“Noted,” I say aloud.
“He probably feels like he’s losing his mind,” Hit goes on.
I realize she’s describing postwar trauma for a non-Psi veteran. In March’s case, everything is probably multiplied by a factor of ten. That makes my job harder, but it’s not impossible.
“Save him,” Dina says quietly. “I don’t know exactly what’s wrong, but I do know he’s not the same since he came back.”
The urge to unburden myself is nearly overwhelming. To fight the impulse, I set the cup aside and get to my feet. “Thanks for the drink. I need to track Vel down and talk about the meeting tomorrow.”
“Good luck,” Hit says with a solemn expression—and I know she doesn’t just mean in my diplomatic endeavors.
I acknowledge that with a nod before heading out. In the hall, I touch my comm. “Vel?”
His immediate response is reassuring. “Yes, Sirantha?”
“How’s the tour coming?”
“The peace officers have departed,” he tells me. “They were much impressed with our facilities, especially the wardrober. The idea of wearing anything other than color for personal adornment intrigues them. I believe they intend to discuss the possibility of sashes and belts as an additional sign of rank with their commanding officer.”
“Where are you?”
“My quarters,” he answers.
“I’m on the way. We need to talk.”
And not on the comm, where anyone could be listening in, I add silently. Ithtorian technology is certainly capable of it; but if we did it to them, it would be construed as an aggressive act, spying as a prelude to war. So I don’t know if they would take that risk this early in the game. I increase my pace so that I’m nearly running.
I’m almost there when he asks, “March is settled then?”
“Yes.” With a click, I switch off my comm.
Slightly out of breath, I press the panel beside his door and wait for the door-bot to announce me. Vel answers the door himself, wearing—unless I misinterpret his expression—a look of mild concern. He steps back, ushering me into his quarters, then, as a precaution I appreciate, he seals the door behind us with a command to the bot:
“No interruptions, no exceptions.”
Vel picks a seat before the terminal, where he was evidently working before I arrived. That seems like all he does; I realize I don’t know of anything he does for fun.
I sit down across from him. “I’m bringing this to you because I don’t want to leave you in the cold like I did before. And who knows, maybe you can even help me.”
“ ‘In the cold . . .’ ” Vel repeats. Sometimes I’m not sure how much universal he understands on his own and how much he relies on the translation provided by the chip attached to his vocalizer. “You mean because you did not share your plans?”
“Yeah, exactly. I want a chip that lets me understand Ithtorian. I’ve thought about it, and I don’t need the complementary vocalizer installed right now. The surgery would take too long anyway . . . I wouldn’t be able to use it tomorrow at the summit. I’d be incapacitated for a couple of days. But chips only take a matter of hours, right?”
“That is essentially correct,” Vel says. “Might I ask why you want this, Sirantha?”
Here we go, testing that trust between us.
“Because your people will talk freely around me if you’re not there to translate,” I tell him. “That riot earlier opened my eyes to the fact that things may not be as straightforward as Sharis Il-Wan would have us believe. He wants this alliance, but the Grand Administrator doesn’t. Nor does that group we ran into in the square.”
“The Opposition Party.” Vel identifies them for me, giving no hint as to his thoughts.
“What do they oppose?”
“It is hard to pin down,” he says, “but in general terms . . . progress. They despise change. They see it as destructive to our cultural heritage, disrespectful of the past.” Vel clicks his claws thoughtfully, clearly thinking of what I’ve said and not the politics of his homeworld. “My people would expect you to reveal the addition of such nanotech. Failure to do so would be considered bad form, borderline espionage.”
“So they would never consider acting in a way that offered unfair advantage?” That doesn’t seem to track with what I’ve learned of Ithtorian business practices.
Vel’s mandible splays in a movement I recognize as amusement. “I did not say that, Sirantha. The key is to avoid getting caught. Many things take place that would not be acknowledged. The only shame is having one’s schemes uncovered.”
“Then you support the idea?” I ask in relief. “I’ll talk to Doc before we leave.”
“You do not need Doc for this,” Vel tells me. “I keep a spare blank chip in my pack in case I must hunt on a world whose language is not included in my current configuration. That way I can download the data and implant it before I travel. As you point out, the chip bonds with the language center of the brain in a matter of hours.”
“So you’re saying you can handle the installation for me?”
In reply, he lofts a wicked set of pincers. While I watch, mildly alarmed, he works on his terminal, then clicks the chip into a memory spike. I presume he’s downloading Ithtorian for me.
“Are there any other languages you would like while we are doing this?” he asks. “We will not be able to modify the chip once it is in your body.”
I think about that for a moment. “Is there anything that would help me understand the Marakeq natives?”
Before the vocalizer kicks in, Vel shakes his head. “They are class P, so no translation programs have been written, and the only available research comes from Fugitive scientists.”
“I suspected as much.” I shake my head. “Never mind then. What about the Morgut?” It seems like it would be an advantage to understand my enemies.
He considers. “I can offer you a partial vocabulary, I think, but I do not know how it would interface with your brain stem. I can’t offer any guarantee of complete comprehension. The Morgut language is alien, even to me.”
“Give it a whirl.”
Before I can reconsider, Vel pounces.
He knows me so well. If he’d given me time to think, I would have tensed up, and it would have been much worse. Therefore, the pinch on the side of my neck surprises me with its mildness. “That’s it?”
Vel inclines his head. “In six to eight hours, you will begin to be able to understand Ithtorian. Within twenty-four, all the necessary connections will be in place, and you should comprehend the language fully.”
Interesting. He said “the,” not “our.”
“Will it leave a mark?”
“Not so anyone will notice.”
“Realistically, how much trouble am I going to be in with the council for not obeying their directive to remain in my quarters?” I ask.
“You are not a prisoner, Sirantha. You are an honored guest, and it is their duty to protect you. They will be shamed that you took even a small injury during your stay on Ithiss-Tor.”
“So this can be spun to our advantage?”
I don’t want them to focus on my outlaw tendencies. If they knew what a long, messy history I have of doing the opposite of what I’m told, things could get ugly. I wish I knew why, but it’s so deeply ingrained in me that it doesn’t even feel like an impulse. I process what I’m supposed to be doing, then before I know it, I’m off doing something else entirely, usually for very good reasons, but my motivations don’t change the outcome.
Deep down, I’m sure it has to do with my origins. I was conceived in grimspace. Humanity discovered grimspace via technology seeded by the old ones; we pass through it like a fold in space, allowing us to travel great distances in a short time. I’m one of those gifted with the J-gene, which lets me navigate this primordial matter. At the heart of grimspace lies pure chaos, the maelstrom from which all life originally sprang, so it makes sense to reckon a thread of disorder runs through my very DNA.
“I think it can be,” he says, after a moment’s thought. “But do remember, I have not lived on Ithiss-Tor for many turns. My recollections and assessments may not be entirely accurate any longer.”
“Noted.” I start to apologize again for not asking him for help, but I guess he can read my body language now, because he holds up a hand.
“Shall we see about March?”
“Sounds good,” I agree.
I lead the way from Vel’s quarters back to medical. Along the way, we greet various crew members, who must have been briefed to expect Vel’s natural appearance because they don’t recoil or otherwise react. I can remember a time when March would have touched my mind half a dozen times while we were apart. Right now, I feel incredibly alone and in over my head, despite my significant volume of knowledge regarding Ithtorian culture and customs.
When we arrive, we find Doc wrapping up. Now awake, March looks more than a little edgy, his hands curled into fists on his upper thighs. Doc greets us with a wave, but he doesn’t turn away from the terminal where he’s working on test results.
“Good timing,” Doc says. “Get him out of here, will you, Jax? I need some peace to get this done, and he glares too loud for me to concentrate.”
“Can do,” I say, stifling a snicker. “Come on, you.”
I wish I could reach for him, lace my fingers through his. Instead, we step into the corridor, completely separate. If you’d told me I would one day come to miss having March in my head, I would have said you were crazy. But even more than his mind brushing mine, I miss his physical warmth.
Vel starts to follow, but Doc says, “Velith, if you could stay a minute, I have a couple of questions about the atmosphere on Ithiss-Tor.”
The door swishes shut, and I look at March hesitantly. “It’ll just take an hour or two for Doc to synthesize something. We might as well wait until he’s done.”
That would leave plenty of time for me to get back to my quarters in the council building, and get some sleep before the summit in the morning. Wordless, he nods. I head for our quarters, leaving Doc and Vel to talk.
The vast sea of screens, all playing Jax, has gone back into the wall, leaving the room stark and bare. I remember how I found him watching old vids of me after I woke up from the accident. He didn’t want to face me, didn’t want to admit I was right, and he lost himself on Lachion. It was easier to look at electrical slivers that offered a facsimile.
Separate bunks on opposite sides seem to encapsulate the problems between us. I don’t know how to bridge the gap, and in his current state, March doesn’t even care if I try. He’d rather go back to Nicuan, return to the life that nearly killed him once before.
The old Jax might have written him off as too much trouble. I’m delighted that’s no longer an option for me. Fixing March is my number one priority, apart from my ambassadorial duties.