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  • Milton Davis

Customs






Here's my story from Dark Universe: The Bright Empire. Pandare Grimes, marabout of the planet Eritia, must decide where his loyalties lie.



Marabout Pandare Grimes watched with agitation as the cargo lifts loaded the ships on the launch platform. If his calculations were correct the ships would hold the entire 300-ton allotment required by the Alaafin for the upcoming Customs. Three hundred tons of minerals, food and finished goods that could serve the local population much better than the papered nobles of Ziara. These were his thoughts and they would remain so.

Robert Claybourne, Customs Expedition coordinator approached him, the manifest holo hovering over his open right hand.

“Marabout, is there a problem?” he asked.

Pandare cursed silently for allowing his emotions to show on his graceful umber face.

“No Robert, everything is fine,” he said.

Robert shared the holo. “You can look at the manifest yourself. All the items requested have been accounted for.”

Pandare waved him off. “Inform me when the loading is complete. We’re scheduled to depart in three days. And make sure our Gate clearances are in order. I don’t want any delays.”

“Yes, Marabout. I’m make sure of it.”

Pandare returned to his pod.

“Axum,” he said. “The long way.”

The pod lifted into high traffic then sped south. Pandare rubbed his forehead as he reached for the bottle of bourbon perched on his console. Nana said he drank too much, but Nana was one to talk with her dagga addiction. Everyone on Eritia suffered from some habit, but it was understandable. The planet was only partially terraformed, which presented unique problems as far as climate and gravity were concerned. But the main burden rested in the bays of the cargo lifts, the one obligation every planet in the Empire was required to fulfill; Customs.

Pandare relaxed as the brown liquor burned its way down his throat. He was fourth generation Marabout and true One Million lineage. He envied the generations before him, people whose bond to the Empire and the Cassads was unwavering. His only involvement with the homeland had been during Customs and what he’d experienced left much to be desired. How could people celebrate such a way while planets like Eritia struggled to provide the means of their enjoyment?

“A bucking waste,” he said out loud in the only place he could do so and not be accused of blasphemy. He was raised to believe Customs were an integral part of the prosperity of the Bright Empire, a homage to the ancestors that built it and saved the Known from the Dark Age. But he had his own opinion.

The pod meandered over Eritia as he finished his bourbon. He was full on drunk and didn’t relish returning to the office in such a state, so he decided to kill more time.

“Barrens,” he said

The Barrens are restricted,” the pod replied.

“Override restriction,” he ordered. “Command sequence Askia, Inkosi, seven six Maroon.”

A holo-board appeared before him and he punched in the remaining code. It was an archaic way to communicate with the pod’s core, which made it difficult to hack. The pod flashed green then veered south toward Eritia’s equator.

“View,” Pandare said.

The pod became transparent. From below Pandare seemed to fly, streaking over the verdant landscape. As he soared closer to the equator, the foliage succumbed to the increasing temperature. The pod’s air systems kicked in to compensate for the rising heat. Kilometers from the equator the flora and fauna surrendered to the adverse conditions, a dead landscape of rock and heat passing below him. During his term as marabout ten percent of the terraforming equipment had failed. The failure was mainly off planet solar deflectors. It was Imperial equipment far beyond the skills of his engineers, yet the Empire had ignored his requests for assistance. There were others that could do the work, but their demands were too high and the results would be questionable. With less arable land it was becoming more difficult to sustain the population, let alone collect the proper libations for Customs. Pandare returned to his seat and poured another drink.

“Base,” he said.

The pod veered north. By the time it landed in his compound he was completely drunk. As the craft eased onto the flashing landing lights the doors to the upper level opened and his mother emerged, walking briskly toward the pod. Pandare sighed as he took one last swig from his bottle. This morning was not going to improve. After finishing the bourbon, he opened his storage door then took out a small box containing his sobering pills. He tossed two into his mouth, forcing them down his throat. He would still be inebriated once he stepped out of the pod, but he could fake it until the pills kicked in. Maybe. He smoothed out his robes, played with his afro, then took a deep breath.

“Open,” he said.

The pod door swished open. Nana stood before the door; her thick arms folded under her heavy breasts. Pandare gripped the railing tight as he climbed down, struggling for balance. He was drunker than he thought.

“Hi Nana,” he said.

“You’re drunk,” Nana replied.

“For the time being,” Pandare replied.

“How can you do such a thing at a time like this?”

Pandare let go of the rail then steadied himself.

“How can I not?”

“Our family reputation hinges on Customs and you treat it like it’s some game,” she said. “We should have never given you this responsibility.”

“You didn’t give me anything,” Pandare replied. “And I certainly didn’t ask. And don’t worry. The Libations are in order. The ships are being loaded as we speak. The family’s honor will not be tarnished.”

Nana’s frown eased.

“What about your loloba?”

“What about it?” he replied.

Pandare pushed by Nana as she sighed.

“We are going to Ziara,” she said. “It would be a good time for you to consider marriage.”

“I’m already married. To Eritia.”

Nana ignored his comment.

“All the Great Families will be in attendance. There is also a rumor that there are a few eligible women among the Royal Bloodline.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Pandare said. “I hope they find happiness.”

“Stop this foolishness!” Nana snapped. “It is time you accepted your responsibility to this family!”

Pandare’s anger overruled his intoxication. He spun to face Nana, speaking through gritted teeth.

“Foolishness? Is it foolish that I spend every day trying to keep most of the people on this planet alive? And I mean most, because we don’t have the resources to keep them all alive. Every day I’m forced to make life and death decisions because our precious Empire can’t spare the technicians needed to fix their broken solar deflectors. Then I have to steal food from their mouths to bless ancestors who apparently don’t give a shit about us!”

Nana’s stunned expression slowly morphed into calmness.

“This assignment is only temporary,” she replied “There will be better planets on which to serve. Such an opportunity can only transpire if we deliver the proper libations to Customs. That is why it is so important.”

“You talk as if we arrived here last week,” Pandare said. “Four generations, Nana. Four generations of our family have served here. We are just as much Eritians as the original inhabitants.”

Nana looked at Pandare as if he had cursed her in the vilest way.

“We are One Million,” she said, pronouncing each word as distinctly as she could. “When we arrive on Ziara for Customs, we will be with our people. Eritia is an assignment. Ziara is our home. Never forget that. Ever.”

Nana spun about and stomped away. Pandare glowered then followed. In his house another bottle of bourbon waited for him. He would drink himself to sleep, and in the morning, he would complete the preparations to return to Ziara.


* * *


Pandare sat in his office, studying the holo screens floating before him. Sheila Bandana hovered over his shoulder, peering through her archaic style glasses at the numbers flowing before them.

“So, what’s the situation in Keer?” he asked.

“A bad harvest,” Sheila replied. “They’re too close to the Break and the instability is affecting the weather patterns. They have three seasons at the most before they’ll have to relocate.”

“Any arable land to the north?”

“Some, but not enough. We’ll have to resettle about twenty percent.”

“Fek!”

Pandare pushed back into his chair as he rubbed his forehead.

“Excuse me, Marabout, but don’t you have a ship to catch?”

“They can’t leave without me,” Pandare replied.

“We’ve gone over these numbers before,” Sheila said. “You know them by heart.”

“Just making sure I haven’t forgotten anything,” he said. “When we reach Ziara I plan on petitioning for a meeting with Imperial Tech. If they won’t respond to my messages maybe they’ll answer in my presence.”

“Isn’t it forbidden to conduct business during Customs?” she asked.

“Yes,” Pandare replied.

Sheila touched his shoulder. “Be careful, Pandare. We need you.”

Pandare patted Sheila’s hand then stood.

“Sometimes you have to take a risk to get what you need. I’ll be okay. Make sure the lights are still on when we return.”

Sheila grinned. “I will. Good luck and enjoy yourself.”

“I won’t,” he replied.

Pandare summoned a lift on his way to the curbside. He hated leaving when there was so much to be done. His only consolation was that he might be able to get something done will on Ziara besides socializing with family members that he felt no closer to that a frozen asteroid in the Unknown.

A lift waited for him as he exited the building, door open. He climbed in and it rose from the pavement then sped to the Central airfield where the Libation fleet waited. Pandare used the few moments of peace left to him for meditation; the rest of his time would be spent faking enthusiasm among the others and listening to Nana’s constant rattling about proper protocol once he arrived at the family compound.

It had been ten years since he’s last visited Ziara; he was eighteen, a man by Ziaran standards but still young enough to be required to show deference to his elders. At 28, he was still younger than most, but his position as marabout would gain him more respect, unless he said or did something that smeared his reputation. That was what Nana feared most.

He arrived at the airfield ten minutes later. Despite his mood he had to admit that the fleet looked impressive. He pressed the holo-button on the command screen and sent out a message.

“This is Marabout Grimes. Is the Customs team assembled?”

Ayondela Simpson’s image appeared.

“Awaiting your arrival, Marabout,” she replied. “You’re late.”

“Aren’t I always?”

Ayondela moved aside and Nana took her place.

“Not a good start, my son,” she said.

Pandare waved the screen away. The lift touched down on the platform moments later and Pandare jumped out onto the metal surface. He fast walked through the sliding door where the team waited. All the ship navigators, captains and storage personnel were waiting. Ayondela and Nana stood side by side.

“Ready for inspection?” he asked.

“Yes, Marabout,” she replied.

“Lead the way.”

The team loaded onto the cargo elevator then descended to the tarmac. Ayondela summoned a truck and they were on their way. They inspected each ship from top to bottom, doing a physical inventory to make sure everything was in order. They then visited the passenger ships, greeting the dancers, acrobats, musicians and support teams. All were excited and enthusiastic; for many of them this was a life changing event. Very few people beyond the One Million were privileged to visit the Mother Planet; fewer still participated in Customs. Their mood was infectious. Pandare smiled, laughed and chatted with them, while Nana acknowledged them with her famous perfunctory wave and grin. By the end of the day all the ships had been inspected and deemed worthy for launch.

Pandare met Nana that night for dinner. Baba and his siblings had left for Ziara two weeks ago to prepare for their arrival, so the two of them were alone. Pandare entered in formal dinner attire, the one requirement he followed. Nana was very strict on protocol; her life hovered around the customs that separated The One Million from the other citizens of the Empire. She always told him that as the Empire expanded, it was essential that they kept their traditions. Otherwise, they would be swallowed in a sea of mediocrity.

Pandare ignored his mother’s frown as he sat the bottle of bourbon on the table.

“Don’t you ever stop drinking?” she asked.

“When I’m asleep, or unconscious,” he replied.

“This is not a joke,” Nana replied. “It’s a habit that will kill you one day.”

“Not if we lived on Ziara,” Pandare said.

“But we don’t, which is why you should take care.”

The servers brought out dinner, placing their plates before them. Nana looked at the plate and frowned; Pandare chuckled then began eating.

“I’ll be so glad when we reach Ziara,” she said. “The food there is excellent.”

“You only complain about the food during Customs,” he replied. “I’m surprised you haven’t starved to death.”

“It is the sacrifices we make that define our character,” Nana replied.

Pandare poured his bourbon into the shot glass then took a sip.

“We shouldn’t have to make sacrifices,” he replied. “We are One Million. We serve the Empire with what little resources they provide and get nothing in return for it.”

“You exaggerate,” Nana replied.

Pandare glared at Nana.

“Do you review my reports?” he asked.

“I glance at them,” she said. “It is not my place to second guess you.”

Pandare rolled his eyes.

“People are starving on this planet every day,” he said. “They are suffering because our gracious Alaafin can’t spare a few techs to repair our deflector grids.”

“The Empire is vast,” Nana replied. “Imperial resources are spread thin. I’m sure the Alaafin has reviewed your requests and assistance in on the way.”

“I’ve been requesting that assistance ever since I’ve been marabout,” he said. “Imperial support is apparently non-existent.

Nana looked up from her plate.

“I will not have you slander the Empire in my presence,” she said. “Keep your insults to yourself. You walk a thin line, my son.”

Pandare hacked at his food.

“And what will you do, Nana? Turn me in?”

“Of course not,” she replied. “But I fear you will say the wrong thing before the wrong person and it will bring your ruin.”

“Don’t worry, Nana,” Pandare said. “My blasphemy is discreet. Whenever I feel like shouting my displeasure to the world, I drink this.”

He gripped his bourbon bottle then raised it high.

“Drink loosens tongues as often as it quiets them.”

“Which is why I drink until I pass out.”

Pandare poured another shot then tossed it down his throat.

“Enjoy your dinner, Nana,” he said.

Pandare grabbed his bottle then stood to leave.

“Where are you going?” Nana asked.

“Back to my room.”

“You haven’t finished your meal.”

“I’ve suddenly lost my appetite.”

He trudged back to his room and finished the bottle. He stared at his paintings, wondering exactly when his relationship with Nana and his family soured. There was no specific issue, no defining moment that sent them drifting apart. It was gradual, a condition that grew as he aged, as he became more involved in the administration of Eritia. Baba stressed immersing oneself in the culture in order to best serve its needs and he did that. But Baba never told him that an emotional distance had to be maintained in order to serve the people yet keep the needs and goals of the Empire first. That where he failed.

Pandare’s stomach grumbled and he ordered a light snack from the kitchen. He spent the remainder of the evening in his room, nibbling on Eritian bread while listening to music. This would be a longer journey than he realized.


* * *


The Eritian Libation fleet reached the first gate two days after their launch. For the next five days they shuttled from gate to gate, whisking through checkpoints because of their Customs credentials. Traffic increased as they neared Ziaran space, the number of Libation fleets growing at each gate. Pandare became more irritable the closer they came, the anticipation of the celebration and potential meeting with Imperial Tech grating on his nerves. His liquor supplies nearly exhausted, he kept away from Nana as much as he could. Avoiding her completely was impossible; there was only so much room in the ship and their duties forced him to meet with her. But it was all he could stand as her mood became more joyful the closer they came to Ziara.

The final gate jump was bedlam. Fleets crowded the airspace, monitor ships zipping among them to keep order. Security drones drifted among the throng, scanning ships for contraband and weapons, a reminder that the peace the Empire touted was a reality only to the uninformed. While Nana paced about, anxious for landfall and the fellowship of family, Pandare enjoyed the final moments of peace. He sat on the bridge of the ship, sipping bourbon while watching the display before the gate.

They finally reached the gate. The procedure went smoothly and without delay. Apparently, Baba contacted the right people and paid the necessary respect to insure their quick entry. The ship jolted and he experienced the brief disorientation of jump space. When his vision cleared Ziara loomed before him in all its splendor. Despite how he felt about the people he had to admit it was a beautiful planet. With the right equipment Eritia could be just as appealing. The thought darkened his mood and he took a long swig of the bourbon.

The bridge viewer wavered, and the image of the planet was replaced by the beautiful face and welcoming smile of an Imperial greeter.

“Praise be to the ancestors. Welcome to Customs!” the woman said. “On behalf of Alaafin Ose Cassad we welcome you to our sacred celebration. Please relinquish control over of your ship to allow our landing systems to guide you to your proper pad.”

Pandare signaled the captain and he followed the greeter’s request. The ships fell into a single line landing pattern, cruising to the pad selected for their lineage. Pandare’s ship was the first cleared to land, the other ships holding an elliptical pattern while his ship descended into the urban sprawl of Ziara’s capital city. Nana joined him on the bridge, a warm smile on her face.

“We are home, son!” she said. “We are home.”

As they neared the pad the lineage shuttles came into view, the family kente displayed on each vehicle. The ship touched down soundly on the pad. Pandare took a deep breath, wishing he’d taken a drink earlier. Nana’s touch on his shoulder made him flinch.

“Come,” she said. “Our family awaits.”

He followed Nana to the lift. Three levels later they emerged from the ship. Pandare coughed, his body adjusting to Ziara’s heavy atmosphere. The shuttles cruised forward then stopped a few meters before them. Baba and his siblings emerged smiling and dressed impeccably for the occasion. Baba gave Nana a long hug before grasping Pandare’s hand then pulling him into a hug.

“Welcome home, son,” he said.

“It’s good to see you, Baba,” Pandare replied.

Ifeyato punched his shoulder. He winced then glared at his younger sister.

“Took you long enough to get here, Pany,” she said.

“You know how those jams at the gates can be,” Pandare said.

“Liar,” she replied.

His brother Ogundipe stood in the background, observing the reunion. Pandare looked at him then waved him over.

“What are you waiting for Dipe? Permission?”

Dipe sauntered up to him and they hugged.

“I know you don’t want to be here,” he whispered to Pandare.

“Doesn’t make a difference, does it?” Pandare whispered back. “Family first.”

“Come,” Baba said. “Everyone is waiting at the compound.”

They were walking to the shuttle when the sound of drumming and chanting broke the working din of the pad. Pandare turned to see the Eritian performers dancing from their transport. He looked at Dipe and Yato and the three shared a conspiratorial smile.

“Baba, Nana, you go ahead,” Pandare said. “We’ll be along.”

Nana frowned while Baba attempted to hide a grin.

“We don’t have time for premature revelry,” Nana said. “There are important family elders waiting to meet with you, Pandare.”

“And they will,” Pandare replied. “I’ll just be a bit long. Besides, aren’t we here to celebrate?”

“We’ll only keep him a minute,” Ifeyato said.

Nana’s frown bloomed into a wide smile. She could never refuse Ifeyato.

“I guess it’s okay,” Nana said. “But don’t be all day, understand?”

“We won’t!” Dipe and Yato said. They grabbed Pandare’s arms and the three hurried to the performers.

“Thank you,” Pandare said to them.

“You owe us,” Dipe replied. “And be sure we will collect.”

“Of course, you will, ragamuffins,” he replied, using his nickname for them.

The Eritia performers’ volume increased when they spotted the trio coming toward them. The dancers enveloped them, and they danced as well as they could with them. Pandare felt something pressed against his back then turned to see Keffi, master drummer of Eritia and his drumming instructor with his djembe.

“Shall we, marabout?” he asked.

Pandare snatched the djembe from Keffi then tossed the shoulder strap over his head. Keffi swung his djembe from behind his back and the two immediately fell into a playful rhythm, matching the cadence of the music. The dancers and singers gathered around them, their exuberance infecting the entire pad. Soon troupes from other planets danced their way, joining in the impromptu festivity.

“Dare!” Dipe shouted.

Pandare turned toward Dipe’s voice and saw his brother with a bottle of palm wine in his hand and a mischievous grin on his face. Pandare drummed with one hand while taking the bottle from Dipe then drinking.

“Now it’s a party!” he said.

He glanced at Yato, who was in the middle of a friendly dance competition with the others. She was a master dancer, but because of their status would not be allowed to perform in the public celebrations. She would, however, participate in the Lineage celebration within the compound, which was a more dignified affair.

A booming voice cut into the good times.

“Celebrants. While we respect your enthusiasm, we must ask you to clear the pads to make room for other arrivals. Please proceed to your shuttles for departure. The people of Ziara welcome your energy.”

Pandare and Keffi danced and drummed in sync, leading the others to the open-air shuttles. They remained on the pad as the troupe filed into the shuttles, continuing to dance and sing. Once everyone was on board they climbed in, making their way to the front of the vehicle. As the shuttles lifted off the pad, they continued to play, leading the carousal into the heart of Ziara.

The shuttles cruised in second level traffic, passing between skyscrapers decorated as flamboyant as the revelers. Their music clashed with that of the street musicians and singers, with each group briefly coming into sync as they encountered each other then reverting to their own rhythms as the groups separated. The songs they played were traditional homages that everyone in the Empire knew by heart, sung to them as children then taught in schools throughout their lives. They were as important a part of the Empire as the Alaafin. Pandare felt the swell of pride as he played despite himself. A brief glance into the faces of his Eritian entourage stole that feeling. His mission was to save his people; he had to stay focused. He continued drumming, but now the smile on his face was a façade.

The shuttles arrived at the entertainment compound sooner than anyone anticipated. A collective sigh of disappointment came from the revelers as the crafts touched down before the entrance. Although the dancers and musicians continued to play, their energy was subdued. A shrill horn cut through the noise; Pandare looked to see a family limousine waiting. He looked to his siblings and they frowned.

“I was hoping we would go inside with the dancers,” Ifeyato said.

“Duty calls,” Ogundipe replied.

“Yes, it does,” Pandare confirmed. He gave his drum back to Keffi.

“Thank you drum master. It was good to be under your tutelage again, if only for a moment.”

Keffi patted his shoulders. “There was no teaching this time, only drumming between equals. You will honor me when you play for your family.”

The siblings filed to the limo, shedding their festive mood along the way. The limo lifted then continued toward the city center. The height of the buildings diminished as they neared the core, eventually revealing a wide area that resembled a park. A roundabout of traffic circled the greenery, dispersing vehicles to other sections of Ziara. Very few craft entered the core. This was the Lineage Grove, the section of the city reserved for the descendants of the One Million and home of the Alaafin. Only during Customs were the other inhabitants of Ziara allowed within, a select few who has served the Alaafin well or earned distinctions through service to the Empire. The official ceremony would be broadcasted throughout the planet to stadiums packed with watchers and revelers.

The limo entered through the gates then descended below tree level, skimming the pavements with its lift jets. Moments later the walls of Grimes Compound came into view. The gates were opened and the limo entered. It touched down before the compound complex, the doors lifting to release its passengers. Ogundipe and Ifeyato exited quickly. Pandare hesitated, taking a moment to gather himself before stepping out of the limo. He tipped the driver then followed his brother and sister up the stairs to the entrance.

The lobby of the compound complex resembled that of a five-star hotel. Pandare gazed at the gaily dressed people, realizing that everyone mingling before him were related to him in some way. Some of the revelers worked their way to the three and began the introductions. Pandare shook hands and grinned but he was terrible at remembering names so he knew the greetings were a waste of time. The only relatives he would remember would be those he spent a good amount of time with, which if he was lucky would not be many.

Baba cut a path through the relatives. It was one of the rare times Pandare was happy to see him.

“I hope you got it all out of you,” he said.

“Yes, we did,” Dipe said.

“Speak for yourself,” Yato replied.

Baba gave them all cards.

“Our suite is on the 81st floor,” he said. “You each have a separate room. Your Nana is waiting for you.”

The three began walking to the shutes, but Baba stopped Pandare.

“What?” he asked.

“The Elders, remember?” Baba replied.

Pandare cursed under his breath.

“Follow me,” Baba said.

Pandare and Baba exited the complex then walked to a three-story building adjacent to the complex. Two uniformed guards flanked the entrance, their arms folded behind their backs, their eyes locked forward. Pandare surmised their postures were more relaxed most of the year, but this was Customs and everyone was on their best behavior. The security scan showered them with blue light a few meters from the door; the guards checked their wrists screens then looked at them with smiles.

“Welcome Elder and Marabout Grimes,” the man on the right said. “The elders are expecting you.”

The guards opened the doors and they entered. The receptionist waited for them, a young man with a bald head, his traditional suit fitting tight on his muscled frame.

“Elder, Marabout, welcome to Ziara Follow me, please.”

The receptionist led them into the Elders’ chamber. The wise persons of the Grimes lineage sat in the seats in a semi-circle before the Ancestors Tree. The massive tree was one of many specifically bred to act as the spiritual link between each lineage and their ancestors. The building only contained the trunk; the branches and leaves thrived outside the building. The podium before the tree was empty; Pandare broke from his father then proceed to it. He grasped the sides of the podium before looking into the group. Pandare was not the first or only Grimes Marabout; his lineage was one of the first of the One Million to serve the Empire in the role of planet administrator. He was the most recent and one of a few that had been born and raised on the planet that he oversaw. As such there were doubts among the Elders about the loyalty and sincerity of Outborns like himself, uncertainties that in his case were well founded.

“I am honored to be in your presence, great Elders,” he began. “You are the strength of our lineage, and the foundation on which the Empire stands. May you forever guide us toward greatness.”

The Elders in response. At least his greeting sounded sincere. An elderly woman seated on the lowest level directly opposite Pandare stood, her opulent dress displaying her grace and her status. Nana Opeyemi was the eldest of the Elders, a woman known for her wit and intelligence. She was also stern and straightforward and was not easily swayed.

“Welcome, Pandare,” she said. “Your words honor us. Laibon speaks well of you, as do all parents speak of their children. But today we will try to be honest.”

There was a ripple of laughter among the Elders. Pandare did not smile.

“We hear there are issues on Eritia,” Nana Opeyemi said.

“Yes,” Pandare replied. “As you know, Eritia is a level three planet. The terra-forming that supports the planet is vital to sustaining life. For years the solar deflectors have been failing. The result is many regions of the planet have become uninhabitable. Weather patterns are also shifting. We’ve been forced to relocated communities and ask for food assistance from other Lineage planets.”

“Have you petitioned the Imperial Engineers for assistance?”

Pandare tried not to roll his eyes. Nana Opeyemi and everyone in the chamber knew the situation. Answering her questions was a waste of time.

“Yes,” he finally said. “Our requests have gone unanswered. If they would come and not only repair the panels but train our technicians, we would need their assistance only once.”

“Interesting,” Nana Opeyemi said. “We applaud your efforts, Pandare. You have worked admirably under difficult conditions. You and your family are to be commended.”

Pandare felt a nervous rumble in his stomach. Something was amiss. Nana Opeyemi turned to face the Elders.

“We are all aware of our Most Honored Ziara Cassad and her dream to reclaim the stars. For over ten centuries her ambition has guided the Empire and resulted in the Alifia. Unfortunately, we must also acknowledge that some worlds are beyond salvation.”

Pandare was stunned by Nana Opeyemi words.

“The resources of the Empire are vast, but they are not unlimited. Planets like Eritia pose a strain on those resources, a burden that the Empire and our Lineage cannot afford. Therefore, I propose that we submit to the Alaafin that Eritia be declared unsalvageable and that her inhabitants be dispersed among more sustainable planets within our Lineage system.”

“No!” Pandare shouted.

The chamber fell silent. Nana Opeyemi turned to face Pandare.

“You disagree?” she asked.

“Yes,” Pandare replied. “This doesn’t have to be…”

Nana Opeyemi raise her hand and Pandare fell silent.

“This is not a discussion, marabout,” she said. “We have debated the situation and the solution has been offered to the Alaafin and agreed upon. The matter is over.”

“But what about the Eritians?” Pandare asked.

“From what the reports tell us, and you confirm, the planet is dying. The Eritians should be happy that they will be relocated to planets more suitable for survival.

“But Eritia is their home!”

Nana Opeyemi’s eyes narrowed. He glanced at Baba, who quickly looked away. Then she trained her eyes back on Pandare.

“The Empire is their home, and Ziara is yours,” she said. “You would do well to remember that.”

The elders stood then filed out the room, each casting a disparaging glance at Pandare. Pandare remained at the podium, trying to process what had just occurred.

“Son…”

In just a few minutes the fate of Eritia had been judged and the sentence pronounced.

“Son? Can you hear me?”

Two hundred and seventy million people would be taken from the only home they’ve ever known and scattered throughout unfamiliar worlds.

“Son! Look at me!”

Pandare twisted his head to look at Baba.

“Did you know this was going to happen?” he asked.

“Let’s go back to the compound,” baba said. “We’ll talk in our quarters.”

Baba came to the podium then grasped his arm near the elbow. He let his father guide him back to the family compound, through the crowds of relatives then onto the lift. He was completely silent as they reached the 81st floor. Baba then led him to their suite. The door recognized Baba then opened. Baba guided Pandare to the nearest chair.

“Sit down,” he said.

Pandare sat. Baba hurried away for a minute then returned. He sat beside Pandare on the sofa then placed two shot glasses on the table and a bottle of Ziaran bourbon. Pandare grabbed the bottle and opened it. He poured and downed four shots before his mind slowed enough to speak.

“Did you know about, Baba?” he asked.

Baba poured a shot of bourbon then tossed it into his mouth. He wasn’t as jaded to drinking; the liquor caused him to cough.

“I did,” he said. “The plan has been in place for a long time now.”

Pandare glared at Baba. He couldn’t speak, because the words that would come from his mouth would be far from respectful. Baba poured another shot of bourbon then sipped it.

“What I’m going to tell you does not leave this room. Only the Elders know this, not even you Nana. No other marabouts know this, either.”

“So why are you telling me?” Pandare said.

“Because I’m trying to keep you from doing something stupid,” Baba replied. “The Cassad Alifia collapsed a long time ago. The Empire keeps up appearances, but there is war raging across the Known. The Aliens have formed an alliance and are putting up a strong resistance. Some of the outer planets are fighting as well. The Empire have used their citizens as soldiers and the toll has been heavy. It’s only a matter of time before the entire Empire knows what we know unless our forces can contain the threat. Most Imperial resources have been focused on this issue. That’s why we won’t get our technicians.”

“And that’s why we’re evacuating the planet?”

Baba emptied his shot glass. He stared as he pinched the top of the glass between his fingers and rolled it around the bottom edges.

“No. We have reason to believe that opposition forces are edging closer to our region. Eritia may become our next battlefield.”

Pandare settled back into his seat, letting Baba’s words sink in. This was much worse than he imagined.

“Then why not tell the truth?” he finally said. “Let the Eritians decide what they want to do. They can either stay and fight or evacuate. If they choose to evacuate the process would be more orderly because everyone would know the threat.”

“That’s not our decision,” Baba replied. “It is for the Alaafin to decide.”

“Eritia is their home,” he said. “It’s my home. It’s our home. I’m more Eritian than I’ll ever be Ziaran.”

Baba shook his head. “That’s the one mistake your nana and I made. We should have sent the three of you to be raised in the family compound. You would have a better sense of who you are, which is a citizen of the Empire. But we were selfish. We wanted you near us.”

Pandare drank another shot. “I disagree. You raised us on our home, and now it’s in danger. Is there nothing else we can do?”

Baba shook his head. “No. The Elders have decided. The Alaafin will have their decision after Customs and he will accept it. Once that is complete, plans for evacuation will begin.”

“And I must be the one to execute them,” Pandare finished. “They will hate me for it.”

“They probably will,” Baba replied. He stood then brushed the wrinkles from his suit.

“I’m going down to fellowship with our blood,” he said. “You can come whenever it suits you. I know you have a lot to think about.”

Baba left the suite. Pandare remained, finishing the bourbon. He stood then swayed, catching himself by grabbing the back of the chair. It was probably a bad idea for him to go down but he wasn’t going to sit in the suite brooding. Tomorrow he would think. For the moment, he would try to forget.

As he stepped from the lift onto the main floor the celebration was in full swing. Music shifted through the room, muted by the hum of conversation. The dance floor was packed with celebrants. Ifeyato was the center of attention as always, dazzling everyone with her skills. To Pandare’s surprise Ogundipe danced with her, something he rarely did in public. He was a good dancer; with training he could have been almost as good as Yato. Pandare was the one who stumbled about despite his drumming abilities. It was a mystery he was never able to solve.

“Pandare!”

He cringed when he heard Nana’s voice. The conversation with Baba was enough for one night. To suffer through Nana’s highbrow diatribes might set him off. Best to ignore her and make his way outside.

“Pandare! I have someone for you to meet.”

He sighed then turned about. Walking beside his mother was a woman whose beauty sobered him. She was obviously not a relative; her flowing dress pattern suggested another lineage, one he was not familiar with. Her headwrap matched her dress, and her glowing smile was a perfect match for her bright amber eyes that glowed like jewels within her ebony skin.

“This is my son Pandare,” Nana said. “He’s Marabout of Eritia.”

The woman extended her hand and Pandare took it.

“Hello, Pandare,” she said with a deep smooth voice. “I’m Semira Baraza. Pleased to meet you. I must say that your nana’s description was modest.”

“Really? Usually, she makes people think I’m Khalid Cassad.”

Nana frowned as Pandare and Semira laughed.

“She’s never talked of you before,” Pandare said. “Although I’m sure her description would have fallen far short.”

“You are too kind,” Semira said.

“I see I’m no longer needed here,” Nana said. She strolled away triumphantly.

“You know this is a set-up, right?” Pandare said.

“Not really,” Semira replied. “I asked your nana to introduce us.”

“Well now,” Pandare said as he smiled. “Why would you want to meet me?”

“Because I saw you the last Customs,” Semira said.

“That was ten years ago,” he said. “I was eighteen.”

“So was I,” Semira said. “And I was smitten.”

“Excuse me for saying, but I think you’re lying. No way I would have seen you and not remembered.”

“Thank you, but I wasn’t much to look at back then,” Semira said. “I blossomed.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Pandare replied.

“Would you like to go for a walk?” Semira asked.

“I’d love to,” Pandare replied.

The two of them quickly exited the compound. The streets were well lit and filled with people strolling, eager to take advantage of the cool weather.

“I’m glad you came,” Semira said. “I was dying to finally get to know you.”

“There’s not much to know,” Pandare said. “I’m marabout of Eritia. That’s about it.”

“That in itself is intriguing. Such a huge responsibility at such a young age. Planet admin is usually a job for an Elder.”

“True,” Pandare replied. “Baba thought I was capable, and he and Nana were eager to get back to Ziara. I can’t blame them, though. This planet is intoxicating.”

Semira laughed. “You say that like this is your first time here.”

“Ziara is a stranger to me,” Pandare said. “I was born and raised on Eritia. As far as I’m concerned, Eritia is my home.”

Semira’s smile faded.

“Don’t say that too loudly,” she replied. “You are One Million.”

“I’ve been warned,” Pandare said. “But you seem like the kind of person who can keep secrets.”

“Lucky for you.”

“So, tell me about Semira,” Pandare said.

“Not much to tell,” she replied. “I’m financial administrator for our family compound. I inherited the position from my mother. I have three sisters and two brothers. Our lineage is mostly administration and finance. We’re not world hoppers like you Grimes, although I have visited a few of the Core Worlds.”

“You say that as if my life is glamorous. Believe me, it’s not.”

“So you say. You should invite me to Eritia and let me decide for myself.”

Semira’s words casted a shroud over Pandare’s mood. Soon there would be no Eritia to share with anyone.

“I think it’s time we went back,” he said.

“Was it something I said?” Semira asked.

“No, it’s just we are supposed to be here celebrating our families.”

Semira waved her hand. “I see mine all the time.”

Pandare forced a smile. “I don’t. Let’s get back.”

Semira continued to small talk but Pandare’s mood wouldn’t allow him to enjoy her company. They said goodnight outside the compound then Pandare headed for the suite, ignoring the waves and gestures of his family. He went to his room, grabbed the bourbon bottle then drank himself to sleep.


* * *


Pandare woke the next day hungry and groggy. He sat up then massaged his scalp, wishing the day before hadn’t occurred despite meeting Semira. The fate of Eritia hung around his neck like a ponderous weight, draining whatever energy he had mustered for a meeting with the Imperial Engineers. There was no need for the meeting now; the Elders had decided, and the Alaafin would approve. If he had his way, he would board a private ship and travel back to Eritia. But this was Customs. No excuse to return home would be good enough.

Home. That was what Eritia was to him. He knew every inch of its surface and every emotion of its people. It was an amalgam of cultures, a world he cared much more than Ziara or any of the Core Worlds. He couldn’t just let it end. Not without a fight.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on his door.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Dipe. Did you forget what today is?”

“What day?”

“Libations. Hurry up. Everyone is waiting.”

“Fek!” Pandare whispered. He clambered from the bed.

“I’ll be right out!” he shouted.

He took a quick shower then brushed his teeth while the jets dried his body. His outfit hung in his closet which he donned quickly. After a quick grooming he emerged from his room with a forced smile.

“No breakfast for you,” Nana said. “The families are assembling before the compound. Lucky for you we don’t have to take the shuttles. Come now.”

The family formed a line behind Nana, Pandare the last. He grabbed a glass of juice and chugged it down as he passed the kitchenette then felt something warm shoved in his hand. He looked down to see a sausage link wrapped in toast; Yato winked at him.

“So, you won’t starve,” she said. “You drink too much.”

Pandare ate the sandwich then took another swig of juice.

“If you only knew,” he replied with a full mouth.

A massive crowd stood before the compound. Shuttles landed in precise intervals then whisked away to the Ancestors Groves filled with Grimes.

“This way,” Nana said.

A personal shuttle waited for them beyond the main gathering, gullwing door lifted. They entered then sat, Nana and Baba sitting together opposite their children. Seconds later they were cruising over the compound to the Grove. The massive forest came into view minutes later, a green moat surrounding the Alaafin’s compound, a living symbol of the Empire’s legacy. The shuttle landed at the edge of the forest. Stations were set up for families to collect their gourds filled with water from the New Joliba River, the waterway that flowed around the island mausoleum of Cornelius and Sheila Ziara. Pandare and his siblings waited for Nana to take the gourd. Instead, she looked to Pandare.

“Come, Pandare,” she said. “You will pour the libations today.”

What should have been an honor felt like an additional burden to Pandare. He took the gourd from Nana then stood in line for water. The priest said words Pandare did not understand as he filled the gourd then handed it back to Pandare. He ambled back to his family.

“I don’t know the way,” he said.

Nana peeled the homing chip from the back of her neck then pressed it against Pandare’s.

“You’ll feel dizzy for a moment, but you’re used to that,” she said.

Dupe and Yato laughed at Nana’s swipe and Pandare glared. The connection adjustment wasn’t as severe as he expected; maybe Nana was right. As he peered into the grove a trail of blue luminescence extended before him. He followed it; his family close behind. As they walked Nana began singing a song they had sung since childhood, its words meaningless to him until he attended his first Customs. As they ventured deeper into the woods the refrain was taken up by those around them, chanting in unison the words that united them as a people. Families broke off as they reached their lineage tree, kneeling as libations were poured and the litany of honor recited before the living representation of those long past. The numbers thinned Pandare and his family neared the center of the glade. Even the forest was arranged in hierarchal order, with those families whose lineage was eligible for consideration of Alaafin closer to the center. The Grimes were among them, although no Alaafin had ever been chosen from any other family but the Cassads.

The family tree glowed like sunlight before Pandare, the light so intense he was forced to remove the chip. He stepped forward then recited the homage, pouring libations three times for the past, the present and the future. As he recited the words, he felt no emotions except the emptiness that festered since he learned of Eritia’s fate. The ceremony complete, he reattached the chip then followed the path out of the grove.

“The ancestors are satisfied,” Nana said as they climbed into the shuttle.

“How do you know?” Pandare asked.

“Because I feel it,” Nana replied. “If you doubt me, ask the babalawo.”

Pandare didn’t reply. He said nothing during the ride back to the compound, his family chatting about the upcoming ceremony. Yato was especially chatty, for she would finally get a chance to dance before the family. When they arrived at their suite Pandare went to his room then linked to a jump line. Moments later Sheila’s holo appeared above his desk, a surprised look on her face.

“Pandare? You’re the last person I expected to contact me.”

“Hi Sheila. Just called to check on things.”

“Shouldn’t you be somewhere dancing?”

“It’s morning. We just returned from Libations. The party starts later. Hey, I need you to do something for me.”

“So, now you’re working, too?” Sheila rolled her eyes. “Someone needs to explain to you the concept of celebrating.”

“Ha, Ha,” Pandare said. “Look, I need you to initiate a census.”

Sheila looked puzzled. “We just did one two years ago.”

“That was an estimate,” Pandare replied. “I need a thorough census. We can start with neural links, but we need to follow up with physical confirmation. And I need a count of fringe populations near the Dead Zones as well.”

“There’s no way we’ll get an accurate count in the Zones,” Sheila said. “People living there don’t want to be found.”

“True. We can schedule periodic drone flybys with thermal scans. I want to pay close attention to possible settlement areas.”

“Pandare, what’s going on?”

“Nothing to worry about,” he replied. “Just want to get the jump on some things. We’ll talk when I return, okay?”

“Okay. Now go and enjoy yourself.”

“Sure. Bye”

Pandare cut the connection. Any chance of him enjoying Customs ended with the meeting with the Elders. The best he could do is keep himself numb until he returned to Eritia. That meant a lot of bourbon. He changed clothes then left the suite in search of it.

Pandare was well lit by the time the family went to attend the communal meal in Grimes Hall. The tables displayed a myriad of selections dating back from before there was an empire, recipes pulled from the Cassad mausoleum data banks. Pandare was especially fond of the various rice creations; jollof, jambalaya, and djon-djon. Most were mixed with vegetables and meats, similar to Eritian fare. The rest of the family indulged in traditional Ziara cuisine; collard greens, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and white rice covered with brown gravy, all washed down with sweetened tea. The conversation was lively; but as always Pandare chose to stay silent.

No sooner did they finish their meal did Elder Makadisa Aguillard approach the table. She was a tall, lithe woman, a dancer known throughout the Empire for her elegance and power. Nana and Elder Aguillard had grown up together and were as close as two people could be without being sisters.

“Tisa,” she said to Nana, using her oriki name. “I’ve come to steal your children. The ceremony will begin soon.”

Yato wiped her mouth the jumped from her seat.

“I’m ready!” she said.

Pandare continued to eat. Nana’s eyes narrowed.

“Dare?”

Pandare ate another forkful of djon-djon as he stood then followed the women to the performance arena. He acknowledged the other drummers, relatives he did not know, then received a djembe from the Elder Mabili, the lineage master drummer. Mabili pushed his dreads away from his narrow face and frowned at Pandare.

“Your baba says you are an excellent drummer,” he said.

“My baba loves me,” Pandare replied.

Elder Mabili laughed until he coughed.

“I like you. Stand next to me,” he said. “We’ll see if his love is deserved.”

The drummers gathered at their platform. Pandare climbed the stairs to the highest level with the master drummers. The others scrutinized Pandare; since he was not raised among them, they had no idea of his talents. Elder Mabili took his place at the center of the platform, taking time to gaze at the other drummers and the crowd filling the stands. He spoke into the mic.

“Are the dancers ready?” He waited for the response then nodded his head.

“Ago!” he shouted.

“Ame!” the drummer replied.

“Let us wake the ancestors!”

Elder Mabili struck the drumhead three time then plunged into the call cadence. Pandare knew all the traditional rhythms and he joined the other drummers as they summoned their living and spiritual relatives into the arena. Pandare lost himself in the sensation. Drumming was one of the few activities that could take his mind off his current worries. The lineage answered the drummers’ call, dancing to their seats then swaying to the steady rhythm. Elder Mabili watched with a keen eye, keeping the pace until the stadium was filled.

“Time to call the dancers,” he said. “Pandare? I give you the honor.”

Pandare nodded. With a nod of Mabili’s head the other drummers ceased playing. Pandare continued, picking up the pace with a new cadence, but not the beat the others expected. It was a rhythm from Eritia, one he’d created with the local drummers. Mabili and the others looked stunned for a moment, then smiled and nodded their heads in approval. There was nothing skilled drummers loved more than a new cadence. Mabili joined him, their conversation in perfect time. As the other drummers joined in the dancers entered the stadium in a swirl of colors and energy. Yato led them in as a rousing cheer filled the air. Pandare looked at his sister and she looked back, performing a move that said, ‘I see you, brother.’ Pandare injected a quick roll on his djembe that replied, ‘I see you, sister.’

The drummers and dancers performed for another thirty minutes, the celebrants dancing with them while singing the best they could. Pandare closed his eyes as the emotion swept him up. The ancestors had come, their spirits entering all in attendance, raising the celebration to another level. Pandare lost his sense of time, his hands controlled by spirits beyond his own. At that moment he felt more Ziaran than he’d ever felt in his entire life. This was the significance of Customs. It was the reason the Empire insisted on participation from all members of The One Million. It was one thing to study the history of the lineage, but it was another thing to feel it.

Pandare felt a light touch on his shoulder and turned to see Elder Mabili’s smiling visage.

“Well done, Master Pandare,” he said. “But it is time to continue the ceremony.”

Elder Mabili took over the lead drumming, slowing the pace until the dancers marched from the stadium floor and took their seats with their families. He looked to Pandare and gave him an approving nod; with a final flourish Pandare ended the drumming. The other drummers looked to him as well, their wide smiles conveying their support. Any doubts of his place among him were erased by his performance. He was indeed a master drummer, a credit to his lineage.

A single steady drumbeat echoed from outside the stadium. Everyone came to their feet as the stadium fell silent. A boy and girl entered side by side, striking their drums in unison. They symbolized the future and immortality of the lineage. Following them were the Elders, representing the wisdom of the past. As they filed in, Pandare’s interest waned. His eyes focused on Nana Opeyemi, the elder leading the procession, the elder who had condemned Eritia. The bitterness returned and he reached for a bottle of bourbon that wasn’t there. He was tempted to say to hell with the ceremony and return to the suite, but the embarrassment to the family would be unforgivable. So, he sat through it all, through the reading of the founding ancestors, through the praise of the Cassad lineage and Alaafin Ziara, the songs of the Revival, every last bit of it. By the time the ceremony ended he was boiling with a mixture of fury and helplessness which reflected in his drumming. He felt Elder Mabili’s eyes on him as he played but he didn’t care. The emotion had to be released. Better the drums than someone’s face.

He was silent as the family rode back to the suite. Yato and Dipe tried to get him in the talk. As soon as they settled into the suite, he changed clothes then headed for the door.

“I’m going out,” he said.

“Where?” Nana asked.

“Out,” Pandare replied. “Don’t wait up.”

Pandare was out of the door and into the lift before anyone could reply. He nodded to his relatives as he hurried through the lobby. He hailed a shuttle the climbed in.

“Destination?” the shuttle asked.

“Greater City,” he replied.

“Specific destination?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“I’m sorry, but I need a specific destination.”

“Tourist district,” Pandare said.

The shuttle lifted then sped away. Pandare felt his tension recede once they exited the One Million compound. He needed some space. He couldn’t escape Customs, but at least he could go someplace where the experience was less intense. The shuttle reached the district, its descent slowed by the dense crowd. Pandare pressed his palm on the pay shield then exited into the throng, making his way to the nearest bar. The patrons were gathered around the view screens, watching reruns of the various lineage ceremonies.

“So much for getting away,” he said under his breath.

He moved into a narrow space at the bar then flagged down a bartender.

“Bourbon,” he said.

“What kind?” the bartender asked.

“You got Eritian?”

The bartender whistled. “You’re going for the good stuff. It’s gonna cost you.”

“Did you see me blink?” Pandare asked.

The bartender laughed. “Eritian it is.”

He glided away then returned moments later with the bottle of Barren’s Best and a shot glass. Pandare grinned.

“Looks like today is my lucky day.”

“It is. Shipment came in three days ago.”

Pandare shook his head. Apparently, someone on their crew was making a little extra money. He’d keep it to himself; no reason to ruin a trip over a little entrepreneurship. He paid the bartender with a generous tip then found a vacant table. He was drinking a second shot when someone approached him.

“Eritian bourbon? You must be from off-planet.”

The man was tall and wide with a beard that brushed his chest. He was also obviously drunk.

“I am,” Pandare replied.

“I figured. No self-respecting Ziaran would drink that off-world swill during Customs.”

The man lifted his bottle, a fifth of Ziara Mist.

“This is what you should be drinking, not that.”

“To each his own,” Pandare replied. He poured another shot. He was about to drink it when the man grabbed his wrist.

“Can’t let you do that, friend. Not during Customs.”

“Get your Ziaran hands off me,” Pandare said.

The man’s grip tightened.

“You say that like it’s an insult . . . friend.”

“It is,” Pandare replied.

The man swung at Pandare’s head with his bottle. Pandare ducked the swing then punched the man’s jaw with his free hand. The drunk man let go of his wrist and stumbled a few steps before regaining his balance.

“Eritian bastard!” he shouted as he lunged.

It wasn’t a fair fight. Pandare was well versed in martial arts as all people of lineage were. Pandare had taken his training further than most, for he had once entertained enlisting in the Edo, the Ziaran elite special forces. He felt invigorated as he pummeled the man senseless, finally able to release all the anger and frustration burning a hole in him. When the man’s friends arrived Pandare took them on eagerly, beating them down just as easy. Constables charged in to take him into custody and he beat them down as well. It was when the Ogendengbe entered, dressed in the traditional red uniform and cap, that his enthusiasm waned. Pandare had barely raised his hand when the warrior’s snatched the kpinga from his waist and threw it. Luckily for Pandare it was set to stun. He fell, unconscious before he hit the floor.

Pandare expected to wake up in a jail cell. Instead, his head rested on a pillow. As he came to his head ached and his body tingled from the aftereffects of the kpinga. He was laying on a bed in a hotel room. He sat up then rubbed the back of his head, trying to massage the pain away.

“I need a drink,” he said.

“There will be no more of that,” Baba answered.

He looked to see Baba sitting in the chair opposite his bed. To say he was angry was an understatement.

“What in Darkness is wrong with you?” he said.

“I got drunk and got out of hand,” Pandare said. “I’m sorry. I’ll explain it on the way to the compound.”

“You’re not going to the compound,” Baba said.

“What?”

“I said you’re not going to the compound. Apparently, you decided to insult the patrons of the bar you visited. You shared your opinion of Ziarans.”

“I might have said a few things,” Pandare said. “Nothing serious.”

“It wouldn’t have been had it not been during Customs and the fact that you’re One Million,” Baba said.

“So, what does this mean?” Pandare asked.

Baba’s expression changed from anger to worry.

“You’ve been summoned to the Alaafin’s Compound.”

The pain at Pandare’s spine crept through him like a chill.

“It wasn’t that serious!” he blurted.

“That’s not for any of us to say now,” Baba said. “A lift is waiting to take you.”

Pandare’s throat dried. “Are you going with me, Baba?”

“No,” Baba answered. “I asked, but the Alaafin refused. He said you are a marabout. You must speak for yourself.”

“Baba,” Pandare said. “I need your help.”

“I have been speaking with the Elders since we discovered you were arrested. They have been hesitant to help.”

“So, I’m truly alone on this. So much for lineage,” Pandare commented.

“One insult for one day is enough,” Baba retorted. “I will try again. This time I will only speak to Nana Opeyemi. If I can persuade her the others will fall in line.”

“Then I’m done,” Pandare said. “Nana Opeyemi does not think well of me.”

“But she does think well of me,” Baba replied.

The door swished opened and two Edo entered. Neither carried guns, but both had kpingas hanging from their waists. The men said nothing; they stepped aside as Pandare stood then walked between them to the awaiting shuttle. He was relieved it was not a security shuttle. He had caused enough embarrassment for him and his family.

The shuttle jetted over the lineage abodes to the Alaafin’s compound. Pandare thought he knew the size of it, but as they drew closer the enormity of it settled in. Anger resurfaced as well; this was what Eritian libations paid for. The estate would be impressive at half its size. The main building was a small mountain, a massive structure that dwarfed the shuttle as it cruised toward it. A bay door opened, and the shuttle entered. Moments later it landed on the pad. The lift door rose and Pandare was greeted by more warriors. These were armed, Shaka pulse rifles strapped across their torso. The woman standing between them was dressed in traditional Cassad kente, royal blue and white woven in strips then sewn together as it was done millennia ago, at least according to Samake’s teachings. There was a look of distaste on her hard face.

“Pandare Grimes, I am Afua Durobe. Follow me please.”

The woman turned and marched away. Pandare followed, flanked by the compound warriors.

“It should please you to know that Elder Opeyemi spoke to the Alaafin on your behalf.”

“I am grateful,” Pandare replied.

“You should be. Otherwise, I would be taking you to the compound prison.”

Afua’s words jolted him. The Alaafin initially had no intentions of meeting him. He was planning to imprison him had it not been for Nana Opeyemi.

“I would advise you to choose your words carefully when you answer him,” Afua said.

“I will,” Pandare replied.

Afua paused then turned to face him.

“Be sure that you do. Your future and the future of your lineage depends on it.”

“Why are helping me?” Pandare asked.

“I’m not,” Afua said. “I’m performing my duty. Everyone who has displeased the Alaafin is assigned an advocate to counsel them on proper behavior. Personally, I find your actions disturbing, but that will not deter me from serving my Alaafin. You should take note.”

“I will.”

The door before them slid open and they entered the compound. Pandare stared at the corridor walls, each section decorated with the lettering of various languages said to have existed on Old Earth. They entered the lift at the end of the hallway, taking it up to the highest floor. The lift halted but the door did not open.

“When you come before the Alaafin you will prostrate before him,” Afua said. “You will not rise until he grants you permission.”

“Prostrate?” Pandare asked.

Afua turned to him, her eyes narrowed. “Your parents did teach you how to prostrate, didn’t they?”

“Of course,” Pandare replied. “I thought that was old customs.”

For the first time since they met Pandare saw a break in Afua’s demeanor as she frowned.

“It is what this Alaafin wishes,” she replied.

The door opened onto a wide atrium filled with plants. A granite brick walkway extended from the lift, ending at a circular platform where the Alaafin sat on his gilded stool. The walkway was lined with warriors, each holding their kpingas close to their chest. They turned their heads in unison, looking at Pandare with intense eyes. It was a display meant to intimidate, and it worked. They marched through the gauntlet, Pandare’s nervousness growing with each step. As they neared the Alaafin another person entered the room to stand beside the Alaafin. They walked closer and Pandare recognized him; it was Khalid Cassad. The heir to the Stool wore his military uniform, striking an imposing appearance beside his father. Pandare knew if he left this room, his life would change for the worst.

Afua halted a few meters away from the Stool then prostrated. Pandare imitated her motions as did their escort.

“May the ancestors continue to watch over us,” Afua said.

“And we continue to honor them,” the Alaafin replied. His voice rumbled with the confidence of one born to rule. Afua stood with his words as did the others. Pandare was the last to rise, his hands trembling at his sides. The Alaafin studied him for a few moments before speaking.

“So Ziara is an insult,” he said.

Pandare was about to speak when he noticed Khalid Cassad shaking his head. Pandare lowered his gaze instead.

“I know what you will say,” the Alaafin continued. “You were drunk. You were not yourself. You answered in anger, not thoughtfully. All those excuses would be acceptable, except you are One Million. You should know better. You were raised better.”

The Alaafin stood. Ose Cassad was tall with a muscular body that had yet to show the wear of time.

“Fifteen centuries ago, our people emerged from Darkness because of the gift our ancestors left us,” he said. Alaafin Ziara, the Blessed One, returned from the Cassad tombs with Djele Samake, who restored the knowledge that was lost in the Darkness. She gave us the spark with which we resurrected the Known, but to you her name is an affront.”

Pandare remained silent. Afua said he wouldn’t be sentenced, but the Alaafin’s tone indicated worse.

“When your baba told me you and your siblings would be educated on Eritia, I was not pleased,” the Alaafin said. “But your family is high among the Million and well respected. It was for that reason I allowed him to do as he wished. I see that was a mistake, at least with you.”

The Alaafin sat. Pandare lifted his head, his eyes meeting Khalid’s. The heir shook his head again.

“Eritia is a failure,” the Alaafin said. “I wonder how much of that is your fault.”

Pandare’s fear was washed away by a wave of anger. He jerked his head up, looking directly at the Alaafin.

“I’ve done everything within my power to keep Eritia viable,” he said. “We have not received Imperial Tech teams in over thirty years. I have constantly and patiently petitioned for assistance and received none. I will accept the responsibility for its failure, but I will not accept it alone.”

The Alaafin laughed.

“You have your baba’s temper,” he said. “The only difference is that I like your baba. I promised Opeyemi I would not harm you and I will keep my promise. But you will remain on Ziara beyond this day, and you will never return again. Eritia’s libation will be increased in hopes that the ancestors will see your offerings as penance for your behavior. Be thankful for your relatives, Pandare Grimes. Be very thankful.”

The Alaafin nodded, and his warriors moved closer to Pandare. Afua prostrated and Pandare did the same. When they stood the advocate turned and walked away, Pandare and the others close behind. They were silent until they exited the chamber.

“He was harsher than I expected,” Afua said. “I did not expect you to be banished.”

Pandare didn’t answer. The banishment did not bother him. If he had his own way, he would have never set foot on Ziara. This was not his home. His concern was how it would affect his family. Their status among the lineages would certainly be diminished, as well as nana’s and baba’s ranking among the elders.

“You have nothing to say?” Afua asked.

“What difference would it make?” Pandare replied. “The Alaafin has spoken.”

“Then I see your punishment was well deserved, Pandare Grimes. Let us hope that as you realize the gravity of your transgression you will see the errors of your ways and respond accordingly. You are still young; you have time.”

Pandare spent the time returning to the lineage compound trying to decide how he would tell his parents the news. As the lift landed before the main building, he saw the word had preceded him. A crowd gathered outside, awaiting his arrival. He braced himself for their reaction, expecting a volley of curses. The craft touched down; as the door lifted Pandare was greeted by solemn drumming and words of sympathy. Guilt pushed down his shoulders and he lowered his head; he had let them down, but they lifted him up.

“You’re beginning to understand now,” Afua said. “You are family. You are a part of the Bright Empire, whether you claim it or not. The Alaafin’s judgement is harsh, but it is fair. Goodbye, Pandare Grimes.”

Pandare walked among his family, accepting their words and touches of sympathy. He rode the lift alone, preparing himself for meeting his family. He could already hear nana’s stern words and see baba’s disapproving stare. The door swished open and he trudged to their suite. He was reaching for the pad when the suite door swished aside and his family stood as if they knew he would enter at that moment. Yato rushed him then hugged him tight, her tears staining his shirt. Dupe joined the embrace.

“It’s not right, brother,” he whispered.

Pandare didn’t reply.

His siblings released him to the attentions of his parents. Nana shook her head as she approached him. Her puffy eyes revealed she’d been crying earlier.

“You have always been the difficult one,” she said. “But you do not deserve this.”

Pandare hugged nana and she cried.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I never wished to bring shame on the family.”

Baba grasped nana’s shoulders and gently pulled her way.

“Come now,” he said to Pandare. “You must pack.”

Baba followed him to his room then watched him as he put away his things. There were no words between them; the Alaafin had probably shared his anger with Baba as well, so there was nothing to say. The door chimed and Baba left the room to answer. When he returned there was a stunned look on his face.

“What?” Pandare asked. “Are they here already?”

“Not exactly,” Baba said.

He stepped aside and Khalid Cassad entered the room. Pandare was about to bow but Khalid waved his hand. He tilted his head toward Baba.

“Can we have a few minutes?” he asked.

“Of course!” Baba replied. He backed out the room and the door slid shut.

“Does the Alaafin have something more he wants from me?” Pandare asked.

“No,” Khalid replied. “This is a personal visit. I wanted you to know that I sympathize with you. It is difficult to be raised on a world, to rule its people and not put them as your first priority.”

“I’m glad you understand,” Pandare said. “Is it too much to ask that you explain this to the Alaafin?”

“Yes, it is,” Khalid said. “My baba sees the Empire much different than most of us. It is all the same to him. He is too high to see the small details. That is job of people like you and I. Loyalty to the empire is first and foremost in his mind, for it is the same as respect to the ancestors.”

Pandare’s patience disappeared. “So why are you here?”

“To offer my help,” Khalid replied.

“You can’t-or won’t-convince the Alaafin to rescind his decision. I don’t see what else you can do.”

“Let’s be honest,” Khalid said. “You no more care about this exile than you do for an ink bug on a windy day. If it weren’t for your family and its reputation you would have skipped out of the Palace with a smile on your face.”

Pandare grinned despite his mood.

“I’m here to offer my assistance with the deflectors.”

“You can replace them?” Pandare asked.

“No,” Khalid replied. “That is beyond my power. But I can spare a few military engineers and repair them. That will buy you some time.”

“Yes, it would,” Pandare said. “I thank you.”

Khalid waved his hand again.

“The Empire is stern, but it is not heartless.”

“You’ll make a fine Alaafin,” Pandare said.

It was Khalid’s turn to grin.

“It is a responsibility I don’t look forward to,” he said. “I wish you a comfortable trip home, Pandare Grimes.”

“Thank you,” Pandare said.

Khalid exited the room. It didn’t slip Pandare’s notice that he’d said home. He understood, even though he couldn’t do anything about the Alaafin’s decision. A small consolation at most. He finished packing.

Nana, Baba, Yato and Dupe pressed close to him in the lift and encircled him as he walked through the compound lobby. Most of his relatives had dispersed; those who remained shared sympathetic words. He stepped outside to see the limo waiting, flanked by Imperial guards. Pandare hugged his family.

“We will be back soon,” Baba said.

“You know where I’ll be,” Pandare replied.

“My son,” he said. “Always joking.”

They touched foreheads then Pandare went to the limo. The guards loaded his luggage then climbed onto their peds. The limo lifted then proceeded to the skyport. Pandare looked through the rear window, his family waving him goodbye. He took a long look at Ziara then settled into his new reality.


* * *


The military engineers arrived as Khalid promised. According to the team leader their work would give him an additional five years, but it was best to plan for three. Pandare was thankful for their service, but the deadline still loomed. He had yet to share the news with the population for fears of the violence it would stir. But he would have to soon. It was hardest to keep away from Sheila, although she had a sense of something being amiss. She was constantly asking him if everything was okay; he would smile and say yes, blaming his mood on a little too much to drink or some illness. One side effect of the news was he drank less. The burden of shutting down a failed planet absorbed all his time, leaving little time for inebriated distractions.

Pandare was shifting through population reports one afternoon when Sheila entered his office.

“There’s someone here to see you,” Sheila said. Concern framed her face and resonated in her voice.

“Who?” he asked.

“She won’t say,” Sheila replied.

“Then why the hell did you let her in?” Pandare asked.

“Because she’s lineage, and she’s carrying the Cassad imprint.”

Pandare’s eyes went wide.

“Give me a minute,” he said.

Pandare shut down his screen then fussed about his office. He stood behind his desk, grasping the back of his chair to steady his trembling hands.

“Send her in,” he said into his cell.

The woman entered his office and Pandare stepped away from his desk stunned.

“Semira?”

Semira grinned. “You remember me. Excellent.”

“Of course, I do. Please sit down.”

Semira took the seat before his desk.

“You look well, Pandare,” she said.

“You too,” he replied. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? I could have made arrangements.”

“Because I didn’t want you to know,” she replied. “I didn’t want anyone to know.”

“What’s going on?” Pandare asked. “Is there some sort of ban for travel to Eritia?”

“No, it’s nothing like that,” Semira replied. “I came to discuss a situation with you.”

Pandare leaned back into his chair.

“What’s going on, Semira?”

“Let’s go for a ride,” she said. “I’d love to see your home world.”

Semira’s expression conveyed her seriousness despite her light words.

“Sheila. I’m taking Semira on a tour. Can you hold my calls until I get back?”

“Sure,” Sheila said through his call piece. “Have fun. You deserve it.”

Pandare and Semira said nothing as they walked to the roof then boarded his lift.

“Tour,” Pandare said.

The lift rose from the pad then streaked away. For an hour they flew over the city then its outskirts, Semira gazing onto the sights below. She would look at him as if about to speak then turn away. Pandare’s patience finally waned.

“You know, you’re my only good memory from Customs,” Pandare said.

Semira smiled. “That’s nice to here.”

“But we didn’t spend enough time together to warrant this visit. So, why are you here?”

Semira took a deep breath before answering.

“I almost didn’t come,” she said. “I haven’t known you long, but you seem to be a person we can trust. I wasn’t sure I wanted to involve you in this, but the others insisted you deserved a choice.”

“The others? Semira, what by the ancestors is going on?”

Semira turned to face him.

“What I’m about to say cannot be unsaid. If you listen, you’ll be a part of it. Your life will be in danger and maybe that of your family. But Eritia will have a chance to survive.”

It was those last words that struck home for Pandare. A chance, any chance to save Eritia was worth the risk.

“Tell me,” Pandare asked.

“There are others like you that think the Empire has lost its direction,” Semira said.

“How do you know what I think?” Pandare asked.

“The details of your meeting with the Alaafin have been. You are a fool to many, but a hero to most.”

Pandare laughed. “You can’t be serious. Do I look like a hero to you? I’ve been banished to a doomed planet.”

“You spoke back to the Alaafin and you survived.”

“It wasn’t my doing,” Pandare said. “I was lucky.”

“That’s enough,” Semira said.

“What are you getting at?” Pandare asked.

“These others have come together…to resist,” she said.

A chill passed through Pandare.

“Resist? What do you mean by resist? And be careful how you answer.”

“They have formed a cooperative alliance. They are supplying each other with the resources needed to sustain the worlds without Empire assistance.”

Pandare sighed. “This would have been great news five years ago. I’ve been ordered to shut down Eritia. No alliance can change that.”

“You don’t have to,” Semira said. “We are prepared to respond.”

Pandare’s worry turned to fear.

“Respond how?”

“This is as much as I can share,” Semira said. “I must have your full commitment before I say anything else.”

“You’ve said too much already,” Pandare said. “If I were to tell the Alaafin everything you’ve said so far you and your friends would be in serious trouble. It might even gain me a reprieve.”

“But you wouldn’t do that, would you?”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Good. Then I won’t need this.”

Semira took the pulse gun from her coat then placed it on the table between them. Pandare blinked in surprise.

“You were going to kill me?”

“If I had to,” she answered. “But I knew I wouldn’t have to.”

“So, what’s next?” he asked, trying to keep his voice from trembling.

Semira stood. “Nothing. I’ll return home and let the others know you’re with us. You’ll begin receiving supplies soon. And engineers to repair your panels.”

They were silent as they returned to his compound. Pandare walked Semira to the lift that would take her to her ship.

“It was nice seeing you, Pandare,” she said. “I wish it was under better circumstances.”

She kissed his cheek then walked away.

“Semira,” he called out.

She turned to face him.

“Yes?”

“Will there be a war?”

Semira looked solemn.

“I pray to the ancestors there won’t be.”

He watched her board her lift. Pandare sat back in his seat, rubbing his forehead while searching his drawer for his bourbon and glass. He found the bottle poured a drink then downed it. Whatever was going to happen. He was a part of it. As he poured another drink, his fear slipped away. If he wanted to save Eritia this was his only option. There no other way. From this moment forward, he was no longer a citizen of the Empire, a disciple of Ziara, a member of the One Million. He was Eritian.


I hope you enjoyed Customs. For more amazing stories of The Cassad Empire, get your copy of the anthology today directly from MVmedia.


Dark Universe: The Bright Empire




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