I wait alone, as I have been instructed to do.
A glance over my shoulder shows me a rolling sea through thick glass. It is a view calibrated, along with the pristine blandness of the room itself, to promote calm reflection for those suffering internal turmoil. It fails utterly in this, though the irony of those thoughts is not lost on me.
I stand in the centre of the room, compressed with false patience. I pretend my knuckles are their normal blue-grey instead of strained white from the pressure of clenching my hands together. I wait because there is no alternative. No way of avoiding what is coming, no more explanation I can give, and no place to run to, even if I were to contemplate such a thing.
Finally, I hear steps outside, and my mind focuses on the one thing I know to be true.
There will be no mitigation of the inevitable sanction.
‘How are negotiations progressing, Por’La Rilah?’
Once begun, diplomacy is a consuming endeavour, and though I was leader of the delegation, I could not be everywhere at once. My subordinates assisted with many matters, as these aliens were an erratic species, and discussions had been protracted. We were grateful for their assistance in battling the ravenous Y’he, of course, but their delegation was intense, and speaking with them was often exhausting.
‘Well enough, Por’O’Nar’taga,’ she replied, before hesitating. ‘Though, there is one thing that came up during the last session.’
I gestured for her to expand on the point, noting the slight increase in pheromones indicating anxiety as she spoke.
‘Their leader has requested again that we commit to the cultural exchange.’
I frowned, as this had been one of several minor demands discussed early in the negotiations, and I struggled to remember the details.
Rilah continued, ‘They have requested seventy-seven Tau from each of the castes form part of the exchange, along with seven Ethereals.’
I remember laughing at their temerity. ‘The Ethereals we could never agree to, but as the war is not yet won and good relations must be maintained, there is no reason to deny their request. We could learn a great deal about the ways of these ‘Drukhari’ from the time our people spend in their city…’
The drone footage was striated and grainy, forcing us to gather together near the screen. All of the delegation was present, watching real-time footage from the battlefield. It was a rare concession from the Fire caste commanders, an acknowledgement of the effort involved in bringing our new allies into the fold.
It was unpleasant viewing. The Drukhari warriors were grotesque things, animalistic monstrosities with bladed limbs that scythed through Y’he flesh like paper. Yet, for all their hideous appearance, they were curiously pitiable, keening in despair as they killed. Several of the delegations exhibited signs of distress as they watched.
‘Por’O’Nar’taga,’ began Rilah, her voice curiously strangled.
‘Yes, Por’la,’ I said, my discomfort manifesting as irritation, ‘We’ve seen them before, and as distasteful as it is, we cannot judge other species by Tau morality. The Kroot, for example, exhibit behaviour that would…’
Her tone stopped me. And at that moment, a coldness crept over me, seizing my limbs, my blood, my mind. I watched with a dawning, horrified recognition, the creatures wailing amid the mounds of bodies.
For I had realised what they had once been, even as she spoke.
‘Their skin, Por’o. It’s the same as ours…’
The door opens quietly, and Aun Vra’en steps across the threshold. His bodyguards settle into position outside as the door swishes shut behind him. He moves to the window and glances at the sea raging silently against the shore, before turning to address me.
‘This is difficult, Nar’taga,’ he says, pressing his fingers together. ‘You are aware of what happened following the final Drukhari demand?’
I close my eyes briefly. ‘We couldn’t have foreseen the duplicity, the depravity…’
Vra’en raises a hand. ‘It is true that their perfidy was unprovoked. And the council is aware of everything that transpired during your mission. Despite the… regrettable conclusion, your experience can still be utilised in service to the Tau’va.’
I say nothing. Below us, the sea seethes.
‘The mining claims in the western veil nebula require renegotiation, Por’vre. You will work under Por’El’Oro.’
My mind reels. Banishment. The loss of my rank. It is the end of everything I have worked for; my very purpose denied. Doubtless better than the fate of those Tau sent to the Drukhari, but still.
‘Por’vre?’ I ask.
It is the Aun’s turn to remain silent.
‘Have the patrons of the mission received similar chastisement?’
Vra’en frowns. ‘That is unhelpful.’
‘Have they?’ I press, insistent.
His face darkens, and his voice grows tight. Pheromones fill the room. ‘Have your experiences stolen your reason? Failings must be acknowledged, and censure made accordingly, Por’vre.’
Vra’en pauses, and regret tinges his voice when he speaks again. ‘We know the nature of these Drukhari now, as we learned the nature of the Be’gel before them. The nobility of your sacrifice has been noted, Nar’taga. It will not be forgotten.’
I turn away, finding my voice with difficulty. ‘I understand. Unity is all, for the betterment of all.’
The door swishes twice more, and quiet settles in the room.
I am numb. I move to the window and look at my hands, still white and aching with cramps. Chastisement was inevitable, but now the rebuke has been passed, I feel, for the first time, bereft. There is no doubt I will continue my service, but I understand now why shamed Fire warriors sometimes sacrifice themselves in acts of suicidal bravery.
Yet I can do nothing but absorb the ignominy of failure and accept my place. I stare out, trying to compose myself and wonder if I will feel this way forever.
Below, the sea offers no answer but rages on, silent.
About the Author
Darren Davies is a professional engineer living in Ireland with his family, and far too many animals. A long-time admirer of all things science fiction, he fills his spare time by looking for a quiet place to write about the strange things that come into his head.