Just before we reach Devri’s place, Vel stops walking and performs the lowest wa I’ve ever seen from him. In a human being, I would take his body language for misery and regret. I’m not sure I can trust my instincts where he’s concerned, though. Being surrounded by his people, I understand better now how alien he is.
“I am sorry,” he says then. “I would not have had you suffer like this for worlds. Had I known she meant to do this, I would have advised you to reject her invitation regardless of the offense it caused. It is not . . .” He pauses, the vocalizer seeking a word. “Fair. You have been injured enough.”
“Damn few things are fair,” I answer. “Life has never been one of them. But I appreciate the thought.” The ice around me gives a little crack, and I don’t want it to. Because then I’ll have to feel what’s underneath.
Jael turns the corner then. He comes toward us at a run, sleek and clad in black. I note that the damage to his face has healed fully. “Trying to leave me behind?”
I smile. “I keep trying, but it never works.”
Before he can reply, I step forward and let the door scan me. This is one of their technologies I like very much. Instead of a door-bot, they simply have a holo-cam that registers the image of anyone who comes within one meter of the door. If you stay still, the door projects your image on the other side, and if your presence is expected or desired, the homeowner lets you in. It’s very quiet and civilized.
A few seconds later, we’re admitted to the apartment. Devri’s dwelling is different from the Grand Administrator’s. It’s a full jungle in here, with trailing vines growing from the walls. Beneath our feet, the ground gives with each step, a soft loam. The room is heavy and damp, a little warm for my tastes, and redolent with the perfume of blooming flowers that taste syrup sweet on my tongue when I inhale.
Looks like the party is in full swing. I recognize a number of Ithtorians from the merchant summit. Devri immediately breaks away from a female to come greet us.
“So glad to see you.” He executes a lovely wa, and I remember the hot spots on his lower abdomen. I wish I could interpret body language as Vel does. Maybe it would tell me whether Devri has wicked intentions.
Still, this should be interesting.
Devri exerts himself to be charming.
Through Vel, he shares amusing anecdotes about the way the tide can turn in any business deal, no matter how secure the investment seems. I must admit, he’s good company. I acquit myself fairly well for someone who didn’t know what day it was three hours ago. Jael stands quietly by my side; but since I know what to look for, I can tell he’s on guard.
After half an hour or so, Devri asks, “I need to talk to Velith for a moment. Do you mind?”
I gather he needs a private moment. He can’t be asking for that because he’s worried about me overhearing, so it must be the others he’s concerned about. It’s probably related to the conspiracy I overheard yesterday, or maybe Devri knows about the Grand Administrator’s threat. Vel should give me a full report when he returns. So I give my blessing, and they leave the living area.
The world has a strange distance, as if I am in it but not part of it. Ithtorians give me a wide berth as if my soft skin might be contagious. If I stay here long enough, I might internalize their opinion that my unarmored flesh is monstrous. I already feel raw and vulnerable, as if I’m revealing parts of myself that ought to be covered. I fight the urge to cover my bare arms, taking comfort in the scars that thicken my fragile skin.
What kind of creatures are humans anyway? We lack claws or fangs; we have no natural defense mechanisms. When I consider, it does seem wrong, like we went awry somewhere on the evolutionary ladder. I’m used to the sounds of Ithtorian language: the clicks and chitters don’t strike me as strange or alien now that I’m able to understand them.
Jael sets his hand on my arm. “Are you all right?”
“Other than being drugged, forced to experience painful hallucinations, and threatened with death? Yeah, I’m great.”
His whole body goes taut. “Who threatened you?”
“The Grand Administrator. What’re you going to do about it?”
His icy gaze searches mine, verifying that I’m serious. Then he says, very softly, “I could kill her.”
He means it. Being Bred means he’s not subject to the same limitations as other men. For a moment, I’m sickly tempted. If she’s removed, and they don’t trace it back to us, maybe someone more amenable to our cause would be appointed. But no, it’s too big a risk, and I can’t unleash Jael here. He’s like a double-edged sword.
I shake my head. “No. That’s not the way to go. But . . . I appreciate the offer.”
“I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you safe. I’ll alert the others to the danger as well.” By his expression, he’s preparing to lecture me about March some more.
Holding up a hand, I forestall that gambit. “Not right now, please. I’m still feeling a little fragile.”
It’s a painful admission, and I hope to Mary he doesn’t ask why. His frost blue eyes search my face, then his face softens. “You look like I felt, the time they told me what I was.”
My heart skips a beat. This is the first time he’s referred to being Bred in more than a flippant sense. There’s real emotion here, and I don’t know what to do with it. “How old were you?”
“In biological terms? Twelve. But they accelerated our development, so I don’t know exactly how old I am.”
“There were more of you?” I try to keep my tone gentle.
He nods. “I came from a pod of ten. I thought they were my brothers and sisters until that moment. They raised us crèche-style, and let us believe we were orphans. They wanted to reduce the risk of madness and other disorders. Even so, it didn’t entirely work. Seven of us died before reaching maturity.”
“Don’t be. It was the experiments that came afterward, not the revelation. Some of them didn’t have a very high tolerance for pain.”
“I’m surprised they let you go.”
A cold little smile twists his mouth. “They didn’t.”
There are so many questions I could ask, but Sharis comes up to us, offers a wa that inexplicably reminds me of the ocean, then chatters as if he’s been drinking, forgetting I’m not supposed to understand a word he says.
“What has happened to Velith? It is most impolite of him to leave you with only this worthless soft-skin for escort.”
I regard him with a polite, blank expression, trying not to reveal comprehension or amusement at his assessment of Jael.
“My apologies.” He bows again, talking more to himself this time. “I occasionally forget you belong to one of the subspecies. Sometimes you almost seem smarter than a cave beast, but that must be Il-Nok’s influence. He remains well-spoken even after so many turns away. Just think of what he might have achieved.”
Never have I resented this chip so much. I can’t show interest, can’t indicate that I want him to keep talking. The noises he makes with jaw, mandible, and throat are supposed to be a meaningless cacophony to me.
He falls silent, standing with me out of a desire to be courteous, I suspect. His presence keeps anyone else from approaching, so they content themselves with staring. Sharis seems to be watching the door, waiting for someone. When the door projects an image of Mako, he perks visibly. His departing wa says he can’t wait to talk to her.
Jael doesn’t pursue the other conversation. Quietly brooding, he keeps an eye on things, alert to movement all around me.
A low hum emanates from the walls. I think it might be music. Their claws twitch as if in time to some beat I can’t quite hear. It’s like they’re all playing the same instrument, eerily in cadence.
No sign of Sartha. Definitely no sign of Karom. This isn’t his kind of party, not with the filthy soft-skins wandering around like they own the place. The guests seem to be on the young, radical side. They’re all for progress.
Two merchants I recognize from this morning watch me from across the room. One is tall and tawny; his companion is smaller with a parti-colored thorax. Neither wears the marks of notable achievement, but I think it’s a measure of their youth rather than failure. Their talk washes over me, bits of speculation.
“Do you think she has accepted him as a full partner?” one asks.
“Unlikely,” the other answers. “Even if he chose exile over life in the mines, the son of Nok would never sink so low. He might be mad, but he is not depraved.”
Vel? Mad? Could this relate to his lack of conformity to expected societal roles? For the first time since awakening, I feel a flicker of interest, but I can’t move closer. It would look odd if I sought out a particular conversation without my handler’s guidance.
“Can you imagine?” the first marvels. “Being so alone, no house to which I might bring glory, no mate to share my success. I think I would prefer death.”
“You are not known for your bravery, Kalid.”
“It would not require bravery to have you killed.”
“So you have claimed, more than once. And yet here I am.”
“One day, Arqut, you will push me too far.”
“Unlikely. You need me too much.”
Now I remember what role they played in the meeting. Arqut and Kalid have partnered in a new consortium devoted to starship technology. They’re interested in improving the phase drive, something nobody has attempted in hundreds of turns.
Every spacefaring race uses this technology for long hauls. In fact, the plans were waiting for us in ancient ruins we unearthed on our moon. Interestingly enough, the same thing has happened to all species in some form or another. If not their moon, then they found the data sealed in some forgotten subterranean city, in a grand, dusty ziggurat or a jungle-covered pyramid.
It is as if the information has been seeded for us, hidden until we were advanced enough to know what to do with it. No species has succeeded in updating the original schematic, however. Without fail, alterations to the core design have resulted in dreadful accidents and excruciating death. After a while, we gave up trying to make it better; we just accepted what we’d been given.
So it’ll be interesting to see what these two can accomplish, assuming the alliance goes forward. Before now, there’s been no reason to focus on star-tech since the Ithtorians are so xenophobic. They’ve been content with what happens on their own world up until this point, but Kalid and Arqut hope to make a fortune on the cutting edge.
With so much powerful opposition, I don’t give good odds on their success. That’s too bad because they have invested their personal fortunes in this endeavor. They’re bright-eyed and idealistic, convinced they can improve the ancient technology. An idea begins to germinate as I listen to them bicker. By the time Vel comes back, it’s a full-blown plan.
“I have much to tell you,” he says. “For obvious reasons, it should wait until we are alone, but . . . suffice to say, I learned much of interest from our friend Devri. He has been briefly detained. He asks that you enjoy the party in his absence.”