the edge of the table and her fork dangled over the vegetables on her plate. She could never eat dinner at her parents’ place.
“I just don’t like the idea of handouts,” said the woman, her eyebrows high. The way they always got when she spoke on morality.
Tala watched her little brother nod and chew across from her. Had she ever been able to eat at this table?
“It’s rampant these days,” said the middle-aged man at her left. “And everywhere. Take this fella out in the desert, Wahzel.”
Tala looked at her father.
“Here’s a man who thinks the government should pay for his cattle to graze. He simply refuses to pay the fees that come with grazing on public land. He owes the government a bundle, over a million, I think. But this guy feels the levypayers should foot the bill. Unbelievable.”
Idwer Stavilako shook his head and returned to his plate.
“That’s not at all what’s happening out there,” said Tala.
“Pardon?” he said, and took a bite.
“That’s not what’s happening at Wahzel Ranch.”
Idwer swallowed his food, turned to her. “Oh?”
“It’s not about the money.”
He smiled, gestured to his wife and son. “Well please, daughter of mine. Enlighten us. Just what is it that’s really goin’ on out there.”
Tala felt the stillness at the table. They’d all stopped eating and were looking at her. “It’s a land grab.”
Idwer squinted at her. “A land grab?”
“I don’t know what else to call it,” said Tala.
“How can the government steal land it already owns, girl?”
“Jaykin Wahzel doesn’t see it that way.”
“He doesn’t recognize the government’s ownership of the land. That’s land his family has been using for generations, land he’s grazed on for decades. He never agreed to give up his rights in the name of saving some spiky lizard from extinction. The government just suddenly decreed the land off-limits, and to hell with Jaykin Wahzel.”
“Watch your mouth, young lady,” Shawa Stavilako said softly.
Tala looked down for a moment, then back at her father.
“This is about a man not paying his way, Tala. Every rancher around him has done the right thing. They’ve all listened to what—“
“—Every rancher around him has given in.”
Idwer Stavilako leaned back, crossed his arms. “Given in?”
Tala took a breath, checked her mother’s face, then looked at her father. “He’s saying no. That’s all. The government is ordering him to do something, and he’s refusing. He feels himself in the right, and he won’t give in.”
Her father was about to say something when her little brother spoke. “What do you mean?”
For the first time, Tala looked at the seventeen-year-old. He seemed confused. Genuinely confused, in a way she hadn’t noticed in him for a while.
“Saying no,” said Rulby. “What do you mean?”
Tala leaned toward her brother. “Isn’t it kind of insane that you have to ask me that?”
“Now wait a minute, girl,” grumbled Idwer. “The government has every right to claim that land. An issue was raised, as you say, about the conservation of this reptile. Officials got together, a solution was agreed upon, and rules were put on paper. That’s how it works. Everyone else is following the rules. Why should this man be exempt? Tell me that.”
“Because the rules are…,” began Tala, but paused to calm herself. “Because the rules are how they do it. That’s how they grab the land. They make up rules that say they can. Everything that’s happening in Solun Ward right now is a result of the government backing a citizen into a corner.”
“Yeah, and in that corner he’s got armed men around him, Tala. He’s got folks from every sector in the realm campin’ in his front yard.” Idwer leaned forward, looked his daughter in the eye. “You think that’s a reasonable way to handle a dispute, miss-thinks-she-knows-it-all? To invite an armed mob onto your property?”
“They’re guardsmen,” said Tala. “You like to talk about the Patriarchs. Fine. Look at their writings again. This is precisely what is called for. An armed citizenry able to keep a government in check. And he didn’t ask them there, by the way. Jaykin Wahzel didn’t ask for help. Hell, he’s been doing it alone for twenty years.”
“Tala,” Shawa said quietly.
“And shouldn’t that tell you something? That a guard formed behind the Wahzel Ranch. Have you heard of the spontaneous collective?”
“What’s that?” asked her brother.
Tala stayed on her father. Her father stayed on her.
“I think it’s time to pick up. Everyone finished eating?” Shawa asked the table. She rose and began collecting plates. Rulby was watching the standoff.
“I knew this would happen,” said Idwer.
“You knew what, dad?”
“I should’ve never let you go to university in the city.”
Tala rolled her eyes.
“Kids come back weird from the cities, it’s the way it’s always been.”
“The Land Bureau is an enforcement arm of the bureaucracy. They’ve been around since the 40s, but it’s just the latest incarnation. They’ve been doing it for over 150 years. And believe me, the natives got it much worse.”
“Rulby, go wash up,” Shawa said, then exited the dining room with an armload of dishes.
Rulby rose and turned to go. Tala caught the look he gave her as he disappeared into the hallway.
“Why,” Idwer asked softly. “Why would the government be conspiring to steal this man’s land? This isn’t the first talk of this I’ve heard. Some of the boys at work listen to all kinds of craziness. So I just wanna know. Why would they do it?”
“To turn the west into a playground. For the military, for rick folks who want to play rancher a couple of months a year, for transrealmal corporations.”
“There are politicians tied to corporate interests involved in this thing. That land is immensely valuable.”
Idwer was looking his daughter over and shaking his head. “It’s the way it’s always been.” Idwer stood and left the room running a hand through his thinning hair.
Tala listened to her father’s footsteps until she no longer could, then looked at the ceiling. All in all, it went a little better this time.
On her way back into the city the next morning, Tala stopped off at Therio’s for a plate of hash browns, eggs and sausage. She hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before. And when she went to pay, there was