The concept of friendship is a human one, not natural to the Ithtorians, so this will be a most intriguing conversation. Apparently I can still be engaged intellectually, even though my emotions seem to be shrouded in layers of ice. I agree with a nod that the discussion will keep, fixing my gaze on the merchants opposite us.
“Let’s renew our acquaintance.” I nod at Kalid and Arqut. “Can you come up with something suitably flattering?”
Vel answers, “I believe my skills are adequate for the task.” He leads the way across the room. Their mandibles move in what I take to be astonishment at being singled out like this. “The ambassador wishes me to convey her admiration for your incisive questions this morning. She recalls the two of you as being particularly astute.”
Filtered through Vel, the conversation is stilted at first, but that’s all right. I’m just laying the foundation right now. Curious, a few other merchants gather around us. Within minutes, I identify them as potential investors who want to hear the human ambassador opine regarding the consortium’s chances of financial success.
“With such fine minds like Kalid and Arqut at the helm,” I say in measured tones, “I would ordinarily expect a brilliant future.” The pause is deliberate, and my audience isn’t immune to the implied “but.”
“What causes your qualms?” an obliging Bug asks.
I glance at Vel, feigning a conspiratorial exchange. He doesn’t know what I’m doing, but he plays along, inclining his head. Good man . . . er, Bug. Whatever.
My hands twist together before me as I try to project an anxious quality. “I do not know whether they will have the opportunity to pursue this venture,” I whisper at last. “If it comes to a vote, I have no doubt the alliance will pass, but I fear it may not reach the council to be decided officially. I have been given to understand that those items proposed, which the Grand Administrator does not personally support, have a way of being tabled. She gave me this information at a private luncheon.”
Jael flashes me an approving grin. “Well played.”
Shock rocks through Vel as he realizes what I’m doing. Nonetheless, he restates my words in even more cagey terms. By informing the merchants of her threat against my person, I alert them to the potential loss of revenue. Money is power, especially here, and more than one ruler has been deposed because she mucked with the profit margins of those who put her on the throne.
They can decide what, if anything, they want to do about this. I’m not at all surprised when Arqut and Kalid make their excuses, execute a grateful wa, and depart early. I suspect they’re going to be talking to colleagues, alerting them to the possibility that the human ambassador won’t survive long enough to see the job done.
Jael excuses himself before the party’s done. I think even my bodyguard can’t stomach too much of this despite what Tarn is paying him. “You’ll be safe enough with Vel,” he whispers. “But comm me if you need anything?”
Intrigue is exhausting. By the time we leave the party, I decide I could sleep for a week. I have the funny feeling, though, that if Vel could smile, he would be doing so now.
“That was inspired,” he says as we walk back to my quarters. “A masterful strategy, I might even dare say . . . Ithtorian.”
I smile. “So I’m becoming more like you, even as you become more like me?”
His steps still. “No, Sirantha. I am no true Ithtorian, as anyone would tell you.”
“I don’t want anyone to tell me. I’d rather you did.”
Vel hesitates so long that I think he’s going to refuse. And then: “Very well. Perhaps it is time I told someone.”
ACCESSING ARCHIVE FOOTAGE…
Omni News Net: Special Bulletin—Outpost 8
You are about to receive an update intended for adults: children under the age of fifteen should not view the following images. It is not our intention to glorify violence, merely update our viewers. If you have any serious medical conditions, you may wish to have your AI screen this story. Omni News Net is not responsible for any psychic, emotional, or spiritual damage incurred by the following bounce broadcast.
EXT. OUTPOST 8—TWILIGHT
Smoke rises from the settlement, indicating heavy-weapons discharge. Corpses litter the ground, savagely devoured and dismembered. There are no signs of life except for the man facing the vid. KEVIN stands outside the outpost, head bowed in mournful silence. At last he raises his eyes, his expression reflecting absolute horror.
I’m here in the aftermath of the attack. This is one of the oldest human settlements in the Outskirts, named for the order in which the colonies were founded. These settlements speak to our determination and our refusal to accept limitations. Where other locales took on names, Outpost 8 kept its numerical designation as a sign of pride. Longevity doesn’t come easy when you live out on the frontier, but these people were an example to all of humankind. Now, the laughter is silenced, and their machines work no more. More than a thousand people lost their lives here.
Two days past, their call for aid went unheeded. Right now you’re seeing what happens when the establishment fails. The Morgut took this outpost, but they do not possess any capacity for mercy. Outpost 8 was a haven for traders and spacers; they were peaceful and offered no defense.
KEVIN moves through the carnage. He pauses beside the remains of a small child. Her flesh is torn and bloody, great chunks of meat missing from her corpse. She lies apart from the other bodies that litter this hopeless, hellish landscape.
Her face will live forever as part of this atrocity. I ask you, what can we do? What hope can we offer in the face of such incomprehensible barbarism?
My quarters are dim and silent when we return. Somehow it fits the somber mood that has fallen between us. If somebody had told me I would come to care so much about the Bug that hunted me nearly to my death, I would have said they were crazy. But friendship comes in many sizes and shapes, sometimes in weird wrapping.
Constance normally sits at the terminal in sleep mode, locked in an eerie facsimile of sleep. I’ve told her she can shut down when she’s satisfied with her day’s work; if I need her, I will activate her manually. That eliminates the need to explain that she’s not always a welcome eavesdropper. I have strange guilty twinges over this.
Tonight, she’s nowhere to be found. I don’t worry overmuch over that, however, as I want to hear what Vel has to say. Her company, artificial as it is, could only inhibit his unexpected decision to share. By tacit agreement we pass from the living space, beyond the glastique glitter of the cityscape.
I curl up on the bed without changing from my ambassadorial gear and wait for him to begin. Vel stands half in shadow, staring out. I wonder if he sees anything at all, or if the view has become superimposed with something else, if he sees ghosts in the glass as I do.
“As you know,” he says at last, “I am the offspring of a politician named Nok. What I did not tell you—though you may have already learned this via gossip by now—is that at the time of my birth, she served as Grand Administrator. She expected great things from her progeny, and she ruled her brood with an iron claw.”
He pauses, as if remembering and sorting his memories to best relate them. I feel as though I’m being granted a secret, sacred glimpse at the core of him. I haven’t been this near to the real Vel since we huddled together in an icy cave, half-convinced that day would be our last.
“Do you mean she didn’t care what you wanted?” I draw my knees up to my chest, studying him in the half-light.
Vel is a bizarre amalgam of the alien and the familiar, soaked with shadow. His eyes glitter strangely, taking the light as a human’s never would. I consider inviting him to sit down; there’s a chair by the window, but he’s surely comfortable enough in my presence that he doesn’t need to be set at ease. His posture radiates a tension that runs through him like a poison, which can only be purged through confession.
“She cared only what was expected,” he says, after consideration.
I notice he refers to her in the past tense. “Is she—”
“Deceased?” he supplies. “Yes. Many turns ago now.”
“I’m sorry. Go on.” I remember how my questions made him tighten up before, so I resolve not to interrupt him anymore.
“My youth was like any other,” he continues. “I was educated in an upper-class crèche with a focus on diplomacy and politics. From an early age, I knew they expected me to follow in my mater’s footsteps, though as a male I had one strike against my chances of taking up her mantle as Grand Administrator.
“But I was never interested in what they wanted me to learn. The process by which we added honor to our chitin intrigued me from the moment I saw one of Nok’s assistants return with xanthic stripes for some accomplishment. At first, they encouraged my interest because they took it as a sign I wanted to learn how to accrue my own face for personal achievement. They thought me . . . ambitious.” His pause suggests a subtle melancholy, a desert of the spirit full of remembered sand and bone.
“Instead, you were interested in the art of it,” I guess aloud quietly. “In the colors and patterns, lines and shapes.”
He inclines his head. “Nok was appalled when she realized what fascinated me so. Such endeavors bring no honor to a house. The work of hands remain the dominion of the lowborn, those who have no training in the use of higher intellect. If I pursued such a path, I would shame my family as surely as an admission of infirmity or impairment. After all, we do not adorn ourselves for pleasure.”
I scowl. “Humans do. On Gehenna, there are entire studios devoted to the beautification of the body via graphic art.”
“That is merely another argument against the practice,” Vel tells me gently. “You are primitive beasts, only a few short millennia removed from drawing on cave walls.”
That doesn’t seem like a fair criticism. Ithtorians live a lot longer than we do. But I know he doesn’t share his people’s bias, or he wouldn’t be here with me in the first place.
“So what happened?”
“I studied secretly for a time. Learned how to mix the acid wash from the house artisan, how to structure the rank signs, and how to apply the ink. He knew my interest was inappropriate, but those of low caste do not argue with their superiors, even if the instructions are wrong.”
That makes me perk up. “And do you believe yourself superior, based on who laid the egg that hatched you?”
Vel answers seriously. “I am the product of one of the oldest, finest houses . . . and yet I am also proof that lines do not always breed true. Some offspring are fundamentally flawed, askew from the standard.” I have the feeling he doesn’t mean “standard” exactly, that the chip has failed to translate for me precisely.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“They do not prize individuality,” he says then. “That is a human trait. They prize achievement that enriches the collective within our birth-given strata.”