by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Having determined for the hundredth time the door to the living quarters was undetectable when sealed and being unable to think of anything more constructive to do, Eril wandered restlessly through the common room. He knelt by the pool of running water and dipped his fingers into it, noticing for the first time the four shallow depressions on the bottom. They were long and narrow, as if designed to cradle four prone bodies. Was the pool meant as a bath? The water, while not exactly cold, was far from a comfortable temperature. And, he discovered as he put his fingers to his lips, it was slightly salty.
Damned if I know what the thing is for. He got to his feet and tried the table water. It was fresh and cool.
There was no one to discuss the water and its significance with, and for some reason that bothered Eril. The entire suite of rooms felt echoingly empty. Kithri was still sleeping, or whatever she was doing in her cubicle. First Lennart and then Brianna had been taken away for testing.
Eril tried to ignore how much their absence affected him. What did he think existed between the four of them? Some kind of solidarity, because they were all human? He didn=t even know these people. There was no reason one brief adventure should make a difference. For the past five years, neither constant danger nor Weiram=s powers of persuasion had ever made him feel like part of a team.
A door appeared in one wall, whispered open, disgorged Lennart and just as quickly sealed itself behind him. Lennart went to his empty bed and sat down. A trace of healing gel gleamed on his forehead and his eyes held a tight, strained look.
Eril leaned against the doorway, watching him. Memories stirred uncomfortably. "You don=t look too well."
"Yeah?" Lennart stretched out his legs on the bed, one by one, and leaned back against the wall. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. "You were no prize, either, when you came back."
"How did it go?"
"Slugs two, humans zero, the best I can tell. I don=t know what they were after with that light show, but they sure didn=t get it from me."
"It makes you wonder, doesn=t it, what they=re really up to," Eril said, thinking aloud. His eyes wandered back to the empty common room and pool of salt water. "Raerquel admits we=re intelligent, but it talks about proving our 'personness=--the local passport to first class treatment--as if that were something quite different." He shook his head. "We didn=t make such a distinction in the Fifth Fed."
"That=s hard to believe. Every government on my Earth defined citizenship in a way that kept somebody out, whether it was women or foreigners or AIs." Lennart=s voice was rough with fatigue. He sounded more pessimistic than Eril had ever heard him.
Eril sat down on the edge of the bed, next to Lennart=s feet. "But we both agree that intelligence isn=t limited to the human race, don=t we? These gastropoids don=t seem to think anyone else even qualifies for consideration."
"Except for Raerquel, who=s our local version of a free-thinker. And it=s only dancing the dance for the sake of its grant committee. It doesn=t give a shit about this 'cultural contamination= stuff, or it would never have let us peek at that lab, let alone turn us loose there. It would have just stuffed us into a Korzinowski box."
"They wouldn=t have shown themselves to us."
"Unless they=ve never dealt with an intelligent alien species and it hasn=t occurred to them that this half-assed isolation isn=t very effective," Eril said. "We may not have a free spin of the place, but Brianna=s studying them as hard as they=re studying us. She=s not being particularly secretive about it. They=re pretty sloppy if they=re really worried about 'cultural contamination.="
"'Cultural contamination=, my ass," Lennart said. His mouth twisted downward. "There=s more than a few tourist traps they=re hiding from us."
"Such as there=s a goddamned power struggle going on and we=re smack in the middle of it. Everything Raerquel and its friends have told us reeks of it. If it were just up to Raerquel, we=d probably be guests of honor, right? Instead of being put through one idiot-minded test after another. So what does that suggest to you?"
"The Admiral=s inspection tour," Eril couldn=t resist saying. "Seriously, it suggests Raerquel has an agenda of its own, and that agenda is not popular with the higher-ups."
Lennart shifted uneasily on his bed. "We=d better keep our eyes open tomorrow. We don=t want to bonker Raerquel=s game, but we sure don=t want to get labelled the sweetest pets in town just to save its professional hide."
"For a guy who comes from an age when warfare was a dirty word, you have a surprisingly suspicious mind," Eril said.
"Suspicious, devious, and downright sneaky," said Lennart with a very unhumorous smile. "That=s me all over. I didn=t get into space by trusting in universal sweetness and good-will. Think on this, captain--there were a thousand applicants for every place, all of them just as qualified as I was. What got me in?"
Eril flinched, as if Lennart has just shoved a plasteel rod up his spine. "What did you call me--captain? What kind of joke is that?"
Lennart buried his nose in the crook of one uplifted elbow and slid down on the bed until he was completely horizontal. "No joke. And nothing wrong with your hearing, either. Who else do you think is holding this circus together?"
Eril stared at him long and hard. "Thanks," he said in a unexpectedly rusty voice, "but I think you=ve got the wrong candidate." He headed back to his own cubicle with what poise he could summon.
Eril paused at the entrance to Kithri=s room. She lay on her side, her back towards him and knees drawn slightly up, her brown curls spilling over one shoulder. The supple fabric of her tunic clung to the curve of her waist, outlining her back and hips.
As if sensing his presence in her sleep, she rolled partway towards him. One small breast formed a rounded silhouette against the pale gray wall. Eril caught his breath, remembering the surprising softness of her body against his. Like melting honey--no, it was he who=d melted. When she=d pushed him away, the separation was only partial.
He held on to the door frame so hard his knuckles cracked. The sound brought him back to the present. The Cerrano Plain receded, worlds away. Maybe millennia away. He shouldn=t be standing here, watching her sleep, even if it weren=t for Lennart next door and Brianna sweating under the lights.
He cursed softly as he walked away.
Duvach appeared shortly before the morning meal to tell the four humans they wouldn=t be needed in the laboratory. The inspection committee was going to spend most of the next day with Raerquel, going over the results of its research.
If it had been Bhevon, Eril thought, it wouldn=t have even told us that much.
So they waited in their quarters. And waited. They moved restlessly around the room, tension building until even the most casual comment seemed intolerably irritating. Eril decided they=d been cooped up too long. Thinking it would bring them together and give them something to do, he began telling his favorite war stories. He had plenty to tell, even without the battle at Albion and the last escapade on New Paris, the one that lead him to try recruiting Kithri as a duopartner. He wasn=t ashamed of these two incidents, but he somehow wanted to tell a better story than he=d lived.
Kithri and Brianna listened, Kithri relaxing enough to laugh at the right times and Brianna looking as if she=d rather be taking notes. Lennart, his face set, got up and strode over to the other side of the room.
Brianna=s narrative, a string of anecdotes of research expeditions on one meaningless planet after another, also sounded suspiciously edited. If she=d gathered that much professional prestige, Eril wondered, why wasn=t she a hot-shot professor somewhere? What was she doing all by herself on Stayman? Where were the shadows in her past?
As Brianna came to the high point of her story, Lennart walked slowly back to the table. He held his arms crossed tightly over his chest, his hands in fists. When he sat down, Eril saw a new, stormy light in his eyes, a tension around his mouth that hadn=t been there since the pirates.
"I=ve had about all I can stand of this let=s-tell-each-other-how-wonderful-we-are," he said. "I can=t judge your academic credentials, Bri, but I know hypocrisy when I hear it."
Brianna recoiled as if he=d struck her in the face.
"I don=t mean it personally," he continued before she could protest. "I know you think what you=ve done is wonderful and you=re so proud of how civilized your Dominion is. But all this talk of 'universal cultural understanding= is just a scab covering over a festering sore. Like they say, violence is contagious. It doesn=t exist in a vacuum. Those space pirates--and everything they stand for--" he jabbed one forefinger at her "--that=s how your people really treat each other--that=s the true soul of your Dominion."
Brianna set her whitened lips together, but she didn=t flinch again. She gathered herself for a reply, but Lennart gave her no opening. By look and gesture, he shifted his focus to Eril.
"And you--to think that all this time I=ve been envying you! I thought I=d woken up in the future of my dreams. It was all I could do not to sound off like a damned propaganda chit--'O glorious new horizon!= and all that. I didn=t want to see the truth."
"And what is the truth?" Kithri asked in a tight, quiet voice. "If Brianna=s people are no better than her pirates, then what are we?"
Eril could hear her thoughts, We who blow up whole planets and turn children into scrub-rats?
"You don=t know what we had to give up for space," Lennart said. "It=s so damned easy for you. You don=t have to give up a thing! You have it all. You=ve got ships that can take you halfway across the galaxy as if the speed of light was nothing. And what do you do with them?"
"You don=t understand," Eril jumped into the pause. "Everything=s different now. It isn=t that war is bad and peace is good. Nothing=s that simple, not any more. Settled space is too big, political problems too complex. You can=t judge us by what happened thousands of years ago."
Lennart=s eyes shone like polished cinnabar. "Can=t I?"
"Your people weren=t so great with your vaunted age of peace," Eril shot back. "It didn=t last, did it? It ended so long ago, we=ve even forgotten it existed. But we haven=t given up! In fact, we=re still fighting for the same thing."
Watching Lennart=s face, Eril remembered his expression as Red-hair had reached for Brianna that last time. He also remembered thinking a man who looked like that was capable of anything. Eril could have throttled him then, before he infected Kithri with the same deadly recklessness. She too would have thrown away all their lives for a moment of hopeless compassion, if he hadn=t stepped in. He saw that same desperation in Lennart=s eyes now, but then the light shifted and it was gone.
"Fighting?" Lennart repeated, his voice laced with sarcasm. "For peace?" Something like a bark shot from his mouth. "Maybe I=m too dense to see it. Maybe things have changed so much I can=t see it. But I do know this--we didn=t have to be afraid of each other. And you do."
I=m only one man, Eril thought desperately. The civil war was no more my doing than the pirates were Brianna=s. I=m on the other side, building something better, or trying to, for god=s sake.
It wasn=t fair to blame him for something he had no control over. Even less fair to blame Kithri, who hadn=t had the chance to fight back. But every answer that came to his mind sounded defensive, an adolescent whine.
"We don=t know why it ended. It was a special, isolated time," Kithri=s voice broke in on his thoughts. She was talking to Lennart in slow, careful tones, whatever hurt she=d taken from him well hidden. "Maybe it lasted until the First Fed. We can only guess. But once we discovered jaydium, we exploded through space. Everywhere. Distance didn=t mean anything any more. People could just take their problems somewhere else. We didn=t have to live together on one planet."
And if we hadn=t discovered jaydium... The stuff=s like a cancer, devouring all our lives, not just Kithri=s. Without it, there wouldn=t have been a Fifth Fed or Brianna=s Dominion. Or the pirates, either. We=d still be back in Lennart=s time, cooped up on a handful of planets, taking decades to travel between them.
"You=re saying war=s inevitable, given human nature," Lennart said bleakly. "In our genes, like some hereditary disease. I can=t accept that. It wasn=t true then and it=s not true now."
"Things change!" Eril insisted. "People change."
"No. Some things don=t change, captain. War isn=t bad one time and good the next. We built you a world of peace and you threw it away."
Of all the narrow-minded, comet-brained, opinionated--
"Hold on, you two," Brianna cut in. She=d been listening to their debate, her face grave with concentration. "All civilizations go through natural cycles of conflict and resolution, if they last long enough. Mine did, but with each round of tensions, we got further away from wide-scale fighting. It=s only in the early trigger-happy stages--by accident--that interplanetary destruction is a possibility."
Albion was an accident?
The conversation came to an abrupt halt as the door became visible and whispered open. Two gastropoids stood outside in the hallway. Eril identified them by the pattern of their neck slits. Duvach and Possiv.
Duvach extruded its head section into the room. "It is time for personal inspections by the Council committee. Kithri-human, please to be accompanying us."
Kithri straightened her shoulders. A few stray curls had fallen forward on her brow, and she brushed them back.
"Why her?" Eril said. "She missed the tests the rest of us took."
"Obviously, the Council committee members are wishing to witness firsthand the duplication of previously reported results, using a naive subject," Duvach answered in the same expressionless voice all the gastropoids used.
Eril shut up, wishing he didn=t feel so damned protective. Kithri gave him a small smile on her way out.
"I=ll be all right," she said. "After all, you made it through the other day."
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