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The Human Division #10: this Must Be the Place
By John Scalzi
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
Episode Ten: This Must Be the Place
Hart Schmidt took the shuttle from the Clarke to Phoenix Station and an interstation tram to the station's main commuter bay, and then he caught one of the ferries that arrived at and departed from Phoenix Station every fifteen minutes. The ferry headed down to the Phoenix Station Terminal at the Phoenix City Hub, which aggregated most of the civilian mass transportation for the oldest and most populous city of the oldest and most populous human interstellar colony planet.
Upon exiting the ferry, Hart walked through spaceport terminal C and boarded the interterminal tram for the PCH main terminal. Three minutes later, Hart exited the tram, went from the platform to the immensely long escalator and emerged in the main terminal. It was one of the largest single buildings humans had ever built, a vast domed structure that housed stores, shops, offices, hotels and even apartments for those who worked at the hub, schools for their children, hospitals and even a jail, although Hart had no personal experience with the last two.
Hart smiled as he came out into the main terminal and stepped onto the terminal floor. In his mind, as always, he imagined the mass of humanity bustling through suddenly grabbing the hands of the people next to them and waltzing in unison. He was pretty sure he'd seen a scene like that in a movie once, either here in the main terminal or in a terminal or station much like it. It never happened, of course. It didn't mean that Hart didn't keep wishing for it.
His first stop was the PCH Campbell Main Terminal Hotel. Hart checked into a one-step-above-standard-sized room, dropped his bag at the foot of the queen-sized bed and then immediately gloried, after months of sharing his broom-closet-sized "officer quarters" on the Clarke with another diplomat, in having nearly forty square meters of no one else in his living space.
Hart sighed contentedly and immediately fell into a nap. Three hours later he awoke, took a shower that was indecently hot and indecently long and ordered room service, not neglecting a hot fudge sundae. He tipped the room service delivery person exorbitantly, ate until he felt he would explode, switched the entertainment display to the classic movies channel and watched hundred-year- old stories of early colonial drama and adventure, starring actors long dead, until his eyes snapped shut seemingly of their own accord. He slept dreamlessly, the display on, for close to ten hours.
Late the next morning, Hart checked out of the Campbell, took another interterminal tram to train terminal A and hopped on train 311, with travel to Catahoula, Lafourche, Feliciana and Terrebonne. Schmidt stayed on the train all the way to Terrebonne and then had to run to connect with the Tangipahoa express, which he caught as the doors were closing. At Tangipahopa, he boarded the Iberia local and got off at the third stop, Crowley. A car was waiting for him there. He smiled as he recognized Broussard Kueltzo, the driver.
"Brous!" he said, giving the man a hug. "Happy Harvest."
"Long time, Hart," Brous said. "Happy Harvest to you, too."
"How are you doing?" Hart asked.
"The same as always," he said. "Working for your dad, hauling his ass from place to place. Keeping up the Kueltzo family tradition of being the power behind the Schmidt family throne."
"Come on," Hart said. "We're not that helpless."
"It's okay for you to think that," Brous said. "But I have to tell you that one day last month I had to take Mom into the hospital for tests, and your mother was out at one of her organization meetings. Your dad called my mom's PDA, asking how to work the coffee machine. She's getting blood drawn and she's walking him through pressing buttons. Your dad is one of the most powerful people on Phoenix, Hart, but he'd starve in a day if he was left on his own."
"Fair enough," Hart said. "How is your mother?" Magda Kueltzo might or might not actually be the power behind the Schmidt throne, but there was no doubt most of the family was deeply fond of her.
"Much better," Brous said. "In fact, she's busy working the meal you're going to be stuffing down your throat in just a few hours, so we better get you to it." He took Hart's bag and swung it into the car's backseat. The two men hopped into the front; Brous punched in the destination and the car drove itself.
"It's not a very demanding job," Hart ventured as the car pulled itself away from the station.
"That's sort of the point," Brous said. "In my quote unquote spare time, I get to work on the poetry, which incidentally has been doing very well, thanks for asking. That is insofar as poetry does well, which you understand is a highly relative thing and has been for centuries. I am an established poet now, and I make almost nothing for it."
"Sorry about that," Hart said.
Brous shrugged. "It's not so bad. Your dad has been generous in that way of his. You know how he is. Always thumping on about people having to make their own way in the world and the value of an honest day's labor. He'd rather die than fund a grant. But he gives me a ridiculously easy job and pays me well enough that I can work on my words."
"He likes being the patron," Hart said.
"Right," Brous said. "I won the Nova Acadia Poetry medal last year for my book and he was more proud of it than I was. I let him put the medal in his office."
"That's Dad," Hart said.
Brous nodded. "He did the same thing with Lisa," he said, mentioning his sister. "Had her scrub toilets at the house for a year, then paid her enough for it to survive grad school in virology. Went to her doctoral ceremony. Insisted on getting a picture. It's on his desk."
"That's great," Hart said.
"I know you and he have gone a few rounds on things," Brous ventured.
"He's still irritated that I went into the Colonial Union diplomatic service rather than into Phoenix politics," Hart said.
"He'll get over it eventually," Brous suggested.
"How long are you going to keep the job?" Hart asked, changing the subject.
"It's funny you should ask," Brous said, catching the attempt and rolling with it. "The medal helped me get a teaching position at University of Metairie. It was supposed to start at the beginning of the fall, but I asked for them to set it back a semester so I could help your dad through the election season."
"How did it go?" Hart said.
"Oh, man," Brous said. "You haven't been following it at all?"
"I've been in space," Hart said.
"It was brutal," Brous said. "Not for your dad, of course. No one even ran against him here. They're going to have to wheel him out of his office. But the rest of the PHP took a thumping. Lost sixty seats in the regional parliament. Lost ninety-five in the global. The New Greens formed a coalition with the Unionists and put in a new prime minister and heads of department."
"How did that happen?" Hart asked. "I've been away for a while, but not so long that Phoenix should have suddenly gone squishy. I say that as a squishy sort, understand."
"Understood," Brous said. "I voted New Green in the regional myself. Don't tell your dad."
"Deep dark secret," Hart promised.
"The PHP got lazy," Brous said. "They've been in power so long, they forgot they could be voted out. Some bad people in key positions, a couple of stupid scandals, and a charismatic head of the New Green party. Add it all up and people took a chance on someone new. It won't last, I think; the New Greens and the Unionists are already arguing and the PHP will do some housecleaning. But in the meantime your dad is in a foul mood about it. Even more so because he was one of the architects of the global party strategy. The collapse makes him look bad personally, or so he feels."
"Oh, boy," Hart said. "This will make it a cheerful Harvest Day."
"Yeah, he's been moody," Brous said. "Your mother has been keeping him in line, but you're going to have the whole family at home this Harvest, and you know how he gets with the whole clan there. Especially with Brandt rising in the Unionist party."
"The Schmidt boys," Hart said. "Brandt the traitor, Hart the underachiever and Wes ... well, Wes."
Brous smiled at that. "Don't you forget your sister," he said.
"No one forgets Catherine, Brous," Hart said. "Catherine the Unforgettable."
"They're all already there, you know," Brous said. "At the house. They all got in last night. All of them, all their spouses and children. I'm not going to lie to you, Hart. One of the reasons I came to get you was so I could have a few minutes of quiet."
Hart grinned at this.
Presently the Schmidt family compound came into view, all 120 acres of it, with the main house set on a hill, rising above the orchards, fields and lawns. Home.
"I remember when I was six and Mom came to work here," Brous said. "I remember driving up to this place and thinking there was no way one family could live in that much space."
"Well, after you arrived, it wasn't just one family," Hart said.
"True enough," Brous said. "I'll tell you another story you'll find amusing. When I was in college, I brought my girlfriend to the carriage house and she was amazed we had so much living space there. I was afraid to take her up to the main house after that. I figured she'd stop being impressed with me."
"Was she?" Hart asked.
"No," Brous said. "She became unimpressed with me for other reasons entirely." He switched the car to manual, led it up the rest of the driveway and stopped at the front door. "Here you are, Hart. The entire family is inside, waiting for you."
"What would it cost for you to drive me back?" Hart joked.
"In a couple of days I'll do it for free," Brous said. "Until then, my friend, you're stuck."
* * *
"Ah, the prodigal spaceman returns," Brandt Schmidt said. He, like the rest of the Schmidt siblings, lounged on the back patio of the main house, watching the various children and spouses on the front surface of the back lawn. Brandt came up to Hart to give him a hug, followed by Catherine and Wes. Brandt pressed the cocktail he had in his hand into Hart's. "I haven't started on this one yet," he said. "I'll make another."
"Where's Mom and Dad?" Hart asked, sipping the drink. He frowned. It was a gin and tonic, more than a little heavy on the gin.
"Mom's in with Magda, fussing over dinner," Brandt said, going over to the patio bar to mix himself another highball. "She'll be back presently. Dad's in his office, yelling at some functionary of the Phoenix Home Party. That will take a while."
"Ah," Hart said. Best to miss out on that.
"You heard about the latest elections," Brandt said.
"A bit," Hart said.
"Then you'll understand why he's in a bit of a mood," Brandt said.
"It doesn't help that you continue to needle him about it," Catherine said, to Brandt.
"I'm not needling him about it," Brandt said. "I'm just not letting him get away with revising recent electoral history."
"That's pretty much the definition of 'needling,'" Wes said, laconically, from his lounge, which was close to fully reclined. His eyes were closed, a tumbler of something brown on the patio itself, by his outstretched hand.
"I recognize I'm telling him things he doesn't want to hear right now," Brandt said.
"Needling," Catherine and Wes said, simultaneously. They were twins and could do that from time to time. Hart smiled.
"Fine, I'm needling him," Brandt said, took a sip of his gin and tonic, frowned and went back to the bar to add a splash more tonic. "But after so many years of listening to him talk about the historical import of each election and the PHP's role in it, I think it's perfectly fine to have a bit of turnabout."
"That's exactly what this Harvest Day needs," Catherine said. "Another perfectly good dinner from Magda growing cold because you and Dad are going at it again at the table."
"Speak for yourself," Wes said. "They never stopped me from eating."
"Well, Wes, you've always had a special talent for tuning out," Catherine said. "It puts the rest of us off our appetite."
"I don't apologize for being the only one of us who has any interest at all in politics," Brandt said.
"No one wants you to apologize," Catherine said. "And you know we all have an interest in politics."
"I don't," Wes said.
"We all have an interest in politics except for Wes," Catherine amended, "who is just happy to coast on the benefits of the family having a good political name. So, by all means, Brandt, discuss politics all you like with Dad. Just wait until we get to the pie before you start going after each other."
"Politics and pie," Wes said. "Mmmmmm." He started fumbling about for his drink, connected with it and brought it to his lips, eyes still closed.
Brandt turned to Hart. "Help me out here," he said.
Hart shook his head. "I wouldn't mind getting through an entire Harvest Day without you and Dad tossing verbal knives at each other," he said. "I'm not here to talk politics. I'm here to spend time with my family."
Brandt rolled his eyes at his younger brother. "Have you met our family, Hart?"
"Oh, don't pester Hart about planetside politics," Catherine said. "This is the first time he's spent any time at home in Lord knows how long."
"Last Harvest Day," Hart volunteered.
"You can't genuinely expect him to keep up with the relatively trivial politics of Phoenix when he's grappling with Colonial Union–wide crises," Catherine said to Brandt, and then swiveled her head to Hart. "What was your most recent interstellar diplomatic triumph, Hart?"
"I helped electrocute a dog in order to save a peace negotiation," Hart said.
"What?" Catherine asked, momentarily flummoxed.
Wes cracked open an eye to look at Hart. "Is this like sacrificing a chicken to the gods?" he asked.
"It's more complicated than it sounds," Hart said. "And I would note that the dog survived."
"Well, thank goodness for that," Brandt said, and turned to his sister. "I stand corrected, fair Catherine. Hart's clearly got more important things on his mind than mere politics."
Before Catherine could retort, Isabel Schmidt descended and embraced her youngest son. "Oh, Hart," she said. She gave him a peck on the cheek. "So good to see you, son. I can't believe it's been another whole year." She stepped back. "You look almost exactly the same."
"He is almost exactly the same," Brandt said. "He's not old enough yet to age poorly."
"Oh, Brandt, do shut up," Isabel said, not unkindly. "He's thirty. That's plenty old to start aging badly. You started at twenty-seven."
"Ouch, Mother," Brandt said.
"You brought it up, honey," Isabel said, and then turned her attention back to Hart. "You still enjoying the Colonial Union diplomatic service?" she asked. "Not getting bored with it?"
"It's not boring," Hart admitted.
"You still working with, oh, what's her name," Isabel said. "Ottumwa?"
"Abumwe," Hart said.
"That's the one," Isabel said. "Sorry. You know I'm terrible with names."
"It's all right," Hart said. "And yes, I'm still working with her."
"Is she still an asshole?" Catherine asked. "The last time you were home, the stories you told about her made her sound like a real piece of work."
"What stories do your assistants tell about you?" Brandt asked his sister.
"If they tell stories, they don't stay my assistants," Catherine said.
"She's gotten better," Hart said. "Or at the very least, I think I understand her better."
"That's good to hear," Isabel said.
"Ask him about the dog," Wes drawled from his lounge.
"The dog?" Isabel said, looking over to Wes and then back to Hart. "What about a dog?"
"You know what, I think I'll tell you that one later, Mom," Hart said. "Maybe after dinner."
Excerpted from The Human Division #10: this Must Be the Place by John Scalzi. Copyright © 2013 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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