Solitaire

by Kelley Eskridge

 

Chapter One

So here she was, framed in the open double doors like a photograph: Jackal Segura on the worst day of her life, preparing to join the party. The room splayed wide before her, swollen with voices, music, human heat, and she thought perhaps this was a bad idea after all. But she was conscious of the picture she made, backlit in gold by the autumn afternoon sun, standing square, taking up space. A good entrance, casually dramatic. People were already noticing, smiling; there’s our Jackal being herself. There’s our Hope. It shamed her, now that she knew it was a lie.

She took a breath and stepped into the chaos of color and noise, conscious of her bare face. Most people had made some effort at a Halloween costume, even if only a few finger smears of paint along cheekbone or forehead. Enough to make them unrecognizable, alien. She had a vision of Ko Island full of monsters lurching to the beat that boomed like a kodo drum, so loud that she imagined the huge western windows bulging under the pressure, only a moment from jagged eruption. It could happen. There was always a breaking point.

But she should not be thinking about things breaking, about her life splintered like a bone that could never be set straight. She should wipe from her mind her mother’s voice, thin and sharp, They give you everything and you don’t deserve it, you’re no more a Hope than I am! She should stop wanting to split Donatella’s head open for saying it. And she should not yearn to lay herself in her mother’s lap and beg her take it back, Mama, make it better while Donatella stroked her hair. What good would it do? Her mother would only find a way to break her all over again.

Enough. She shook her head and braced herself against the jostle of bodies. Fuck Donatella. Jackal would cope. She would find a way to work it out. She was here, that was the first step: and somewhere in this confusion were the people she needed — her web mates, her peers among the second generation of Ko Corporation citizen-employees. Her web was the world. Her web was safety. She only had to brave the crowd long enough to find them.

She guessed they would stake out their usual space by the windows that faced the cliffs and the sea beyond. They would be drinking and laughing, expansive, expecting only what everyone expected: that the world turned, that business was good, that the company prospered and its people prospered with it, flowers in the sun of Ko. With Jackal as the tallest sunflower in the bunch. It was a ludicrous image, with her olive skin and dark eyes, but it was true. She was the one they looked to, the budding Hope of Ko. Every person of the company — the three hundred in the room, the four hundred thousand on the island, the two million around the world — watched their Hope with a mix of awe and possession, as if she were a marvelous new grain in the research garden, or the current stock valuation. They knew her latest aptitude scores and her taste for mango sorbet. They had opinions about her. They parsed her future at their dinner tables. Is she ready? Will she be a good Hope? Compelling questions for the past twenty-two years, gathering urgency now as Jackal approached her investiture. In just two months she would go to Al Iskandariyah, where the heart of the world government pumped, to stand with the other Hopes in the first breath of the new year, the shared second of their birth. At twenty-three, they would be of age in any society, legally entitled to take up their symbolic place in the global administration. But what was the task? You are the world builders, the official letter from Earth Congress read. Jackal knew it by heart; she bet all the Hopes did, the thousands scattered around the planet who had been born in the first second of the first attempt to unify the world. We honor you as the first citizens born into the new age of world coalition. You are the face of unity: the living symbol of our hope to be a global community with shared dreams and common goals. That was who she was: the Hope of Ko. The Hope of the only commercial entity on the planet with its own home territory and almost-realized independence from its host nation, only a few negotiations away from becoming the first corporate-state in the new world order; the only commercial concern powerful enough to leverage its impact on world economy into inclusion in the Hope program that had, over the years, become an increasingly meaningful symbol of influence and power in the emerging Earth Congress and Earth Court.

“Coming through!” a man called as he bumped past her and spattered beer on her shirt. She bit down on the impulse to say something nasty; instead, she ducked her head and stepped back. The Hope must be always gracious. The Hope must show the best face of Ko.

She had been aware for most of her twenty-two years that she carried the future of the company in some way that was undefined, emblematic. She had tried to visualize it. She could see herself in Al Iskandariyah, living in a functionary’s apartment near the marketplace with its smells of boiled wool and incense and calamari fried in glass-green olive oil. She could imagine the cool hallways of the Green and Blue Houses of government. But she never pictured herself doing anything. What exactly was a Hope supposed to do? All she was being taught was what any manager at Ko might learn, albeit more quickly and with more personal attention from her trainers; there had to be more to being a Hope than that. She squeezed her eyes shut against the frenzied loop playing in her brain: no more a Hope no hope no hope —

Breathe, she told herself. The music seemed louder, the air thicker with sweat and the smell of beer. A new track was playing, that song about fame, and she felt her lips pull back from her teeth. Easy; people were watching. She pulled her jacket tighter around her chest and managed a general nod to as many of them as she could. She had to find the web. Especially Snow. All she wanted right now was someone to be safe with. But maybe she would never be safe again, never safe, never —

“Jackal!” A hand on her arm. “Great, you’re here. Hey, they’re playing your song.” Tiger laughed at his own joke, and she made herself smile even though it was hard.

“Hey, Tiger.”

“Where’ve you been? Everybody’s asking for you. Come on, we’re over here. I’ll get you a drink.” Drawing her into the music and the laughter, his body warm from dancing, just a little too close. Another thing to deal with. Later, she thought. First a drink and some space to wind down. And Snow. I’ll deal with the rest of it later.

He led her to the back of the room, opening a path with a touch on one person’s shoulder, a gentle nudge of his hip to an enthusiastic dancer, a grin and a clever word for all of them as he cleared them from his way. The music battered at her; her heart took up the beat. And there was the web, some dancing in the glow of the sea-refracted sun, some stuffed two to a chair, loud and laughing; a few at a corner table with a pitcher of beer, muttering over a project timeline. Business and life moving belly-to-belly. Ko might be structured along traditional lines of management, but it was sustained by the webs that cut across hierarchies and divisions, people focused on the company but loyal to one another. As familiar as family. Web mates liked or loved or despised each other, but regardless they made each other successful, and Ko thrived.

“Jackal!”

“Hey, Jackal.”

“Hey.” She was especially glad to see Bear and Turtle, both good friends, both solid and safe. She smiled, settling into a chair next to them. Bear blinked at her from behind his feathered half-mask, turquoise and scarlet, dramatic against his mahogany skin. “Where’s your costume? We should send you back home and make you change.”

“She came as an ordinary person,” Turtle said, leaning over to hug her. From someone else it might have been a nasty remark. Today, it hurt precisely because it was so earnest, so obviously well-meant. “Feliz Vispera de Todos Los Santos,” he said with a smile.

“She always looks like that,” Mist said. That wasn’t exactly nasty, just disapproving.

Tiger had come up beside her with a tall glass of something orange and cold. “Oh, lay off,” he said. Then, to Jackal, “Here, try this.”

“What is it?”

He gave her a look. “Try it. If you don’t like it, I’ll get you something else.”

She took a sip: lovely, cool orange juice with something warm and rich behind it. “Mmm,” she said, nodding. “Good.” She took another, larger swallow. “What is it?”

“Brandy and orange juice. My new favorite drink.”

“It’s revolting,” Mist said. Tiger rolled his eyes at Jackal. She raised her glass to him and drank down the rest in one breath, then wiped her arm across her mouth. Turtle chuckled.

“Well,” Tiger said. “You’d better have this one too.” He handed her his glass.

“Thanks.” Another deep swallow, until her stomach felt hard and full, and waves of heat started up her spine. The party rolled around her, music and laughter, people in motion. She wanted Snow. The others were talking over her; as far as she could tell, she’d interrupted a debate about planning the web’s holiday celebration. She tuned it out: she didn’t care. She didn’t mind New Year’s Eve; there were no presents to buy, and she liked champagne, and the New Year toast always morphed into everyone wishing her a happy birthday. But she did not expect to enjoy this New Year’s. She would be in some official residence in Al Iskandariyah preparing for investiture, unless of course someone found out about her and de-Hoped her, whatever that entailed.

That made her want to cry. She blinked and peered at her empty glass. She could feel Tiger watching; she asked, “Can I have another one of these?”

He studied her for a moment before he answered. “Whatever’s wrong, is there anything I can do?”

She gave him a plastic cheerful smile. “Everything’s fine. All I need is another drink and to find Snow. Do you know where she is?”

“She’s taking around a group of little kid trick-or-treaters. She left about a half hour ago.”

Oh, damn, damn, she thought, and knew he saw it. She had been counting on Snow’s comforting arm and anchoring solidity. Tiger sighed so briefly that she almost missed it, and it was one more thing she couldn’t cope with right now. He said, “Does that mean you’re going too, or do you still want that drink?”

Great. Just terrific. Snow was gone, Tiger was hurt, and Jackal felt overwhelmingly tired of all of them, especially her own helpless self. What did people do when they were uprooted, a torn tree tumbling in the funnel cloud? “Drink,” she said, ignoring the voice inside her that was saying be careful, Jackal. “I’ll definitely have another drink.”

“Okay,” Tiger answered, sounding surprised and slightly mollified. “I’ll be right back.”

 

But he wasn’t. She could see the crowd around the bar, and she imagined him patiently negotiating a way through the thicket of raucous people because she had asked. They give you everything and you don’t deserve it! the mother-voice screeched again, rolling over her like the waves she had seen breaking onto the beach as she walked to her parents’ house earlier that afternoon. It was a beautiful day: the sunlit asphalt road overhung by brilliant dying leaves and a periwinkle sky, quiet except for the creek at the edge of the property chewing its mouthfuls of silt, and a seagull skreeking toward the sea.

Her mother was in her office, working. She put her cheek up distractedly for Jackal to kiss. “Ren, sweetheart, what a lovely surprise.”

Jackal could see that she meant it. That was the hardest part, sometimes. She sat on the visitor’s chair by the desk, gathering herself. She thought she was ready, although she always dreaded these conversations. When she was little, she had for a time carried school papers and awards home as proudly as a cat fetching a dead garter snake; but she had learned that Donatella responded strangely to her daughter’s success. And this time would be worse. Still, she had to deliver the news, and then do her best not to see her mother’s jaw stiffen and her head start to shake very slightly, her gaze flatten as her smile grew wide; Donatella would show too many teeth, and her congratulations would be bracketed by the usual “Well, of course, if they really think you can handle it,” or, “Now don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll give you lots of backup, they do make a lot of allowances for you.” Then her father would see her to the door, saying softly, “Of course your mother loves you, hija, she’s just very competitive by nature,” as he had a thousand times since Jackal was old enough to start having accomplishments of her own.

But today Carlos wasn’t there, and things went bad right away.

“I have some news to share with you, but I’m a little nervous about it because I think it might put us in an awkward position with each other,” Jackal said. She thought it was a good beginning; she’d been working on it all the way to the house.

Her mother turned in her chair so that Jackal could see most, but not all, of her face. It was a power position: you have enough of my attention to serve courtesy, but I’ll be getting back to my very important work in just a moment. “You don’t need to facilitate me, dear,” Donatella said, managing to sound both irritated and amused.

“I’m not trying to….” Jackal took a breath. “I want….”

“Ren, just say whatever you have to say.”

She wanted to say, Mama, you’re supposed to be such a good communicator, so why doesn’t this ever work better? But instead she replied, “Okay. I’ve been asked to take over a new project in the next few weeks. The Garbo project.”

Outside, a bird warbled a few shrill notes.

“I’m supposed to take Garbo,” Donatella said.

“The administration has decided it’s an appropriate training opportunity for me.”

“It’s not a training project,” Donatella snapped, and Jackal tried not to wince. “It’s much too complex for someone at your level. I’ve been preparing for months. It’s my project,” she repeated, as if Jackal simply hadn’t understood the situation and would become reasonable as soon as the point was clear.

“I’m sorry,” Jackal said. “I wanted you to hear about it from me.” She meant to go on, perhaps say something like it’s not my fault, or please don’t be mad at me, but Donatella rolled right over her.

“This is ridiculous. It makes no sense. It’s a huge assignment and you’re leaving in a couple of months. What are they thinking?” Her head was beginning to shake. “Neill promised me the project himself. He’s certainly not going to like this when he hears about it.”

“My instructions came from Neill,” Jackal said, trying to make her voice as calm as possible so she wouldn’t feed her mother’s tailspin.

“There’s been a mistake. I’m sure that’s all it is. I’ll talk to him and get it sorted out.”

“Mama,” Jackal began, and heard the pleading tone that her mother always seemed to bring out in her, “Mama, I know you’re upset — ”

“Of course I’m upset! They’ve got no right! And giving it to you is laughable, you’re clearly not ready for it.”

Jackal replied, as evenly as she could, “It’s true I need to prepare. I don’t know much about the background and the particulars yet. I would certainly value your advice.” She took another deep breath. “Of course you can talk to Neill, but he said plainly that I will be leading the project. I hope you understand I’m not happy about the way it’s been handled. I don’t want you to feel I’m taking something away from you.”

“You little pig,” her mother said shockingly, sickeningly, her voice like flint. “Of course you’re taking it away from me. Did you even stop to think about it?” She threw up a hand. “Don’t bother to answer. You probably think, oh well, they’ll just give her something else. And they will, but not like this one. Not as important. Garbo’s getting more attention from the Executive Council than any project in at least the last five years. I’ve been talking to Neill about it since Phase One started. I’ve been working overtime to get my other projects wrapped up so I could be ready. I’ve read every single project report, the minutes of every meeting. And you have the nerve to sit there and say you don’t know much about it. But you’ll take it. Again. Again! Because you’re the Hope. No, just be quiet,” she said, her voice rising. Jackal was trying to say Stop, Mama, don’t do this. “And don’t look at me like that,” Donatella continued, the words foaming out like white water boiling over sharp stones. “Of course it’s because you’re the Hope. Anything Ren Segura needs, anything Ren Segura wants, whether you’re ready for it or not, whether you can even understand it. All of it taken from someone else! Every training opportunity,” she spat the words, “every accelerated class, every place at the head of every line, every second of attention could be going to someone who’s worked and worked and worked and then has to stand by and see it all go to you because you’re the precious Hope. Again and again and again! But you can’t have this, you can’t! You’ve had your chances. This is mine!” She was shouting now, her mouth enormous. “It’s not fair, they give you everything, everything, the best chance I’ll ever have and you don’t deserve it, you’re no more a Hope than I am!”

And then her mother gasped and put a hand to her mouth, the left hand with the old scar showing stark white: and they sat in awful silence until Jackal said, “What do you mean?”

 

Born too late, was what it came down to, even after all the careful planning, the induced labor, the drugs, the forceps. They had dragged her out of her mother’s womb well past the first second of the new year; her birth, as with all the potential Hope births, recorded by tamper-proof time-stamp technology supplied by EarthGov. Which had promptly been subverted by the technicians. “It’s Ko technology, after all,” Donatella said. “We should know how to get around it.”

And so they had, and little Ren grew up and took the web name Jackal and worked and trained and prepared, the unknowing center of an enormous secret, a plan that had seemingly run itself like clockwork for twenty-two years. Until now: until her mother had lost her temper in the one way she never should. Jackal understood why Donatella’s voice had changed from fury to fear at the end, why she had followed Jackal onto the front terrace, saying “Ren! Ren, wait! Come back and let’s hammer this out.” But Jackal hadn’t gone back. Don’t negotiate me, she had thought bitterly, I’m not a fucking business deal. Except she was; and that was the real problem, the bottom line. The company had wanted a Hope badly enough to take the enormous risk of creating one, and the Hope’s own mother had destabilized her at this most critical juncture. Ko would crucify her mother if they knew.

And maybe they should. How dare Donatella do this to her, make her so miserable that she could sit surrounded by her web and feel so alone? She had a sudden longing to hurt her mother. Hurt her deep. She imagined herself in some vice president’s office telling the story doggedly, piously, saying, “I’m completely on board with this, but I’m a little worried that my mother is so upset.” God, it’s tempting, she thought.

“What is?” Tiger said, drinks in hand, startling her; she hadn’t meant to speak aloud. Can’t tell you, she thought, can’t tell anybody, and then hoped she hadn’t said that out loud as well. “This is,” she said as brightly as she could, reaching for the glass.

Around her, her web mates chattered on. She wanted to scream. She wanted to hit something. She wanted Snow to hold her. But she had come here to get centered, so best be about it. She roused herself and waded into the conversation, made herself focus and listen and smile, smile, smile. She shifted so Tiger could perch on the arm of her chair. She recounted for Bear the entire plot of a play she’d seen in Esperance Park, complete with arm-waving descriptions of the fight scenes. She fetched her own next drink from the bar, and commiserated with someone from another web about the stress of the holiday season, her voice saying agreeably, “It sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now,” while her head said You have no fucking idea, sport.

None of it worked. She knew she had only to say, “I have a problem, I need your help,” and she would get everyone’s undivided attention, the benefit of the dozens of brains here and the others who were part of the web, whether a mile away or a thousand. But she couldn’t do it; she didn’t know how to open her mouth and say I’m not a Hope. It was like saying, I am a lie; I am not real.

“I am real,” she told herself. “I am real.”

“What?” Tiger asked, leaning in closer, smiling down at her. “What did you say?”

“I am really drunk,” she said. “And I am really tired of the whole stupid world and I just want to forget about everything for a while.”

“Then let’s dance.”

“That’s a great idea. I’d love to. Umm…can you help me stand up?”

He laughed. “Sure.”

She took his hand. “Don’t let me fall, Tiger,” she said. “Don’t let me fall.”

 

That night she dreamed of Terry on the cliffs.

They were seven years old, on a school trip to the south coast of Ko on an early spring day. This was one of the few natural parts of the island; the rest was human-made, a project of the company’s very profitable custom land-mass construction subsidiary. Ren and Terry scrambled along the cliff’s edge with the other children, examining rock formations. They were supervised by teachers and the requisite accompanying parents, including Donatella. It was already clear to Ren that these trips made her mother restless and impatient, and ahe wished Donatella wouldn’t come; not all the parents did, even though they were supposed to take turns. But her mother always put on her best pair of walking shoes and insisted brightly that she was looking forward to it, darling Ren, of course she wouldn’t miss it.

Today, Donatella was organizing the parents and teachers as easily as she ran multinational projects; she had completely rearranged the supervising teacher’s safety plan and was ordering everyone about. The teacher tried to argue: Ren sighed, and pulled Terry farther along the bluff, farther than they were supposed to go. Behind them the teacher’s voice grated against the rocks, and Donatella murmured soothingly.

Ren and Terry dug together for a while, saving the best rocks aside in a fiber bag, and making a game of pretending that the rejected bits were horrible criminals being forced to leap to their deaths. The adult voices buzzed behind them.

“Your mom never yells back,” Terry said, after a while. He was smaller than Ren, and even better at math, and the only person she knew beside herself who had ever stayed up all night just to see what happened to the moon.

“She doesn’t need to yell,” Ren answered. “She always gets what she wants. She calls it clarifying.”

“Maybe — ” Terry began, and then the cliff suddenly sighed and slid away from under his bottom, and he went down with it in a silent, surprised bundle of arms and legs, his mouth and eyes wide. He broke apart on the rocks as he fell.

The ground under Ren began to shift. Her fear was liquid silver weighing down her arms and legs.

“Ren, get away from the edge!” her mother shouted in her command voice, the voice that must be obeyed. Donatella was forty feet away, already in motion; but Ren could not move. Down below, Terry’s small body lay in an impossible shape. Another large section of crust began to slide, and Donatella howled and threw herself the last ten feet, landed hard on her stomach and flung out both arms to snatch Ren’s wrists as the ground under her went down in a rumble. Ren hung over the raw new edge and heard her mother’s left hand crackle as one of the big rocks rolled on it. Donatella turned white and began to pant, but she didn’t let go of her daughter until there were two other adults there to help lift her the rest of the way.

Surgery restored most of the function of the hand, after endless weeks of physiotherapy and a confining rehabilitative brace that made Donatella clumsy and bitter. Ren knew that she was to blame for her mother’s pain, because she hadn’t obeyed. And maybe it was her fault that Terry had fallen. She wasn’t sure: no one had told her. But she knew that she had failed in responsibility.

She decided that she must make sure to never, never forget what she had done. She crept out to the garden and found the largest stone that she could hold with one hand, a beautiful ragged thing of gray and brown. It was a day like a painting: a hundred shades of green in the leaves and grasses and lily pads of the pond, in the vegetable tops waving from the brown grit of the soil; the sky that looked as if one of the blue colorsticks in her classroom had melted across it; the pinks and lavenders and sun-yellows of the flowers whose names she didn’t know, that nodded wild and rangy on their thin stalks because her father liked them that way. The pain, when it came, was sharp and orange. She managed to hit her left hand twice before Carlos found her.

“Oh, Ren,” he said, after he’d made her an ice pack and wiped her tears. “Don’t hurt yourself. That won’t help. The only thing that helps is to do better next time.”

She waited for him to tell her how, but he only hugged her and said, “Okay?”

She wasn’t sure, but she wanted to please him, so she told him, “I’ll do better.”

Solitaire

Take a journey
with Jackal Segura
Solitaire