After what seems an interminable silence, she says at last, “Let us begin.”
.OPEN-TRANSMISSION. .THE REAL SYNDICATE IS A LIE. .HIDE-MESSAGE-ORIGIN. .AUTO-FORWARD-ALL-NODES.
I’m nobody you’ve ever heard of, and if you knew me, it wouldn’t matter. My face wouldn’t convince you if my words don’t. Nonetheless, I’m going to tell my story, and it doesn’t matter if the Syndicate kills me for it. After all, they’ve already taken everything else.
I ran a small shipping company out of Gehenna, where it’s easy to get black-market goods off world. The docking officers there expect to be bribed to look the other way, whether it’s slaves, weapons, chem, or contraband tech like code breakers. I never dealt in any of that. My company specialized in textiles: nonsynth luxury items handwoven on Gehenna. It’s nearly a dead art, so I could command ridiculous prices from those who liked the cache. We didn’t sell in bulk, but the cost made up for low quantity.
In my father’s day, Gehenna wasn’t quite the smugglers’ paradise it is today, but since I’d learned the business from him, I did my best to keep away from all that. I didn’t interfere with other people’s choices, and I hoped they’d leave me alone, too.
It began about ten turns back, with an ominous visit from a man in a suit. He asked why I didn’t belong to the local guild and implied that I’d be sorry if I didn’t pay my dues. Well, I know a protection racket when I see one, but I figured it would be smart of me to pony up a few credits in order to be left in peace.
But six months after I joined the guild, I was approached a second time. One of my fellow members needed my help. After having run afoul of the docking agents one too many times for failing to pay his bribes, he wanted to use my textile to conceal a shipment. When I asked what the cargo would be, a man visited my house in the middle of the night and left a dead rat underneath my pillow.
I got the message. The Syndicate likes good sheep who follow orders. They don’t want you asking questions.
They never told me what I was to ship, so I didn’t agree to it, and when the time came round again to pay dues, I refused. I wanted no part of an organization that would kill animals. I’m amused now at my naiveté.
Of course, things escalated. The Syndicate doesn’t allow people to walk away, whatever propaganda they’re selling now. By this time, I was married and had a daughter. She was four turns old. I didn’t know then what lengths they would go to, or I would have conceded defeat. Hindsight offers such bitter clarity.
They began by trying to intimidate people not to do business with me. In some cases, it worked, and I lost revenue. The company suffered, but my weavers were loyal. Nobody else could fill the niche, so we soldiered on.
Thus, the Syndicate pulverized one of the weavers’ hands. She didn’t die of her wounds; but she lost her vocation, which was both an art and her greatest joy. I paid her compensation, and the company suffered more. Around this time, my spouse begged me to yield, but I was inflamed with a sense of persecution, injustice, and righteous indignation. That day, I went to the authorities with my complaints. I named names. I offered to stand witness in a trial against my tormentors. That night, my place of business burned to the ground, with my spouse and daughter inside.
If you take nothing else from my words, know that these are not the people to whom we should trust our children and our defense. They have no honor, and they worship the credit as supreme. There is no crime too heinous if there is profit in it. Monsters that wear human faces run the Syndicate. How is that better than the Ithtorians? And at least I can say the Ithtorians have done me no harm.
When my world burned, I fled Gehenna. I am now in hiding. If they wanted to, they could find me. Their resources are infinite, and I am but one voice, crying out in the dark. I believe now they let me live as an example. They think me broken. But there is no enemy so dangerous as the one with nothing left to lose.
.THE REAL SYNDICATE IS A LIE.
Thanks to Constance’s figures, I don’t make an ass of myself.
Her work allows me to field all their questions and sound like I know what I’m talking about. Maybe this is common for people in my position, but I feel like an enormous fraud. I don’t have this information by virtue of my own efforts or intellect. I just happen to know some really brilliant people—if she can be classed as such. I’m including Vel in that assessment, of course.
But maybe that’s all politicians do. Take other people’s work and make it sound pretty. By the time the summit is over, I feel weary and dispirited. No surprise, given how little I slept the night before.
The chatter of excited merchants washes over me as they file past, each offering me a wa. I return them one by one, being careful with my movements. Soon only our party and the council remain in the hall.
To my surprise, the Grand Administrator dismisses them. “I will take the afternoon meal with the ambassador. Your translator alone may remain.”
I hope I make a convincing show of puzzlement as the rest of the council files out. My acting skills aren’t really that impressive, but maybe they’ll suffice for a species that isn’t too conversant with normal human responses. Unlike me with Vel, they didn’t have a human friend they could use to enrich their understanding.
After he translates, I tell Constance, “Head for our quarters and wait there. If you can do some more work on the alliance advantages, I’d appreciate that very much.”
“Acknowledged.” She excuses herself with an impressive wa to Otlili.
I’m a little disappointed that we won’t get this meal on vid so we can deconstruct it later. I’ll just have to rely on Vel’s memory since Otlili would never approve use of his ocular cam. Remembering the intensity of her regard when she first arrived, I try not to be nervous about this unexpected honor. I tell myself she can’t know about the chip.
“We will dine in my quarters,” the Grand Administrator says.
It astonishes me how she treats her escorts as if they aren’t there. Despite the way their presence asserts her importance, her gaze never touches on them. It’s as if they exist solely to bolster her consequence. They step aside in a rigidly choreographed maneuver that allows Vel and me to fall in behind Otlili.
I’m relieved to realize she doesn’t expect to converse while we’re on the move, so I can luxuriate in the rich scent of growing things. We pass through the heart of the complex, which is among the loveliest gardens I’ve ever seen. Exotic flowers, capped with delicate white petals, framing a pale yellow center, stand nearly two meters tall. More startling, they turn their faces toward us as we pass by.
“The Kiss of Teeth,” Otlili says.
I assume she’s naming the plant for me, having rightly discerned my interest. She leads us to a lift, but I’m still watching the flowers over my shoulder. They seem to be tracking us somehow. I don’t know if I find their blank, blind faces lovely or creepy.
“They stand guard,” Vel tells me softly. “If anyone attempted unauthorized access to the Grand Administrator’s quarters, the Kiss of Teeth”—he uses her words, but I have the sense they aren’t precise, much as many Ithtorian words and concepts lack a corresponding equivalent in universal—“would sound the alarm and attack the intruders.”
We step into an oblong tube that seems to give slightly beneath our feet. There isn’t room for her escorts, so they pause, making their wa to her in unison. As the lacy lift doors glide shut, I notice that the guardian plants have strange spines all down their trunks—or would that be stems? I wonder if they’re strong enough to pierce a chitin shell. If they are, they’d certainly be able to eviscerate a human. I make a mental note to stay out of this part of the complex if I’m not escorted by Otlili herself.
There are no windows, giving me the sense there’s not quite enough air for the three of us. I’m pressed arm to shoulder against Vel, registering his hard carapace more than I usually do. The silence grows heavy, laden with unspoken things. It seems as though we ascend for at least five minutes, but I’m willing to concede that impression might be claustrophobia talking.
Somehow I manage not to gasp as the doors open at last, revealing the palatial penthouse apartment the Grand Administrator calls home. Her idea of décor differs from mine slightly, but I admire the complex lattices and backless stools that offer the closest thing to furniture I can recognize. Otherwise, the place is full of marvels, more living chairs that have been painstakingly woven and cultivated until they take the shape their crafter desires. It bespeaks a vast patience that humanity generally does not possess.
The use of glastique—or some equivalent substance—transfixes me. Unlike my quarters, which are well swathed, light streams into this room, almost shocking in its brightness. She can see the city spread below her at all times, a 360-degree panorama. Her space hasn’t been divided by doors or arches, either. Apparently, she eats, works, and rests all in one location.
“Magnificent, is it not?” She moves to the front of the apartment and gazes down at the capital as Vel translates.
I get the feeling she isn’t talking about her quarters so much as the municipality sprawled beneath her feet, both figuratively and literally. Since she isn’t looking at me, I risk a glance at Vel, who urges me forward by virtue of a quiet tilt of his head. So I join Otliti at the window, hoping she won’t push me out of it. I don’t see an operating mechanism, but that doesn’t mean the pane isn’t keyed to her touch.
“I am particularly impressed with the architecture.” Since I’m not sure how she’ll take my observation about outward steel hiding such soft, lush beauty, I decide to leave that unspoken.
According to the chip, Vel phrases my words as: “You are powerful builders.”
After a moment, the difference in nuance becomes clear. In my original comment, I complimented an inanimate object. Vel switched the focus slightly, addressing its makers. With him on my side, no wonder we’re doing so well. He’s been making the most of everything I say, giving my words the best possible spin.
We turn from the wall of windows in unison, inspecting each other. It’s most likely an inappropriate observation at this moment, but I notice that the barbs on her lower abdomen point downward, whereas the male hooks curl upward, giving me a clue regarding Ithtorian sexual positions. Femme dominant, male on his back. I could have done without that mental image at this moment. Stupid unruly brain.
For the first time, Otlili meets my gaze straight on as if daring me to make a mistake. Her eyes glimmer like polished obsidian, hard as if they have been hewn out of some ancient volcano. There is nothing of kindness or compassion in those eyes, nothing of empathy, just the weight of an immense, alien intellect. Only the fact that she must find me equally inscrutable offers any consolation.
“I do not like your kind,” she says baldly. “No good has ever come when humanity lands on Ithiss-Tor.” Her gaze goes to Vel. “First when he left with them, destroying so many hopes and dreams, then . . . when he returned. We come from a long, proud tradition of hunters who take what we want. I do not like parlaying with a species so weak, they lack all natural defense mechanisms. No fangs, no claws, no armor. Just hideous pink flesh.” She shudders delicately. “And the way you must augment yourselves by artificial means? It disgusts me.”