by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
After their capture, the four humans were half-pushed, half-carried to a small satellite platform. This was no more than a cell surrounded by featureless translucent walls, unbroken by door or window. Above, far beyond their reach, a filigree canopy admitted splotches of brilliant sunlight. Here the restraining webs were removed, melting at a touch from their captors= tentacles, and they were left alone.
"We have a proverb to describe situations like this," Brianna said, wringing her hands and moving restlessly back and forth. "We say, >From the cookpot down the gullet=. An inelegant expression, true, but at this moment I feel much like the food animals it refers to."
Kithri leaned against one wall, watching the other woman. Her body tingled with the after-effects of adrenalin, her arms and thighs smarted where the restraining webs had cut deep into her skin, and she wished Brianna would settle down and stop fussing. Sometimes Brianna made her itch all over.
"We=re not the issue here," Lennart said tightly. He sat with his back against the opposite wall, elbows resting on his bent knees. "The Council had it in for Raerquel, and not just because of its scientific interests. They=re out to get it discredited any way they can. We just gave them a convenient excuse."
"You=re right," said Eril, standing beside him. "They=ll take anything we say as proof of Raerquel=s guilt. They don=t give a comet=s fart what happens to us. Next time, they=ll just wipe us. Until now, I just...I didn=t see how easy that would be."
"That=s what I thought, too," Kithri said, "or I wouldn=t have tried that stupid stunt." She wondered what had happened to Raerquel, whether it was confined separately or still being interrogated by the Council...or already tried and executed?
Why should I care what happens to the damned slug? It was Raerquel=s peace schemes that got us in this fix!
"Kithri, we were all >jetted up for a fight," Eril said. "It could have been any one of us to make the first move."
"But it wasn=t, was it?" she snapped. "The rest of you had the sense to stay put." She took a step towards him, jabbing one thumb towards her chest. "I was the one who almost got us killed!"
"They were just using us to get at Raerquel," Lennart said. "And they didn=t kill us offhand, the way they threatened to. Don=t be so hard on yourself. Maybe what you did saved us, after all."
"If we could get them to just listen to us," said Brianna. "Let us demonstrate that we=re civilized..."
"They=d never give us the chance, just like Eril said," Kithri said. "You heard the Council. They think we=re disgusting lower life forms--unevolved, they said. If Raerquel=s convicted, what do you think=s going to happen to us? Goddamned slugs."
"Not slugs, gastropoids," said Brianna. "Just because evolution took a different path on their world, allowing molluscans to progress to sapience, while vertebrates remained largely instinctive--"
"Just stop it, would you?" Lennart said. "This is no time for a lecture."
"I disagree with you," Brianna shot back. "This is exactly the time for rational analysis. All you people think about is rushing from one avoidable predicament to the next. Use your brains for once, instead of your primitive hormones! We need to understand what=s going on here!"
"If that Council is typical of the powers-that-be here, we=re in one hell of a jam," said Eril. "I=ve heard that sort of posturing before, from the mouths of generals. >Deterring escalation=--that=s just a polite way of saying >Bomb the blazes out of the other guy before he does it to you.= And we=re the ones who=ll be caught in the middle."
Kithri shivered despite the sunlight dappling through the overhead canopy. Caught in the middle--just as Stayman had been. Just as Albion had been.
"Raerquel=s been our advocate so far," Brianna continued, undaunted. "But who knows how much longer that will be the case? It=s no different from the others, it=s only using us for its own purposes. While we may admire its pacifist goals, we still have our own survival to consider. Furthermore, as a scientist, I must avoid even the appearance of involvement in local politics. We know so little of this culture, how can we accurately evaluate what=s going on? By accepting Raerquel=s unsubstantiated statements? By imposing our own anthropocentric standards? In my professional opinion, our first objective must be to establish our legitimacy with the Council, with the rights and protections of citizenship. Then we can--"
"Let Raerquel just go hang?" Kithri looked up, stung.
Lennart shook his head. "Pinning our hopes on Council is a dumb idea. They wouldn=t give us the time of day if we stood on our heads and asked pretty-please."
"We have only Raerquel=s word on that, just as the supposition that war is imminent," Brianna countered. "It could have exaggerated the situation for its own purposes and manipulated us into acting as its advocates. May I remind you that it stands charged with mental contamination?"
"You=re as bad as the Council!" Lennart snapped.
Brianna whirled round, her face flushed, and for the first time Kithri saw her as less than beautiful. "So what do you suggest we do, throw our lot in with the Master of the Hopeless Cause?"
"At least it=s trying to do something," Lennart replied. He got to his feet, looking as if he=d like to punch her. "Maybe it is hopeless, maybe we=re all destined to be blown to smithereens, if we aren=t chopped into little pieces first. Like they say, war is a whole lot harder to stop than to start. But I=ll tell you one thing, lady, and that=s if we don=t give it our best try, we=ll never find out otherwise."
Brianna drew herself up, still inches shorter than him. Her lips tightened into a thin line and her brows drew together. She looked like she was about to spit in his face. Kithri=s shoulders tensed in anticipation, but Eril stepped smoothly between them.
"All right, you two," he commanded. "The best thing either of you could say right now is nothing. Got that?"
"I--" Brianna began, her chin still at an ominous angle.
"Nothing." Eril repeated.
Lennart nodded and headed for the farthest corner, covering the distance in a stride and a half. He took a wide stance, facing the wall, and raised his hands to chest height. Slowly he began circling his hands, as if on an invisible table, his eyes half-closed, breathing deep and even. Brianna, watching him, wrung her hands and looked as if she were going to speak again, but managed not to.
Kithri shook her shoulders, trying to loosen them, but it was no good. Her heart pounded as if she=d been on the brink of a fight herself, her veins flooded with adrenalin and muscles battle-ready. She threw herself into the nearest empty corner to think.
Brianna had really gotten her hackles up, more thoroughly than Kithri would have imagined, and that disturbed her. Skies, she didn=t even like the other woman, why should she care what she said?
Kithri=s thoughts stumbled on. She=d always felt war was morally objectionable, but was she really any different from Brianna, who didn=t care who got dumped on as long as she didn=t? Since Kithri had been, through no fault of her own, at the bottom of the Federation social pile, she was also the first to be exploited, the first forgotten. By sheer fortune she was not also the first bombed, although that was only because of the Fed=s need to protect its precious jaydium supply.
If she could have stayed, or done something, and Albion had been spared...
But I couldn=t! I had no choice, I was only a child! If Father hadn=t taken us away, we=d be cinders now, too.
If Father hadn=t left...
Why had he left Albion, and gone to Stayman--bleak, heavily guarded, and out of the war zone? He was a scientist, intelligent and well-educated--he must have seen the war coming. What he=d done about it was run for the safest corner he could find, taking his only child. Kithri trembled inside, thinking, Did he really want to fight, but was forced to run because of me? She searched her memory for words like, Maybe some day you=ll understand...but could find nothing clear, only his voice as he taught her to survive on Stayman. Only the pain and loneliness afterwards. But had he really had a choice? Could he have stayed on Albion and worked for peace? Would anything he did have made a difference?
Would anything I do now make a difference?
Kithri ran her hands over her face, feeling her cheeks hot and dry, as if they burned with a sudden fever. Her mouth dried up like the Cerrano dust.
Without thinking what she was doing, she got to her feet. Her knees felt like powder and her stomach knotted into a lump. She took a step towards the center of the platform. Eril, leaning against the far corner, met her eyes, and she remembered how she=d locked on to his face in the pirates= courtyard. She looked away, for a moment terrified that her resolve would shatter and she=d go running to him.
Brianna was sitting along the opposite wall, playing with something in her lap. She=d teased loose a few strands of her gold-wire hair and was knotting them in an intricate pattern. She didn=t look up at Kithri=s approach. Lennart did, mildly interested, without Eril=s sharp focus.
"I think--" Kithri=s voice wavered. "--I think we should do what we can to help Raerquel. Whatever we can. Even if it means throwing in our lot with a bunch of losers."
Brianna tossed her head, puffing her hair into a golden froth. "That won=t do us any good. Raerquel=s a powerless dissident, an eccentric--"
"We=re going to die anyway, all of us. You think your little studies of alien architecture are going to save this planet?"
Brianna offered no reply. Kithri looked at the woman and two men who had, in a few days, gone from strangers to people she=d die for. She had no strength to argue with them. She barely had enough for herself. All her instincts, all her experience urged her to keep silent, to stay out of it. There might be nothing she could do, or she might die anyway. She thought again of her father, wrestling alone with his own choices, his own unknown future. How much more difficult it must have been for him with a child, perhaps already knowing he was dying. All these years she=d blamed him for being a coward because he=d run away.
"You do whatever you want," she said, closing the door on everything that had gone before in her life. "Me, I=m going to go out fighting for something besides my own skin."
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