Free Fiction Monday: Becalmed, Part Two
Mae, chief linguist on the Ivoire, heads a diplomatic mission to Ukhanda. Her handling of relations with the Quurzod lead to a battle that causes the Ivoire’s anacapa drive to malfunction, stranding the ship in foldspace. Mae can’t remember what she did wrong on the mission: all she knows is that she’s one of the few survivors. If she doesn’t recall it, she won’t be able to prevent another disaster when the Ivoire escapes foldspace. If the Ivoire escapes foldspace. Because what no one talks about—and everyone fears—is that the Ivoire is becalmed…forever.
Part two of “Becalmed,” by Hugo Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook and paperback through various online retailers here. The latest book in the Diving series, The Runabout, was released Sept. 22. Click here for more information and buying options.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Part 2 of 2
Quurzid, the language the Quurzod speak, is a mixture of six different languages we’ve encountered in this sector. Only the Quurzod have toughened up the words, shortened the syntax, added guttural sounds and some glottal stops that none of the other languages have.
Yet the Quurzod language flows, like music, even with the harshness. Almost because of the harshness—atonal and oddly beautiful, spare, austere, and to the point.
I can hear the Quurzod talking all around me, even though I am not with them. I am sitting in that awful testing room. Coop walked me inside, his arm around my back. His presence reassures me, even though it shouldn’t, even though we shouldn’t get along. We’re not a couple any longer.
Yet some vestiges of couplehood remain.
Coop has left—he’s on call, which means if I need him, and he’s not handling some emergency, he’ll come. But my sister sits outside this room. My twin sister, Deirdre.
We no longer look alike, she and I. We’ve lived our lives so differently that what once looked identical now just looks familial. If I had lived her life, I would look like her—heavier, settled, smile lines around her mouth. Her hair flows around her face, and her eyes are soft.
Deirdre waits for me in the waiting room, even though she knows this might take a day or more. She doesn’t care. She acts as if I’m dying of some dread disease, and for all we know, I am.
Some mental disease.
I have already settled onto the floor of this strange room, but it hasn’t curved around me yet. It’s waiting for me to give the go-ahead. Because I balked the first time, I get an extra five minutes to reconsider my choice.
I’m not going to change my mind.
The Quurzod whisper around me. If I close my eyes, I’ll be able to see them. They met us on a broad plain, the sun setting behind them. It was a dramatic and powerful introduction, the sky blood-red as the light died.
The Xenth warned us that the Quurzod would be dramatic. The Xenth warned us that the Quurzod would lie.
My arms are pressed against my side. Something has punctured the skin in my wrist. My eyes flutter open for a moment, and it becomes clear that the room has absorbed me.
My breath catches in complete panic. My heart races. I want to claw myself out, I want to climb, I need to—
—get out. Escape. I could die in here. I will die in here if I’m not careful. I will disappear and no one will know what happened to me in this bloody silence, this stench, this heat and the pressure and the horrible, horrible—
“No,” I whisper. It takes me a moment to realize I whisper in Quurzid. Unlike most human languages which use simple words, often words of one syllable, for no, Quurzid uses seven syllables for no—a long, complicated word, one that requires a lot of effort to speak correctly. You can’t involuntarily finish the word “no” in Quurzid, like you can in Standard. “No” in Standard slips out. In Quurzid, you know what you’re saying by the third syllable, and you can leave the word unfinished.
The Quurzid word for “no” is the most deliberate word for “no” in any language I’ve encountered.
And that’s the word I spoke. A deliberate word, one shows I do not now—or ever—want to revisit those memories.
For a moment, I imagine screaming for help, thinking of escape, like they told me to, so that the room will release me. But then I will see my sister’s face as I leave, filled with disappointment and fear and concern.
My sister, the caretaker, knows that she will be responsible for me, because she can’t not be responsible for me, no matter how much I try to keep her out.
I close my eyes as the whispers start again, the Quurzod, talking among themselves as they stood on that ridge. They were half naked, only their arms and legs covered with some kind of paint, a bit of armor across their genitals. The women as well as the men are bare-chested. They show no shame in revealing their bodies, unlike some cultures we’ve encountered.
Unlike the Xenth.
The Xenth should have been the musical ones. Their language is all sibilants intermingled with soft “ch” sounds and the occasional sighing vowel. But the effect isn’t musical. It’s creepy, as if something is hissing with disapproval or anger.
Three of our people quit at the prospect of facing the Quurzod, but it was the Xenth who terrified me. The Xenth with their too-thin women, wearing long sleeves and high-neck collars and tight pants that sealed at the ankles, even in the heat. The Xenth, whose men looked at me as if I were not just dressed improperly but suggestively.
I wore a uniform that covered everything except my neck, and I considered coming back to the ship just so that I could get the proper clothing. But our Xenth hosts assured me there was no time. They wanted us to broker some kind of resolution to a fight with them and the Quurzod, a fight over a genocide that had occurred a year before, a fight that could—in the opinion of the Xenth—lead to planetwide war.
We had studied everything, or so we thought. Sixteen different cultures existed on the only continent on Ukhanda. Sixteen different cultures with only two that had the military might to dominate—the Quurzod and the Xenth. The Xenth controlled the plains, but the Quurzod held the mountains. They also controlled most of the airways, giving the Xenth the seas. Both had space flight, but the Quurzod used it to their own advantage.
How the Xenth contacted us, I am not certain. They didn’t contact the Ivoire. They contacted one of the other ships in our Fleet, and decisions went up the chain of command. The Ivoire got involved because of me. Because I am—was—had been—the best linguist in the Fleet.
My heart twists. I open my eyes. The room is the color of that twilight, blood-red and gold, with shadowy figures lining the walls. My stomach turns.
I can’t do this. I can’t do it. I can’t.
But if I don’t, I’ll die.
I have no idea if the words I’m thinking come from the meeting or that horrible memory of the bodies or come from now. I hate the way my arms press against my sides. I shift, and am surprised that the floor shifts with me. I can—if I want—pull that thing from my wrist, the thing that is going to keep me hydrated and nourished, and flee this place. Go on my own, figure things out by myself. Live my own damn life.
I take a deep breath.
I have never fled from a battle in my life.
I force my eyes closed and let the memories overtake me.
* * *
I came to the meetings late. Linguists from the flagship, Alta, had flanked the diplomats, talking with the Xenth long before I arrived. I got study materials and cultural documents one week before my first meeting, and that meeting was with the Xenth.
The Xenth’s capital city, Hileer, was a port city. The buildings on the bay had glass walls facing the water, but deeper inland, the buildings had no windows at all. The Xenth built backwards—or what I thought of as backwards—the tallest buildings by the view with the rest getting progressively shorter the farther away from the water we got. Only doors had glass, and then only a small rectangle, built at eye-level, so that the person inside could see who knocked.
The buildings of state, where the parties and balls and ceremonies were held, stood bayside, but the buildings of government, where the actual governing occurred, were single-story structures miles from the waterline.
The ceilings were low, the doorways lower, and the interiors too dark for my taste. They were also both chilly and stuffy, as if the air got recycled only rarely. Add to that the hissing, scratching sound of the Xenth language, and for the first time in my long and storied career, I felt a distinct on-sight aversion to the people I was meeting.
I had to work to smile, work to touch palms—their version of shaking hands—work to concentrate on their words, instead of their shifting eyes, which were as much a part of their communication as hand gestures were to some cultures. I did learn to understand the eye shifts, but try as I might, I could not add them to my personal repertoire. I apologized in advance, and the Xenth seemed to understand.
I had no real importance to them. I had no real diplomatic importance in that room, anyway. I was there to listen, learn, and discover all I could about the Quurzod.
The Xenth had asked for help with them.
What the Xenth told us that afternoon is this:
Their quarrels with the Quurzod went back five hundred years. Initially, they had border skirmishes that caught almost no attention. Neither the Xenth nor the Quurzod cared much about their shared borders.
They did care about the seas, and sea battles between both countries had become legendary, but rare. Usually the ships passed each other in international waters, threatening, but not following up on the threats.
But travel became easier, as both sides built roads, discovered their own personal air travel, and slowly conquered space. Neither group were nation-builders, at least initially. They didn’t want to conquer the other side and take their land. But no one could define exactly what land belonged to whom on those shared borders, and as travel became more commonplace, so did the border skirmishes, which led to many deaths, which led to formal armed hostilities, which led to full-scale warfare at least a dozen times in the past 250 years.
Another culture, the Virrrzd, negotiated the first peace treaty for the Xenth and Quurzod, and it held (tentatively) for thirty years. Then the border skirmishes started up again, along with raids into each other’s territories.
The raids went deeper and deeper, growing more and more violent, until the Quurzod committed an out-and-out massacre, killing every single Xenth (man, woman, and child) within one hundred miles of what the Quurzod believed to be the border.
The Xenth immediately called for another peace conference, demanding reparations. The Quurzod came, and as both sides made actual headway, Quurzod along the border died hideously.
The Quurzod claimed they were attacked by an illegal chemical weapon, long banned on Ukhanda. The Xenth claimed that the Quurzod’s own building materials had an adverse reaction with chemicals the Xenth used for land cultivation. The Quurzod deaths, the Xenth claimed, were caused by their own greed in gobbling up the land.
The Fleet arrived just as the war along the border was about to escalate again. The Alta contacted both sides and offered to broker a deal between them. Only the Xenth took the Alta up on it.
The Quurzod were too busy burying their dead.
Or so we were told.
Claims, counterclaims, historical arguments so detailed that even the locals did not understand all of them. The Fleet managed to hold off hostilities by patrolling the border with our own people. We have small fighters that we used to fly over the disputed area, keeping both sides away.
We had maintained that position during the months of negotiation.
Finally, the Quurzod agreed to talks, so long as there would be no activity along the border during that time. No chance for backstabbing, or so they said.
My team would go in three months in advance of the diplomats. We would become as Quurzod as possible, learn their culture, their traditions, their rituals. We wouldn’t go native—we had learned over the years that too many cultures had found the attempt to go native as deep an insult (or perhaps a deeper insult) than failing to learn the language.
So much of communication is nonverbal. Eye movements like the Xenth had, hand gestures found in so many Earth cultures, smiles or lack thereof in a series of cultures in the previous sector. These things could make or break a delicate negotiation.
I’d heard rumors—impossible to substantiate without talking to the Quurzod themselves—that Quurzid had a four-tiered structure. The first was a formal tier, for strangers within the Quurzod culture. Extremely polite, with its own sentence structure and vocabulary. The second was the familial tier for family and close friends, informal in its sentence structure with a private vocabulary, often known only to the family/friends themselves. The third was street Quurzid, offensive, abrupt, and as violent as the culture. Again, a different sentence structure and vocabulary. Used in threatening situations, among the criminal classes, and by the military in times of war.
Finally, there was diplomatic Quurzid, which bore almost no relation to any of the other forms of Quurzid at all. So far as I could tell, diplomatic Quurzid evolved as a language to speak to enemies, without giving them any insight into the Quurzod at all.
The Virrrzd were the ones who figured that out, which was why they could successfully broker the original deal with the Xenth. But the Virrrzd were unwilling to get involved this time—the conflict between the Xenth and Quurzod had taken such a nasty turn that the Virrrzd were afraid for their own safety.
The Virrrzd knew both formal and diplomatic Quurzid, but not street or familial Quurzid. We felt—the linguists, the diplomats, the Fleet—that the only way to settle this dispute between the Xenth (who had only one language in only one form) and the Quurzod was to quite simply learn to communicate fully with the Quurzod.
Which was why my team got sent in.
* * *
I surface to sibilants (whisper, whisper, hiss, hiss, hiss) and shudder as I open my eyes. The room is dark and has folded around me. I can’t really see anything. My heart pounds. I have no idea how much time has passed.
I’m supposed to get lost in the memories, and maybe I am lost, but it doesn’t feel like the kind of lost I expected. It’s almost as if I’m having a conversation with someone else, not reliving the past. Not like—
—clawing, climbing, reaching, bodies rolling beneath my feet, shifting against my hand, the feel of dried blood on my cheek, the cold flesh under my palms. That’s lost. I’m lost. I’ll never survive—
I’m holding my breath. I have to make myself breathe, and as I inhale the breath sounds like a sob. The air has a faint tinge of rot—is that what this place does? It mimics what happened?—and I think it’d be so easy to escape, so easy to leave—
Only to live in my room forever. Forever slipping, dreaming, hiding from my own brain, my own memories.
I close my eyes and force myself back inside, force myself to breathe—
* * *
—the hot dry air. A small headache has formed between my eyes. The Quurzod are not cordial, although we’ve been here for weeks. My host family will not talk while I am in the room. I hear them whispering when I am nearby, and I strain to listen. But they use formal Quurzid whenever I’m around.
Fortunately, my team fares better. They have made recordings of Quurzid in all its glory, marking what they believe to be familial Quurzid and what they believe to be street Quurzid.
No Quurzod will tell us the difference. Once the Quurzod figured out that we wanted to know the entirety of their language, they stopped treating us like guests and started treating us as if we were Xenth.
Except for Klaaynch. Klaaynch is thin, reedy, beautiful according to our culture—long blond hair and classic features—but strange to the Quurzod, whose features are thicker, hair generally a dark, almost orangish red. I cannot quite tell how old Klaaynch is. She’s one of those girls who looks the same at thirteen as she will at twenty-three.
I’m guessing she’s eighteen or so, very curious, with a gift for language. She already speaks some Standard poorly, learned through overheard snatches of discussion.
She reminds me of myself. All ears, wanting to know what everyone is saying, no matter what language they speak.
Her family won’t host, so she watches me from afar. I eat in the prescribed visitor restaurants, and stay in the visitor hotel when I am not with my host family. The Quurzod agreed to host families, but balked at overnight stays, and frowned on sharing meals. “Host” is not really a good term for what they’re doing, but we have no other. They are sharing as much as they can.
Klaaynch cannot sit with me in a visitor restaurant, and I cannot go to a Quurzod-only place. Sometimes she sits beneath one of the arching trees that mark every intersection. I have learned to eat outside in the visitor restaurants, at the table closest to the tree. Klaaynch and I talk, or try to, and she has promised me she will teach me familial Quurzid.
She says in diplomatic Quurzid (the only Quurzid I know fluently), They cannot tell me who my friends are. They cannot determine whom I care about and whom I do not. If they try, I shall challenge them.
I admire her reasoning.
And her courage. She wants to step outside her culture and learn other cultures. She wants to become more than who she is.
Is this what Coop says he saw in me? This desire for knowledge, the desire to add to the core by reaching beyond the training, beyond the culture?
I sit and murmur to Klaaynch, not knowing that her face—
—is the first one I see, rolling toward me, eyes open, mouth gone, as if someone cut it away, those cheekbones crushed, her hair wrapped around her neck. She is buried just above me, thrown on top of me, her blood on my skin—
* * *
I gasp, and this time I am thinking of escape long before I vocalize it. I claw the floor, the needle poking my skin, the darkness holding me. I climb out and crawl toward the door, nearly there when Jill reaches me. She drags me out of the room as if she’s dragging me out of that pit.
I stumble and fall against Deirdre who asks me what’s wrong, asks me to talk to her, asks me what I need.
“Leona,” I say. “Please. Find Leona.”
And then I pass out.
* * *
And wake in one of the hospital beds, like I found myself in after they rescued me on Ukhanda. Leona is there, but not there. She flits in, she flits out. She won’t talk to me in the medical wing. She forces me to wait until I am well enough to sit in a conference room without any medical equipment at all. She is even going to bring the chairs.
She knows that I know. She doesn’t know what I know. Just that I know.
And I ache because of it.
* * *
Cultures do not invent languages and traditions overnight. They evolve over time. And while some linguists believe that the language comes before the culture, I believe that the language serves the culture.
Think of a culture that has developed four different languages, each with a prescribed purpose. The Xenth, who wear formal clothing and have precise traditions about who may have windows and who may not, who may look to the left and who may not, have but one language, without much more complexity than most human languages. Twenty-eight letters, millions of words, a simple sentence structure followed in infinite variations.
But the Quurzod, who wear little to no clothing, and have windows everywhere, and few walls in their homes, the Quurzod divide the world with their language. Language is forbidden to some, and embraced by others.
Language is not just for communicating, but also for protection. Protection of the culture, protection of the family, protection of the Quurzod traditions, whatever they might be.
And whatever they might be, they are precious to the Quurzod.
In my excitement to learn, I forgot about strictures and structures and barriers. I forgot that language conceals as well as reveals. I forgot that protections exist for a reason.
And I forgot what it is like to be young and curious and different from everyone else.
I grew up in a culture that embraces difference, celebrate diversity, and loves outsiders. A culture that believes itself superior to all others, yes, but in an open-minded way, a way that allows curiosity, a way that states the more we learn, the better we are.
I forgot that not everyone sees the universe as broadly as we do.
I forgot that not everyone has seen the universe.
I forgot that not everyone is allowed to see the universe.
When we finally get to our private conference room, I tell Leona that she no longer has to defend me. I caused the crisis with the Quurzod. I should have been left behind.
I should have been left to die.
She wants me to explain that, and I do, because I owe her that much. I explain, but haltingly. I do not want to slip into the memories again. But someone has to understand.
Someone has to know.
* * *
Children absorb language. They are born without it, but with the capacity to learn it. Some lose that capacity as they age, or let it atrophy or never really had a great capacity for it at all. But others never lose the ability to absorb language, and consequently, they crave more and more of it.
They want to learn—or maybe they need to learn.
I have always needed to learn. Sounds and syntax are like symphonies to me, and as much as I love the old symphonies, I am always searching for new ones.
Klaaynch needed to learn too. And if all I had done was teach her Standard, we would have been fine. But she wanted to teach me the glories of Quurzid—all of Quurzid—and I wanted to learn.
She might have gotten away with teaching me some familial Quurzid. She was right; no one could choose her friends for her.
But street Quurzid—it was beautiful and complex and revealing, a culture in and of itself, one that revered violence and anger as a way of life. Each word had degrees of meaning depending on how it fell in a sentence, as well as what tone the speaker used (High, low? Soft, loud? Quick, slow?), and each meaning had nuances as well. Street Quurzid was one of those languages that would take weeks to learn and a lifetime to understand.
I was thinking that after I completed my mission as the linguistic diplomat at the peace conference between the Xenth and Quurzod, I would stay on Ukhanda and study street Quurzid. I would spend the rest of my life immersed in the most complex language I had ever heard.
Maybe I mentioned that to someone. Maybe I had merely thought it. Maybe my intentions were clear to people whose language was so complex that my language must have seemed like a child’s first halting sentences.
I don’t know.
What I do know is this. I convinced Klaaynch to take me to one of the violence pools—a gathering site where the Quurzod train. They live in those places, not in their homes, not in their streets, not in their restaurants or their places of business, but in their violence pools.
Violence pools are little mobile communities. They exist as long as they need to. If they get discovered by outsiders, they move.
Small buildings, assembled out of sticks and cloth, appear, then disappear as needed. They form a circle around a flattened area, and in that flattened area, lessons happen.
Most of the lessons are in things we consider illegal. How to kill someone with a wide variety of weaponry. How to kill someone with sticks. How to kill someone with fists alone. These are not military lessons, which we also provide, but lessons in survival.
Quurzid, for all its complexity, does not seem to have a word for “murder.”
Lessons here are proprietary. Outsiders cannot see them. I did not observe the violence pool during lessons, although I heard about them. The worst, according to Klaaynch, were the defensive lessons. Because if you failed, you would get injured. If you had trouble learning why you failed, you would get injured in the same way repeatedly. If you flinched as someone came at you after you had already been injured once, you were taken off the roster until your psyche healed. If you flinched again after your return, you were relegated to non-violent work—talking, writing, science, mathematics—all of which were seen as inferior.
Klaaynch’s dream of being a linguist was considered odd, and it was odd, for the Quurzod. The only thing that saved her, the only thing that gave her any kind of power and potential, was her ability to fight.
She was considered the best of her generation.
And she proved it.
It took her four hours to die.
I know because I watched.
It was the only time I had been allowed in an actual violence pool during fighting. I sat behind Klaaynch and her team. We sat there, all except the two who escaped. Klaaynch and her young team. Me and mine. Twenty-three lives from the ship, lives I wasted in my attempt to learn the wrong form of Quurzid. Awnings attached to the small buildings shaded us, but the air was hot—hotter than anything I had ever experienced—and dry.
The Quurzod gave us water. They gave us something to keep our fluids balanced. They wanted us to live—at least until the fighting ended.
I was not allowed to speak, and I did not.
Around me, Quurzod I had met—most in their teens, some barely adult—fought for their very survival.
But the match that mattered was Klaaynch’s.
It took four hours for their best fighters to kill her. A dozen adults against one thin girl. Four hours.
If she had survived for six hours, she would have lived and been granted favors. One of the favors she wanted was to get permission for me to study street Quurzid.
Not the violence pools themselves.
Just street Quurzid.
And while I did that, she wanted me to teach her Standard. Standard, and all of the other languages I knew.
She was so marvelous. So strong. So brave. So beautiful.
But three hours and forty-five minutes in, someone snapped her right femur. She kept fighting, but she had no base, no way to maintain her balance. At three hours and fifty-eight minutes, she fell.
It took only two minutes to finish her off. The others in her violence pool, those who had been contaminated by me, died that afternoon as well.
The fighters dismantled the buildings. Beneath the largest was the pool itself. A hollow, empty pit in the ground, designed to hold the losers of any large fight.
Klaaynch had told me this as we waited for the others to show up. She told me that the pools often were not used, and when the time came to move the violence pool, the actual pool itself got filled.
This one got filled too.
Most of my team fought back. When it became clear that we would die, they fought. But they were no match for the Quurzod.
They went into the pool. Then me, then Klaaynch’s friends.
And finally, Klaaynch.
No one touched me, except to knock me unconscious. It should have been enough to kill me. In the heat, among the dead, in the dryness.
I should have died.
But I did not.
* * *
To her credit, Leona does not speak as I tell my story. She tries to keep her face expressionless, but she cannot control her eyes. They narrow, they widen. Several times, she keeps them closed for a few extra seconds, as if she does not want to look at me any more.
I don’t want to look at me either.
“The other two, they were right,” I say. “I caused this. I’m why we’re here. Becalmed.”
Leona does not nod. Nor does she reach out a hand to comfort me. She sighs. “They abandoned their post.”
They did. They left the Quurzod as the rest of us went to the violence pool. They should have stayed with us, but they thought something might go wrong and they fled.
I should have told the others to go as well. The mistake was mine, not theirs.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“The Captain decides that,” she says. “He brought you back.”
“When he didn’t have all of the information,” I say.
She inclines her head. She is conceding that point.
“Tell him I’m ready. He can’t send me back, but he shouldn’t keep me here either.”
“You’re volunteering for execution?” she asks.
“It’s the right thing,” I say.
“I don’t think that’s your decision,” she says. “Not any more.”
* * *
They return me to my quarters. The apartment no longer looks like mine. I recognize everything in it, I even remember hanging the quilt, scrunching the blanket on my divan, but the place feels strange to me, like a memory that I have abandoned. The apartment has a dusty odor, as if I’ve been gone for months, which is impossible. First of all, I have not been gone more than a few days, and secondly, the air gets recycled in here. Nothing should smell of dust.
I make myself dinner and sit in one of the chairs to eat it. Normally, I would play a language quiz or watch an entertainment, but I do neither. I sit and listen.
The Quurzod whisper all around me. The sound infects me, like the memories infected me. The memories are there, but I no longer slip into them accidentally. Instead, I roll them around in my mind, worrying them, like my tongue would worry a chipped tooth.
No wonder I blocked them. All those people, dead because of me. Because I did not understand—when I am trained to understand.
I should have known. I should have figured it out.
And I did not.
Not even when Klaaynch said to me that she could chose her own friends. When she said it with defiance, with that glow the rebellious get as they anticipate a fight.
If the Quurzod so strongly protect the language they use for family and friends, it should have seemed obvious to me that they would viciously defend the language they strove to keep secret. I should have known—maybe I did know—of course I knew.
And that is why I blocked the memories.
I didn’t want to remember that feeling—that I’ll-deal-with-it-later feeling—the one I ignored.
I have been sitting with my plate in my lap for nearly an hour when the door chime sounds. Coop’s chime.
It does not surprise me. A part of me has expected to see him all along.
He looks big, powerful, as he comes through that door. His presence is almost too much for the room.
“Leona tells me you volunteered for execution.” He does not sit. He towers over me. “I won’t do it.”
“It’s regulation.” I clutch the plate. I have not really moved, except that my muscles have tensed.
“Regulation is what the captain says it is,” he says.
I shake my head slightly. “If that were true, each ship would be a tiny dictatorship.”
He sits on the divan across from me, balancing on the edge, leaning toward me. “It’s not like you to give up.”
I look at him. When we met, I predicted the lines that formed around his eyes. But the one that furrows his brow is a surprise; he frowns more than I would have ever expected.
“I haven’t given up,” I say. Even when I should have. I’m the one who caused this, not him. I’m the one who didn’t die in that pit. I’m the one who climbed out—over bodies, over people I knew. I’m the one who staggered through that desert, to the borders where I knew the Xenth would find me. I’m the one who made it to that village, against all odds.
I did not give up.
And I should have.
“You haven’t thought it through,” he says. “They tricked us.”
I blink, frown, then get up. I walk the plate to the recycling unit. If I don’t eat that food, someone else should get the nutrients.
“They didn’t trick me,” I say with my back to him. “I went to that violence pool of my own free will.”
“Not the Quurzod,” he says. “The Xenth.”
I turn. I didn’t deal with the Xenth. Most of the negotiations with the Xenth happened before I was brought into the discussions.
I am suddenly cold.
He’s looking at his hands. “They tricked all of us.”
I walk back and sit down. I wait.
He raises his head. Those lines, those sad eyes.
“Think about it,” he says. “The imbalance of power that has existed there for centuries. Then, one day, a fleet of ships arrives, a fleet with more power than the Xenth can imagine. And we offer to help.”
He twists his hands together. He has thought of this for a long time.
“They ask the initial negotiators, they say—”
“If we ask you to obliterate the Quurzod, you would do so?” I whisper this in Xenth. I have read the documentation. They did say that, and the initial negotiators wrote it off as a test.
I believed the initial negotiators. After all, they’re the ones on the ground. They watch body language. They know the culture—or should know the culture. They’re the ones who understand what is going on.
Besides, the Xenth’s question wasn’t unusual. Every culture we encounter wants to know our limits. Our limits are that we help, we do not engage.
Unless we are engaged first.
Coop quotes the line, ignoring my Xenth, which he does not understand. He is used to me muttering in other languages. I have done it as long as he has known me. “We refuse to destroy Quurzod. We spend time studying the situation, and then we offer our diplomatic services to the Xenth. But during the time we studied them, the Xenth studied us.”
So buttoned up, so formal and proper. Hidden, too, but we should have expected that.
Only that isn’t my mistake. I wasn’t with the initial group. The initial groups came from elsewhere in the Fleet, and somehow they overcame—or maybe never had—their aversion to the Xenth, and their hissing, sibilant-filled language.
I, on the other hand, never trusted them.
But I did trust my commanders. I trusted my orders, figuring they all knew the history, the facts, the personalities of both sides.
“The Xenth knew,” Coop says. “They knew about the violence; they’ve suffered from it. They accused the Quurzod of massacres, not telling us that this was part of Quurzod culture, that they kill anyone—regardless of nationality—if they violate certain rules. The Xenth made sure we did not know those rules. They sent us in blind.”
It is so easy to blame another culture. But I shake my head. I believe in mistakes before I believe in deviousness.
“That can’t be true,” I say. “The Xenth left too much to chance.”
“They left nothing to chance,” he says. “If we had actually figured out a way to negotiate with the Quurzod, the Xenth would have gained a solid border, some defined territory, an end to a long war. But if we did not find a way to negotiate, if we aggravated the Quurzod, the Quurzod would come after us. They would have engaged us—”
“And the Xenth’s war would have become our war,” I say. He’s right. The logic is inescapable. It explains my unease. It explains the lack of preparation the Fleet’s diplomatic team gave to my team. The Fleet’s team was tricked.
I don’t usually believe in the duplicity of other cultures, but this is too big a mistake to miss—at least on the part of the Xenth. And I understand the Fleet’s diplomacy well enough to know that had we understood the extreme violence of the Quurzod, no one would have sent my team in unprotected.
“The Xenth’s war did become our war,” Coop says. “Only the rest of the Fleet fights it while we wait here.”
“We don’t know if they’re fighting it,” I say.
He stares at me. We know. They’re fighting it. And while the Quurzod are fierce on the ground, they are no match for the Fleet in space.
The Quurzod will fight brilliantly, like Klaaynch did. And then the Fleet will destroy something important, destroy the Quurzod’s balance.
And they will die within minutes, leaving the Xenth to fill the void.
Without us, the Fleet will think they have done the right thing.
I look at Coop. He smiles, just a little, hesitant, more the boy I remember than the man he is.
“If you knew all of this,” I say, “why didn’t you tell me? Why did you let me stay locked in here, with the doubts and the memories?”
“I suspected,” he says. “I had no proof. I just knew you, and your core, and how you would never, ever betray any of us, nor would you knowingly jeopardize children.”
“They weren’t really children,” I say softly.
“They weren’t yet adults either,” he said.
I nod. I will always carry them—the twenty-three members of my team, and the dozen young friends of Klaaynch, and Klaaynch herself. They died for my curiosity, for my ever-solid core.
“It would’ve been easier if you executed me,” I say softly.
He puts his hands over mine. His hands are warm. He says, “Anyone who commands lives with these moments.”
I shudder. “But I’m done. I’ve made my mistake. I should have known—”
“No,” he says. “The mistake wasn’t yours. In fact, you have done the one thing that might help us.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“You learned street Quurzid.”
I shake my head. “I don’t know street Quurzid. I know as much street Quurzid as the first contact team knows when it goes into a new situation. A phrase here and there, nothing more.”
“That’s not what your memory says. Your memory knows street Quurzid. You might not be able to speak it, but you have enough of it to help us.”
I want to pull my hands from his. I never want to go near street Quurzid again.
“How?” I ask.
“When we get back, you can tell the Quurzod in all of their languages how we both got betrayed.”
“And have them destroy the Xenth?” I am appalled.
“Yes,” he says so softly that I can barely hear him. This is not the idealistic man I met on Brazza. This man is ruthless, utterly ruthless.
“But the Quurzod, they’re horrible people,” I say.
He studies me.
I wait, but tap my finger ever so slightly. I have lost the gift of patience somewhere. It vanished in that desert.
“You’re confusing their culture with ours,” he says.
I flush. I used to say that to him. So young. So idealistic. I would say, One culture cannot judge another until they have a deep understanding of all parts of the culture.
Including the language, he would say, his eyes sparkling.
And the history, and the things that have developed that culture. Just because they have evolved a tradition that we disagree with doesn’t make our position right.
“It’s not the same,” I say.
“It is,” he says.
“The Quurzod murder each other,” I say.
“So do we,” he says. “You asked me to murder you.”
“I asked you to execute me, according to our laws.”
He waits. Dammit, he has the patience now.
He has made his point.
My shoulders slump. We know each other well enough that he understands my capitulation without my verbal acknowledgement.
“I need you to master street Quurzid,” he says.
“I don’t know enough of it,” I say.
“Then do your best,” he says. “You need to become the expert in Quurzid. Then you need to figure out how to teach our people the language.”
“Not just those on the Ivoire,” I say.
“I want a plan of instruction, something recorded, so that all of the ships in the Fleet can learn it,” he says. “I want us to be ready as soon as someone hears our distress call. I want to be able to end the fighting around Ukhanda immediately.”
His hands are still around mine. He shakes, just a little, as he says that.
“You think we’ll get out of this, then?” I ask.
“Are you asking if we’ll be becalmed forever?”
“No,” he says.
“But you put us on rations,” I say.
“It might be a week,” he says. “It might be a year. I want to be prepared.”
“The Quurzod damaged the anacapa drive, didn’t they?”
“While we were engaging it,” he says. “It’ll take some time to figure out what exactly went wrong. That’s why I need you.”
He nods, and his hands tighten around mine. “I need you to figure out what’s wrong with the communications array. I’m convinced our distress signals aren’t getting through.
I flush, then let out a small breath. “You trust me to get back to work?”
His gaze meets mine. “Mae,” he says, “I’ve trusted you all along.”
He has. He’s been the only one. I didn’t even trust myself.
I bow my head, stunned at his faith in me. Stunned that I still have a future.
He stands, puts his hands on my shoulder, and kisses the top of my head.
“Welcome back,” he whispers.
I lean into him for just a moment.
“It’s good to be back,” I say, with more relief than I expected, and resist the urge to add, You have no idea how good it is.
Because I have a hunch he does know, and that’s why he didn’t leave me behind.
Because I am still part of the ship. A necessary part of the ship.
And you never abandon the necessities. No matter how difficult it is to retrieve them.
Copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Asimov’s SF Magazine, April/May, 2011
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2017 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © by Glazyuk/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.