Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
In the weeks that followed the deployment of the Human and combined ORC fleets to Krevali, little changed on Earth. It was a planet that was not even on the fringes of any potential war, so any death, should it come, would take place so far away it was almost theoretical. One only needed to know which blocks to avoid in order to keep any reminders out of one’s day-to-day life.
One such problematic block happened to contain the Mraboran consulate, which the authorities ensured would not again become the epicentre for the kind of large protest that Angzal and Rzena were swept up in earlier, but which assurance did not extend to dispersing the small crowd that gathered around its entrance every day, because this was mostly targeted at the Mraboran, and minimally disturbed the Human residents of Malbur. For the Mraboran, there was no coming through the front doors anymore, and even Humans who worked in the building, most of them completely unrelated to the consulate, were eyed with suspicion by the irate protestors.
There were other ways in – such as subterranean passages from adjacent buildings – that made the staff feel closer to vermin than guests of this world, but all they did was shrug it off and view the whole situation as the cost of doing business on Earth, leaving their colourful griping confined to the walls of their office.
They had all taken these back entrances, at offices across the planet. All except one. Not the Ambassador, not even a consul, but an upstart deputy consul from one of the lesser of the major Earth cities who, despite being pulled aside by local police on several occasions, insisted she would continue using the front door.
“Please, Deputy Consul, if there is an unfortunate altercation, it would happen too fast for us to be able to protect you.”
“You did a bang-up job of protecting me the last time. I wouldn’t expect this to be any different.”
“As we’ve said, we’re actively pursuing the suspects in the assault on you and your associate.”
Angzal had been pulled aside by three members of the local police force – not the chief, she’d obviously had more important things to attend to, but one of her sergeants, the one with the droopy mustache who smelled vaguely of some kind of boiled vegetable, and two of his officers. They had been waiting for her that morning, so they could have a chat in full view of the crowd that only grew in its agitation, slinging jeers at Angzal that she couldn’t quite make out.
“Far be it for me to tell you how to do your job,” Angzal said, “But I think it would have been significantly easier to pursue them when they were arm’s length from the officers who’d witnessed the assault with their own eyes.”
This Sergeant always tried to start speaking Trade Thorian with her and it seemed to make him visibly uncomfortable to hear a Mraboran respond in Standard Earth Commercial. Not to mention that he’d start sweating his boiled vegetable sweat more anytime she’d show her teeth, so she made sure that her canines were on display as much as possible.
“As we’ve said before, we are internally investigating the incident.”
“Yes, Sergeant, and I’m sure you have your best people on it. Hopefully the same ones that were able to get our man within a mere two hours of the fight he was involved in, even as he was in the process of trying to get off world.” Before the Human managed to sputter anything in response, Angzal said, “Are we finished here?”
“Of course, Deputy Consul, you’re always free to go.”
Angzal glanced behind her at the crowd and then back to the police officer. “That’s an exaggeration and you know it. Thank you for your concerns, Sergeant, I will take them into advisement.”
With that she turned around and headed back towards the protestors who eyed her with acute interest. Despite what many thought, including some at her office, Angzal did not do this to send some kind of message, or as a gesture of defiance. It had been far more base than that. She did it because it fueled her anger. She submitted to the throngs of screeching Humans every morning before work because she secretly hoped that one day one of them would give her just the right excuse to snap, to wreak havoc on their fragile cowardly little bodies and then enter her office, seek diplomatic immunity and then get shipped off to some faraway Mraboran colony hopefully as equidistant from Earth and Mrabr as possible.
On that morning, she reached the doors largely unmolested, the crowds seemingly at least somewhat skittish about the small police presence that watched her go inside. Fine then, she thought, some other morning, and some other idiot, this planet did not have a shortage of them.
“Sergeant Ram thought he’d have a chat with me this morning,” Angzal said as she opened the door to her office. “Should worry more about that moustache of his. What is it with bald-faced species –”
“Shut the door,” Rzena said and the abruptness of this request made Angzal comply without question, not even registering the audacity of it. “You’re lucky you got in when you did. We’re told this’ll probably hit the local news within the hour.”
“What’s going on?” she asked and Rzena passed her his open tablet.
“This was relayed from the Ambassador a few minutes ago, passed through our own emergency communication channels.”
Angzal picked up the tablet, her eyes scanning the text as the sound of her blood rushing through her ears grew ever louder.
“How did this happen?” she asked, hearing her voice turn gravely.
The Human fleet sent to Krevali had been destroyed.
Coming into the office the day following the concluded negotiations between Congressmembers Reyes and Ferrety felt like being in a city on the edge of a hurricane. Her own private skies were gray, the wind was agitating the trees, and Angzal wasn’t sure if the tempest would pass her, or rain destruction over her life. The worst part was it did not seem to affect anyone else. The few people she saw greeted her just as they would any other day, and no matter how the vote would go that afternoon, it would have no effect on their day in the slightest, other than maybe in a couple of months they would need to learn the name of the new Deputy Consul.
Rzena came in late. He’d never come in late before and neither of them drew any attention to this. There was a report that had come in from the previous night that a Mraboran got into a fight with three Humans. Predictably, the three Humans lost, and one of them nearly lost their life, and still could have. Neither Angzal nor Rzena shared their conjectures about how that fight may have started, but it nevertheless hung between them as Rzena denied calls from journalists and Angzal fielded calls from officials.
“Can you keep an eye on the news for me and let me know how the vote goes down?” Angzal asked after getting off a very vague conversation with the regional police chief.
“Already on it,” Rzena said, showing her his tablet that was showing the news feed, while his computer monitor was dedicated for his work, presumably, as it was turned away from Angzal.
“Never took you for one who’d have any interest in the news feeds.”
“This is the most exciting thing to have happened to this rock in a decade.” Rzena shook his head, then looked at Angzal. “I’m not dead inside, contrary to what you might believe.” This definitely was a concept that was difficult for Angzal to wrap her head around as she was certainly feeling increasingly deceased with every passing hour. Perhaps she could make the day go faster if she started packing her desk right then.
Rzena, clearly a creature of habit, readied himself for lunch at precisely the same minute he had every day. “You coming out?” he asked, sounding vaguely bored about the upcoming answer.
“No, I’d rather not.”
“It might do you good,” he offered with a shrug, “Might be a distraction at least.”
“Actually, what’s likely to happen is that someone looks at me slightly askance and I end up tearing their throat out in front of the entire office.”
“Well in that case, the rest of us could use that kind of distraction.”
Angzal waved him off and the door behind Rzena closed.
What she didn’t tell Rzena was that she had completely lost her appetite, but he didn’t need to know that. Sure, she was playing up her mood so that Rzena and her could have a laugh about it, but on the inside, matters weren’t much better than what she was letting on. All she wanted to do was retreat to her den, her apartment, and lick her wounds until this was all over, and the Human Interstellar Dependency Congress could vote to seal her fate.
Her lamentations were interrupted by Rzena’s return from lunch, an early return, which having so far been an unencountered occurrence told everything Angzal needed to know about why he was back.
“You haven’t been watching the news?” he asked, seemingly annoyed that she indeed needed him for such a simple task. He handed her his tablet, and then walked around her desk to watch the broadcast already in progress.
“And a mere hour before the final Congressional debate and vote on the Krevali intervention, Congressmember Frances Reyes, for the Mer Pacific region of Earth, was taken to the Malbur Medical Centre in critical condition. Doctors have so far been unable to determine the nature of Reyes’ sudden illness and she remains under observation in what is described as life-threatening condition.”
“What,” Angzal muttered, mostly to herself. Did Reyes hand over her instructions to her caucus? Did she get a chance to introduce her amendments? And then, shamefully, bringing up the rear: was she going to be alright?
“After some delay, the HID Congress proceeded with the vote in Reyes’ absence, and the motion was carried with no amendments. It is estimated that the bulk of the Human and ORC fleets should reach Krevali within three weeks.”
The broadcast continued into details about the vote itself, cutting away to graphics that set out which factions voted which way, all done up in lavish colours to keep even the idiots engaged. Angzal though no longer was and let the chattering of the Human reporter recede into noise. Noticing this, Rzena took back the tablet and walked back to his desk.
“Well,” Rzena said, switching off the rest of the broadcast, “Congratulations.”
“What?” Angzal raised her eyes and looked at her assistant. “What ‘congratulations’? What the hell was that?”
“What was what?” he asked, turning away from her and back to his screen, “You won, the Humans are sending their ships to Krevali and we can keep doing what we’ve always been doing, which, rounded down, is absolutely nothing.”
“Forget all that.” Angzal was beginning to lose her patience, and the worst thing was, she wasn’t entirely sure where it was coming from. “What about Reyes?”
“What about her?”
“This doesn’t bother you at all? That she looked fine yesterday? A little worn down from the negotiations maybe, but on the verge of something that could keep her from this vote?”
“It’s one Human, Angzal,” Rzena said. “This is nothing to lose sleep over.”
She agreed with this, in principle. Hadn’t she? A Mraboran working for the Mraboran people on a rock inhabited mostly by those who were not like her. What were the Humans truly to her?
“It’s just that. This feels … hollow somehow. Was there even a difference that we made here, or did this illness do our job for us?” Angzal asked.
“Hollow victories still count as victories. And if even victories make you feel hollow, there’s really no hope for you.” He looked up then and seeing her face, laughed and shook his head. Was there anything this man said that he fully meant? “Besides, it seems like her caucus ended up splitting on the issue, so it would appear that you made a difference after all. And that she never introduced her amendment and they ended up sending the full fleet? Not sure the Ambassador would fault you for deferring to Congressmember Reyes’ health problems to solve that.”
He was right. She was going about it all wrong. She should have been thinking ahead to her next conversation with the Ambassador. Surely no glowing praise ought to be expected, but it would go far more pleasantly than their last interaction. It would have to, otherwise what was the point of all this?
“You’re doing well,” Rzena said when the two of them were alone, and Angzal knew she had all his sympathy even though the tone of his voice was meant to project the exact opposite.
“I’m going to get us reassigned,” Angzal said without lifting her head from the table.
“Perhaps, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be included in that.”
“I’m sure I’ll discover a way to take you down with me.”
She opened her eyes to the wood grain of the table staring back at her. Was this faux wood or real? It was hard to say given that even though they had trees on Mrabr, and had used them for furniture and decoration, they were, of course, vastly different species. The colour would have been different, and the pattern itself. Everything here that wasn’t fully foreign was different, sometimes in an uncanny undecipherable way like this tabletop. Angzal wished it was proper for her to unbind her tail, let it twitch and rage in a full display of what she was feeling inside.
“What do you think they’re discussing right now?” Rzena asked, bringing Angzal back to the room.
“I don’t know, probably strategizing on how to get the whole Mraboran Protectorate into a war with the Thorian Empire over a single unremarkable planet.”
“Maybe they’re busy looking for the next flight to Mrabr so she could present her case there personally.”
“She would succeed, too. All they’d have to do is spend fifteen minutes in the room with her and those cowards will be shoving babies into torpedo tubes.”
Angzal lifted her head, looked out the window. The sun had only just begun to set, tempering the outside colours with the blues of early twilight. She envied Ferrety, who was out there, breathing in the fresh salt air blowing in from the bay, instead of sitting here just in case Reyes returned early only to announce that she decided to keep being a problem after all.
“Do you believe any of that?” Rzena asked. “What you said about the Protectorate and our people in general?” Was Rzena asking because he agreed or because it offended him? It was never easy to tell with Rzena.
“I said what I said to get the result our people needed,” Angzal answered.
“Sure, yes, you said it, but did you believe it?”
“Does it matter if I believed it or not?” She was both annoyed that he kept asking and that she didn’t actually have an answer. “Who knows? You say something enough times you start believing it.” The cut on Rzena’s brow was not well-healed but was well-hidden by his fur, and attracted no attention from any of the three Humans who’d been in the room with him. He missed only a single day of work, and when he returned, neither of them talked about what happened during the protest. “Rzena, you’ve been doing this for fifteen years. How tired do you feel?”
“You know when you hadn’t eaten for far too long, and the sharpness of hunger gives way to a numb emptiness? It’s kind of like that.”
Ferrety returned punctually, twenty-eight minutes after Reyes called her half-hour break, but Reyes herself did not afford them the same kind of courtesy. They waited for her mostly in silence, the pool of small talk having been exhausted, but also because they had to steel themselves for whatever onslaught Reyes would return with.
There was something Angzal noticed about Ferrety during that time, glancing at him while the Martian Congressmember was absorbed in his tablet, and that was that the longer you looked at him, the more it seemed like he wasn’t actually there. There was, even when measured against her own limited experiences, something not quite Human about him. It could have been just that she was used to Earth Humans, and not “rockhoppers” as those from Earth referred to the colonists, or it simply could have been that this was the longest day of her life.
Finally, Reyes returned, nearly an hour after she left, and in typical Reyes fashion offered no apologies for her lateness.
Tani Naomi took a seat, but did not pull out his tablet, instead folding his hands in front of him on the table. This was going to be short. So short that Reyes did not bother to sit before she spoke.
“I can’t vote in favour of this – what is in my opinion, completely insane – proposal.” She then lowered herself into her chair, her eyes on her notes, and Angzal wondered why she would even bother sitting down rather than just walking out of the room. It was something in Tani’s face though, how his eyes wondered around the room but didn’t make eye contact, even though the corners of his mouth twitched upwards ever so slightly, that suggested more was coming. Congressmember Reyes settled in her chair, put her arms in front of her on the table and intertwined her fingers. “I do, however, also believe that even insanity deserves to be heard.” She paused, chewed on her lip and gave her assistant the briefest of sideways glances. “I will instruct my block that they can have a free vote on this.” Ferrety nodded with restraint while Angzal felt her own spine slacken. “I don’t know if this will get you the votes you need to tip the balance. Honestly, I doubt it.”
Was this victory? It certainly didn’t feel like defeat. Far more than she expected mere seconds ago but miles from what she’d hoped for. Reyes, though, was not quite done.
“I will let my caucus have a free vote on this, but I will first call for an amendment to reduce the size of the fleet to half of what is currently being proposed. It’s senseless to commit nearly the entirety of our forces to something where other species won’t lift a finger.”
Judging by his expression, Gord Ferrety was going through the same motions as Angzal – relief, annoyance, frustration, trying to forcibly remind oneself to be happy that, in the end, this was better than nothing.
“Thank you, Congressmember,” Ferrety said a little stiffly, “I look forward to working with you on this initiative.”
“I will not be working on any initiative. And there is no need to thank me. There’s no need to feel any kind of satisfaction from this. This has been nothing but a symptom of a failure, and it would be a shame to have reached the stars after so long, only to be slapped back down to the ground. Now if you’ll excuse me,” Reyes said, standing up again, though her hands were still leaning on the table, “A have a Congressional session to prepare for.” Without further fuss, she turned to leave the room, paying no more attention to either Angzal or Congressmember Ferrety.
Only Tani, just as he was about to step out of the door, flashed Angzal a small smile, nodded, and said “Deputy Consul”. Watching him leave, Angzal wondered how someone so seemingly pleasant could be working with Reyes.
“Well I think our work here is done,” Ferrety said, all tension now drained out of him like bad blood.
“Yes, more like ‘done for’,” Angzal answered.
“Oh, cheer up, Deputy Consul. Congressmember Reyes can be very stubborn when she passionately believes in her version of what is right. I think all things considered, we did as well as we could have hoped.”
Angzal saw that the sun had already set, so she offered Ferrety to arrange an escort back to his hotel.
“No, that’s quite alright,” Ferrety said, “I can find my way just fine, maybe take in more of the city before I turn in for the night.” She’d wonder later, what it was that she had seen, if it was anything at all, that brief flash in his small black eyes, as if again he was phasing out of actually being there in the room with them.
With the Humans gone, the conference room now felt huge. Rzena had turned off his tablet and was looking out into the darkness of the window. Did it remind him of that night a week ago? Did it make him hesitant to make the final decision to leave and walk through the evening streets of Malbur back to his apartment? It did for Angzal, and she didn’t want to have been alone in thinking it.
“See you back here tomorrow?” she asked finally, and for a long moment he didn’t answer, and didn’t even look at her.
“And tomorrow and tomorrow,” Rzena added and rose from the table.
“Look, Frances,” Congressmember Ferrety started as Angzal tuned back in, the calm façade in his voice cracking, and the fatigue showing.
“Ah, so I’m finally ‘Frances’ now, Gord?” What did seem indefatigable was Congressmember Reyes’ derisive smile, and her comment made Ferrety steady himself, take a breath, and start over.
“I recognize that there’s grey areas in intervening in the affairs of other people or other species, but I’m having trouble seeing what that grey area is in this case. The Thorians have clearly violated the Treaty of Krevali with this invasion, a treaty that includes the Human Interstellar Dependency as one of its signing members. If we just let them ignore the letter of an agreement that was earned by Human blood, what value does that blood have then? What is the worth of Humanity and Human worlds in the larger universe?”
“And how far do we take this, Gord? What lengths would we be willing to go to in order to defend this affronted dignity of ours? So we send a few ships to make a statement and then what? Would we engage in any direct conflict? Or would we put actual boots on the ground and support a full-scale liberation? It’s a fight we can’t win, Gord,” Reyes’ voice turned quiet, a volume Angzal didn’t think it was capable of reaching, and the way she gathered her eyebrows together, it made her look almost sad. “Not against the Thorians. But there are others that can. Mrabr is so much closer to Krevali than we are and the Mraboran have a history with the Thorians that predates the Great Fire for us. Let them handle it. Provide other support if we must, send resources from the same colonies you claim would be dismissed as irrelevant, but keep our Navy out of it.”
There was something going on behind Ferrety’s small black eyes – the calculations he was going through seemed removed from the conference room and there was a harshness that entered those perpetually slightly puckered lips of his. Could he feel the same thing that Angzal was feeling? That things were slipping out of her control. ‘We want the best’ is what the Ambassador had told her, but Angzal’s best did not reach those standards. How did she find herself on the crest of this ripple – a conversation between two irrelevant Humans that could potentially send a wave to the other side of the Known Reaches, perhaps encouraging the Hatvan to start taking cues from the Thorians? Did Angzal want another flare up like the Hatvan Troubles, or something even worse? Did she want another useless tussle over border worlds that had traded hands dozens of times over the last few thousand years? Would the Ungadath survive another battle over their territory between the two Empires? Or will they go by way of the Jadafeon – obliterated from existence and living on as historical curiosities?
Congressmember Reyes continued to press Ferrety with fantasies of Mraboran, or even more laughably, Hatvan intervention, to the point where Angzal found herself unable to listen anymore. The words were pressing on the inside of her lungs and she thought she would soon burst if she did not interrupt.
“You must recognize, Congressmember, that this is an empty alternative?” Angzal said, finding the impossibly rare break between Reyes’ sentences, and drawing all eyes suddenly on herself. “No one there will step up to do anything no matter how much you fantasize about it. Look at the Mraboran Protectorate. We’ve got our old foes the Hatvan on one side, the Thorians on the other, and internal independence movements that need crushing. Our plate is full, and we’re not about to add the Krevali or anybody else to it. There’s a routine we’ve found ourselves in, and we’re perfectly comfortable with things continuing just as they are. Those who deserve little get little. Those who deserve a lot, get a lot. Those who get to decide who deserves little and who gets a lot? Well, who knows who appointed them to determine that, but no one’s about to question it. The Thorians may have upset the equilibrium we’ve enjoyed for decades, but that will safely remain their problem. Do you think anyone on Mrabr cares what happens to a bunch of backwater savages, or what a species that are two hundred years removed from being backwater savages thinks on the subject of Mraboran relations with the Thorians or anyone else?”
The room remained silent when Angzal finished, sitting there at the edge of her chair and trying to mask her heavy breathing. “You want to make a difference?” Angzal asked. “Then go ahead and make it. But if you want someone else to do the job, then you can just as well wait for this table to launch itself to Krevali.”
Reyes sat, legs stretched out under the table, the fingers of one hand drumming on top of it. Tani’s hand was hovering over his tablet, his eyes staring at the side of the face of the Congressmember that he served. Ferrety was equally immobile, as if afraid to scare away whatever thought process Reyes may have been going through. As for Angzal, all she was at this point was exhausted, and just wanted to go to bed and wake up somewhere that didn’t smell so strongly of Humans; even here, at the Mraboran consulate, there had been no escaping it.
“It’s getting late,” Congressmember Reyes said, sounding as tired as Angzal felt, “And I still need to prepare for tomorrow’s vote.” It had been a valiant effort in any case, Angzal thought and then wondered if perhaps there was some remote Vaparozh mining colony that was about to get a new interpreter. “We’ll need to confer before we wrap this up. Can we use the same breakout room again?”
“Yes, go ahead,” Angzal answered.
“Good, we’ll see you again here in a half hour.” Reyes gave a short nod to the room and then had Tani follow her out the door. When they’d both gone, and left the two Mraboran and the Martian Congressmember to continue avoiding eye contact while fishing for the next thing to say, Ferrety did the sensible thing and excused himself. “Maybe I’ll go take a walk, breathe in some of that fresh Earth sea air.”
“See you back here in half an hour then,” Angzal said, not bothering to hide her resignation, and dropped her head down to the table the moment the door was closed.
“You are of course aware of the alien invasion theory of the Great Fire, Congressmember Reyes?” Congressmember Ferrety asked, and this seemed to catch the attention of the only other Human that was there with them. Reyes’ and Ferrety’s presence consumed the space in the conference room so completely that the man, Congressmember Reyes’ assistant, and who introduced himself to Angzal as Tani Naomi, was somehow easy to forget, despite being so broad of shoulder. He sat next to Reyes, his head low over his tablet as his fingers worked furiously, and he would occasionally whisper things to the congressmember that even Angzal couldn’t hear, even though she was sitting only a few seats away. She noticed that Tani smiled by pressing his lips forward and together, and that he smiled often and generally seemed a much softer contrast to Reyes herself who was all jabbing points and angles. Now he had lifted his head, smiling again at Ferrety’s suggestion that Earth had been invaded by aliens two thousand years ago, and Angzal could swear there was a spark of mischief in Tani’s dark eyes.
“I’m aware of the theory, yes,” Reyes responded, “Though I can’t say I subscribe to it. If you’re about to go into a rendition of the Yanus Susin story, spare me, I know how much you Martians are invested in that one.”
“Wouldn’t think of it,” Ferrety said, raising his hands and leaning slightly away from the table. “But in light of our own history, we have to consider the perspective of the Krevali themselves – hardly even begun to explore their own stellar system. They were probably convinced they were the only ones in the galaxy, with the exception maybe of some dismissed lunatic fringe groups who rightfully believed the signals they’ve been seeing were from others like them. And then the Known Reaches in all their terror start raining death on them from the sky.”
That was the curious contrast between the local press and what Angzal consumed of the Mraboran articles on the matter – the former was all Krevali-centred, much like Ferrety’s colourful rendition, while everything she read from home focused entirely on the Thorians, the Krevali reduced to a mere plot device in larger affairs.
“Oh, you have it, too, Gord?” Reyes asked with a condescending smile and crossed her arms. “I thought you better than that.”
“This saviour’s complex. That we can swoop in and somehow save the Krevali from the Thorians?”
“And that is such a bad thing in your eyes?”
“It is when we’re the ones that are expected to do it.” The smile disappeared, almost at the same time as Tani’s, who lowered himself over his tablet again. “Don’t quote the struggles of the Krevali to me, Gord. What the Thorians have done to them sickens me as much as it does anyone, but it should not be incumbent on Humanity to step in when others are much more capable.” She pointed with a straight open palm to where Angzal and Rzena were sitting, and unlike Congressmember Ferrety, Reyes offered no apologies.
“So if we sit by because everyone else sits by, doesn’t that make is just as bad? How would have Humanity fared in the Great Fire if there was but one voice to step in and protect us from devastation?”
“You are not seriously trying to leverage this preposterous theory to inform our current decisions?”
“And why should I not?” Ferrety’s puckered mouth shifted slightly to one side as if he was in deep contemplation.
“Other than the fact that still no species has taken responsibility for the attack?” The expressions on Congressmember Reyes’ face struck Angzal as chaotic. The only thing that had been consistent were her smiles, always empty, just the baring of teeth in a gesture that seemed all too familiar to Angzal. “What about the fact that most of them weren’t even aware that there was another sentient species hiding out here in this corner of space?”
“Perhaps the invaders had since been destroyed, which is why there’s no record of them?” Ferrety suggested.
“Or because it’s a nationalistic fabrication made to make us feel better about the darkest time in our history, as if we were a victim of anything but our own stupidity, and that can now be leveraged to justify this insane foreign policy,” Reyes said with another empty smile, and slumped back down in her chair, arms still crossed.
At least during the morning session, before they’d broken for lunch, the two Congressmembers were exchanging endless numbers, Tani pitching facts and statistics to Reyes who then hammered them at Ferrety – potential tax increases lined up alongside casualty figures from previous conflicts – both rendered equally soulless when stripped down to talking points inside the small conference room. These were at least tangible concepts that Angzal could keep up with. Now Reyes and Ferrety moved beyond statistics and descended into pure ideology, a mess Angzal was beginning to doubt that she would be able to untangle.
The two Humans continued to debate the ethics and merits of interplanetary and interspecies interventions, throwing out names of planets that Angzal did not readily recognize, snippets from Human history that were irrelevant to everyone but the species directly involved.
There was a distinct possibility, Angzal admitted to herself, that any other Mraboran plucked at random from inside the consulate building would have done a better job than her. Sure, she arranged the rides, the room and the food. Sure, she was able to fill a seat and not tune out the conversation … for more than a minute at a time. But beyond that, what had been her contribution, and what had been her credentials? There was also that observation from Reyes when they last talked, though it was presented by the Congressmember more like an accusation – that Angzal appeared young for the position she was given. Why had she really been pulled in to serve here? Whose bright idea was it for her to fill her predecessor’s shoes? Rzena seemed more than capable of doing better the things that she was tasked to do, if it weren’t for him seeming to lose interest over the years in affairs both Human and Mraboran, a true citizen of the Known Reaches whose only remaining connection to his first home seemed to be through food.
She couldn’t really blame him – there were so few Mraboran on Earth, and most of them she would only see at the consulate. It was like being immersed in a fictional world that ceased to exist when the book was closed, and so outside these walls it was easy to forget that Mrabr, and billions of her people, were actually out there somewhere.
Angzal had met Congressmember Gord Ferrety upon his arrival from Mars two delays earlier , since her duties apparently now included a pickup service at the Malbur spaceport. It was, as Angzal had been told, one of the busiest spaceports on Earth, but coming back for the first time since herself arriving here by orbital shuttle a month earlier, she couldn’t get over how small it seemed. Passengers arrived mostly like herself – descending from the orbital transfer station where large vessels docked to avoid the costs and hassles of atmospheric entry. Ships that were capable of coming down to the surface were also present here, but none of the kind of traffic she was used to – places where one could look up into the sky and pretend they were at the centre of a swarm of insects.
It reminded her of the beach that was across the street from her office, and one that she’d sometimes come down to after a busy day of work. The waves there would break a few feet out into the water, white churn that agitated the sand splashing a few inches up her calf and maybe even up to her knee. And then there were the gentle waves that lapped against the sand, quietly sinking into it and then retreating. This is where she was, the planetary equivalent of the dampened sand at the furthest threshold where the water could touch, the rumble of the waves but a distant sound that hardly rose up over the background noise.
Gord Ferrety had neatly fit into her conception of Humanity’s place in the Known Reaches, arriving as one of a thousand passengers that were brought down in an orbital transport from the transfer station, stepping out of the gate with no entourage, and a single bag in tow. Meanwhile, the Mraboran ambassador travelled with a staff of seven on a surface-landing private vessel that was conspicuously absent from the planet at the moment, the Ambassador seeing fit to do her business from Mars for the time being.
Congressmember Ferrety spotted Angzal first, perhaps noting the one stationary Mraboran in a churning sea of Humans. This was her other complaint about Earth – for a capital planet, it sorely lacked for species other than its native one. As for Ferrety himself, she would not have pegged him for a politician. With loose fitting dark clothing, including an unseasonably warm jacket, and with his jet-black hair nearly coming down to his shoulders in an oily mop, he resembled more a petty thug than a member of the HID Congress. His long nose gave him the appearance of a bird, while his puckered mouth gave him the air of something aquatic, in others words, prey to the core.
“Deputy Consul Angzal gan Mreniyaur?” Ferrety asked, extending his hand in the traditional Human greeting. What was it with Humans and wanting to touch each other the second they just met? An unseemly tradition that made Angzal’s skin crawl very time she was forced to participate in it.
“Congressmember Ferrety. Please, ‘Angzal’ is just fine.”
“Oh, do call me ‘Gord’. This whole ‘Congressmember’ business feels too formal. I’m ‘Gord’ back home and ‘Gord’ here.”
As far as Angzal knew, Mars was no quiet backwater rock, by Human standards anyway. It was Earth’s oldest colony, and Gord Ferrety wasn’t even the only congressmember to represent the planet. Whatever face Congressmember Ferrety was trying to put on, Angzal figured she’d just play along.
“So, Gord, how was your trip?” Angzal asked as she led them to the chauffeured personal transport that the consulate had sent for them.
“Oh, it was fine,” Ferrety answered, hands in the pockets of his jacket. “I’ve made the trip so many times I hardly even notice it these days.”
“So have you lived your whole life on Mars?” She was speaking to Ferrety, but her eyes were flitting around the terminal, picking up on the wide-mouthed stares and the craned necks, realizing in a place like this, she might have actually been some of these people’s first Mraboran that they’d ever seen.
“No, I’m originally from a distant colony world that is now under the control of the Mraboran Protectorate.”
Seeming to catch the expression of concern on Angzal’s face, which was less out of sympathy and more out of worry that her history knowledge had missed this skirmish between the Humans and her own people, Ferrety continued, “Oh it was nothing like that, just some redrawn boundaries. Pure politics. But ever since, I’ve had a special place in my heart for all those periphery worlds that are so easily forgotten when you’re at the core of it all.”
And it was these periphery worlds and the few votes in Congress that they held that would need to carry the day for either side of this debate.
“Are you looking forward to this meeting with Congressmember Reyes?” Angzal asked, looking for someone to dread it together with since Rzena seemed to actually be looking forward to seeing the chaos that it might inflict on Angzal’s life.
“Well,” Congressmember Ferrety answered slowly, “I wouldn’t so much say that I’m looking forward to it, but I am hopeful.”
“You’ve met Congressmember Reyes before?”
“You’d be surprised to know that Congressmember Reyes and I agree on many things. Unfortunately, we seem to have drifted apart on this one.”
They stepped out of the terminal and Ferrety stopped, looked up at the sky, and took a deep breath with his eyes closed.
“Ah, it never does get quite like this on a terraformed planet. How about you, Deputy Consul? What kind of world are you from?”
Angzal flared her own nostrils and found the aromas of home woefully lacking.
“I’ve pretty much spent my entire life on Mrabr.”
“Ha! Well, I bet Mrabr makes Earth look like Mars by comparison. Though I’d wager you’ve never seen anything like the Mer Pacific when you were growing up.”
“No, nothing quite like that.”
Now in the stuffy conference room with congressmembers Reyes and Ferrety going back and forth with each other, Angzal let her eyes wonder to the window and that body of water shimmering under the sun outside the consulate. Of course, this was only a bay, and even though she’d been here a month she still wasn’t sure if it technically opened into the Mer Pacific or one of Earth’s other oceans, but in any case even here the vastness of it was unmistakable. It was a great expanse of unknown that reminded Angzal of the blackness of space, and it must have built in early Humans an unquenchable thirst for exploration. With that kind of spirit, she wondered, what would have happened had their species not set themselves back by two millennia, right around the time of the Thorian Civil War when the Empire was at its weakest. Instead, they were now relegated to bickering in the periphery. She recalled the last conversation she had with Reyes and how Angzal had said that she herself enjoyed no privilege and merely gnawed at the scraps from the big table. But Reyes had been right, here is where the real fight for the scraps was taking place.
One would think that with everyone now well fed, and on the Mraboran Protectorate’s dime to boot, the talks would resume in a more orderly fashion, but Congressmember Frances Reyes of Earth had different ideas.
“You do realize, Congressmember Ferrety, that it’s your children that would be sent to die in this conflict?” she asked before anyone even had a chance to settle back into their seats in the small conference room on one of the top floors of the consulate building.
Straight to dead children, Angzal thought; Reyes really didn’t have a pause button. Gord Ferrety, one of the members of the Human Interstellar Dependency Congress who represented Mars, did not skip a beat in the face of the sudden challenge.
“Yes, I realize the colonies have a more disproportionate uptake into the HID and ORC navies, but it’s due entirely to desperation. You’re citing the problem itself to undermine the solution to it.”
Problem. Solution. Got it. Angzal hoped that Rzena was taking better notes than she was.
This was the second day of the discussions between the two Human Congressmembers and Angzal’s final chance to prove herself and possibly avoid being shipped off to an even more remote and irrelevant rock, though such a bleak place was difficult to imagine. The Human Interstellar Dominion Congress was taking its vote tomorrow – on whether to approve both the intervention by the HID fleet, and by the fleet of the Outer Rim Confederacy which the Humans were a part of, in the current situation developing around Krevali, the pre-space-age world that the Thorian Empire recently conquered.
“And you’re the one proposing to douse flames with gasoline, thinking it’ll work just because it’s a liquid,” Reyes continued, and Angzal wished the Congressmember could sit in her chair for longer than a few seconds at a time. “If this blows up into another Last Gasp, and no one should be putting it past the Thorians, it could tie up our fleet for a decade. It would be our periphery worlds that would be most vulnerable to pirates filling that vacuum.”
“The pirates haven’t been a significant issue for years,” Congressmember Ferrety replied with a patience that seemed almost admirable to Angzal, “The continuing poverty and resource scarcity on the other hand …”
“Won’t be improved by this war no matter what you’ve led yourself to believe.”
“Don’t write this off as simple-minded belief, Congressmember.” Ferrety’s mouth, which seemed to have a constant pucker about it, took on the form of a pout whenever he was especially displeased with what Reyes was saying. “I know even for you it’s tempting to think of us colonists as simple-minded rockhoppers that need the wise citizens of Earth to tell us what’s good for us. But believe me when I say there’s a lot of sentiment out there that Earth needs to do more to make Human worlds more relevant in the Known Reaches, or they will continue to languish like irrelevant, well, ‘rocks’.”
He said this calmly, almost kindly, projecting the very model of the provincial politician, with nothing but love for his neighbours and boundless hospitality for strangers. Angzal wondered how much of this was an act.
“You’re from Mars, Ferrety. You can hardly describe yourself as being out in the boondocks. Only thing closer to Earth is Luna. And don’t think I’ve forgotten how much of our shipbuilding gets done on Mars. I’m sure this kind of foolish crusade would do wonders for your economy.”
Congressmember Ferrety’s puckered lips seemed to project themselves further from his face as he regarded Reyes with his small black eyes. He had surely known this accusation was coming; even Rzena was helpful enough to provide this background to Angzal ahead of time. But talking to Frances Reyes was like drinking from a fire hose – an overwhelmingly difficult task even if you were dying of thirst.
Reyes was one of the most vocal supporters of the non-interventionist position and by extension, despite being born and raised on Earth, was a great champion for the HID colonies, who generally preferred Earth stay out of interplanetary politics and stick to supporting its own worlds. Reyes advocated the idea that not only was it inappropriate for Humans, a race that were relative newcomers to space travel, to be involved in conflicts between other races, but also that it was incumbent on well-established and well-resourced races, like Angzal’s Mraboran, to act as the mediators, and where necessary, police.
Congressmember Ferrety of Mars, on the other hand, was a spokesperson for a relatively small group of HID colonies that believed a more proactive Earth would attract more economic interest from the Known Reaches to some of the HID’s periphery worlds. Between Reyes’ and Ferrety’s factions, the entire vote hung in the balance, and Angzal’s career along with it.
The Mraboran Ambassador’s instructions to Angzal were quite clear – facilitate the discussions between Reyes and Ferrety to ensure that the vote carries, that the Human and ORC fleets are dispatched to meddle in the situation around Krevali, and take any heat off the Mraboran themselves. They had been at these discussions for all of the previous day and also all of that morning, and with the vote looming tomorrow, Angzal’s tail pulled with anxiety at the leather bindings that kept it strapped close to her body.
“Every well-resourced older colony has some kind of hand in supplying ships for our space fleet, Congressmember,” Ferrety said, his fingers lying on top of the conference table while his thumbs dug impatiently into its side, “Surely you don’t mean to dismiss all of us due to these economic realities? The ships we end up building and providing crews for, once this is all over – they will return to patrol our own borders in greater numbers. We can ensure that HID and ORC sovereignty is defended, and anyone would have second thoughts about pushing us around, whether it be pirates, the Thorians, Hatvan or Mraboran.” He held Reyes’ gaze and after a few moments, turned towards Angzal and Rzena. “No offence meaning, of course.”
Angzal showed her right hand, palm up and with no visible claws, as a gesture of goodwill.
Captain Pueson stepped away from the prisoner towards the corner of the room, forcing the other two to follow, and then asked in a hushed voice, “Is this true, Commander? Is it possible that our prisoner ensured that the explosive device in that crate did not come aboard the Forseti?”
Boro’s throat was still tight, and now it was dry to boot. “It’s within the realm of possibilities based on what we’ve seen,” he said acidly, “But there’s no reason why we should believe it.”
“What about the unexploded device?” Captain Pueson asked. “Could that be linked somehow?”
“Something to consider,” Boro answered in a strained voice.
“Doctor, has he always talked like this?” the Captain asked.
“He’s been going on like that since he regained consciousness yesterday,” Dr. Ory Sufai answered, her voice entering a higher register that did not reflect her age, “I’ve tried to ignore it, but that hasn’t stopped him.”
“Oh it’s so nice to hear the murmur of your voices.” The prisoner’s head lay flat and facing up, though his eyes were now closed. “It’s such a lovely song. Full of emotion and sorrow and love, an undeniable soul at the core of it all. A tender, real soul.”
His eyes remained closed as the three Forseti crewmembers returned to his bedside, the faintest smile on his face, something about it vaguely uncanny, as if the primitive stem at the core of Boro’s brain could sense that something was wrong with the creature on an unseen level.
“If you’re telling the truth, that you tried to save the ship,” Captain Pueson said, though if it were up to Boro, this ludicrous possibility would not even be entertained, “Then who was the one who tried to destroy it?”
“The other one, of course. She’s got no connection to us. That is, it’s her progenitor that doesn’t. Her progenitor and ours well, they don’t see eye to eye,” he smiled gently then, a completely unnerving gesture, “That’s between us though, it’s nothing you need to concern yourselves about.”
Captain Pueson’s large round face loomed over their nameless prisoner, his mouth opened slightly as it always did when the Captain’s mind was churning particularly thorny thoughts, but the expression in those mismatched green eyes remained placid, perceiving no danger and seeming to not even scratch the surface of the serious situation he found himself in. If it weren’t for the Captain and the Doctor, Boro would surely have been able to find a way to snap his attention back from whatever clouds it had found itself in. All Boro had at his disposal though were words.
“I think when our ship is almost destroyed that gives us plenty of reason to be concerned,” Boro said.
“Of course, I’m sorry. When all you hear is the whole of you, that beautiful mass that is you, it’s sometimes hard to remember the little pinpricks that come together.” The doctor silently pushed between Boro and Captain Pueson, and leaned in to raise the black arc of the medical scanner over the prisoner.
“What are you –” Boro began to ask but Dr. Sufai interrupted. “Just keep him talking.”
The prisoner didn’t seem to mind this, his green eyes briefly flitting to the scanner in curiosity and then turning back to Boro.
“I’m sorry about that young man,” the prisoner said, “I really am. I realize that life can be so fragile when you’re all alone. But, you should be safe now. We’re the only ones they sent. They thought it would be different this time. But as you can see, it wasn’t. I thought I could do it, but when I saw you there, when your voices emerged from the crowd and I finally lain my own two eyes upon your magnificence, I couldn’t do it. Not sure if my progenitor would be displeased or happy with that. But you get to continue and I think that counts for something, so that I may hear your beautiful song.”
Honeyed words, to be sure, but ones that gave Boro no comfort. He felt instead that continued sensation that they had somehow touched him, in ways that were not appropriate, and made him want to throw up. He stepped away and through the door to the main part of the medbay, with Captain Pueson and Dr. Sufai following.
“I don’t know about you, Captain,” Boro said lowering his head, in an attempt to signal to the Doctor that she was excluded from this part of the conversation, “But I’m not entirely reassured by those ravings.”
“I hear you Commander, but we’re well on our way and I don’t see how it would make a difference now one way or another.” Captain Pueson looked towards their prisoner, who was now contentedly staring up into the blackness of the scanner hanging over his head. “If there’s others like him out there, they’ll be hard-pressed to find us.”
“Unless the technology that lets them create that can also see right through our ghost.”
“Best not to worry yourself with that, I think, Boro.” The Captain, in one of his rare instances of first-name address, put his hand on Boro’s shoulder and gave it a slight shake. “Besides, a few months by himself in the brig, maybe he’ll change his mind about how much he’s willing to share. Doctor, I want him out of here and transferred into the brig as soon as you believe it appropriate.” They both then turned to the Doctor, who was regarding them with a cool even expression, her hands in front of her, the fingers of one wrapped around the thumb of the other. “Once he’s well enough, please contact Indario and they will provide the appropriate escort.”
Boro did not entirely believe that the Doctor would be willing to give their prisoner the proper bill of health when the time came, but still she answered with a “Yes, Captain,” and a nod that involved mostly her eyes.
“In the meantime,” the Captain continued, “See if you can uncover anything else about …” he paused, took a few steps towards the door of the prisoner’s room and asked, “Do you have a name, by any chance?
“A name? No, I don’t, or …,” the prisoner lifted his chin so he could look in Captain Pueson’s direction, “Not in the sense that you understand them, but if it helps, you may call me Isht.”
Captain Timofie Pueson took his time getting down to medbay, arriving with a sidearm neural devastator gun – not the best aim though effective in closed quarters, and entirely unnecessary given the restraints the prisoner found himself in. Boro immediately had Dr. Sufai brief Pueson on her discovery.
“This is troubling,” the Captain said, staring at the image of the double helix like he could actually understand something within it, “If the Thorians or even the Hatvan have access to this kind of technology … there could be others like him anywhere.”
“Well, now we also have access to this technology,” Boro nodded in the direction of the prisoner’s room. “I’m sure it won’t take much to reverse engineer whatever has been done to him.”
The doctor shifted uneasily in her seat as he said this. Ory Sufai would clearly be of no help in this endeavour, but once they delivered the prisoner back into Human Interstellar Dominion hands, there might be some progress.
“No sense in wasting any more time,” the Captain said, “Doctor, are we able to see the prisoner now?”
“He’s conscious and restrained, if that’s what you’re asking,” she said and then followed them out of her office. Boro noted that she did not correct the Captain on his use of the word ‘prisoner’ as she led them to his holding room, and opened the door for them.
The fake Intelligence officer lay on the bed, his feet, hands and chest all held down, staring up into the ceiling, looking every bit disturbingly Human.
As they walked into his field of vision, he turned his head, his pale green eyes focusing, the larger one opening as if in surprise while the smaller one lagged behind.
“Ah, visitors,” he said, “And here I thought that the good doctor was the only one left aboard this ship.”
“We’re not visitors,” Boro corrected, lacking any interest in humoring another basket case, “This is Captain Timofie Pueson and I’m sure you know who I am.”
“Yes, Commander Stevin, of course. I hear you were very brave during the whole ordeal, you should be very proud of yourself. Though I’m sorry about the loss of that young man. He struck me as someone who would not pick a flower but admire it more than someone who would.”
“What?” Boro growled quietly in response. Reverse engineering be damned – best course of action was clearly to stuff him in an airlock.
Captain Pueson, before stepping closer to loom over the prisoner, shot his Second-in-Command a look but Boro ignored it. “We need to know who sent you,” the Captain said. “Who else knows about this mission?”
“Your eyes, Commander,” the prisoner continued, ignoring the Captain’s question. “They’re very dark. But the darkness there contained, is multitudinous.” That answer, combined with the look in those mismatched green eyes that made it seem like their prisoner wanted to reach out and gently caress Boro’s face was unsettling, so Boro stepped in with his own query. “What are you? We know you’re not Human, so what were you originally?”
“Captain. Captain Pueson. Captain Timofie Pueson. I can feel what you’re thinking. Not everything, not all of it, but some of it comes out, spills out of your mouth and your eyes, even your skin. When I’m this close, I can actually sense the pinprick that is you, among all the noise. Same with you, Commander, and you, Doctor.”
The words he spoke were disturbing enough in their own right, but it was something about the way he was speaking, so soothing and almost comforting, that it touched something inside Boro that he did not need anyone’s hands on. His throat tightened at this and the room started to feel too small.
“Stop avoiding our questions and spewing gibberish,” Boro warned, though somehow he knew that it wasn’t gibberish at all.
“I’m sorry, I’m just fascinated. My progenitor has certainly interacted with Humans before but my personal iteration has not.”
“Who is the ‘progenitor’?” The Captain asked and his voice seemed to quaver, more so than Boro thought it usually did. The Doctor just kept her distance and Boro wondered how many of these conversations she’d already had with the green-eyed alien. “Is the progenitor who sent you to destroy the Forseti?”
“Sent me to destroy? I guess …” the prisoner’s mismatched eyes unfocused for a second, one briefly staring off into an independent direction from the other, “I guess that’s why I was sent, but not what I was sent for.”
“Are you trying to deny that you and your co-conspirator tried to set off an explosive on our ship?” Boro asked, and almost took a step backwards when the prisoner turned his head in his direction and pointed those green eyes straight through him, his mouth slightly open in what looked like confusion.
“That’s not true though, is it, Commander? Surely you must have seen some security tapes. I was the one who saved the Forseti. Humans are our people, not like with that other one. I don’t know if she survived, but if she did, I recommend she not be allowed to do so for much longer. But in any case, I said too much already. Always with our progenitor, we have this problem, never anyone else it seems.”
Boro had of course seen the tapes, had watched on repeat that split second where he’d lost control, where the green-eyed fake Intelligence officer lunged for the controls of the crate and managed to reach them, because it was his dark-eyed partner that had been marked by the Parsk Nahur as the first to get shot. Boro had assumed that the reason the crate ended up lurching backwards into Tuka instead forwards into the Forseti, was because the prisoner had made an error. Boro was not ready though to consider that the words of the disguised alien were the truth and that the crate was launched away from the ship intentionally. Especially since Boro had not alluded to this potential version of events in any of his reports.
I’ve found it difficult to find the right words to say.
I find silence just as hard to maintain.
I have made no secret about my opinion of the country I grew up in – the one my parents and grandparents were born. I consider it a fortuitous badge of honour that my family moved away three weeks before the man currently running Russia came to power. And I want to be clear, when I use the word ‘running’, I mean that he is running it into the ground.
There are few, if any, pairs of countries on this planet that are as interconnected through family as Russia and Ukraine are. This war of aggression is nothing short of fratricide, perpetuated by a man intent on carving his legacy using the blood of his people and the blood of the people closest to them. No matter what bald-faced lies are fed about the alleged noble intentions of a war that is laughably passed off as a war of liberation, this is nothing short of a crime against humanity.
There will be be forever etched into the history books something called the Russo-Ukrainian War – an abomination that should have never come to be. And I know that people around the world are horrified by the newest invasion but they won’t be truly able to appreciate the heaviness of this tragedy.
To me, the conflict would forever be defined by a question that would haunt me forever – the first words my mom said to me when we first spoke after the invasion had been declared: “How does it feel waking up an aggressor?”
How does it feel to wake up and once again be a part of a great people led to commit great harm by a seemingly ceaseless succession of evil men?
How does it feel to look in the mirror and see yourselves related to the bad guys?
There are no words that I can say that would properly convey how much I condemn this war, how much I condemn what we’re doing, because, make no mistake, it is still that ‘we’ that sits like a thorn in my heart.
There is a naïve hopeful part of me that believes this can kick off a chain of events that can turn the page to a new chapter in Russian history, and perhaps we will finally wake up and have something to be proud of.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.