With a low sound in his throat, Karom subsides. Devri offers me a wa that he holds for more than a count of five, showing very great respect. I return it as he resumes his seat, matching the length of time as precisely as I can manage without looking at a clock. I want the Ithtorians who are watching to take note of how thoroughly I have learned their customs. I am not just an ignorant savage.
I can do this. I will do this. I must do this.
The carnage from Emry Station flashes into my mind. To the Morgut, we’re prey. We don’t speak their language. They have no cause not to treat us as cattle and hunt us to extinction. Unless we can show them an alliance with a superior species . . . so failure here doesn’t bear consideration.
I brace myself for the next round.
SATELLITE 11. 23 . 044 . 3340 OPEN-THREAD—THE REAL SYNDICATE .LIVE-BOUNCING-COMMENTS.
SupremeRula: I think it’s ridiculous is what I think. That stupid Jax bint acts like we don’t have brains in our heads.
Shaman2: You don’t, do ya? It’s like she said, they never tell us the whole story, do they? Why did we go running after the Bugs? Didn’t we have any other options?
Care-wear: Tired of washing your garments? Our products can help! Our self-cleaning textiles offer a wide variety of patterns and colors. We can even stock your wardrober. If you like Care-wear, you might also consider opening a franchise!
[Moder-AI: Please refrain from advertisements. Further comments of this nature will be deleted.]
NinjaMonkey4000: I had a cousin that borrowed money from the Syndicate. He couldn’t pay it back, so they broke his legs and cut off both his ears. I say she’s fulla shite.
Dreaminator: Everything’s all fragged up. I don’t know how we wound up like this, not being able to tell the good guys from bad.
DarkMistress: Ramona shur wuz wearin that dress! She wuz all, BAM and then sum! NEway, I’m bored. NE1 wanna chat? Bounce [email protected] . . . [removed by admin]
[Moder-AI: Please refrain from sharing personal information on the public satellite channel.]
Deep!Thinker: I have to agree with a lot of what Ramona said. She made good points about cultural relativism, and I had to rethink what I’ve heard about the Syndicate, based on her remarks. It did make me wonder why we aren’t making better use of our own resources.
Sinna: You’re a jackass, DT. Ramona used a few ten-credit words, and she looks good on vid, so suddenly the Syndicate isn’t the group that kills people who cross them, sells slaves and chem and Mary knows what else?
TheTruthWillSetUfree: If you want the real truth about the Syndicate, never mind what Lili Lightman is peddling, then bounce to [removed by admin]
[Moder-AI: Please refrain from posting outside node information.]
The day passes in an agony of interrogation.
Karom in particular is relentless. His questions are pointed and nearly impossible to answer without affront. I’m really starting to hate the bastard. But his thinly veiled antagonism seems to make Mako feel more sympathetic toward our cause. I’m less sure about Sartha.
She seems more interested in Vel than any potential alliance—to the point that I suspect they had some connection before he ran away long ago. Karom will definitely vote against us. I can find only one positive in this situation. At least the Grand Administrator can’t veto their decision, however much she’d like to. Her languid gestures tell me she’d love to sink those red-tipped claws in my throat to shut me up for good.
The portly councilor tries to trip me up with the riot in the square, but Vel already told me what to say. He anticipated they would try to use this against me, so we worked on our angle last night on the way back to the government center. Somehow, I manage not to spoil the moment by smiling.
“I needed to retrieve equipment from my ship, esteemed Karom, and I did not wish to burden the council, who had already done me so much courtesy. I did not realize danger awaited me anywhere on this world. I had been assured that everything was in readiness for our delegation . . . thus such barbaric hostility astonished me, and I greatly regret that I have caused it, though I am uncertain as to how I have given offense to those good Ithtorians.”
Take that, you stupid Bug.
Mary, I’m glad they’re not Psi, or this would already be over. I can school my words but not my thoughts.
My tongue feels like I’ve tied it in knots with all the doublespeak, insults layered carefully within tissue-thin civility. Vel translates, and I’m gratified to see Karom forced to execute a shamefully deep wa to me. He falls back into his seat on a wave of lost face. The Grand Administrator herself voices an apology for the behavior of the OP.
“You have my regrets,” she says. “Though we pride ourselves on the ability to articulate our views, we would never choose the manner of expression to be so savage.”
By the time we break for a late-afternoon meal, I feel as though I’ve been pulled backward through the engines of a ship. I make sure to observe the courtesies before fleeing for my room. There’s a formal function tonight, and I need to rest up for another long session of being on display. Maybe I’ll learn something interesting.
Constance and Vel accompany me back to the housing section. He says, “You acquitted yourself well, Sirantha. Devri has been won over completely.”
“I noticed his gestures,” I answer with a touch of pride.
“I will call for you tonight,” he goes on. “And escort you to the hall.”
“Thanks. I’m going to rest my brain for a while.”
Vel inclines his head. “I have to work.”
“You always do,” I murmur.
The bounty hunter continues down the hall as Constance and I enter my quarters. A wave of weariness assails me, despite the lavish beauty of my surroundings. The PA studies me for a moment, then offers the following opinion: “It is too bad you cannot simply plug into the terminal to recharge.”
She surprises a laugh out of me. “Isn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated for humans.”
“Do you wish to deconstruct the summit at this time? I recorded the proceedings, as instructed.”
I shake my head tiredly, peeling out of the gold ceremonial robe. “Later, please, Constance. I don’t want to think right now. Can you check the place for snoopware?”
“Acknowledged,” she says.
At the verge of crossing out of the sitting area into my bedroom, I pause as something occurs to me. “Do you remember when I asked you for access to all of Mair’s partitioned files?”
“I remember everything you have ever said in my presence, Sirantha Jax.”
Dumb question, I guess. She probably keeps logs. Sometimes, she looks so real, with her silky brown hair and wide dark eyes that I expect human behavior from her instead of recalling she’s still chips and wiring underneath.
“Then here’s the million-credit question. Did Mair leave any notes about March?”
“Searching.” Her eyes go strange, scanning side to side as if she has turned her gaze inward. I wait. Then she focuses on me again. “Seventeen days before her last access to my programming, she uploaded a personal journal to the partitioned files. There are numerous voice references to March.”
I stand frozen. This had been a shot in the dark, nothing I expected to bear fruit. Now I can’t move, afraid to hope there’s something in those files that can help me. I make myself continue into the bedroom to grab my civ clothes.
I shimmy into a pair of loose white pants, heart pounding like mad. For a moment, I consider whether I need a sweater. My thin undershirt is enough for hanging around in quarters. The climate control is more than adequate, even if I haven’t been able to figure out how to adjust it.
There’s also a door in here. If I pass through it, I’ll find March on the other side. Before I realized how thoroughly he’d changed, I thought he might want to be close to me. I meant for him to attend the formal dinner with me tonight, but I don’t know if he wants to. To my disgust, I’m afraid to open the door that stands between us.
Instead I spin and head back the way I came. Constance is waiting where I left her, ready to resume our conversation. That’s the best thing about droids; they don’t take your weird behavior personally. Of course, they can also be aggravatingly literal and pedantic, but she isn’t as bad as most of her brethren.
I sprawl on one of the sloping seats that’s half chair, half settee, making myself comfortable before I make the leap. Am I crazy for thinking Mair can help me from beyond the grave? Maybe. But March is worth it.
“Let’s start from the beginning,” I say. “Play the first journal entry.”
Despite forewarning, it gives me a start to hear Mair’s voice coming from Constance, who isn’t moving her mouth. The whiskey-low rasp sounds just as I recall from our brief acquaintance . . . before she died to save our lives. Talk about creepy.
“Tanze brought me an unwelcome surprise this afternoon. Instead of Hon, she brought a half-mad Psi along with the ship. She says she didn’t have a choice, but I think she just didn’t want to end him. That girl has such a soft spot for brown-eyed boys.”
I smile at hearing March described as a brown-eyed boy. He’d be boyish only to someone looking at him down a vast age. The old chi-master certainly qualified. I still marvel at the memory of the way she moved that night, running with preternatural speed. I’d never met a real chi-master before, never believed they could really manipulate their physical energy to perform extraordinary feats.
Whatever recording device she used picks up a sigh and a shuffle of movement as if she’s pacing. “It took us half a day to get a name out of him. I don’t have time to mess with this, if everything is going to come together on the projected timetable. But like Tanze, I can’t bear to end him. There’s such fire in this man . . . and he might do great things, given half a chance. Certainly he’d be useful, if I can manage to rebuild him.”
It’s interesting she uses that word. Rebuild. Just what the hell did she do to him? I wonder at the mental wreckage that accompanied the process.
Mair goes on, “Dr. Solaith finally returned after a long while training off world. For this project, he needed skills we couldn’t teach him. I’m just glad one of our people was willing to learn. Most men would rather fight than think, but Saul has always been different. That commune on Saleris”—she names a high-G world—“really messed up his head when he was a kid. I think someone would’ve killed him long before now if Rose hadn’t been there to stand up for him.”
There’s a long silence and rustling movement before she seems to remember to say, “That’s all for now. End session.”
“Prying into my past?” March asks quietly.
I barely manage to restrain a shriek. Somehow I make myself shift slowly on the couch and glance at him over my shoulder. How long has he been standing there? The nape of my neck tingles as I sense him dipping into my thoughts as a fisherman would skim a net across the top of the deep, blue sea.