picture, the Deputy wanted the High Commissioner’s job. Ben thought about this and realised he didn’t want the job so he could do it, he wanted it so he could take it off the High Commissioner. Ben looked across at all the people he could have sat near, people he knew well, fellow pilots, he looked towards his tutor.
He left after an appropriate time, he felt as if Clarissa had not just eaten him for breakfast, dinner and tea but had licked the bones clean and then chomped down through the bone, grinding each one until Ben was just a gooey, messy pile in her stomach. The voyage was to take place soon but there was no absolute guarantee of a place until the Day of Adoration of the Sandstorm when the great council of the wicked and wise met to discuss the pilots. He felt suddenly like some pawn in a master game of chess of which the only one of the opponents knew the game was afoot.