Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
When they left the building where the consulate was located, sunset was still over an hour away, but most of the heat had already drained out of the day. Beachgoers were largely replaced by leisurely strollers around the promenade, though the cluster of people gathered outside their front entrance seemed starkly less relaxed.
“Any idea what’s going on there?” Angzal asked Rzena, who seemed determined not to look in their direction.
“Oh, just Humans being Humans.”
“What do you mean?”
He crossed the street to put some distance between them and the small crowd.
“Every couple of months Humans find something to get really excited over. So some of them show up with their posters and slogans, and sometimes the local police have to keep them at bay, but after a couple of days they’re gone and everyone’s moved on. Bottom line is, ignore them. Eye contact is like gasoline to these people.”
When they were at what she considered a safe distance, Angzal threw a glance back at the protestors, trying to see if Reyes was among them. Or was this something she would be involved in behind the scenes, rather than on the frontlines?
Instead of familiar streets, Rzena led them to the historic district of downtown Malbur, where some of the ancient glass monolith towers that survived the Great Fire still stood. The rest of the denser city core was marked by large multi-terraced buildings with inner courtyards, green roofs and hanging gardens. Though Humans still built the occasional glossy spire to rise above these sprawling complexes, there was an austere sternness to the old giants which withstood millennia since Humanity’s first Space Age, as if they were vertical pools holding up a mirror to a darker time. Rzena explained that on other continents, historic city centres were often a thousand or even multiple thousands of years older than what could be found in Malbur, an age which would put them in much closer competition to the cities of Mrabr.
To Angzal’s surprise, the plazas nestled among the roots of the giants were full of quaint boutiques and eateries. Rzena found them a restaurant, all wooden tables and wooden partitions dividing the space for a more intimate meal, with a large aquarium in the foyer and part of the dining room, and a menu that naturally leaned towards offerings from the sea.
Initially, she was going to go for the more familiar Earth staple of a carnivore diet – a lightly roasted pâté made from crushed arthropods with small meat cubes for dipping. Rzena convinced her to make a more exotic selection, even if the dish involved some kind of grain, which was essentially grass, which was not really food, but food’s food.
When their dishes arrived, Angzal had to admit they looked appetizing, and Rzena explained to her that it was somewhat fortuitous that they even had the opportunity to order them, as many of Earth’s aquatic species were on the brink of extinction before the Great Fire, and when Humans rebuilt their civilization from the ashes of the old one, they approached the task in a far more respectful way to the planet than their ancestors had. Rzena was brimming with historical information about the local species and the hapless planet that had the misfortune to be their home, a curious accumulation of knowledge that Angzal remarked on.
Rzena made a noncommittal sound as he chewed his food. “Someone like me has a lot of time on their hands to travel and visit museums and read every single plaque I can get my eyes on. If I’m going to spend the rest of my life here, whatever that’s worth, I might as well get to know the place. I know some expats who’ve hardly spoken to anyone outside their own species. A huge waste, if you ask me.”
“Have you ever been back home?”
“You mean since I moved here? No. Considered a trip after the first couple of years but that idea died out so slowly I barely noticed. Between the cost, the length of travel and how much time it’s been and how much must’ve changed, feels like setting myself up for disappointment. None of my litter is back there anyway – my daughters are on other colonies and my son’s on the Vaparozh homeworld. Go figure.”
“Do any of your litter come to visit?”
“They used to, here and there. Earth isn’t exactly the kind of place you crave to visit more than once. My little one was here last, but that must have been … about six years ago now.” The look on Angzal’s face made him wave off her concern and continue. “They’re all grown now, two of them have litters of their own and one of them decided to keep going and find another mate. They’re busy, I get it. Doesn’t mean I like it. So ‘home’ for me is basically just this job – a series of tasks to be completed without much connection to any sort of real place.”
“And what happens when the job’s gone?”
“Ha! That’ll be the day they find some other idiot to fill my shoes. But I suppose I could retire to Guawana. They have a proper Mraboran community there. You can even score an agmari steak if you’re lucky.”
“True story. Even raimzau, too. If you’re ever over on that island, I’ll let you know where the good places are. Here, they’ve got two Hatvan nightclubs and a Thorian food court and they think they got themselves an interstellar city. There was an Iastret cabaret for a while, but that closed down. At least in those other cities, if you squint hard enough, you can pretend you’re almost near civilization.”
“Well it’s good to know not everywhere on Earth is as bleak as this.”
“Ah don’t let me get your hopes up, it’s a far cry from what you’re used to. Still, I’ve spent almost twenty years in this city, but I’d sooner retire to be closer to our kind than be neck deep in Humans all day.”
A low growl escaped the back of Angzal’s throat and prompted Rzena to laugh. “They are a trying bunch, aren’t they?” he asked.
Twice over the course of that conversation the Ambassador referred to Angzal by the formal address “Angzal gan Mreniyaur”. The feelings that the first such instance had stirred were buried by the discussion that followed, but the Ambassador’s inclusion of Angzal’s full name as she bid what could generously be described as her “farewell” dredged them up again. A Mraboran’s full name came from their litter, which was in turn derived from the names of the parents. Litters usually comprised three to six individuals, and were restricted to one per parent pairing, leaving Mraboran to choose between unlimited procreation and monogamy. The majority picked the latter, Angzal’s parents among them. This left Angzal with only four siblings, scattered across the Known Reaches, and none closer than a month’s journey away. So on her way back to the office, instead of dreading the meeting upon which her entire career now apparently hinged, she was composing letters to her brothers and sister; letters she knew she was long overdue in sending.
To Rzena’s credit, he did seem to make a serious attempt at hiding the look of glee when Angzal asked him to schedule another meeting with Reyes.
“Could you just, let me know when you’re about to call her to set up the appointment, so I can be out of the room?” Angzal requested. “I want to see neither your face nor hear her voice over the line.”
“That’s a shame, I was planning on putting it on speakerphone.”
“Have I ever told you you’re funny when you’re toying with death?”
At that, Rzena made a sound that was half laugh, half old-man-grunt and returned to the absorbed silence of his work.
To say that Angzal’s first conversation with the Ambassador did not go the way she had envisioned it was to put a mild spin to the fact that Angzal replayed it over and over in her head until she started to feel claustrophobic. The worst part was she couldn’t decide whether she was relieved she hadn’t said all she wanted to, or angry that she chose to hold back. This was further amplified by the fact that she imagined multiple scenarios where she did choose to speak up.
“Is that it? The Thorians are at their weakest and we’re still going to cower in our own corner?”
“I hadn’t realized that the whole reason for our species’ existence had been reduced to being thorns in the Hatvan’s side.”
“So it’s true what they say, the only ones the Protectorate is willing to protect are the ones at its top.”
Although each new invented retort scratched an itch inside her, even in her own fantasies none of these scenarios resulted in the Ambassador being rendered speechless, or sputtering or somehow being put in her place. Rather the long-term outcome was invariably Angzal never getting off this rock again. This was, she admitted darkly, a future that may have already been sealed for her. What she really needed, instead of masticating on the events of the day by herself, was someone she could vent to. Her sister shared some of her frustrations, but had the better sense to keep them to herself when it best suited her. Unfortunately, she was also the furthest of her littermates, and even if Angzal sent her something today she wouldn’t hear back for almost a month. Her brothers, though closer, were decidedly more useless in this respect and would provide no comfort and only the empty platitudes about believing in the infinite wisdom of government. The only thing less helpful than them in this situation was the clock that insisted on dragging this day out past her breaking point.
There was a number of emails sitting in her inbox about a reception with an Imsogon trade delegation, most of which pertained to the menu – frivolous questions that did not mesh well with her current lack of appetite yet were somehow the most palatable of her unattended work.
Despite its gargantuan efforts to the contrary, the work day did indeed succumb to the laws of time and space and concluded. Rzena took his stubborn few minutes before he started packing up, as if this was simply a natural break in his work and he wasn’t counting down the minutes before he could leave. This, in turn, delayed Angzal’s own exit as a result of her own equally tenacious insistence that she never leave before him.
How many thousands of times had he packed up this desk, and how many of them have been any kind of distinguishable from the others? He did it with a distant look, as if he was already gone or had never really showed up, the fur around his eyes already starting to take on a lighter colour, unlike the darkness of the Ambassador’s face. After the day she had, Angzal thought she could see a glimmer of her own future in his expression – spending your days in a far-flung corner of the Known Reaches to provide a voice to your people when they’ve long stopped listening to yours.
“Hey Rzena,” she called out and he looked up mostly with disinterest. “You want to catch dinner or something?”
If it elicited any surprise in him, he hid it well. Instead, he paused, as if rifling in his mind through a normally busy social calendar. “Sure, got anywhere in mind?” he asked.
“Anywhere but here.”
“I might know a place.”
“Angzal gan Mreniyaur.” The Ambassador’s formal address was short and to the point and she faced a camera that was positioned well below her eye-level, just to drive that point home.
“Ambassador.” Angzal pressed her ears as flat as she could against her head, a gesture of calmness and docility in front of someone whom one would never dare challenge.
“I take it you are now well-settled into your position.”
“Yes, thank you, I had hoped to be able to –”
“I understand that you met with Congressmember Frances Reyes earlier today.” The image was clear, and the signal delay was minimal, even so, speakers would normally pause to make sure the was no cross-chatter, so the Ambassador was quick to establish that Angzal had earned no such courtesy.
“Yes, Ambassador I had the, uh, opportunity to meet – well, you can imagine how it went.”
“That I can.” The Ambassador absently looked away from the screen.
“She insisted that she wanted to speak to you directly.”
“My only solution for her is that she unwant it.”
“You, on the other hand,” the Ambassador returned her gaze to Angzal, “will need to schedule another meeting with her as soon as possible.”
“I’m sorry, Ambassador?”
“I’m sure you are. But we need the Human Congress to pass this vote, and she represents the most reasonable faction that could be swayed to our cause.”
“I’m not sure ‘reasonable’ is a word I would use to describe her.” Perhaps an early retirement was in order, to live off the family estate as hired help if that was all that was available to her, then recommend Rzena for a promotion and find happiness in knowing he was the one who had to deal with this instead.
“You’ll find that Congressmember Reyes is not such a unique specimen among Humans. If you think this is an impediment to the duties of your current assignment then we can always –”
“No, no, not at all,” Angzal cursed the signal delay that couldn’t cut the Ambassador’s admonishment fast enough, “I just meant that maybe there was not another way.”
The fur about the Ambassador’s face turned a shade darker as her eyes narrowed on the viewscreen, and Angzal wondered what sacrifice to the bloodthirsty gods would take to restart this day.
“If you’re already aware of some kind of alternative, please share.”
“No, I’m sorry Ambassador.” Any flatter and Angzal’s ears would have to roll into little tubes and crawl inside themselves. Angzal was well aware the ensuing silence by the Ambassador was deliberate.
“There’s someone here on Mars I’ve had several discussions with, another representative in the HID Congress.” Hearing that during Angzal’s tenure the Ambassador had time for multiple meetings with a Human made Angzal strangely jealous.
“Congressmember Ferrety is one of a handful of colonial representatives willing to support our request. He told me he should be in Malbur in two days, ahead of next week’s vote. The Winti Reagent has already said they will follow whatever decision the Human Interstellar Dominion makes, and the Fusir hardly have any opinions of their own. As long as we can break this deadlock in the HID government, all the other pieces are already in place. What I need from you, is to get Ferrety and Reyes in the same room, and make sure they don’t leave until Reyes can pledge enough votes for the motion to deploy the ORC fleet to succeed.”
The Ambassador once again stared off languidly past the screen, suggesting to Angzal that her importance had run its course and to close off the conversation. Angzal, evidently not intent on learning any lessons that day, continued.
“If you permit me asking, Ambassador, but it may help me to know why we’re so interested in the Humans and the ORC sending their fleets to Krevali?”
The Ambassador’s expression, her cowl darkening further, suggested she was not used to being asked questions, especially such rudimentary ones.
“I know it must be difficult for you to comprehend, being so far out from home, but the Thorians’ obtuseness about Krevali has complicated matters. Dismissing our involvement in the Nabak Insurrection as mostly humanitarian had pacified things back home initially, though the unforeseen losses that we sustained turned the tide against any such future intervention. That said, there are many who believe that despite the fact that the Thorians had not posed a significant threat for more than two generations, this Krevali business is all a portent of more sinister machinations. If the Thorians have gone so soft in the head as to start something bigger, then likely the Hatvan will be ready to take advantage. The Humans, for their part, share a much closer relationship with us than the Hatvan. Not to mention that they’re potentially promising almost the entirety of their fleet. Having the Humans there sends the Hatvan a strong message, while keeping all but a cursory part of our forces safely occupied elsewhere.”
Angzal chewed over Reyes’s admonishments of the Mraboran Protectorate and the Hatvan Empire and her own belief that the Protectorate had become too content to define its identity and direction through constant contrast with their neighbours and oldest rivals. Despite the incessant twitch in her ears she decided this is where she’d draw the line and chose silence instead.
“Thank you, Ambassador, I will do my best.”
“The Protectorate doesn’t need your best, Angzal gan Mreniyaur, it needs the best. Figure out what that is, and report back to me with good news.”
Finding no need for additional fanfare, or for a final word from Angzal, the Ambassador ended the transmission.
For a while, Angzal sat watching her washed-out reflection in the blackness of her desk monitor.
Big scraps from a big carcass. Congressmember Frances Reyes may have gone, but she had left behind a whole host of words that took residence in Angzal’s mind like a ghost only she had the burden of seeing. Rzena was focused on his work which largely remained a mystery to her, though he appeared to derive a somewhat begrudging contentedness from his position. Or was this simply a form of unofficial exile, where having outgrown his ambitions or outliving his usefulness, he now served a life sentence? No mate with him here, nor his litter – he was a solitary figure in the still paltry Mraboran community on Earth, destined to leave no lasting footprints on a world that had become his home and his prison. This all made Angzal feel a bit better about her own situation, though she admitted a lot of the sheen had been rubbed off her new position.
“Are you heading out to lunch?” Rzena asked, sounding almost as if he might genuinely be concerned in her comings and goings, though Angzal figured it was probably because he’d hoped to get the office all to himself for a little while.
“No, I’ve had enough of Humans for today.”
Whereas Mraboran subsisted on a single large meal eaten before bedtime, Humans had the habit of breaking up their whole workday to eat. It was a trait of Earth culture that Angzal normally enjoyed, either getting together with her Human colleagues or heading out into the vibrant commercial district by herself. Today, however, was going to be a desk day, even if she suspected that half the time Rzena was just watching her work and silently judging, though she was yet to catch him doing it.
It hadn’t been an hour since Reyes’s exit from her office, which time Angzal spent going through her messages and accumulating a to-do list she had no intention of tackling until tomorrow, or possibly ever, when Rzena informed her that she had an incoming call.
“So? Send it through.”
“It’s from the comms hub.” Angzal could clearly see the flash of fang from Rzena, mostly because he made no effort to hide it.
“Oh great.” She was sure the timing was no coincidence.
“Don’t look so happy,” Angzal said as she walked by Rzena’s desk, even though he actually didn’t look like anything at all, which Angzal was certain was intentional and intended to irritate her.
Angzal took the stairs up five floors to the comms hub. Humans had an infatuation with elevators; really with anything that moved them from place to place. Sometimes she’d catch them taking elevators up only one or two floors, and though they seemed to feign embarrassment at their submission to sloth, she knew full well they had every intention of doing it again. At least in the stairwells she was pretty much guaranteed to only bump into other Mraboran, so if she could only ignore the wood paneling that was so ubiquitous in Human architecture, it was almost like being back home.
It wasn’t a busy time at the comms hub. The only other user was a bored Human sitting in the reception area waiting for the requested call to patch through. While calls out of system had to do be done through one-way messaging, live calls that were off-world but within the stellar system needed to be handled through designated comms centres as no personal tablet or terminal could handle that kind of load. And there was only one individual within the system who would have any interest in speaking to Angzal.
“I will let the Ambassador know you’re here to take her call,” the comms operator told Angzal and she also took a seat. The way these calls worked, one party would either show up at their comms hub, make a call, and wait for the other person to arrive at their respective comms room, or else the originator would place a call request, and then the other would confirm their availability and wait for the originator to return to their call. Either way, someone was always waiting. If ever one needed to discern the relative social status of two individuals, all one had to do was find out who waited for whom during off-world calls.
In the end, Angzal was forced to sit almost a half hour, which made her thankful she’d brought her tablet, and since the waiting itself was part of her job, she figured there was no need to do double duty and spend even a minute of that time working. The Human that had been in the waiting room with her must have been particularly low on the pecking order because he was still there when the comms operator called up Angzal.
The Ambassador’s image appeared on the wall-to-wall screen of the sound-proof call booth, her yellow eyes standing out starkly against a cowl of dark fur that marked her for an individual of particular rank and prestige. Her clothes too, which for most Mraboran consisted of tan leather straps crisscrossing each other in various arrangements, stood out with their shades of austere dark green and brilliant blue.
The request for assistance from the Protectorate to the Humans was another piece of information that would have been very helpful for Rzena to have passed on. Forget snapping his tail in half, she should just bite it clean off at the base.
“In that case,” Angzal replied, visions of violent retribution dancing before her eyes, “I hope your Congress eventually makes the wise decision that recognizes Humanity’s role in a greater world.”
“If I were you,” Reyes’s tone suddenly grew glacial and her body assumed a far more relatable stillness, “that’s not what I’d be pinning my hopes on. If we do somehow vote to send our fleet, and if Human lives are lost, there are those here who will put the blame solely on the ones they think should’ve been fighting instead, and I’d have great concerns about the safety of your people both here on Earth and elsewhere in the Human Interstellar Dependency.”
Had this been another Mraboran, Angzal would have freely laid out in grotesque detail everything she thought about Reyes’s brazen threat against her people. Other species though, and Humans in particular, had more delicate sensibilities, and it took all her strength to keep her instincts from bursting onto the surface, probably to the eventual deep regret of Rzena.
Angzal measured each word carefully so that none of what she actually yearned to say slipped by.
“That sounded an awful lot like a threat, Congressmember.”
“Coming from me? No.” Reyes’s tone was frustratingly casual. “But I’m not the one you need to be worried about.”
“So what is this, then? A warning on their behalf?”
“It is what you make it to be,” Reyes answered with a slight shrug. “I would imagine someone with your influence would consider this a call to use that influence for the good of her people. Or is it that the Mraboran have that little regard for the lives of others, even their own kind?”
Angzal was aware one of her fangs was showing.
“What influence do you think I’m able to wield, exactly?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Reyes briefly glanced to the side, as if she was growing bored with the conversation. “I’m not going to pretend to know how the intricate web of nepotism works in the Protectorate. Almost fluent in Earth Standard Commercial? Consular position at such a young age? A lot of aging diplomats wouldn’t mind having this view for a few years in what you consider a quiet backwater, yet here you are.”
Angzal recalled what she knew of her predecessors, and Reyes wasn’t completely off the mark.
“I’m one of a litter of five, Congressmember. Trust me, whatever it is you think I get is scraps from the dinner table.”
Reyes gave her head a slight shake and gave a crooked smile. “Big carcass – big scraps.” And before Angzal had found something in reply, Reyes continued. “If the issue is that you simply can’t appreciate the potential gravity of the situation, I would be more than happy to speak to someone who can. Maybe a direct conversation with the Ambassador would be more productive?”
“I’m told the Ambassador is off world,” Angzal replied, ignoring the rising heat in her ears.
“I’m sure she is,” Reyes said and put her hands behind her back. “I think I’ve wasted enough time here.”
Evidently finding as much use for goodbyes as she did hellos, Reyes headed for the door, sending one last volley without even turning around, “Next time, I expect to be able to speak to someone more senior.”
Angzal waited for her to reach the door and open it.
“Congressmember?” Angzal said and Reyes paused, still facing her back towards Angzal. “As would I.”
For another few beats Reyes stood with her hand on the door and then stepped out and closed it behind her.
It had become almost uncomfortably quiet after Reyes left the office, an eerie calmness after the passing storm. Angzal continued to stand for a few moments, as if expecting the door to swing open again and a disembodied wagging finger to fly into the room telling her what’s what, but it looked like the silence was here to stay, so she turned back to the window.
The sky over the bay was a bright blue that tapered off into milky grey towards the horizon, not much different from clear days on her homeworld. If she kept her eyes upwards, she could almost imagine being back on Mrabr, at the family estate, shady purple fronds looming just out of view. Her gaze drifted downward though, and the illusion was broken by the expanse of the bay, and the multitudes of weekday beachgoers spending their time on the sand and in the water.
The blasted Thorian she ran across on the journey here had been right – Humans were jittery and unpredictable. She had never before met a species so full of internal discord; it was no wonder they had nearly blasted themselves out of existence. The question now was, were they capable of doing it again, and would they drag anyone down with them?
The handle of the door to her office clicked, the individual on the other side hesitating, and then fully opened.
“Rzena, you coward, I will drown your litter in your own blood.”
Rzena hardly even looked in her direction as he made his way to his desk. “My litter is older than you are, and there’s three of them. Don’t think there’s enough blood.”
Angzal emphasized each word through clenched teeth. “I will make do.”
Rzena plugged in his personal tablet into his terminal and then peered over his desk-mounted monitor at Angzal.
“I take it your meeting with Congressmember Reyes went well.”
“Well as can be expected.”
“You’re alive, so that’d be accurate.”
“A little advance warning would’ve been appreciated.”
“Really? I’ve always been a firm believer in a practical, hands-on approach to learning.”
“The only practical thing I learned is I’d derive great pleasure from a hands-on approach to your neck.”
Rzena made a low hum at the back of his throat as he busied himself at his terminal, while Angzal permitted herself to sit back down at her desk and release the predatory tension that had gripped her body since before Reyes’s arrival.
“The Mraboran Protectorate is doing everything it can within the limits of the Treaty of Krevali,” Angzal assured Reyes.
“The Thorians took a giant dump on the Treaty, so how are your empty assurances supposed to help the Krevali? Do you know who had just been appointed the transitionary governor of the planet? Vekshineth, the Butcher of Nabak.”
The appointment of Vekshineth to lead the transition of Krevali to Thorian rule was, Angzal admitted to herself, terrible optics for the Protectorate. Over the previous three years after the Insurrection, a conflict in which the Protectorate had a role that was less clandestine than they would have preferred, Vekshineth had been overseeing the repatriation of Nabak, which earned him a reputation across the Known Reaches that rivaled some of the historic Anthar Kai and Thorian governors of conquered or pacified worlds. The particularly troubling aspect of the situation for the Protectorate was that prior to the Insurrection, the Butcher of Nabak built his resume through a series of stints on Thorian worlds that had formerly been Mraboran and continued to have a majority Mraboran population, rooting out any ambition of independence that formed in the decades after the Last Gasp. This seemed like the kind of information Rzena ought to have brought to her attention, so Angzal reminded herself to snap his tail in half later.
All too aware that she skipped a few beats processing the news, Angzal finally responded, “I’ve been told that an impressive delegation from Mrabr, including several high-ranking government officials, are on their way to Kai Thori to discuss this with the Presidium directly.” Angzal was, of course, told no such thing.
“I find it funny that it’s only now that a delegation is being sent. It’s precisely what your predecessor told me in our last conversation, almost two months ago, even though it’s at most a five-week haul from Mrabr to Kai Thori. In any case, even if you’re not straight-up lying to me, how’s ‘talking’ the only thing the mighty Protectorate is able to muster? The time for talk was when the Thorians were amassing their forces in violation of the Treaty of Krevali and everyone who didn’t have their head up their ass or their tail between their legs knew exactly how this was going to play out. And now the Krevali, who’ve barely reached the frontiers of their own stellar system, are absolutely terrified fighting a war against a technologically superior alien invader, without any clue that there’s a greater network of so-called allies out there who’re doing absolutely nothing to help.”
Even for a Human, Reyes was strongly inclined to use her whole body while talking. Arms moved about freely as if on their own accord and fingers stabbed the air emphatically. To a Mraboran, the whole display was distracting, as their own species tended to keep perfectly still, especially during confrontation, which was one of the reasons many of them preferred to keep their tails strapped to their bodies. During the whole conversation, Angzal was motionless, standing between her desk and the window, wondering if the reason Reyes declined a seat was because it made it easier for her to gesticulate.
“Congressmember Reyes –” Angzal tried, but there was no stopping this landslide.
“No, whatever you have to say to me, it’s become quite clear that neither the Mraboran nor the Hatvan have any interest in upsetting the status quo. As long as you feel safe in your cozy Empires, you’re perfectly content to do nothing. Not even help your own people who are languishing under Thorian rule.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, Congressmember, but doesn’t the ORC have its own capable fleet that it could dispatch to the aid of the Krevali? Something that has the support of many of your own people?”
“Yes, there are supporters of this mad endeavour and they have their reasons. The point I’m making is this would not be the first time Humanity or the ORC had sent their ships into a conflict that should’ve been resolved by others closer to the source. Especially those responsible for what was happening because of their own complacency. We’ve been dying in wars on the other side of the Known Reaches for almost half a century, and have been paying a price for it at home. Meanwhile, species like the Mraboran are the ones benefitting from the peace our blood helps create. Enough is enough.”
That low growl again began to bubble in the back of Angzal’s throat and she reminded herself that this was an alien species and that they expected a certain amount of deference; however undeserved it may be. Still, she let herself slip just a little, responding with a bit of a gurgle in her voice. “The only reason a species like Humans was even able to have any meaningful participation in the Last Gasp was our convenient presence between you and the Thorian Empire, as well as our own complete lack of interest in you.”
“More like a complete lack of interest in anything beyond the pocket of Dead Space that lies between you and us.” There was nothing about Reyes’s smile for Angzal to like. “But that’s good to know, that the Protectorate’s greatest contribution so far has been its lack of curiosity and simply being in the way. Oh wait, there’s also the letter sent by the Protectorate to our government that had the audacity to directly request assistance in the mess that was largely their doing. The Senate, unsurprisingly, has already endorsed this lunatic course of action. Congress, on the other hand, so far has enough members without delusions of grandeur and who have no interest in sending others light years away to die in someone else’s war.”
It was still more than a half hour left until noon when Rzena ceased the shuffling of papers Angzal was convinced was mostly for show and declared that he was heading out to lunch.
“A bit early for you isn’t it?” Angzal observed casually.
“Don’t you have an appointment with Congressmember Reyes at 11:30?” he replied with the same sort of feigned breeziness, though Angzal noted a prey-like jitter underneath Rzena’s tone.
“It’s reason enough to take a whole day off let alone duck out for an early lunch.”
Angzal had been posted here for a month, and for a month this appointment crept forward in her calendar, usually postponed two or three days at a time on the eve of the scheduled meeting. When Angzal asked her predecessor, who had stayed on for a brief transition period, about the appointment with Congressmember Reyes, she laughed and then took off for a much cushier position on Kai Thori, leaving the meeting solely Angzal’s responsibility. Rzena, who had worked at the embassy for over fifteen years, was equally unhelpful.
“I’ve got ten minutes left. You sure you can’t give me a little heads-up as to what I’m in for?” Angzal asked.
“Hmm, yes, but she might be early, so it’s ten minutes I’d sooner not waste. And besides, why would I want to ruin the surprise when you’ve waited this long?” Rzena scrunched his nose at her and headed for the door of their cramped office, flicking a tail that had begun to lose some its colour and sheen in his age.
“Rzena, so help me if you go through that door I will hunt you down and eat your heart,” Angzal snarled at his retreating back.
“I’ll take that chance.” And with a parting swipe of his tail, Rzena shut the door.
Rzena had been in this associate role for so long, and had now witnessed the full terms of several of what were supposed to have been his superiors, that he acted like he was the essential cog at the embassy, while the officials that were periodically sent from the homeworld were serving as mere shiny gloss over the true machinery.
What annoyed Angzal was less the attitude itself, and more that he was probably right. Few Mraboran had the patience to stay on Earth for as long as he did, so the experience he accumulated was possibly worth more than her own title. Though she would have preferred if he didn’t mete out his knowledge in miserly portions and only when Angzal had earned it based on his sole criteria she was yet to decipher.
There wasn’t much by way of publicly available Intelnet info on Congressmember Frances Reyes. Newly elected and already splashing about to create whatever waves she could, Reyes was considered to be within the ranks of the non-interventionists, though whereas most non-interventionists saw wider conflicts as none of Humanity’s concern, Reyes actively insisted they were everyone else’s problem to solve.
The clock on the wall was simultaneously too slow and not fast enough. Ideally, it would have just skipped ahead about a half hour; instead, it counted down the slow painful minutes to the appointed time that was approaching too quickly. The office, though diminutive to the point of insult, at least had a few plants and a window that opened up to the bay around which the city had been nestled.
Her native Mrabr had its shares of inland seas and an abundance of lakes, but nothing that approached the grand splendor of the seemingly endless Mer Pacific. It was incredible to her that Humans had almost succeeded in destroying this beauty over two thousand years earlier, and all the more impressed they managed to clean it up so well since.
Her admiration of the great greyish-blue expanse was interrupted by a knock on the door that made her turn and push the tips of her ears to the back of her head, though the gesture would likely have been entirely lost on a Human. The door clicked open before Angzal had a chance to invite the visitor in, which caused an involuntary low growl to slip from her throat as Congressmember Reyes entered the room.
“You’re not the deputy consul,” Reyes observed by way of introduction.
“Starting to wish I wasn’t,” came Angzal’s reply.
With her wide slightly pointed nose, stern mouth and dark eyebrows, Reyes’s face seemed to be poised to break through whatever hapless obstacle stood in her way, a silent challenge Angzal accepted out of spite before Reyes even had a chance to state her case.
“Well we’re both here now,” Reyes said, the level of annoyance in her voice seemingly unaffected by Angzal’s remark.
“Please, take a seat,” Angzal offered. Reyes didn’t budge.
“Did the previous deputy consul have a chance to brief you on our demands before she left?” That word ‘demands’ certainly didn’t bode well.
“Unfortunately, due to the developing situation around Krevali, my transition to this post has been a bit hectic.”
“Spare me the lecture, I’m fully aware of the situation around Krevali.” Being this far out in the sticks, that contention seemed like quite an exaggeration to Angzal. “Whatever’s been keeping you lot so busy that you continuously postponed our meeting seems to have amounted to little more than the Mraboran Protectorate protecting its own tails.”
Why did every species without a tail find it so necessary to point out the Mraboran’s any chance they got?
“The Thorian avoids the stasis pods. But he does sleep.” Boro said. “Looks to me like you missed him by a couple of hours. I suggest next time you steer clear of the drink.” Boro eyed his own, and took a long sip from it. “Now go, get some sleep. It’s going to be lonely and quiet here for the next week with most of the crew in stasis, Lieutenant Guraty and myself included, at least for the next couple of days. Even the Captain’s got a few days off shift, though he generally also avoids the pods.”
They all heard him, but he knew that it was Meslina who was the only one who understood. She finished off her tea, and rose from the table; the other two following suit.
“Goodnight, Commander, Lieutenant,” she said.
“Night Mez.” Boro gestured at her with his own drink, and soon Boro and Surch were alone as Meeron, taking the hint, left two dinner specials out for them and made himself scarce.
“You can order them all into stasis, you know,” Surch suggested when the double doors to the galley stopped swinging after Meeron’s departure.
“Why would I need to do something like that?”
“I don’t think Intelligence will be very happy if we kill their Thorian.”
“Intelligence aren’t the ones having to cart him around.”
“The Captain won’t be, either.”
“We’ll be fine without him. The way he talks, I don’t understand what his angle is in all this, and I think we’re better off navigating through the Empire without his help. But they won’t kill him either, not with Meslina around.”
“She lost her dad in the Last Gasp, never even had a chance to meet him,” Surch reminded Boro as he rolled his empty glass on the table.
“I know.” Every file; off by heart. “But I trust her. The worst he’ll get is a few dents to go along with those bumps.”
Boro watched Surch’s face, the pilot clenching and unclenching his jaw muscles as he righted his glass again. It had been fifteen years since they graduated and ten years since they’d last seen each other after serving five months together on the starship Astarte. Since then, Surch moved from one non-descript assignment to another, stints that hardly deserved footnotes in a surprisingly bare file – mostly patrols around the periphery of the Outer Rim Confederacy, as far out as the borders of the Adaract Hive. Boro wondered what happened in the meantime that would allow Surch to land a gig like the Forseti and how Surch managed to lose sight of what Boro was struggling against here, despite the long and lonely nature of Surch’s own deployments, and what the two of them experienced when they were cadets.
“You remember the Academy, that one Winti who always got the better of you?” Boro asked.
Surch rubbed his eyes – dark brown, tired and seemingly looking off into that distant past, and took a deep breath. “How could I forget?”
“You were a better pilot, of course, but he knew how to use every quirk of the simulator to his advantage, even if it would have been completely irrelevant in the real world.” Even so many years after graduation, Boro could see that this was more than a little water under the bridge for Surch. “Remember that night when our groups tried to settle it with a brawl?”
Surch chuckled and shook his head. “We thought we planned it out so well.”
“And yet …”
“The Admiral had me doing gravity simulations until I threw up. Then had me clean that up and start over.”
“Same. That didn’t solve anything though, did it?” Boro asked and watched whatever smile Surch had drain away from his face.
“Hated each other more than ever. Until that one live exercise.” Surch was frowning, avoiding eye contact. He didn’t need Boro to remind him of where this was going, but Boro pressed on anyway. “You and the Winti were neck-and-neck for the most of it, I was bringing up the rear with a couple of his friends, until one of them had that power failure. I might have clipped their wing, or the other in the Winti’s crew did. We never did figure it out. But we did receive a short burst of a distress call before they cut out. You did too, as did the Winti. We were all within range and were supposed to hold back until help arrived. But we weren’t that far off the finish line. Less than an hour was it? And we assumed the pack would have been bringing up the rear, or at least that the damaged ship wouldn’t drift so far from the course.”
Boro paused then, listening to Surch’s even breathing in the dim light of the after-hours galley. There was little left in Boro’s glass, but it was enough. This was for the best. Surch knew it. It was how things have always worked.
“Two months in the hospital,” Surch whispered, “and then never returned to the Academy. Never flown again.”
“But the rest of us, the ones that stayed on, we were fast friends then, and helped each other succeed instead of getting in each other’s way. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“I see more than you know,” Surch answered, putting his palms on the table and pushing himself back in the chair. Boro watched him carefully as the pilot returned the empty glass to the counter, straightened his uniform and gave a small cough. “I tell you this as a friend, Boro. But not all of us recovered as easily as you. Good night.”
“You’re not staying for dinner?”
And with that, Surch Guraty left the galley, and went to put himself in stasis, and Boro was left alone, in a living breathing ship, with the responsibility to keep its lungs fresh and its arteries clear resting solely on his shoulders.
The conversation with the Thorian stayed with Boro during the days that followed. It irked him like benign parasite residing beneath the skull in the back of his head. A new stasis rotation had begun, and with that, half the military crew and most of the civilians went into their pods for a week, scheduled to come out about a day before they reached Yshot Station.
But not the Thorian. He lurked somewhere in the ship, and it bothered Boro to acknowledge that even as second-in-command, he actively avoided the galley to steer clear of their next conversation. Tonight though, after a long bridge shift that ended at an hour when even the Thorian would be sane enough to head to bed, he thought he would be safe.
“Want to head up for a bite to eat?” Surch asked. “Meeron said he’s left hot meals to last a few days.”
“I hope it’s fish,” Boro answered under his breath.
“What’s that?” Surch chuckled.
“Careful there, Boro, who’s going to do all that paperwork once you’ve cracked as well?”
Boro tried to laugh, but all he managed was an exhale and to walk slightly less slumped.
“Speaking of which,” Surch added, glancing behind his shoulder. “You think Maggie will be okay there all by herself?”
“She’ll be fine. She breathes this ship. If anything, she’s better off being plugged in. Without all that data flowing through it, I imagine a mind like hers would get bored pretty fast.”
“Must take a weird one to do what she’s doing.” Surch’s voice dropped, even though they were well out of earshot of the bridge by then. “I hear that half of them crack before they’ve had the implants for a full year.”
“I hear half of them crack before they even get them.”
When they reached the galley, they were surprised to find that Meeron had not in fact turned in, and that he had company to boot. In the dimmed lights of the galley, they could see Meeron pouring three drinks from a dusty bottle full of dark liquid, as the intended recipients sat huddled at a nearby table – Meslina, the Nabak, and Eframe Gonsyn. The little scene froze upon the entry of the two officers. Meslina, who had her back turned to them, let out a resigned sigh.
“Commander! Lieutenant!” Meeron started cheerfully, then paused, and in a swift motion downed a drink with one hand and pulled out two more glasses from underneath the counter with the other. “Care to join us?”
Boro looked at Surch, who shrugged and said, “Count me in.”
Boro took the empty chair next to Meslina and Surch pulled one up from the adjacent table and sat on it backwards, his legs straddling the back of the chair and arms resting over it. Surch maintained a smile while Boro tried to keep his expression cold and level, playing the part of the stern Second-in-Command who’s willing to listen.
“So, might I ask what brings you all here at this unsightly hour?” Surch broke the silence after it had lasted for a sufficiently uncomfortable amount of time. Eframe and the Nabak looked at each other, and then at Meslina. Meeron stepped in, placing the drinks in front of everyone but the Comms Officer. Surch gave it a short sniff, and then drank it in one gulp. “And don’t tell me it’s the fine drink. Meeron, do us all a favour, if you’re going to smuggle something on board, could you at least make it good?”
“Got some choice things coming our way at Yshot Station, but, uh, you never heard it from me.”
In the silence that followed, Meeron returned with a mug of steaming black tea for Meslina, who hovered her nose over the drink and took a deep inhale with her eyes closed.
“And I can see that it’s not the lively conversation that’s the draw of the hour either.” Surch moved his gaze from one person to the next, but all three avoided eye contact with both him and Boro. “Hey Meeron,” Surch called, looked down at his drink. “I didn’t say stop.” Meeron nodded and the refill was swiftly delivered.
Surch sipped it this time, and looked like he was about to make another attempt to break the ice, when Boro stepped in. “Look, we can pretend that I don’t know everything that happens on this ship, and that I don’t already have a pretty good idea of why you’re here. If I was in your position, I might have been at this table too, who knows. But we’re here now, and we can either continue to avoid talking about why, or we can accept that we’re all on the same team.” Boro laid his hands on the table in front of him, intertwining his fingers.
Meslina shrugged slightly, her hands wrapped around her mug, and the Nabak spoke in his gravelly half-growl. “It’s the Thorian.”
“Yes, I recall a couple of days ago here you made your feelings about him very clear.”
“Any chance I get.”
“Get a lot of chances, do you?”
“You know how he is, roaming about the ship like it’s his. It’s how his kind treat everything … and everyone.”
“Like they treat Nabak?” Boro prompted.
Boro couldn’t tell whether the Nabak was looking directly at him, or taking his cues from Meslina – their species’ eyes were almost entirely black, with little by way of discernible pupils or irises. It made it harder to maintain eye contact than even with the Thorian and his damnable glasses. The dense stubble that covered their entire face and the two vestigial tusks on either side of their mouth made for an ensemble that Boro did not find altogether pleasing.
“You know it’s not just about Nabak, Commander.” Meslina paused to take a long sip of her tea and in that time Boro again wondered why she never addressed him by his name. “Not many of the crew are happy about this arrangement.”
“Yeah, we’re just the only ones not afraid to show it,” Eframe added.
Boro tried to soften the withering look he wanted to give Eframe, which seemed to work, since the engineer’s expression didn’t falter.
Surch shifted in his chair, the second drink left unfished before him. “Have any of you actually tried to talk to the guy?” He asked.
“I think that’s more of the Commander’s area, isn’t it?” Eframe remarked, while the Nabak let out a grunt that sounded to Boro like a burst of laughter.
“Yes, Sivian?” Surch prompted.
“I tried once. Not sure what I was expecting. He just listened to me, with that stupid look on his face they all have where they don’t try to hide that they think they’re better than you. And then he said we Nabak should be so lucky that the Thorians got to us before the Hatvan did.”
“Charming,” Surch said after clearing his throat.
“You were on Nabak during the insurrection?” Boro asked. Every file, he’d read them all, able to recite them all, opening his tablet only to make it seem like he didn’t. He knew the answers before he asked the questions.
“No.” The Nabak’s mouth contorted so it looked like all four of his tusks were aimed at a single point just in front of his face. “We escaped to the Mraboran Protectorate during the last exodus, before they really tightened it up. I had family left there though, less now after the Revolution. Even less with the Butcher in charge.”
Boro said nothing to this. He let the dark cloak of this silence descend over the table. Soak into all present, especially Surch, who for whatever reason seemed to have some kind of soft spot for the Thorian. Surch finished the remainder of his drink. This was a good sign.
“Humans are not exactly new to war, Mr. Mikarik,” Boro said pleasantly. It wouldn’t have been the first time he had to sit through a lecture from a member of another species about Humanity’s neophyte status in the Known Reaches, though he preferred when the conversation took place in some dive of a bar with none of his superior officers in earshot and he felt the familiar itch in his knuckles.
Mikarik’s hand, which was carrying another forkful to his mouth, froze for a moment. The spectacle of watching the Thorian eat had lost its novelty and just made Boro lose interest in his own lunch.
“Oh, I’m well aware of that,” Mikarik answered. “You’re so efficient at it you nearly wiped yourselves out of existence a couple of thousand years ago.”
Boro cocked his head to the side, using a smile to hide what was bubbling on the surface, thinking a sneer was probably the best he was managing “Probably,” he said, allowing his eyes to drift back down to his tablet. “But you’re not exactly career military yourself. That was your first major conflict, and the Mraboran incident was only your what, fifth or sixth engagement?”
“I don’t necessarily speak for myself when I talk of experience. I speak for the tradition that raised me, that forged Empires when you were still climbing out of a Dark Ages you sent yourself to.”
“And yet here you are,” Boro looked up again and spread his hands in a gesture that meant to encompass the whole ship, “supposedly turning your back on that tradition and betraying the Empire you now defend.”
“My relationship with the Empire is my own.” The Thorian lowered his forearms, picked up a generous forkful of fish and stuffed it in his mouth, chewing it with his eyes pinned on Boro through his glasses. “And it’s complicated.”
“I have no doubt about that, but that’s not how our Nabak sees it.”
“You mean Sivian?”
It was that damned ghost of a smile again.
“Yes, Sivian,” Boro gritted through his teeth.
“No, I don’t think he does.”
“Do you think he should?” Boro asked.
“I’m sure you’re aware of what happened towards the end of that war.”
“I do, but that hardly did nothing to undo what already happened, did it?”
Was that really a tinge of regret that Boro saw creep across the Thorian’s face and disappear? Were they even capable of regret? Dr. Sufai might know, or else that Vaparozh xenologist, one of them could shed a light on whether he was only seeing things, but in any case, the Thorian had no answer so Boro pressed on.
“The Mraboran have likely not forgotten.”
“Good thing we don’t have any Mraboran on board,” the Thorian remarked.
“But we do have a Nabak.”
“As I’m sure you’ve noticed how the rest of the crew act around you.”
“Is there a point to all this, Commander?” The Thorian asked with a deep sigh and a long look at his plate. “Because between this conversation and the revolting fish, I’d sooner focus on my lunch.”
“Mr. Mikarik, I’m in a delicate position.” Boro dropped his voice. “I’ve got a Comms Officer, a very capable experienced officer, unable to take some sporty ribbing from my ship’s steward. I’ve got a civilian Head Engineer who’s having a hard time working with my Techever. I’ve got maintenance crew showing up in medbay because of a game of cards, and above all,” Boro looked around and leaned in conspiratorially, “there’s a Captain who is so focused on the smooth operations of the bridge that he believes that the rest of the ship is running as smoothly.”
“But you know what they all have in common, Mr. Mikarik?” Boro relaxed back into his chair, making sure to project his next sentence. “None of them particularly like that there’s a Thorian on board. You’re not in a great position either, and maybe that was my mistake. Maybe that’s how I failed my crew. I made you feel too comfortable. We’re barely one week out of Yshot Station, and you’ll gain access to the only place on the ship that’s so far been free of your presence. There’s a Captain there who might be tempted to make the same mistakes I have. And I’ll be there to make sure that he doesn’t. I just wanted you to know that before it becomes a problem between the two of us.” He gave the Thorian a purposefully fake smile, and rose from the table. “As you said, I should let you return to your lunch. Enjoy.”
The Thorian watched him as Boro tucked in his chair, pocketed his tablet and then turned his back to place his empty dishes on the kitchen counter. Only then did the Thorian call out to him, in his cold voice that often gave Boro an uncomfortable tickling sensation behind his ears. “Commander.”
Boro turned around, saying nothing.
“That’s not entirely true though, is it?” The Thorian continued. “There’s one person that doesn’t mind that I’m on board. Someone who’s quite pleased with the fact that they have a handy excuse in their arsenal, and can blame all their personal failings on the Thorian.”
This time, before he turned to leave, Boro was sure that it was, in fact, a smile.
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.