When we finally get in to see him, Sharis is reclining on a bed that most closely resembles a divan, if said divan were made of some organic material that constantly rippled beneath his weight. I’m told there’s some symbiosis between the average Bug and this bioengineered furniture. He appears to be in possession of all his faculties.
“Forgive me if I do not get up.” His sense of humor seems to be intact as well.
Vel steps into his role as translator while I greet Sharis with a particularly deep wa, layering it with my regret. Brown bird wishes your pain away to the land of ghosts and sorrow. That gives Sharis pause. By now, he must be wondering how I understand so much, nuances that simply cannot be conveyed via human language.
I’m starting to think the chip Vel implanted in me must be a prototype or a mod to existing technology, something he’s been working on privately. It governs a lot more than just language translation; it’s as if it has cultural information implanted as well. Maybe I should be worried that it will melt my brain at some point, but I trust him. I make a mental note to ask him about it and turn my attention back to Sharis.
“Certainly,” I reply. “You do us too much honor by permitting us to attend you in your time of infirmity.”
Vel repeats my words nearly verbatim.
Sharis’s claws still their restless movements against his carapace. “It is more that I fear I will not have the opportunity to speak with you again.”
Alarm sparks through me. “Why, what’s wrong?”
“Karom has put a motion before the Council to have me judged unfit to continue to serve. He has proposed that I be sent into the country for the sake of my health. My seat will be filled immediately by their nomination.”
I glance at Vel, quietly horrified. “Is that legal?”
With every appearance of regret, he inclines his head. “If a councilor is determined to be unable to carry out his duties, he can be replaced.”
“Just by the other council members voting on it?” That seems like too much power, but the Grand Administrator can veto any of their choices, if I recall correctly.
“Yes,” Vel answers.
“Thanks to the ingenious treatment devised by your ship’s doctor, I will recover. They have forgiven other councilors longer and more debilitating illnesses,” Sharis continues bitterly. “But they want to be rid of me because I am the voice of change. Once I am gone, there will be nothing to stop them from steamrolling over Devri, and the alliance will be put down for good.”
“That . . . will be devastating,” I answer quietly. The diplomatic ship has sailed. It’s now time for some plain talk. “We need the support of your people in the coming war against the Morgut, not because we need cannon fodder, but because they fear and respect you. If they see your people as willing to side with us in an armed conflict, it will make them less likely to attack us.”
Vel translates, using some sound I haven’t heard before to denote the Morgut. The chip tells me he’s called them “Eaters-of-the-Dead.” That name sends a cold shiver straight through me. I try not to remember all the blood on Emry Station, the webs, and the cocoons stuffed with human corpses that nourish their young.
“We taught them to respect us, long ago,” Sharis acknowledges. “But we have not touched the stars in hundreds of turns. Our ancestors explored, fought, and conquered, but the wayfarers brought back a hideous plague from their travels that nearly decimated our population. At that time, we closed our planetary borders, and we have only permitted outsiders twice since.”
The first time was when Trapper Farley landed with the first human delegation, who were too ignorant to realize they’d “discovered” a closed planet and a people who wanted nothing to do with the wider world. Now that I know more about the history involved, they were lucky they weren’t summarily executed.
And now, there’s us.
“I’m very sorry.” There doesn’t seem to be anything else left to say.
The councilor spreads his claws, then turns them down as a sign of his helplessness. “I cannot get them to change their minds or shift away from old manners of thought, but the truth is, we are stagnating. No new technologies have been invented in more turns than I can recall, and our ships are now utterly antique. Humans have fast, versatile minds, a side effect of being so short-lived, no doubt. We need to recapture that spark, or we will die. Not quickly, but slowly.”
“There may be a way,” Vel says, as if he’s been thinking. “When were they going to vote on your replacement?”
“Can you walk?” Vel demands.
Sharis seems startled, but then he pushes himself from the divan. He sways for a moment, still weak from the after-effects of the poison. “I . . . believe so.”
“If you can make it to the council chambers, it will show your strength. Accept no aid, and do not rest along the way. They will find it hard to prove your infirmity if you are there to confront them over it. If you are strong enough to do this, you can call for an immediate vote on the alliance, preempting their agenda. At least this way, if you lose, you gave it all you had.”
I can get on board with that.
“I can do this,” Sharis says, determined. “I truly believe this is best for our people, and I will not yield meekly.”
It’s an effort for him to project strength and confidence, but he does so as he strides from his sickroom. Somehow, I manage not to cheer him as we go. Ambassadors have to think of their dignity.
As we walk, a small san-bot scuttles out of the wall and nudges my foot. I sigh and step over it, having more important things to worry about.
Time to put this to a vote.
Bravery isn’t just facing down a bunch of guys who want to kill you.
It’s also leaving your hospital bed in order to fight for what you believe in. It would’ve been easy for Sharis to let them roll over him, much easier for him to call it quits and accept his forced retirement. Instead, he sweeps into the council chambers like he owns the place. I can only imagine what it’s costing him in terms of stamina, but you’d never even know he’d been ill to look at him.
Our arrival finds everyone arrayed in place, probably discussing his removal. This room is cool and quiet, devoid of the hothouse trappings that characterize the rest of the complex. Since we surprise him in the middle of the room, Karom has been apparently pacing while the others occupy their assigned places. I can’t read Devri at all, which surprises me. You’d think he could permit himself some trace of satisfaction after he stuck his neck out to warn us. But perhaps that would be dangerous.
As if against her will, Mako rises and takes a step toward Sharis, which seems to denote gladness. Maybe the Bugs don’t form bonds as we do, but she wasn’t happy about having her lover’s guts burned up with citric acid. Then she checks herself, resuming her place. Protocol trumps personal business here every time.
Karom recovers first, asking, “What are you doing here? You should be resting.”
Sharis takes that opening and spins it like a pro. “I am perfectly well, thanks to the treatment the human doctor devised. Such innovation is just one of the benefits we will enjoy when the alliance goes through.” He tosses down the figurative gauntlet.
The stout councilor recoils, casting a worried glance at the Grand Administrator. Her red claws trace an intricate pattern against her carapace, but unless we’re too late, she can’t eject him from the room if he’s well enough to attend the session under his own power. Vel knows the ins and outs here; it may be the advantage that saves us.
Sartha responds sharply, “You would not have been sick at all if not for the humans. They are little better than animals.”
I wince. She’s coming down hard on the other side. If I had to speculate, I’d say her history with Vel has made her bitter and inclined to punish us because Vel prefers the company of vermin like us. I’d like to tell her not to take it personally—he ran away from everything, not just her—but I doubt it would do any good.
Given March’s confession, it’s going to be hard to spin her accusation, but Sharis manages. “Animals know no higher reason. If your accusation applied to the humans, they would not have cooperated with our investigation, or permitted the culprit to be taken into our custody, subject to a penalty of our choosing. That shows great respect and desire for accord between our people, does it not?”
“It does,” Devri agrees.
Whew, he’s still on our side.
“Furthermore,” Sharis adds, “we cannot judge all of humanity by the actions of one. Are there not Ithtorians who are sent to the mines for their weak minds or deviant natures? Would we send them forth for all the universe to judge us on their merits?”
A general click and chitter follows, councilmen talking among themselves, but even those who loathe us and want us gone cannot argue the point.
Devri takes up the thread so smoothly, I could almost swear they practiced this. And maybe they did, just not under these exact circumstances. “Since we are all gathered here, I put forth that we should put this proposed alliance to a vote. We have enjoyed ample time to make assessments and decide the matter.”
“Seconded,” Sharis says promptly.
Now it’s on the table before anyone can filibuster or suggest more delays, wherein more stuff could go wrong. Good going, guys. Vel and I stand poised. He doesn’t translate for me this time; I’m sure they imagine he’ll summarize afterward.
Karom makes an angry sound as he resumes his position. Each councilor has a touch pad. The orange one means no; the blue one means yes. Once a vote has been called, it’s as simple as that, and I almost can’t breathe for the tension. This is the defining moment, a validation or repudiation of everything we’ve worked for.
They begin in ascending order—in other words, the least senior member casts first. In this case, that’s Sartha. I’m not surprised when an orange glow encompasses her chair. She’s made it clear she wants to see the back of us . . . and maybe Vel freezing to death in a ditch somewhere in the bargain. Her sorrow has hardened into something sharp and hard since the last time I saw her.
Devri follows. His seat flashes blue, so we’re tied at one and one. I can’t remember who’s next, but Mako’s light rings blue, too. Sharis must have done some smooth talking to get her to go up against the Grand Administrator, who doesn’t vote in such council matters but can make her displeasure known in more subtle ways, such as with prestige appointments, and say, assassins arriving in the middle of the night.
Two to one.
With sudden relief, I realize I know how this is going to go. And sure enough, Karom votes no, so that an orange halo encircles him. It gives him a faintly infernal air.
Then it’s down to Sharis, who presses blue.
Final score: three to two. There are five council members, so there can never be a tie, only a swing vote, which means Mako’s support was key. I feel dizzy with relief. Despite the attempt on Sharis’s life, we did it. I can’t wait to bounce a message to Chancellor Tarn. I can almost hear Dina’s excited whoops—