[Onboard the Cargo Ship ‘Relentless Dawn’]
[2 rotaa until The Ceremony]
Warm blood pulsing its way out of a split lip. Licking it away and tasting salt and copper. The hard bone of my ankle pressing against metal. The nylon cable that wrapped around my throat and wrists and calves pulling so tight that it was impossible to move.
The smell of sweat and fear, and under that – something worse. Something chemical. Something they used to clean away the stench of death.
The sound of engines thrumming, humming loud from near and far. Not just the massive engines that propelled the ship through space, but the smaller motors that made every part of the vessel work. Cooling and warming and maintaining grav fields. Holding shields in place, depressurising, pumping oxygen and filtering whatever we were breathing out or shedding.
The percussion that played behind all of that was a clicking, creaking and groaning of the enormous frame of this Sa’cea bound tanker as it shifted and complained at the pressure it was under.
Dust danced through the single beam of bright light in an otherwise void-dark room. A light that shone from above and was focussed solely on me. A big, three-toed hoof clanged down on the metal floor and the sound echoed around the room – some sort of maintenance cupboard off a forgotten hall in a little used corner of a large ship.
The tau standing over me had stomped for attention, and it worked. My eyes were on him now. There were three of them, all dressed in dark colours, all M’Ondrian going by their midnight-blue skin. The two standing further back were lean and well muscled, armed with pistols and knives. The lackeys. The grunt. This one in my face who’d been doing the talking so far was clearly the leader.
He was older, shorter, heavier through the middle, had the confidence of control. Deep lines creased his brow, small circles of paler skin dotted the top of his head. He hitched up the thick belt that threaded through his holster, rubbed a hand over his face, like this had been a long day already, and leered at me.
This black-market trader, with my blood already on the back of his hand, took my face in his fist and squeezed. His palm shoved up under my chin and his fingers dug deep into my cheeks, stabbing into bone and tooth.
‘Gue-veeeee-saaaaa,’ he said, drawing each syllable out, forcing his mouth around the word as if it was a physical thing and he was pushing it onto me.
One of his friends snorted an ugly laugh.
‘Veeee-saaa. A little helper, yes? But who do you help, little dog, now that your master is gone?’
My master. My friend.
I tried to speak through aching teeth and a mouth that wouldn’t open. He gripped harder, thrust my head back, which pulled the cable that bound me, burning the skin on my wrists and crushing my ankle harder against the chair leg. I felt bone creak, thin flesh pierce, and pain filled my mind.
‘Hnnn,’ I grunted. He let my face go, but the relief was short lived. With all the force he could muster he slapped me. The calloused, open palm of his hand smashed into the side of my head. My ear wailed, hollow ringing filled the space on my right and the impact tipped my whole body. For a terrifying moment I thought the chair was going to topple. I thought the crash would shatter my ankle, the rope would tear my throat open.
‘You shouldn’t be here, fra’k.’ He spat that last word – idiot – specks of phlegm falling out over his lip. ‘A little dog running errands for his master. But why? Your master is gone.’
‘You killed him?’ My stomach turned.
He feigned shock at the question. Gasping and clutching his own chest as though on stage. As though performing for an audience. He shook his head, no, and frowned.
‘Ugly creatures you are,’ he said, pulling at my throbbing ear, prodding my nose. ‘Fleshy and floppy and pale. And stupid!’ At this he turned to his sidekicks and both nodded furiously. ‘Would you even want one as a pet?’
‘You killed him.’ This time it was a statement, not a question. I couldn’t hide my disbelief.
My Master. My friend.
‘Killed him? No. You, though?’ Again he paused for effect and turned to each of his friends and they started to laugh. He had a flair for the dramatic, this one. ‘You, I will have great pleasure in cutting open myself.’
A bright light flashed in the corner of my eye and a split second later came the loud boom of an explosion. In this metal box the sound was deafening.
I heard myself cry out. My captors, these three tau black-marketeers, all started.
Almost comically they jumped in unison, their heads pivoted violently they each fumbled for a weapon. Like a dance.
I couldn’t look around, so I didn’t see the top half of the iris shaped door fall inward toward us, twisting out of its buckled frame. I couldn’t, because of the thick cord strangling my throat and wrists and legs, turning my head to see the tall, broad silhouette as it entered through the breach.
So I watched in helpless horror as the one of the tau punks – the farthest away, lanky and lean – lifted his pulse pistol level, howling anger. And then as a long, razor-sharp dagger buried itself in his forehead. The silver of the blade glinted bright in the light before disappearing hilt-deep with a dull thud.
The boy’s eyes were frozen wide with shock as his jaw dropped slack, and a wheezing breath escaped. He sank slowly, slowly to his knees, dark blood oozing from the wound.
Beside him the second henchman had also leveled his gun and jerked the trigger back. A panicked shot that surely missed. Just as the recoil reached his shoulder, the kid’s head exploded. The face that moments ago had been laughing at me popped like a meat balloon, spraying blood and bone and brain over me.
I could feel his still warm gore and ooze as it flicked onto my face and into my mouth. I shrieked and spat and shook my head as much as I could, and bile rose in my throat. The leader’s bravado was gone. He’d backed up all the way to the wall, face streaked with the blood of his friend and his own tears. He was sobbing, chest rising and falling fast. He clutched a pulse pistol in his right hand, but it pointed straight down and his arm was shaking so much the only thing in danger of being hit was the metal floor.
The huge frame of my rescuer came into view. He stepped over the fallen bodies, straight to the terrified boss. I tried to blink away the gunk in my eyes. He wore a cloak and boots, and belts of ammunition were looped across his shoulders. A long, dirt-brown ponytail sprouted from the very top of his head and fell loose to the middle of his back. For a tau he was massive. Tall and broad shouldered.
‘Gun,’ he said to my kidnapper, who now looked squat and frail.
The old pirate handed over his weapon and the big newcomer rewarded him by using it to knock him out. One sickening crack to the side of the head and the short tau crumbled. We lived in a time of almost constant war, but I had been sheltered from it for most of my life. I’d visited warzones and been in warships with my employer, my master – my friend – the diplomat Doran’ro. But never had I ventured to the front lines or been under fire. The devastation now laid out in front of me was horrific.
My rescuer turned to face me.
In his left fist he gripped the stock of a blaster as though it was a pistol. He bent low, and with his right hand pulled his knife from the young tau’s head. It sluiced out with a wet pop. The sound of pulling a boot from thick mud.
‘You killed them.’
‘Ren. Are you hurt?’
He cut through the cable and freed my arms, ankle and neck. Relief! This close I could smell the sweat that stained his tunic and undershirt, hear his breathing; even, calm, easy. As if blowing up a steel door and killing two of his fellow tau was all in a day’s work. He holstered his rifle and sheathed the still wet knife. He offered me his hand.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I found Doran’ro. There’s a drop ship waiting to take us back to the surface.’
[Sa’cean sept world M’Ondria]
[Three rotaa earlier]
He is every inch the statesman. A diplomat for the ages. A Tau of the people. He epitomizes the ideals of Tau’va and when his appointment is made official at the ceremony, in front of the Ethereals and the council, in just five rotaa, he will make a wonderful ambassador. His name is ‘Calm River’ and it is perfect.
These were my thoughts as El Doran’ro Daryo entered the room. His long cloak was offset over one shoulder and fell loose all the way to the floor. His high-collared shirt, his vest, embroidered as it was with the finest, brightly coloured cotton, the polished clasps and wide sash. All of this told you immediately that he was a powerful figure in M’Ondrian society.
He had what we humans would call a strong jaw and, more than that, he had charisma. When he strode into the room, as he had just done, you felt as though he filled it up. But what separated Doran’ro from others of his class was in his eyes. Kindness, wisdom, patience.
In truth, I was certain that being the very embodiment of the ideal Ambassador was at least part of the reason for the coming appointment. When it was made official in seven days, he would surely be the subject of the same enormous propaganda posters that some of the great commanders had been. In his arms now were scrolls and books piled high.
‘Forgive my intrusion, Marlitheon, How goes the –’ As Doran’ro glanced up to see me his question halted. He stopped mid-stride and regarded me with amusement. ‘What is it?’ I was staring, apparently.
‘I’m just mulling your change of title, my Ambassador – O’Doran’ro.’
The smooth, dark blue skin of his face creased at the eyes as he beamed and then shook his head with a laugh. ‘Not yet, my friend, not yet. In a few rotaa you’ll be able to address me so, but until then I am El Doran’ro.’ Diplomat. ‘Although to you, that should be Por’El M’Ondria Doran’ro Daryo.’
I laughed. ‘Ah, so informal! Just for me? How gracious.’ I bowed deeply. ‘My Lord.’
‘Stop! You’ll have me sitting on the council with Aun’Ko next!’
We were both chortling happily now. The gift of the water caste was communication. All of them had an ability with languages, but only a true genius such as Doran’ro understood that language is not all in the contortions of the tongue. He knew that, as a human, I was inclined to be less formal so he often spoke to me in my parents’ High Gothic, and even when we conversed in the M’Ondrian dialect, which was more Sa’cean in its roots, his body language would be more relaxed than it would in the presence of other tau.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘Who’s first today?’
I had been working at a floating console in my office, but for this information my fingers swiped and pressed at my wrist-mounted input for the shared system. A drone the size of my thumbnail hovered into view and started transmitting three-dimensional scrolling data composed of tau words and numbers in front of both of us. I voiced what he could see for himself.
‘An envoy,’ I said. Along with the words scrolling through the air between Doran’ro and me, a holographic image of a young adult female appeared. Water caste. ‘Por’vre M’Ondria Tash’li Yanoi. No record of here of why she wants to see you, but she’s held in high regard, has a good track record of work, and the approval has been granted. An important matter, no doubt.’
‘No doubt,’ he said. Another touch of my wrist pad and the information, and her image, disappeared. The drone flew silently back to the console and recessed into place, awaiting its next task. Doran’ro stacked the books and scrolls on my desk. ‘A little more for you.’
As his calligrapher it would be my job to interpret and transfer some of the approved information from the books onto the scrolls. Great words spoken at meetings in which my master was present. Not everything that ever happened made it onto the scrolls, but words that were worthy of being taught to future generations, or lessons of great diplomacy, or examples of the Greater Good at work. All of these I would inscribe and they would be taken before the Ethereals and then consecrated into great libraries for posterity. Being entrusted with this work was the greatest honour I could imagine.
‘Do you think you’ll get a placement?’ I asked. ‘Sa’cea?’ I knew this was his dream. To be sent to the world of his forefathers as a representative of M’Ondria.’ He shook his head.
‘Take care with these Marlitheon Ren. We must be thorough and precise in the eyes of the council. For the next few days at least.’
He patted me gently on the shoulder and then returned to his office to meet the Envoy Tash’li. A microdrone flitted into my eyeline again, humming a low tone and showing me the holo-image of her arrival. I noted that she was exactly on time, as was the tau way. Her face was mere inches from mine for a few more seconds. She was beautiful, I thought. Doran’ro allowed her in himself and the drone exited. I gave the young female no more thought after that, except to realize, as she was greeted by my master in his official chambers-of-state, that in the language of my parents, her name meant Enduring Light.
I had no idea that her light would be snuffed from existence before the day was done. Or that my own life was about to change forever.
I woke to what I thought at first was a civil alarm.
We had always been taught what to do if the city was under attack. Some districts ran drills monthly, some more often than that. City wide posters and regular public informatives featured Sa’cean and M’Ondrian commanders in their powerful battlesuits, winning victory for the Tau’va and were emblazoned with giant letters which urged us to ‘TAKE COVER, UNITE, STRIKE BACK’, or ‘BE EVER VIGILANT’ and always ‘TAU’VA – PLAY YOUR PART’.
Everything for the Greater Good.
But the incessant beeping that pulled me so abruptly from sleep was no call to arms. It was a microdrone and the repetitive, high-pitched blip, blip, blip of a notification.
‘What do you want?’ I asked, knowing there would be no spoken answer. When my reluctant eyes finally opened, I saw an icon flashing over the drone in time with the blips. The stupid thing was telling me someone was at the door. Odd, I thought. Because it was still dark. I was always awake and ready for the day before the rising sun, because my master expected it, and because I liked to be ahead of the game, and this frustratingly insistent blip-blip-blip was too early even for me.
Odd, also, because the future Ambassador’s residence, which included both his habitation pod and his diplomatic chambers, as well as my own private rooms, was two thirds of the way up a tall tower in the heart of the political hex of Taro’tsua’cea – the M’Ondrian capital. Virtually impossible, in fact, because to gain entry even to the ground floor one would have to get past any number of security measures including fire caste gun-drones and ident screens. There was no more secure building anywhere on M’Ondria.
And yet, blip-blip-blip. I sighed and brought up an image of the corridor on the other side of the main entrance, still half expecting that it would be empty – no more than distorted pict of the long white, curved walls.
I was wrong. A very tall Tau stood, frowning directly into the lens. His mouth was wide, his stare intense and his attire scruffy.
I waved the drone away.
Who was this? How was it that he was right outside, having made it past everything designed to stop him, including elevators which should not move without the proper authority.
I dressed hastily. The only explanation was that this person was the proper authority. As casually clothed as he appeared in the image, as strange as it was to see such an open smile, this visitor must be someone important enough to have access to holo-glyphic codes that would get him here. And what that meant, I didn’t dare think about.
I opened the iris portal.
‘Good morning, honoured Por’vre M’Ondria Marlitheon Ren.’ The visitor was even larger in person. He spoke clearly, but with little enthusiasm. His size and bearing were warrior-like. Based on appearance I would swear that he was fire caste – and big even for that. But … He bowed from the waist. And he used my full tau title, in High Gothic. Heavily accented, but passable. Which meant that he could be water caste. It also meant that he knew more than just my name. I had been given the gift of a tau rank and honorifics, but outside of El Doran’ro, very few knew that and even fewer ever bothered to address me so formally. ‘My apologies for the hour of this intrusion. May I enter?’ This was in tau, with a distinct M’Ondrian accent.
‘Good morning honoured friend,’ I said. ‘It seems you know me, or at least, you know my name and rank. I, on the other hand, do not know you.’
‘Forgive me,’ he said, with a half attempt at a smile. ‘I am Por’el M’Ondria Oran’va Kar’tyr.’ A kar’tyr? An investigator, here, at this hour? These were ostensibly water caste, but they reported directly to councils and were overseen by the Ethereals themselves. What crime had occurred that could involve El Doran’ro – or me?
‘Did I wake you?’
‘Not at all. What makes you say that?’
The kar’tyr pointed at the top of my shirt. ‘The buttons. Uneven’ he said. ‘Also, there’s still some dried salt residue in your eyes. And it’s early – even for a dedicated servant of the Tau’va such as yourself.’ Sarcasm?
I stood to one side, allowing him to come in. ‘My apologies.’
‘Not at all! You humans need your sleep.’
His tunic was heavy and rough, his undershirt still unbuttoned at the very top. By the standards normally expected of his station he was, to put it kindly, casual. Under his long, sky blue outer cloak I could see the shadow of a large gun.
His eyes were sharp and constantly moving. Tau often looked slower or dopier than they were because of the heavy eyelids and large eyes. Not this investigator. It would be unwise, I suspected, to underestimate him.
I bowed – a sign of respect. ‘May I offer you anything? A refreshment or something to eat?’
‘No, thank you.’ He held up a small card with his name and rank printed on it. A stickler for tradition then.
‘Thank you,’ I said, taking the offering. He held it aloft pinched between the thumb and forefinger of both hands. That’s how I noticed that the knuckles of those hands were capped with hard calluses.
‘What might I help you with today?’ I asked.
‘Actually, I’m here to see Por’El M’Ondria Doran’ro Daryo.’ He was on the move now. Walking through the foyer, looking around, pausing here and there, picking up ornaments, putting them back incorrectly.
‘You want me to wake the Diplomat.’
‘If you wouldn’t mind.’
‘It is, ah, quite early.’
‘It is … quite important.’ Those roving eyes settled on me, and though a smile touched the corners of his mouth, the eyes were hard as rock.
‘Very well,’ I nodded. ‘I’ll be back in a moment.’ I turned to go. ‘Please try not to … break anything,’ I said.
But I wasn’t back in a moment. Because Doran’ro was not in his bedchamber, or in his office, or anywhere to be found either in his quarters or mine. The Diplomat Doran’ro was gone. A fact which mortified me, but seemed no surprise to the kar’tyr Oran’va.
‘You know her?’
My confusion only deepened. The holo image the investigator Oran’va was showing me as we stood in El’ Doran’ro’s office was familiar indeed.
‘No. Not precisely. But she was here. This is the young envoy who visited yesterday morning.’
‘Por’ui M’Ondria Tash’li Yanoi,’ he said, all business. ‘And you confirm that she came in this way.’ He walked to the other entrance. This one which came straight into the Diplomatic offices. Doran’ro had thought it prudent to allow some of his most important visitors a more private way to come and go if they needed to see him. There was as much security to get through, but no need to come in past me and whomever else might be waiting for a moment of his time.
‘Meanwhile, you were through there.’ He pointed to the still open iris which led to my office and then further into our chambers.
‘I was working at my console,’ I said. ‘I spoke with El Doran’ro, was assigned tasks, noted the arrival of the young envoy as being exactly on time, and then went on with my work.’
‘But you didn’t see her. In person.’
I frowned. ‘It’s a simple matter to prove she was here,’ I said. Striding into my office I picked up a data wand. As magister I had unrestricted access to all of the files relevant to the Office of the Diplomat. With a few short strokes I was able to access every face, every video and audio recording for every meeting held by Doran’ro the previous rotaa. Even the three way holo conference with the Ethereal Aun’Eoro and the trade delegation on Sa’cea.
Everything. Except one. The first audience of the morning, granted to the envoy Tash’li. There was no record of her ever having been here. Like a hole in time. My fingers started working frantically across keys, the data wand having been discarded for now. Under stress I always returned to my old, gue’la ways.
‘There must be a –’
‘A what, do you think?’ He cut me off.
‘An error. It’s the only –’
‘Explanation? Is it?’
‘She was here,’ I insisted.
‘Oh, I know she was.’
Now I was confused. ‘You know? How?’
He titled his head slightly and looked at me for a moment before answering. ‘For a few reasons, but mostly because I never met a master criminal who would go to the trouble of trying to clumsily cover something up, and then just give me the information anyway. You tell me she was here, at the exact moment there’s a gap in your data. I believe you.’
‘You don’t think El Doran’ro –’
‘Tampered with the records?’ He had picked up a small water sculpture that had been gifted by a visiting diplomat from Gel’bryn City this past tau’cyr. ‘Well that would go against every tenet of his station. It would be a serious crime. A simple investigator would need irrefutable evidence before he started throwing accusations like that around.’
He shrugged his broad shoulders and lifted his left arm and in a single, smooth motion, his huge pulse blaster swung into view. Just within reach.
‘Forgive me for being so bold, honoured magister, but I wonder if you would mind coming with me.’
‘Wait. Do you think …? Are you suggesting –’
‘Stop,’ he said, holding a hand up. ‘I am suggesting nothing.’ Now he grinned, a broad, easy smile, as though this was a normal morning. Just a couple of water caste servants of the Greater Good having a friendly conversation. ‘Like I said – I believe you. I lack the subtlety of your water caste friends. I am not as effortlessly convincing. But there’s something I want you to see. So, if you wouldn’t mind …’
The rising sun was coming in the windows now. The city was heating up. Light reflected from buildings across the large hexagonal plaza. Eddies of sand swirled gently below us, brought in from the desert on the warming breeze.
I took in the view, the gun, the stare.
‘I’ll get my coat,’ I said.
Sand whipped the skin of my face and hands. We had travelled past the edge of the city-proper and out to the Gates. I stood on the platform in the heat of the sun, desert as far as the eye could see, the glare from the near-white sand almost unbearable.
Transmotives brought workers and translators and assistants and apprentices and all sorts to these outlying stations twice a dec, and returned with just as many. These huge hexagonal, single level buildings in which tau and gue’la alike negotiated myriad tunnels, all of which led from the desert world above to the hives of underground suburbs below.
The Gates were dotted along straight lines which stretched out from the city in all directions. They were guarded by fire caste underlings. Warriors-in-training for whom this was the first step in their careers. Careers in which almost every one of them imagined they would one day be a great Commander.
Oran’va and I had travelled to the very end of the line. The crowd had been thick at the beginning, but thinned at every stop. At the last we exited with the few remaining passengers and walked along the platform
Oran’va slid holo-glyphs from his wrist strap onto an access panel beside the iris portal, which then opened into a short tunnel. As we exited the other end of that tunnel we were thrown into an enormous, surging tide of people coming the other way. All wanting to get on that transmotive into the city, to do what they could for the Tau’va.
‘Stay with me,’ he said, pushing through the crowd. Oran’va was so much taller than both the tau and the humans around him that it was easy enough to keep track of where he was. Unlike me he seemed to be able to step deftly between and around people, gliding through gaps and making good headway. Staying with him was a challenge.
We walked for a long time and as we moved through tunnels, further and further underground, the small shiver of worry that had started in my stomach became a full blown squirming of fat worms.
We were in a subterranean suburb far from the interior hex in which I spent most of my time. Far from anywhere I’d ever been. A sprawling underground cavern, kilometres long, hundreds of metres high.
Habitation pods were stacked on top of each other in tall, smooth, curving towers, reminiscent of the world above, but they looked different here. Under the artificial light, and standing much closer together, they weren’t hopeful and inspiring, but daunting.
Narrow streets and alleyways barely allowed for more than three or four bodies to pass each other, but still they were dotted with clusters of tau trading or arguing or laughing.
M’Ondria was a world of light and sun, but this place was so dark. An enormous dungeon in which everything seemed contradictory. So much of it was in shadow as older drone light-units that hovered above were either broken or gone, and yet the people were dressed more brightly and with more colour here than in the city. It was dirty and thick with grime, but the smells that filled the air were delicious and comfortable.
Also the tau who owned the streets seemed to be simultaneously ignoring me, and watching my every move. It didn’t help that there were so few humans this far out. As I passed I would hear whispers of ‘Gue’la,’ and ‘Gue’vesa.’ Twice I saw groups of young tau stand and scuttle away.
Oran’va rounded a bend and I followed. Cleaning drones pushed paper and plastic into the corners. Larger collection units would come later. There were fewer people here and the only light was the residual spill of yellow from windows higher up.
I heard a shout behind me and turned. Someone calling after a friend or workmate. Nothing to do with me. But as I turned back I tripped over a drone and fell. When I looked up Oran’va was gone. I stood, cursing the drone. Wondering – impossibly – if it had clipped me on purpose. Just as I straightened something slammed into me!
Not something – someone.
I was shoved hard against a wall. The breath knocked out of me. There was no time to recover as a heavy hoof crashed side-long into my knee. I cried out. My knee gave way and I started to fall.
But they wouldn’t even let me do that. Thick blue hands grabbed me and hauled me up, pushing me against the cold ceramic wall panel again. There were five of them. One with his forearm in my throat and his face close. Another, I noticed with growing terror, had drawn his bonding knife.
‘What do you want, gue’la?’ This from the one whose heavy breath I could taste. Whose sweat and grime and stink offended my nostrils.
I could barely breathe, let alone speak.
‘Who are you? You’re dressed important, and you bring a kar’tyr. You must be someone, no?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m no one.’
He let me go. My knee buckled and I fell.
One of the others kicked me in the stomach, forcing the air from my lungs once more. Then, before I could move, or say another word, the thug who had kicked me disappeared. From where I lay, prone on the ground, all I could see was his legs. One second they were there, then next they were gone.
Suddenly the world around me was filled with noise and movement.
I tried to roll and push myself up, but just as I shifted a head slammed to the floor in front of me. It was the tau who had just been hissing words at me. His face hit the ground with a wet slap, so close that his warm blood splashed my face. A moment before he had been all muscle and anger. Now drool seeped from his slack lips and his eyes were closed.
I scrambled backwards into a pile of rubbish, my own pain forgotten. A light flickered overhead, so that the scene played out in front of me like a bizarre stop-motion film.
— Oran’va punching one of the tau in the throat. The gangster’s eyes wide as he fell —
— Oran’va lifting another one high by the collar, and spinning —
— Legs flailing, flying, falling —
— The bonding knife and the hand that wielded it closing in on Oran’va —
— Oran’va swaying back, turning, grabbing the passing wrist —
— Oran’va with the knife, throwing it away, his would be attacker in a pile on the ground —
— Oran’va swinging his pulse blaster up, holding it in one hand like a massive pistol —
— The whine of the gun powering up, and the sole remaining tau turning to run —
Oran’va reached down to meand pulled me up.
‘Who were they?’ I asked, looking at the fallen all around me.
‘Nobodies,’ he said, low and gruff. ‘Small time. Let’s go. And this time – keep up.’
The elevator clinked as it reached the bottom in a very un-tau like fashion. This was no perfect, porcelain sphere. The dim amber light, the boxy shape, the mechanical noise it made as it lowered us deeper into the hard crust beneath the M’Ondrian desert. All of these things made me think of the old, Terran technology of my childhood. The doors slid apart to reveal a world of monsters and mayhem! We were below even the engineering constructs that allowed light and breathable air and a million other functions to run in the suburbs above.
Here were rogues and criminals and – battlesuits! An old model – far older than any the fire caste had in service now – stomped past me, nearly bowling me over in its haste. A short, fat, gue’la man chased after it shouting in stunted tau, ‘Enough, enough! You get out now!’ More yelling and laughing and fighting echoed all around me.
‘Come on,’ said Oran’va.
I hurried after him. Unlike the streets we’d just come from, most of the people here were human.
‘What is this place?’
It’s where the unwanted and the unwashed gather. Humans who have come to the Tau’va, but retain their bad old habits, or vash’ya who have, one way or another, escaped the camps or avoided retraining.’
I skipped around a small group arguing over the winnings of a game.
‘This is illegal,’ I said. ‘All of it! Surely an officer of the Ethereals must be able to do something!’
‘You think the council doesn’t know about this place? These people exist in every society in the galaxy. The Ethereals, in their wisdom, know that there is a food chain.
You might find the winged insects at the lake to be a nuisance, but without them to feed on, there are no fish. I do not question the council, and I suggest you don’t either.’
‘I’m sorry, I –’
‘This place runs because we allow it, and we monitor it. And, because we watch, sometimes we see.’
As we moved through the crowds people started noticing, moving away, congregating in clusters of three or four and pointing at the investigator. They were afraid. And from what I’d seen they had cause to be. The battlesuit – massive in this space – suddenly fired its engines. Just a short burst but enough so that it shot straight up, hit its head sensor on the ceiling, and fell clumsily back to the floor.
People scattered, but it nearly crushed the panicky fat man desperately hollering at it to stop.
‘You break it, you pay!’
Watching this play out I walked straight into Oran’va, thudding into his back.
‘This is where the trail ends,’ he said.
‘What trail? What are we doing here?’
‘Watch.’ He grabbed my arm and dragged me sideways into a doorway. Not an iris, but a primitive looking door with a heavy frame. A holo-drone skimmed out from his wrist console and a slender screen of smokey-white light shimmered into view above it. The images that danced in front of me then were not possible.
The young female envoy, Tash’li, looking around, searching for something or someone, here in this dark underworld. I glanced away from the holograph for a moment. She had been standing almost in this exact spot. Then, moments after Tash’li entered the scope of the image, El’ Doran’ro appeared.
‘What is this?’ I asked.
‘Shh. Keep watching.’
In the images, the door we were standing at opened. Tash’li and my master walked in together. The picture evaporated. And just as it did, that same door opened in the real world.
Kar’tyr Oran’va moved immediately.
In a single beat of my heart he had pushed me away from the opening door, dropped to a crouch and brought his pulse blaster around so that it hugged his left leg. There was no light in the room beyond. All I could see was a door shaped emptiness.
Without moving his head, or taking his eyes from the blackness, Oran’va held his right hand up toward me and made the sign of All Things Being Still. I backed further away.
Oran’va tapped lightly behind his right ear. A small white arm telescoped up from a small pack fitted on the back of his neck. I hadn’t noticed it before now, because of his long ponytail. It soundlessly unfurled to fit around one side of his head like light armour, and a lens slid into his place covering his eye.
I had seen this before at a demonstration of earth caste nanotech that El Doran’ro and I had attended together. It would allow Oran’va to control his drones and weapons and any other remote equipment with a blink or a flick of his eye. Just as a commander inside a battlesuit. As soon as it was in place two small drones detached from his belt and two more from the sides of his blaster. They dropped down and hovered just above the ground at his ankles. In the same breath a beam of bright light shone from atop his gun, illuminating the room on the other side of that bulky frame. The drones shot forward and Oran’va moved in. It happened so fast. He was there, and then he was gone.
There was shouting, calamitous crashing, as though a table had been flipped and everything on it had fallen to the floor, smashing, clanging, thumping. A dozen voices cried out in a dozen different tau dialects. And then, from behind me, a single word.
I turned to see a giant. A human ball of muscle and sinew. He was frowning. I remember seeing his shoulder twitch, his fist fly. I remember thinking that this was going to hurt.
When I woke up I was tied tight to a steel chair in a metal room in the bowels of a cargo ship somewhere in the shipping lanes off M’Ondria.
After he untied me, before we stepped through the exploded, misshapen frame of the iris, Oran’va handed me a pulse pistol.
‘Ever use one?’
I nodded. ‘Yeah. Part of the Assimilation. Mandatory training. Expecting trouble?’
He turned and climbed over the lower half of the door, buckled and bent, but still attached. ‘Just in case,’ he said. Oran’va walked so fast ahead of me that I had to break into a run every few steps just to keep up.
We were on board a huge cargo ship. One of the il’fanoor which ran trips between M’Ondria and Sa’cea. The corridors were long, but largely unmanned. Drones whizzed past, this way and that, intent only on the task they’d been programmed to complete.
I was determined not to hold Oran’va up so I gritted my teeth and tried to move through the pain in my ankle and face. He signalled for me to slow as we rounded a long bend. A tall, slender tau was marching toward us. A Captain, flanked by two lieutenants. I tensed. He was wearing the blue uniform of the air caste and the markings of his rank, and he was angry.
‘The permissions I granted you aboard this ship did not extend to blowing holes in it, and killing warm bodies on board.’
Oran’va stood his ground. ‘I report directly to Aun’Ko. Take it up with her. They were charged with piracy, falsifying documents, kidnapping and being party to murder. They were found guilty and –’
‘Found guilty by you!’
‘Their sentence was handed down and carried out.’
‘And now I have to clean up the mess.’
Oran’va smiled. ‘The arrangement that is in place is to your benefit. If you wish it to remain so, it is my recommendation that you do not question the judgement of the Ethereals.’
The air caste officer went silent. Rage boiled just below the surface, but he offered a shallow bow.
‘Is the transport ready?’ asked Oran’va.
The tall officer nodded.
‘And my passenger is on board?’
‘Everything is as you instructed. One of my pilots will go with you, to take you back.’ At this the female officer to his left, who had been standing at attention, stepped forward. The pilot let her long fingers slide and tap across an access panel and an iris opened, parted horizontally like the lids of a giant eye opening.
‘For the Greater Good,’ said the Captain.
Oran’va made the sign of the Grateful Friend and we strode together into the massive docking bay.
The Orca was running and ready to fly as the three of us climbed up its ramp into the troop deck. What I saw there made me stumble. I forgot the pain, forgot the investigator, forgot where I was, and I fell.
My master, my friend, El Doran’ro Daryo sat on a bench seat meant for fire warriors. He was surrounded by straps. Masks and canisters lined the walls. A diplomat seated amongst the paraphernalia of war. His wrists were bound in cuffs of white and his eyes were cast down. I had never seen him look so defeated.
‘What have you done?’ I shouted at Oran’va. I rushed to Doran’ro. I dropped the pulse pistol on the seat beside him, and lifted his chin. His face was bruised, blood kissed the corner of his mouth, his eyes were raw.
‘Let’s go,’ I heard Oran’va say to the pilot. ‘The council is waiting.’
Doran’ro Daryo wouldn’t look at me. ‘Kar’tyr,’ he called as the engines rumbled louder, power surging into them. The drop shifted lifted slowly.
‘Master,’ I said. A whisper.
‘Kar’tyr!’ The demand of a man who is used to being listened to.
Landing gear whirred and retracted smoothly into cavities below my feet. The Orca turned, hovered, ready to leave, and as the bay door opened I saw M’Ondria through the hatch. Half of it bathed in bright sunlight. It was beautiful.
‘This human,’ said Doran’ro. ‘He played no part in it. He is staff to me. Nothing more.’
The Ocra moved steadily toward the edge, awaiting permission to drop into open space.
Oran’va dragged me to my feet and shoved me onto the bench seat opposite Doran’ro. ‘This human needs to strap in,’ he said. I did as I was told. My master’s head dropped again. At that moment I realized my mistake. But then, as the grav-engines roared even louder, as we moved into the shipping lanes, edging carefully out of the shadow of the huge cargo ship, I knew it was too late.
The pulse pistol. The movement of Doran’ro’s head dragged my eyes down and they lit upon the weapon, still on the seat beside him.
I knew what was going to happen. Too late.
His wrists still bound, Doran’ro grabbed the pistol and stood. He pointed it straight at me, arms long and straight, the gun stabbing the air as he spoke.
‘Don’t!’ He shouted at Oran’va who had stepped forward to stop him.
‘I, Por’el M’Ondria Doran’ro Daryo, diplomat of the people, lifelong servant of the Tau’va, have committed a crime. This is my confession:
‘I am Vash’ya. I was born into the fire caste and destined to be a warrior, but fear ruled my heart and I could not face the idea of fighting. My gifts were always those of the water, and so I paid and bribed and spoke my way into the right places and eventually I became what I should always have been.’
‘Master,’ I pleaded. His eyes filled with fat tears. Mine did too.
‘Let me speak! That was not my crime. It should not be wrong to follow your truth.’ The tears spilled and poured down his cheeks. ‘My crime was murder. She came to me for help and all I could see was my own downfall.’
He was staring at me. ‘I got so close,’ he said. His voice cracked. ‘I killed her. I’m sorry Marlitheon Ren.’
‘No!’ I screamed.
Doran’ro put the pistol under his own chin and pulled the trigger. The front of his head disappeared, and he dropped to his knees. The gun fell from his lifeless hands and clattered to the floor.
The Orca’s engines kicked and the drop ship rocketed forward.
Record date: Data corrupted
Location: Habitation pods, military hex 45.871
Residence of Shas’vre M’Ondria Alo’Isva
Ken’rai (AKA: Warrior Cold Wind)
Status: Data corrupted
Partial data retrieval possible
Data Repair ID: HIT 11.000.1.0 DX
Status: Video unavailable.
Audio with transcription:
Alo’Isva : (Quiet/unclear. Poss:) It’s too dangerous.
Tash’li: It’ll be okay.
Alo’Isva: I forbid it.
Tash’li: (Laughter?) You forbid?
Alo’Isva: Stop. You’re laughing at me?
Tash’li: You want to get on board one of those troop carriers, go off to war, and leave me behind?
Alo’Isva: You know that’s not what I want.
Tash’li: Here’s what I want. To come with you. I want to fight. I need it. And if I’m fire caste too, we can be —
Alo’Isva: I know. I know.
Tash’li: So it’s decided. I’ll go tomorrow.
Alo’Isva: You think you can just walk into the office of a senior diplomat?
Tash’li: I’m water caste. I know people. And I’m very convincing.
Alo’Isva: Oh, you don’t have to tell me that.
Tash’li: When I show him what I have, he’ll have no choice but to say yes.
Alo’Isva: And you’re sure your information is correct.
Tash’li: No doubt about it. El Doran’ro Daryo started his life with another name, in another caste on T’au’n. I have proof. If I take what I know to the Ethereals —
Alo’Isva: You would do that?
Tash’li: No. I don’t know. I hope I won’t have to.
Alo’Isva: Okay. Okay.
Tash’li: So, you’re not forbidding it anymore, my brave hero? Future Commander Cold Wind?
Alo’Isva: You know, if this works —
Tash’li: When it works —
Alo’Isva: You’ll be my subordinate.
Tash’li: I’ll be insubordinate.
Alo’Isva: Go then. I can’t keep the sentinel drones shut off all night.
Oran’va waved a data wand and the recording ended.
I stood in front of the council, awaiting their judgement. Oran’va had spoken before I was summoned into the room to hear the data recording. Only one of the Ethereals was there in person – Aun’Ko – while the others were larger than life holo images.
‘Marlitheon Ren,’ said council chair Aun’Nha from some other world. ‘You have heard the voices of Por’vre M’Ondria Tash’li Yanoi and her conspirator Shas’vre M’Ondria Alo’Isva Ken’rai. With that and the detailed submission provided by our representative Por’el M’Ondria Oran’va Kar’tyr, we find that you harboured no knowledge of the actions of any of the parties involved. You are free to go.’
‘Thank you, eminence,’ I said with a deep and grateful bow.
Aun’Ko spoke. ‘You have been reassigned,’ she said.
I tilted my head and frowned. It had occurred to me, of course, that I no longer had anywhere to go to, even if they allowed me to live, and to leave. But I doubted very much that it would be a problem worthy of the concern of the council.
‘You will work with Oran’va.’
Oran’va slapped me on the back and I stumbled forward. ‘As an assistant. Trial basis only.’
Two Ethereals and six other council members shimmered out of existence. Aun’Ko smiled. ‘Go,’ she said. ‘For the Greater Good.’
About the Author
Steve Joll is a former journalist and children’s television show presenter who now works as a breakfast radio host in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. He’s married with 3 great kids and wanted to write a T’au story because everybody loves T’au so much. Right?