Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
“You’re concerned that we shouldn’t trust the Thorian?” Captain Pueson asked, as if Boro’s response would make any difference as to how this mission would be conducted.
With Surch and Pueson, Boro may have been a bit more unrestrained in his answer, but there was one other individual on the bridge, the Parsk Nahur. The weapons specialist hovered over his console meekly, despite his height, though he loudly announced his presence with the heavy perfume he used to mask his species’ incredibly offensive aroma. Two massive cheek pouches rested on his permanently hunched shoulders and stored and absorbed slowly dissolving food within their fleshy confines. Between this, their lack of hair, and the open nose through which they talked, the Parsk Nahur were not the most pleasant experience to be around. Pueson stood right over him, and Boro wondered how he could stand it. Whoever thought assigning a Parsk Nahur to a bridge position possessed a twisted sense of humour that Boro almost admired.
“I know Mikarik has been vetted to death by those far better at judging character than me,” Boro preempted the pacifying assurances he knew the Captain was ready to sling at him, “but having him here, looking over our shoulders, breathing down our necks. He already makes most of the crew nervous, and having him up here isn’t going to help much. Meslina will certainly be less than pleased.”
“Officer Meslina is a professional, and I’m sure she will handle herself professionally whatever the circumstances. And I would expect the same from you, Commander,” Captain Pueson said in his usually hushed tones, making it impossible to determine if this was an actual admonishment.
“I would expect the same from myself, Captain. But I have my own responsibilities to this crew, which is why I want to be on the record that I’m not happy with this arrangement.”
“We’re not here to be happy.”
“And that’s one of my biggest problems with the Navy, honestly,” Surch chimed in. “If Boro is on the record over his complaint, I want that one to be mine.
A non-committal smile crossed Captain Pueson’s lips. “Thank you, Lieutenant Guraty. What we’re here for is the mission, and you know as well as I that we’re not going to navigate through the expanse of the Thorian Empire without insider knowledge, even while ghosted.”
“That’s just it.” Boro continued, “I still don’t think we need to needle right through it. With enough provisions we could’ve skirted around the edges of Dead Space and no one would be the wiser. No Thorians to worry about on the outside, and certainly none to worry about on the inside.”
“You’re fully aware that we don’t have the luxury of that kind of time.”
“Yes, I’m fully aware that the science team is worried that the wormhole might close before we get there and they have a chance to play around in it. A science team full of Iastret, mind you, who’re not the ones who have to keep this ship together while we’re carrying a fox in the henhouse.”
Whatever the Captain had to say in response was interrupted by the blare of the intercom which the Parsk Nahur flicked on with his fleshy finger.
“Captain, this is Dr. Sufai. I’m in the galley and there’s a uh … disagreement and it might end up needing my attention, so …” As if offered as evidence, the intercom caught the clang of metal in the background, and Pueson turned to Boro.
“Do you mind taking this one?”
“Not at all.”
Surch turned around in his chair and looked up at Boro. “Leaving us so soon? Look at you, it’s like your whole day is ruined.”
Boro only smiled wider at the accusation. “I’m sure this won’t take more than a few minutes.”
“Maybe not, but the paperwork will. Glad it’s you and not me.”
“You sure you don’t want to come up with me, be an extra witness?”
“Nah, I’m good right here.” Surch patted both the steering spheres and turned his attention back to the screen.
Pilots. Boro couldn’t understand it – how they could sit all day in those chairs, but I guess that’s why they made them even more luxurious than the ones set aside for the Captains.
Other than the more utilitarian parts of the ship, like the bridge and the engine room, the Forseti did its best to make its inhabitants forget that they were even on a starship. Heavy-duty blue carpets layered over laminate flooring lined the public areas of the ship, while plasticized wood paneling covered the bulk of its interior walls, giving the reinforced wood a slight sheen but otherwise to an undiscerning eye passing for unmodified material straight from the homeworld. Screens depicting passing scenery were fitted into the walls like windows, creating the illusion that they were not actually hurtling through the bleakness of subspace.
Unlike long-haul passenger liners where most were expected to put themselves in stasis, the Forseti had personal cabins for each crewmember that made efficient use of space but were decorated with the same faux-windows and a few drought-tolerant plants. Boro tried experimenting with a static landscape, but knowing that he was on a constantly moving object made for an unsettling effect.
On today’s visual menu were purple and green flats speckled by lakes of varying sizes. If Boro had to guess, they were soaring over Mrabr, the Mraboran homeworld. It wouldn’t have been Boro’s first pick as he preferred to bask in something closer to home.
Timofie Pueson may have been the Captain, in the strictest sense of the word, but Boro Stevin knew that the Forseti was his ship. Captain Pueson spent the majority of his time holed-up on the bridge, likely staring into the great black beyond; a pastime that would have left someone with a hungrier intellect starved to death. Not to mention that he willingly chose to never set foot inside a stasis pod. There were a handful of such weirdos on board, including the Thorian and the Techever.
Pueson’s captainly attention was largely limited to the dozen or so Navy personnel in the mostly Human crew, though he did seem to wear as a badge of pride each occasional debriefing or chance encounter in the galley with the civilian side of their operation. After each such meeting, Captain Pueson would go on at length about how even though this was first and foremost a military operation, it served to have an appreciation for everything that was going on aboard the ship. The fact that Pueson would muse about this in that soft voice that Boro considered unbecoming of a ship’s captain, always added a sprinkle of irony to this lecture, particularly coming from an otherwise tall imposing man crowned by a round head that was covered in short dark hair that seemed desperate to crawl away in every direction.
Captain Pueson was one of those dime-a-dozen officers of the ORC Navy fleet, contributing not so much to regression but at the very least to the stagnation of Human potential in the Known Reaches. Himself Boro saw primarily as the son of Admiral Avanthy Stevin, hero of the battle of Krevali that concluded the War of the Last Gasp. This made Boro an heir to the kind of bold leadership that could pave Humanity’s way through the stars. He therefore chose to bring more hands than mouth to this hands-on approach to the ship, preferring to seep like blood into every corner of the Forseti, sometimes even when it was on stasis rotation. The ship ran on a standard Navy schedule with a maximum of one week in pods and a minimum of two weeks out. Boro largely adhered to the regime, except for the occasional day that he spent mostly alone with the ship, away from the cranky civilians who were used to clocking themselves out for large chunk of a journey and, lacking discipline to keep themselves occupied for long periods of time, did not appreciate being forced to bend their schedules to the ORC Navy crew.
Despite the preference to free-roam his domain, even Boro was beholden to official mandatory duty schedules, which is how he found himself bidding a reluctant goodbye to Ory Sufai, the ship’s doctor, and Aimi Ishikawa, the head engineer, and heading from the galley down to the bridge.
When Boro entered the bridge, a domed room that had just the right space for the seven to eight individuals that were normally stationed there, with a recessed platform in the middle for the pilot’s chair, Captain Pueson barely moved his head in acknowledgement. “Commander Stevin, it’s been so long I was afraid I wouldn’t recognize you the next time I saw you.” It had been two days since Boro’s last bridge shift, though he supposed that when your surroundings change as frequently as that of a lonely hilltop tree, that would be the equivalent of half an eternity.
Still, Surch Guraty chuckled from the pilot’s chair. “The disguised prince returns from mingling with the common folk.”
The Captain gave his own version of a chuckle, which was more of a whispered wheeze, and went back to his work.
Boro crossed his arms and stood on the main floor, behind and slightly above Surch, studying the massive display at the head of the bridge, which was currently showing the sector map. Surch, who primarily flew fighters on sub-light engines for most of his career, found it unsettling that when skimming subspace on long hauls there was no frame of reference to be seen for the pilot outside the ship but a darkness devoid even of starlight.
“How are we doing for time?” Boro asked as the sector map zoomed out to encompass their destination.
“About four weeks out of Yshot Station,” Surch replied, his hand resting on one of the molded spheres in his chair’s armrests that served as his controls. “Which is about two days better than we were expecting. I haven’t flown anything that required so little in terms of manual course corrections. You could probably put me in cold storage right now and we’d still get to that wormhole right on schedule.”
“It’s easy to forget because it doesn’t look like much, but the Forseti is a credit to the ORC fleet,” Captain Pueson pointed out. Surch threw a conspiratorial look back at Boro. The Captain may have felt the need to pump the tires of the ORC, but with only one Winti on board and no Fusirs, this was clearly a Human ship despite the odd incursion here and there from alien species.
“Only four short weeks, huh,” Boro said under his breath.
“Something troubling you, Commander?” Pueson asked.
“Not so much ‘troubling’, but a sense that the bridge is about to get a bit too crowded.”
“You talking about the Thorian? Seems like a decent enough guy,” Surch replied.
“For a Thorian,” Boro added.
“That goes without saying.”
Surch tended to share Boro’s belief that the non-Navy members of the crew were a nuisance foisted upon them as a result of political appeasements rather than sound military decision making, but unlike Boro, who believed it was a leader’s responsibility to make sure that even a nuisance should be studied and put to good use, Surch took the Captain’s approach, preferring to hole up in the “brain” of the ship as he liked to call it. This disappointed Boro, given that during their Academy days together Surch Guraty showed a lot of promise, but now on their first commission in years, Surch was merely the pilot while Boro rose as high as second-in-command.
“I have no problem with Mr. Mikarik as an individual,” Boro continued. “But that doesn’t mean I have to like him being here with us on a daily basis.”
“Do you have any other concerns, Governor?” Kalirit asked.
“There is also the troubling matter of the Creeper incident we had in one of our major ports last month. One of our docking facilities was reporting an unusually high incidence of absenteeism, and when the security forces were sent to investigate the delinquents, a raid on one of their homes uncovered a den of Creeper users. I’d heard scattered reports of an increase in the use of this drug, but to have it land on my shores is unacceptable. We cannot afford losses of efficiency at a time like this. The Shoaman Kai has cleaned up this particular den, but I’m assuming that Eitherorik has a handle on rooting out the smugglers and dealers.”
“Are we sure it was the same drug? I hear some Hatvan opiates have a similar effect.”
“Creeper is no joke, High Commissary, and this incident shouldn’t be attributed to mere laziness. Perhaps on Varakan you’ve become so comfortable that you can afford lapses in work ethic, but not so here in the Chiartries system.”
“I understand your concerns Governor, but we believe the issue has been blown out of proportion. As you’ve said, the reports are scattered and we have no reason to think that it’s as widespread as some would like to believe. Eitherorik has informed me that the Shoaman Kai had recently intercepted a small shipment of Creeper on Kheim. If this is the scale they’re working on, we needn’t concern ourselves too much.”
“It may be a small problem for you, but I don’t believe there’s any small problem that can’t get big.” He was right, Kalirit thought, but she imagined that he was not talking about himself at that moment.
“If I could remind you, Governor, that just last decade we had a brief Hydraflax epidemic, and it was handled swiftly. Our labourers work hard, and sometimes they seek release through avenues that are ill-advised. I sincerely hope that whatever instructions were handed down from your office to the local branch of the Shoaman Kai with respect to how to deal with this problem had taken that into account.”
The recording was about to enter into another head-scratching loop, but Kalirit spared Fainreshlin the pain of standing there mute. “We now have the intercepted shipment from Kheim, and I expect that this will lead us to the source of the problem in due course.”
“It is the least we expect.”
“And we always exceed expectations. Until next time, Governor.”
“Good luck, High Commissary.” The recording flickered out and Kalirit plucked the data pad out of its recess to toss it into the outgoing communication pile on her desk. Even Fainreshlin’s breathing seemed so loud that it made it difficult for Kalirit to hear her own thoughts, but now in the silence of her office she played through the conversation again.
She hadn’t expected the narcotic to arrive on Chiartries quite so soon. Up until a year ago, few had even heard of the ancient parasite eggs known as Creeper, as their supply was confined to reclusive death cults and the ultra-rich. But a synthesized version of the slightly luminescent amber spheres had now made it from its first recorded sighting on Vesh Mav all the way to Chiartries, almost a quarter-span of the Empire. Still, its alleged range seemed to be confined to the periphery of the Anthar Kai, and so even the very mention of it was unlikely to reach the core worlds for a while. It would sooner seep across their borders into the Mraboran Protectorate or even the Hatvan Empire. Kalirit thought it could be interesting to watch how they handled a full-blown epidemic, but having Creeper spread too quickly wouldn’t do anyone any favours. Curiously, despite this far-flung range, Eitherorik reported only one seized shipment, so either the Shoaman Kai hadn’t been doing its job well or, for whatever reason that was probably obvious to the younger generation, he was underreporting.
She leaned over her desk and ran her fingers along the engraved crown of broad leaves above an agitated ocean, the emblem of the Anthar Kai, the “the mother’s mouth”, built to feed and clothe a fledgling empire, now a gaping maw that threatened to swallow her whole, that had grown beyond the comprehension of all her predecessors, all those who were blinded to its power because they never could see the whole picture at once. Men like Fainreshlin relied on it, derived their entire being from it, but at the end of the day they merely suckled at its teat and weren’t able to offer anything in return or to properly leverage their position. For those like the Governor, status and a morsel of power was the pinnacle of their ambition.
She looked at her empty inbox. Every dispatch that required her immediate attention had been dealt with, but the one she was most impatient to receive was conspicuously absent. The in-person audience with the Presidium was turning into a sure thing, and Kalirit was not looking forward to losing her grasp on the certainty that came out of being stationary; where communications times could be calculated to the day and where there was no risk of crossing paths with a message sent from the very destination she was headed to.
She reflected ruefully how she had settled into sedentary work, a far cry from forty years prior when she restlessly hopped to each corner of the Anthar Kai holdings as she ignored the call of the stasis pods. Now she felt as though she’d grown into these walls and the prospect of separation sent arrows of discomfort from her forearms to her shoulders.
The Presidium was the only entity for whom such sacrifice was expected of her. The last glowing orb of power that still sat out of her reach. What her predecessors lacked was a vision of potential, and that any hierarchy, no matter its age, was malleable, and she could prove it. If it meant groveling at their feet a while longer, then so be it.
<Author's note: The Bloodlet Sun will be taking a short break as the next scheduled updates are for Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. So I'll be returning for regular weekly updates on January 7.>
Her forearms throbbed as she picked up the Governor’s letter. The prospect of having to comb through Fainreshlin’s invisible branches to get at the fruits she wanted to pluck led her to indulge in a moment of daydreaming – about a future where everything she had been building would come together, and the Anthar Kai would wield the power of near-instantaneous communication, ready to deploy a pliable workforce at a moment’s notice from the High Commissary.
She set the data pad in the recess in her desk with the camera facing towards her, and dabbed the sweat from her cranial bumps. Once the interaction commenced it was treated like a regular conversation, and any expression, pause, or aside was dutifully recorded and sent back with the response. Once she was confident that she resembled her portrait that hung with the other High Commissaries in the cavernous lobby of the tower, she turned on the recording.
Fainreshlin’s somewhat melted face appeared on screen and did a half-turn to face the camera as if he was caught doing something far more important than having this conversation.
“High Commissary, always a pleasure.”
“It’s been a long time, Governor,” she replied, knowing that the observation would hit just the right nerve.
“I trust things are keeping you busy, High Commissary.”
“Toiling under a hundred suns, as always, Governor.”
“I’m sure you must have heard the news by now. I admit it had come to us as quite as a shock. The Governor’s seat out of Chiartries has administered this corner of Thorian space for six hundred years. Under the Treaty of Krevali, we were assigned the former Iastret colonies in this region, and it was our understanding that this would include Krevali if ever the protection order over it was lifted or otherwise handled. To have our latest conquest now go to general Senate rule is unprecedented, and an insult to the Anthar Kai’s status and central role in the Empire. I trust that everything is being done at your disposal to rectify the situation.”
Kalirit kept her face flat even as she cycled through all the things she could have been doing instead of enduring this unnecessary history lesson.
“The Senate’s actions are as much a consternation to us as they are to you. But I think it’s important for all of us to remember that we all ultimately serve at the leisure of the Presidium, and they’re the stewards of what’s good for the Empire as a whole. Vice Commissary Seshathirlin is putting all his not insubstantial experience into resolving matters to everyone’s satisfaction.”
“I would like to know what is being done on our behalf to resolve this crisis.” Kalirit bet that he had assumed she would come out cagey and therefore would have devoted most of his planned responses to badgering her for information, which meant that the reason for this somewhat repetitive response was because he couldn’t imagine that she could be straight with him from the start.
“An audience with the Presidium is a desired outcome. But as I’m sure you understand with the crisis coalescing around turbulent Krevali, the Presidium’s time is in short supply, and our options with respect to that are quite limited.”
“For centuries since this governorship has been established it was understood that the moment the Krevali become a space-faring race they would be ushered into civilization by the Anthar Kai and their territory would be subsumed to the governorship.”
“The governorship would not be in a bad position to have access to the ample resources of Krevali,” Kalirit responded, making an effort to not herself get lost in the negatives and superlative adjectives of her tangled sentences. “On our end, productivity is not at all at a standstill. Preparations are underway to ensure that we’re not caught administratively flatfooted when we discover that Krevali has been brought into the fold and the situation is not unsalvageable, with the resources coming into your disposal.”
“I demand to know what is going to be done.”
“Discounting the significant efforts of Vice Commissary Seshathirlin, and the great burdens placed on my support personnel to resolve the potential rectification of this oversight, in absolute terms, nothing has been approved at the moment.”
Fainreshlin paused, his brow twitching every few seconds as the recording looped while the algorithm tried to process Kalirit’s response. Finally, the Governor spoke, “I will kindly remind you that our voting block was quite instrumental in extending your term as High Commissary and it would be in your best interest to ensure our vote does not change.”
It may have nearly fried her brain, but it worked – the major problem with dialogue trees was that through vagaries of language, you could trespass into branches without legitimately prompting them. Few attempted to do so with the same vigour as Kalirit, because success made the other look like a fool, but failure would have made you an even bigger one. Governor Fainreshlin must have really been feeling the heat if he was willing to so openly threaten the High Commissary of the Anthar Kai, but even if his estimation of his influence over his supposed voting block and its sway was erroneous, having his cards laid bare on the table ought to serve to subdue him.
With a faint smile, she responded, “I could exert my finest efforts to pretend that a conversation of this nature had never occurred, I’m sure that would suit you well.”
“That would be a start. But we expect an appearance by you in front of the Presidium to be most influential.”
“Of course, that is an option that can be considered. I could appear personally in front of the Presidium and inform them that there are some sovereignty concerns in the Chiartries governorship , that I’m sure could be resolved with an increased military presence and a reconsideration of the appointments at the highest levels of the governorship. They would be happy to hear it and I would be happy to deliver it.”
Fainreshlin’s face returned to the twitching loop, as Kalirit kept the rising emotion from her face. Did she push it too far walking into a rebuke, or would the recording spit out a response that would all but legitimize this conversation? Her anxiety had begun to morph into regret, a feeling that was a rare visitor in Kalirit’s mind, when Fainreshlin’s recording responded, “I am glad we are in agreement.”
Swallowing a sigh of relief, Kalirit could feel the throbbing recede from her forearms. Even if Fainreshlin thought that this was all put together to embarrass him, part of him would wonder how just how serious her threat was, which should keep him too preoccupied to make any lasting damage while the interstellar navies of a half-dozen species congealed around his territory.
Someone with a complete lack of filter like Seshathirlin was a useful barometer into sentiments that could shift abruptly – a swelling reaction carried almost instantaneously through the aether, well ahead of any news dispatches. A Thorian all the way out in the Imperial borders of Dead Space could be waiting for two weeks to find out why they’re feeling elated or why a sinking dread is has taken residence in their stomach. Kalirit would be able to tell by the movements that surrounded her that something was amiss but she would have no way of knowing what it felt like. Without a good eye into the storm she felt most vulnerable, most likely to get exposed as a netkarthi.
Her first experience with this had been at university on Kai Thori, when she was blind to the initial exhilaration and the eventual devastation at the end of the Last Gasp War. It was the first time in two thousand years that a Thorian military conflict resulted in a net loss of territory. The had succeeded in cutting deeper into the Iastret Dependency, including the space around Krevali but lost large swaths of their Vaparozh colonies, and almost surrendered Nabak to the Mraborans. When news of the Treaty of Krevali started spreading through Thorian space, the sheer force of it caught Kalirit by surprise.
She remembered waking up late at night and finding her roommate, Nirtaren, sitting at her table with the light on and her hands hanging limply at her side. When Kalirit whispered “hey”, Nirtaren turned in her direction and Kalirit found her friend ashen, eyes sunken in, each bone illuminated harshly by the desk lamp. “What’s wrong?” Kalirit couldn’t stop herself from asking and was met with a look on Nirtaren’s face that made it clear that her question was as foolish as asking someone who had just lost both her parents why they were so upset. Fortunately, in her distress, Nirtaren didn’t seem to register Kalirit’s reaction that night and didn’t mention it again. For Kalirit, it was almost a costly lesson to never let her guard down or forget that she’s moving blind through a world of seers.
The gloom that hung over Kai Thori that winter was palpable even for a netkarthi, but while her classmates drowned in a mire of defeat by wars fought and lost light years away, she rose to the top of her class. These days she scoffed at the foolish years spent lamenting this missing link to the rest of the Thorian species, when she had believed that being a netkarthi would stand as an impenetrable boulder between her and her success. It took her a long time to learn that anything can be forged into a weapon. Where in other Thorians the sense of duty to their people lived inexorably in their gut, Kalirit was free to make every decision with her head. And sometimes what was best for the Company was not what was best for Thorians as a whole.
Some, like Vice Commissary Seshathirlin, understood this in principle, though their nature would never permit them to act on it. And those like Eitherorik were a particularly irksome lot, growing in discontent as the species-wide mood slowly soured throughout the course of their lives. They were especially sensitive to the preservation of Thorian-wide happiness, which is why the more time Eitherorik spent on Vesh Takar coordinating the next fist-shaking endevour, the more freedom Kalirit had to govern the Company as she saw fit.
With that thought, Kalirit pulled up the pirate activity report that Eitherorik had sent. For someone who had entered every room with the bluster of a seasonal gale, he seemed to be having difficulty replicating the same effect for the pirates that had plagued the outer rim of the Empire. Perhaps a subtle reminder about this was overdue, though in Eitherorik’s defence, ever since the pirate clans amalgamated several years earlier, their attacks have become exceedingly coordinated, relentless, and focused almost exclusively on Anthar Kai assets. Hatvan luxury liners cruised unmolested and Vaparozh trade had flourished, while the Anthar Kai diverted valuable resources to fighting off this new pestilence with little apparent success.
Perhaps something marginally less infuriating required her attention, so instead she pulled up the dispatch from Governor Fainreshlin.
Fainreshlin chose to send his communication as a branching dialogue tree, which he preferred because of his firm belief that he could think five steps ahead of anyone and predict every twist and turn a conversation could take. This method was only slightly less crude than simply sending a long-winded monologue, and far-removed from using a well-trained proxy, something that took countless hours to hone and for which Fainreshlin lacked both the discipline and foresight.
Thorian collective empathy moved through the aether instantaneously, but conventional communication was afforded no such luxury. While information travelled faster than any available transportation, depending on the distance and the position of relay satellites a message could take up to a month to cross from one end of the Known Reaches to the other. Sending single one-way messages often ground communication to a halt, and while some Thorians liked to blame their perceived decline of the Empire on the increased respect afforded to non-Thorian sentients, Kalirit was convinced that if there were any fingers to be pointed at anything, it would be squarely at the decrease of the use of AI proxies. Either people now had too many secrets they couldn’t risk their electronic counterparts blabbing, or nobody had the time anymore to craft a near-perfect replica of themselves that they could send to any corner of the Known Reaches to have a fulsome conversation in their place.
Kalirit believed a lot could be discerned about a person based on what method they used to find efficiency within this technological limitation. Every day Kalirit set aside dedicated time to her messenger, and as a result, whenever she had the need to review older recordings she would sometimes have a difficult time discerning her personal conversation from her alternate’s.
As one of Vice Commissary, Seshathirlin’s key roles was to act as the primary contact with the Presidium, the decision to subject themselves to him as Vice Commissary had always puzzled and troubled Kalirit.
They found Seshathirlin implanted firmly in his office with the door closed. The Vice Commissary’s office was even more impressive than that of the High Commissary, with a shard of glass floor next to one of the windows to mimic the effect of standing at the top of the Cliff District in Vain Sarshi, the capital city of the homeworld. When they came in, Seshathirlin had been looking down that chasm and feigned surprise at the presence of his visitors. He formed an imposing shape against the tinted window that shielded them from the Varakan sun, a figure that backed up his blustery temper. Jowly for a Thorian, most of his facial features, from his cranial bumps to his lips, stuck out accusingly at anyone who haplessly wondered into his line of sight.
Eitherorik helped himself to one of the chairs across from Seshathirlin’s desk while Kalirit chose to stand leaning against a support pillar with her hands behind her back. While the Vice Commissary looked like he will be accidentally set off like a neglected bomb from a bygone era and Eitherorik was eager to launch any second like a freshly-minted missile, Kalirit’s presence created a pocket of resoluteness, eyes constantly reading.
“Vice Commissary, you must be a busy man, I’ve hardly seen you these past few weeks,” Kalirit started.
“Sometimes I think it’s my own fault that the Company can’t afford my retirement, but I’m sure you both have been busy as well.”
“Has there been any word from the Presidium on the news from this morning?” Eitherorik cut-in.
“If the Presidium had word, I would have known about. And I’ve heard nothing.” Seshathirlin took his place at his desk and gave Eitherorik a long look.
“Am I right to assume that a dispatch will be sent to them immediately?” Eitherorik asked.
“Diplomacy, especially Company diplomacy, is very unlike your area of expertise, Eitherorik. I can’t just scramble the nearest gunship to hover menacingly above a work camp. This takes finesse, and finesse takes experience, as I’m sure you’ll one day learn.”
“And I’m sure your experience is unparalleled, but can we afford to hang back? The Presidium has been treating the Anthar Kai not as the lifeblood of the Empire but as a nuisance, and perhaps it’s time we started voicing our concerns more strongly.”
“And do you think their opinion will change if we bombard them with communications like an impatient child? There’s also the shareholders to consider. A lot of powerful people, money older than you and I could even comprehend, are going to be as displeased as we are, and they will start banging on the door of the Presidium and the Senate. They can break down the doors so we don’t have to get our hands dirty. High Commissary, what do you think?”
Kalirit put on her imitation of a warm smile. “I will defer to your extensive expertise on the matter, Vice Commissary.” Back then she thought that the Presidium would toy with them only for a few days, that Seshathirlin’s outrage would displace his dithering and he would send them hours of footage of him banging his fist on the table in lieu of punctuation, but instead she ended up personally preparing a dispatch, feeling not as a child who was impatient, but one that was being scolded.
“I can’t believe the Company’s highest authorities are just willing to sit back and do nothing.” Eitherorik shook his head.
“I am not sitting,” Kalirit observed.
“And I am not doing nothing,” Seshathirlin added. “Perhaps, Eitherorik, it would be best if you gathered yourself and headed to Vesh Takar and waited for the inevitable call to pacify the local Krevali populace and to keep the posturing Mraborans and Hatvan on a short leash. High Commissary?”
“I agree. You would likely be of more use on Vesh Takar for the time being.”
Eitherorik, with his eyes still on Kalirit, spoke to Seshathirlin. “I wish I could share your optimism, Vice Commissary, but I’m sure you’ve noticed the Presidium has hardly relied on us since the Last Gasp. Mind you, a major reason why we lost that war in the first place. Had the Thorian military engaged the Anthar Kai like they have in wars of conquest for thousands of years, we would have easily overwhelmed the Vaparozh and the Iastret and would have laid waste to the meddling Human fleet. But no, somebody decided to shrug off tradition and try something new, and if it was the novel experience of defeat they were after, then I guess they succeeded at that.”
Seshathirlin waved at him and his cheeks wobbled. “Don’t you go quoting me the Last Gasp, Eitherorik. That war happened practically in my backyard and let me tell you that we threw it deliberately.” Eitherorik sent a pleading glance in the direction of Kalirit but her expression was implacable. “The whole affair was orchestrated to coax the others into letting their guard down. Let them think they stand any kind of chance against the Empire and when the time is right, overwhelm the Vaparozh and then those arrogant Iastret and the others would soon fall.”
Eitherorik let out a long sigh. Only the older generation could cling to the myth that everything they did had some hidden wisdom to it. “There is no grand plan, there is only almost five decades of unforced errors by the most stagnant Presidium in generations. Some fresh blood might do well to put the Empire back on track.”
“And we will watch your political career with great interest,” Kalirit said and got an under-the-breath chuckle out of Seshathirlin.
Eitherorik stood up then, and without further ceremony said, “I know when to take good counsel. If you need me before my departure for Vesh Takar, you know how to contact me. Good day to you both.” And with that he walked out of the office, his jacket’s coattails billowing in the wake of his determined stride. Kalirit let herself wonder whether that determination arose out of a need to vacate Varakan or return to Vesh Takar.
“He’s young, that one. He’ll figure things out in time,” Seshathirlin said.
“He’s not so much younger than me.”
“You know what I mean. He doesn’t know a world before the Last Gasp, so he’s angry. It’s no wonder it was their generation that popularized that term.”
“And you disagree?”
“We’ve all got a lot of breathing left in us.”
That conversation had been the last time she had seen Seshathirlin in weeks, which for Kalirit was unfortunate, because in turbulent times like these he would have been a helpful window into the collective mood of the Empire, which ordinarily shifted in gentle ebbs and flows, and scarcely affected Kalirit. Any subtle shifts could be deduced by observing her colleagues, their posture, their tilt of the head, the way they carried themselves into the office and out. But times of great upheaval made for dangerous waters.
It had been the Anthar Kai’s historic duty and the very reason for its existence. When the nascent Thorian colonies started producing anything of worth, a centralized system needed to ensure that both colonists and the homeworld had benefitted from the relationship, and so the Presidium, with the assistance of wealthy investors on the homeworld, established the Anthar Kai, to ensure that both the needs and the wants of the growing Empire were met. For thousands of years as new worlds were added to the Empire, the Anthar Kai was there to pacify and integrate the native populations, to set up supply lines, and graft the new living space like an additional body part with its own unique function onto a vast living organism. Yet as a culmination of an unspoken rift that had begun during the Last Gasp, when Anthar Kai military support was rejected, the newest species to be integrated into the Thorian Empire would not have the benefit of the millennia of experience accumulated within the corporation. And the senior leadership of the Anthar Kai would only learn of the insulting decision through news dispatches with no advance warning from the Presidium.
The day the news had reached them, Eitherorik arrived at Kalirit’s office unannounced and blew by Gaingat, who refused to give Eitherorik the satisfaction of groveling and telling him that the High Commissary was ever so busy. Instead, he allowed the door to the office to slide open and for Eitherorik to make a few confident strides before he shook a data pad in front of him and asked, “Have you heard about this?”
Eitherorik’s frame seemed to be custom-made for barging in. He was tall, even for a Thorian, with wide shoulders that tapered into a slim build. He kept his hair short, which only accentuated a thin but prominent nose that seemed to form a kind of keel that could penetrate into any room. Wherever he may have picked up the habit of invading places with his presence, Kalirit took it upon herself to break it. She took her time to finish writing the sentence that she was in the middle of and slowly looked up at Eitherorik. “And have you heard about waiting to be let in?”
He assumed, and then hoped, that it was a joke, but Kalirit continued to stare up from her work in silence. “High Commissary, this is important.”
Kalirit did not budge. Eitherorik waited another few moments and then crossed the rest of her office to put the data pad on the desk under her nose. Her eyes didn’t move while he declared, “The Presidium are laughing at us.”
A thousand responses bubbled up in Kalirit’s throat but she forced them down like bile, instead gesturing with her eyes towards the door. Eitherorik lingered in the most menacing way someone could linger in the presence of someone who was separated from them by the desk of the highest office of the corporation. Finally, but without ever letting his indignant expression falter, he headed in the direction of the door. Just as he was about to cross the threshold, Kalirit cleared her throat, and reminded him that he had forgotten something. The walk back to her desk to retrieve the data pad and then again to the door couldn’t have been over soon enough for Eitherorik and lasted not long enough for Kalirit. With the door now shut firmly behind him, Eitherorik asked to be let in. Kalirit took a breath, and started writing another sentence which again she took her time finishing after she had permitted him to return.
Before Eitherorik could open his mouth, she said, “I’m assuming this is about the administration of Krevali.”
“I don’t understand how you’re not more outraged.” Eitherorik slipped the data pad back into his pocket.
“Right, and in order to express that outrage, whose office should I be barging into all huffed up like a varishim lizard in mating season?”
Eitherorik chewed on whatever was left of his pride and responded, “Seshathirlin’s?”
“Has anything arrived from the Presidium?” It felt like groveling, even if it was only to Gaingat, and Kalirit let her annoyance seep into her voice.
“No High Commissary, I’m afraid they’ve been completely silent.”
In measured steps she walked to the back of her office and sat down at her desk, her fingers flicking away at the computer displays sprawled before her. The half-melted archways so common in Thorian architecture loomed above her, their shape and dark colour reminiscent of the cliff-side cities on Kai Thori.
“I’ve also prepared a dispatch to the Presidium,” she said without looking up. “Have that sent right away on the most rapid stream you can find.”
“Immediately, High Commissary.” Gaingat made the slightest of moves to head out of the office when Kalirit continued.
“It is becoming more and more apparent that I will have to appear before the Presidium myself. I will likely be gone within weeks.”
“Shall I inform Vice Commissary Seshathirlin?”
“No, not at all.” Kalirit looked up then, resting her elbows on the table with the sides of her forearms facing out, a subtle gesture of threat when directed at a Thorian, but that signaled to Gaingat that his job was about to get that much more interesting. “In fact, I want you to make sure that he’s the last person to find out about this. Eitherorik will be deputy High Commissary in my absence.”
Even Gaingat couldn’t restrain himself from making eye contact. He was smart, Kalirit knew that. Smart enough to know that the biggest power struggle within the Anthar Kai was between the High Commissary and the commander of the Shoaman Kai, Anthar Kai’s military branch, and her relationship with Eitherorik was no exception. That look alone was the limit of how much Gaingat allowed himself to judge her decision making.
“I’m well aware of the reporting lines, Gaingat.” She assured him. “But interesting times call for interesting solutions. You will keep me apprised on my secure line as always.”
“Of course, High Commissary.” He paused and a small smile crossed his face. “You’ve left me with no additional instructions and I’m as puzzled as anybody.”
“Precisely.” She leaned back in her chair, flipping through everything that had come in since she permitted herself to leave her desk and admire the sunset. The piracy report from Eitherorik arrived at the expected time, the moment the Varakan sun dropped below the horizon. Dark news for a dark time. Another speculative report came from the managers at the exchange, recommending immediate diversion of haskbib seeds to the Mraboran Protectorate due to their popularity in making Thorian effigies in these trying times. And here was news that Creeper had allegedly spread as far as the Vaparozh holdings, but this was yet to be substantiated.
Regardless of the light outside, “nighttime” for Kalirit was a hollow concept. A hundred suns continued to shine on her empire and the linchpin that held it all together could not be beholden to any single clock.
“Gaingat,” she said to the Ntaos who waited silently for her to finish. “Once you’ve sent the dispatch to the Presidium, you may leave for the night.”
“And the dispatch to Governor Fainreshlin?” He asked before his body even as much as twitched in the direction of the door.
“He can wait. It would do him good to learn a little patience.” She looked down at the data pad and made a waving motion with her hand.
“Yes High Commissary. Thank you.” And before she could even raise her eyes to watch him leave, the door slid shut behind him.
Even in the silence of her office she could sense that the collective consciousness of the Thorians writhed in response to the turmoil and hope spurred on by the invasion of Krevali. This shared empathy was what had bound her species together and allowed it to dominate the Known Reaches, but she, along with an inestimable number of other severed Thorians, was blind and deaf to it. If she could somehow reach out and touch it, find a way for it to flow through her, maybe she would have a better idea of how to steer through the times ahead. Instead, billions of beings conspired quietly against her, and it was only fair that she return the favour.
Her only regret about her intended course of action was that she would not see the consternation on Eitherorik’s face as he scrambled to get to Varakan from Vesh Tarak, where the Shoaman Kai was headquartered, wondering the whole time whether he did something brilliant or utterly obtuse in order to be picked as deputy over Vice Commissary Seshathirlin. Not to mention Seshathirlin’s own inevitable oscillation between outrage at being bypassed and relief at avoiding any additional obligations. He would ultimately settle on huffing when anyone was looking and then counting his blessings behind the closed door of his office.
Vice Commissary wasn’t a real job in any case, more a way to say thank you for your service, you’ve been a great asset to the organization, here’s a shiny desk and title, now please stay out of the way like the good hapless fossil that you are. Seshathirlin relished in the pomp that came with the position, but just as responsibility shrank away from Seshathirlin, Vice Commissary Seshathirlin shrank away from responsibility.
So when the first reports from Krevali came in, naturally he was nowhere to be found. Normally, by Kalirit’s estimation, Seshathirlin’s ramblings were the biggest waste of resources in the entirety of the Anthar Kai, just going by the amount of productivity he leeched out of those around him. But it was Eitherorik that ended up calling their first meeting, even though he was practically on the transport back to Vesh Takar when the news first struck that the Anthar Kai would not be managing the governance and resources of Krevali.
The setting sun covered the city below the spire in a red glow, and Kalirit was reminded of home. In this light, she was able to take off her sunglasses and rest her eyes as she surveyed the metropolis before her. Thousands of years earlier, before Thorians landed on Varakan, the landscape would have been nothing but endless fields begging to be cultivated to feed the nascent Empire. In the millennia since, the planet had grown to be the headquarters of the Anthar Kai, making Varakan the de facto capital of its own quasi-empire that Kalirit had now ruled for over two decades.
Having her office sit at the tip of a dark tower that reached more than a mile into the skies above Varakan’s main city seemed needlessly regal to Kalirit when she first moved in – a remnant of a time two centuries earlier when the Anthar Kai was at the peak of its influence, before the other races began to grow stronger, and the Thorian Presidium on the home world of Kai Thori began clawing back some control. She had built her career on being close to the ground, visiting as many worlds under the control of the Anthar Kai as she could, preferring to do business out of cramped quarters on freighters rather than the comfort of a proper desk. But she had grown to like such an expansive view, and now that her own construction projects were nearing their final years, she could see the renovated central district take shape as a microcosm for the colonies under her influence.
She readily admitted, but only to herself and at the end of a long day, that it was partially a vanity project, but as one of the youngest to have ever achieved the post of the High Commissary of the Anthar Kai, she knew she needed to seize the opportunity to throw her energy into a lengthy transformative endeavor. For twenty years the central district had been substantially rebuilt to organize the governing, logistics, freight-forwarding and other administrative offices by the worlds they represented. Not only would this inject some much needed efficiency into the bureaucracy, but would also give the millions of staff who worked in the city a clearer idea of the scale and distances of the empire they were tasked with running.
In the far distance to her left was the new complex that represented the outer Vaparozh colonies that formed some of Anthar Kai’s newest acquisitions, whose administration was granted to them by the Thorian Empire after the defeat in what had become known as the Last Gasp. Drawn against the setting sun were the dark shapes of the buildings that were responsible for the furthest Anthar Kai worlds on the very border of Dead Space. And below her, the finishing touches were being put on the dome of the grand pavilion that housed the governing structure of nearby Ntaos, home of the species that formed a sizable demographic of the workforce on Varakan due to the proximity of their homeworld.
As the city plunged further into darkness, the lights came on in her office, and on cue, her assistant rang the telecom to be permitted inside. Kalirit could not resist the brief smile that crossed her lips at Gaingat’s innate knowledge of the little slivers of day where she should not be disturbed, but by the time the door opened, the smile had been erased, and the face of the High Commissary was positioned carefully into place.
“High Commissary, an urgent message from Governor Fainreshlin.” The diminutive Ntaos began. No Ntaos stood over four feet tall, their square bodies hunched over into a constant deferential posture that made them the butt of so many Thorian jokes. Kalirit knew a fool whenever she heard anyone quip either about their far-set eyes that never looked straight at you, or their mottled yellow skin that was always wet with perspiration. She was capable of acknowledging that their bent spines formed the backbone of the Anthar Kai and therefore the Empire, and anyone who dared make light of that fact was, in the eyes of Kalirit, akin to someone who would saw the branch they were perched on.
“Has it now?” She picked the data pad from Gaingat’s stubby fingers. “That’s faster than I would have expected from Fainreshlin.”
“The Governor is punctual, isn’t he?” The other thing most Thorians commonly missed about the Ntaos is that they actually possessed personalities, something that would shock most staunch supremacists, who preferred to see the universe in easily categorized and generally unflattering broad strokes. Gaingat, for example, exhibited the frequent trait of bitter cynicism that was masked by a gaze diverted at the floor and missed by most Thorians, since they could not even begin to conceive that a peculiar turn of phrase was a subtle stab in their general direction. Kalirit chose to cultivate this particular trait in Gaingat as she was starved to work with those that actually dared express their opinions in her presence.
“Punctual is certainly a kind way of describing the Governor, and we wouldn’t want to be going soft on old Fainreshlin, would we?”
“I think the Governor has an easy enough time going soft on himself, High Commissary.” Kalirit gave her assistant a long look, debating whether she should permit herself to laugh or smile, but the moment had slipped out of her hand. “Sorry, High Commissary,” Gaingat quickly added.
“No need, Gaingat, you’re absolutely right, of course. The Governor is getting somewhat comfortable in his position, and there’s no reason why we should go out of our way to make his comfort our priority. Have we confirmed receipt of this yet?”
“He’d sent it certified.”
“Typical.” She could see Fainreshlin now, in the pompous robes of the old Governors, a self-described traditionalist that worshipped only those traditions that suited his own image of himself. She let her pause linger in the hopes that Gaingat would pick up on her desire to have news of the communication that she was waiting for with far more anticipation than the inevitable ramblings of Fainreshlin.
Kviye returned from those infinite worlds and back into her chair to the sound of her instruments gone haywire. Or rather, she would have been lifted out of that same chair as if by the buoyancy of the summer sea if she had not been strapped in. The new panel had been extinguished and displayed only the familiar blank screen, while everything else that was still functional was blaring an admonishing “I told you so” at her.
How long had the ship been listing? She thought that she couldn’t have been floating in space for longer than a few minutes, but the chains of the moon were unmistakably pulling the skiff back into its solid embrace. Kviye looked behind her and found the panel from the device had almost made it cleanly through the wall of the engine room and out into the passageway connecting it with the cockpit. “Oh no,” she muttered and then checked the altimeter. The instrument that had recently heralded her greatest success was now counting down, at increasing speed, towards inevitable failure.
Unbuckling, Kviye lifted off her seat and maneuvered her legs so that she could push herself off the control panel and out of the cockpit. She undershot, and used her arms to pull herself towards the entrance of the engine room and the sharp shard of metal sticking through the wall next to it. Gravity, though still weak, was shifting perceptibly in the wrong direction. Inside the engine room, she found the device where she had positioned the spheres was indeed missing a door and was surrounded by concentric ripples of buckled metal that reached up to the ceiling. The assessment of the extent of the damage would have to wait, though it constricted her stomach in an uncomfortable fist.
The largest of the spheres, the one she picked up from Valyen earlier that day, lay at the bottom of the device, noticeably shrunken, along with three of the pebbles. She scanned the room for the missing ones but finding no trace of them tried to reassemble the array with what she had.
After a few minutes of fiddling with the black orbs, the whole time trying to brace herself against the wall to avoid drifting away and trying to ignore that the ship was gaining speed and bringing heaviness back into her body, she decided it was a futile effort and shoved the remaining ones in her pocket. Turning again and pushing her feet against the wall, she launched herself back through the door and towards the cockpit. About halfway there, she realized she overshot, and with a “no, no, no” that culminated in a grunt, slammed with her back against the control panel of the skiff.
The ship had made significant progress towards the surface of Tanfana, which made it easier for Kviye to scramble back into the seat and buckle her restraints. With some gargantuan effort from the little propulsion that the ship could muster, Kviye manage to face it in the correct direction, in the sense that she could now observe the ever-approaching expanse of the green moon. She pivoted the nose of the skiff towards the bay on which Zhakitrinbur stood and using all the functioning systems that she had left at her disposal, steered the ship’s descent in its general direction.
The dissolving of the black that had enveloped her was even more jarring than when it initially appeared, as if she had been drowning and went for a breath of fresh air, and now her head was again swallowed by the waves. With the return to Tanfana’s atmosphere, the ship shook harder, and the heat slowly crept through the hull and into the cockpit.
Sweat streamed down the back of Kviye’s neck as her fingers gripped tighter around the steering. An attempt to deploy one of the skiff’s exterior breaks caused it to rip clean off the ship and almost sent her into an uncontrollable spin had Kviye not managed to get a handle on the steering. Still, her angle of approach remained too steep and Zhakitrinbur grew in the distance with alarming speed. The whole world seemed to shrink into that single shortening line and its stubborn angle. Every other thought that bothered to try to enter into her head – her father, coming home to find the skiff and Kviye missing, her mother’s photo watching her struggle with the controls, the stars, in their glamorous endless glory – all had been rebuffed and pushed away.
Only one image kept worming itself into her mind and stinging her eyes along with the sweat that she couldn’t brush away for fear of letting go of the controls. Somewhere on the ground, Valyen stood and watched the whole thing; her slow and then rapid ascent that sent her clear out of sight; had she cheered, despite herself? Kviye believed that she did. Something subdued, like a single clap or a slap against her thigh. And now, faced with her agonizingly slow descent, that left behind a trail of fire and debris, would she have looked away? No, not Valyen. She was too practical. She’d watch until the last second so she could tell where the ship went down, so she could make her way there, alone if she had to. She wouldn’t be able to tear her eyes away, same as Kviye from the marshes that grew monstrous in front of her, looking for a soft damp spot but not one that would swallow the ship whole and deprive Valyen of her closure. Just look away. Close your eyes. Please, Val, look away.
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.