They sat in the main hall, waiting for the Sthil to arrive.
Waiting for her to arrive.
Ling still couldn’t believe it. That she had survived. That she had been captured.
That the Sthil had... had what?
The room had been carved out of the rock for some long forgotten purpose, a subbasement that had now become a large, low-ceilinged hall. The Marshal Hui had brought with it diplomatic accouterments including modular tables and self-molding chairs, and these were now set up in a large hollow circle.
The delegates from the six founding worlds, and the representatives of the Federacy Senate, sat in chairs on this side of the room. Ling stood along the wall behind Lady Li-Hwa. Her palm was wet as it held her wrist behind her back.
The other half of the chairs were empty. The Sthil were on their way.
Their ship, it turned out, was a carrier. Ling had watched out a porthole with LiShen as an aperture had opened in it, and ships emerged.
In-system vessels from Brisbane, mostly, without FTL jump drives. Except for one. The Heart of Steel, an Edo-class destroyer. Part of the fleet sent to relieve—or avenge—Draerun.
Now it was a Sthil ship. The Federacy emblem had been painted over with a blank, slate gray.
The Heart of Steel had docked on the far side of Tilde Station.
The door on the opposite side of the room opened, and Ling stiffened.
People entered. Humans. Dressed in military dress, though without insignia. Their belts were without weapons, their kepis without rank. They took up positions around the table.
Then she came in.
She was smiling, radiant in a white dress. It hurt Ling’s heart to look at her. She stood behind the center chair, placed her hands on it.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” she stated. “Thank you for coming.”
“i suspect most of you know me. i was First Councilor Navarre.
“Now i am slave sharon.”
“my Masters appreciate your cooperation in agreeing to this meeting. They have programmed me with Their desires, and i am fully empowered to act as Their agent.”
Senator Yount stood. “C-councilor Navarre—”
“Please, Senator. i am a slave and hold no rank. If you wish to address me properly, call me slave sharon. If my station troubles you, you may call me sharon, or navarre.”
He pursed his lips. “Madam Navarre. We wish to know why your... principals attacked us without provocation and without any declaration of war. We—”
“my Masters took the world of Brisbane because They wanted it.”
Yount paused a moment. “And do they plan to keep it?”
“Against the wishes of its populace.”
Ling was pleased that she were not in Yount’s place. Her heart was hammering. The old man’s mouth was a slim line.
“Madam Navarre, why are we here?”
She smiled. “Senator Yount. i have been programmed to reveal something to you, prior to our negotiations. Please, look at me now.”
Navarre reached up and ran her fingers through her hair.
And lifted it away.
She put the wig down on the table.
Ling stared. Navarre’s bald head was glossy smooth, totally unblemished. Ling realized that it was also... misshapen. Navarre had a long smooth ridge running along the center of her skull, from her hairline to the back of her neck, like a loaf of soft bread that had risen in the middle.
The men and women seated on either side of Navarre removed their kepis.
They, too, were entirely bald, their bare heads glossy and smooth. All of them had a swollen ridge down the center of their skulls.
“What you see atop my head,” Navarre said, “is my obedience lobe.
“It controls my mind.”
Federacy medical science was, Ling thought, quite advanced. The primary source of death and injury was by a wide margin, accident—and almost no form of injury was untreatable. One of her friends from school had both legs regrown below the thighs after a particularly nasty flyer crash.
Most people lived well into their second century. For the mind there were treatments—mostly preventative—for dementia, senility.
But ultimately, the current disposition of your brain was considered to define you. What regrowth techniques had been developed to counter the effect of aging or to heal serious brain injury had never been able to regenerate memory; an individual with a regrown brain was in most of the ways that counted a different person. Few individuals opted for that. A deliberate death of the self was not preferable to death overall.
Experimentation for experimentation’s sake, of course, was illegal. And abhorrent.
Obviously, the Sthil thought differently.
Yount cleared his throat.
“We are not here to discuss... your slavery,” he said. “We are here to discuss the future of this war.”
Ling increased her opinion of him another significant notch.
Navarre nodded. “Very well.” She pulled the chair out, and sat down.
Ling could not stop staring at Navarre’s head. She almost expected the obedience lobe to pulse.
“I ask again, Madam: what do your principals want?”
“my Masters desire peace with the Federacy.”
“And you are empowered to commit them to a peace?”
“i am fully empowered to do so,” Navarre said. “my obedience is total; i desire only to achieve my Masters’ goals. As Their unquestioningly loyal slave i am trusted to uphold Their best interests. i represent Them entirely.”
Ling’s eyes drifted to the woman seated at Navarre’s right. Asian norm: golden skin, dark brown eyes, dispassionate mouth.
And that swollen lobe down the center of her hairless skull.
“So, as their duly anointed agent, you are willing to commit to peace with the Federacy. Have you any terms?”
“Only peace, for now. my Masters are under attack from a different quarter, and must divert resources. They understand that your military has been effectively eliminated, but assimilating all Federacy worlds is currently beyond their capability. It has been decided that allowing the Federacy to rebuild their military is an acceptable risk.”
“Our military is not powerless.”
“Senator Yount. i was once First Councilor Navarre. Then the Sthil captured me and grew an obedience lobe within my brain. my conversion cost me none of my memories. i have told Them all that i know of the Federacy and of humans. All of Their new human slaves have. my Masters know everything that any of Their slaves know now or knew before. Those members of your fleet who were captured during the battle now also eagerly put their knowledge at the service of their Masters. There is nothing about your position that we do not understand. What ships were at Brisbane, were the entirety of your fleet. What you have now is only what you could build in a year; and i strongly suspect much of your effort was diverted to planetary and system defenses.”
Then a different voice, and Ling realized that it was Lady Li-Hwa who was speaking. “If there is nothing you do not know, and we are powerless, why do you bother to treat with us? Why not merely ignore us, or invade at your leisure?”
Navarre turned to face Li-Hwa—and Ling, standing directly behind her. To see those beautiful, blissful eyes just beneath that obscene bulge chilled Ling’s blood.
“Lady Li-Hwa Bao Yu. It is a pleasure to see you. my Masters have sent me to treat with you because They desire things from you that are easier obtained through exchange than by force.”
Navarre smiled, and turned back to face Senator Yount. “Many things. Now that Brisbane belongs to my Masters, They desire to re-establish trade links and other such contacts. There is much on Brisbane to rebuild, much to improve, and my Masters’ experience with humans is limited. It is easier to obtain resources for human slaves from human worlds.”
“And the hostages?” Yount demanded.
“They will be given obedience lobes and made into dutiful slaves. Their knowledge of your many worlds will become available to my Masters.”
“If we refuse your terms?”
Navarre stood, and as one, so did all of her compatriots.
“Understand this, human. my Masters hold all the cards. If you are intransigent i have been programmed to end this conference. You have seen the great ship Gthaaa. My Masters have several such ships that have not yet been reassigned. It would be quite easy to initiate orbital bombardment of any Federacy world. Aside from Macon’s World, none of them have sufficient system defenses to mount any effective resistance at all.”
She gestured, and one of her compatriots produced a folder, which he placed upon the table.
“Here is the conference agenda. You may make suggestions. i may refuse them. If at any time you wish to leave, you may do so. You can then expect swift punitive action from my Masters’ fleet.”
Navarre placed a fingertip on the folder atop the conference table. Then she gave a small nod, turned slowly on her heel, and left.
Ling stood with her arms wrapped around herself and looked out the window.
The Sthil ship was swallowing the Nepenthe.
That had been the first item on the agenda. Transfer of hostages, wholesale. Five hundred men and women, doomed to slavery.
Ling knew it was irrational, to feel so about five hundred when on Brisbane millions faced the same fate. But that had happened. This was happening now.
She turned to look. Suren stood at the door of the viewing room.
“Come away, Ling.”
Ling shook her head. “I can’t. I have to... I have to witness,” she said.
Suren came into the room and let the door close behind her. Far away in space, the cheerful yellow of the Nepenthe was being guided into the vast orifice of the Sthil ship.
“Did you—do you know any of them?”
Ling shook her head.
“Nor I.” Suren put an arm around Ling, and Ling leaned into her. “They volunteered.”
“They didn’t know.”
“Yes they did. Maybe they didn’t know exactly, but they knew.”
The Nepenthe glided forward. The Sthil had allowed the ship’s crew to leave and replaced them with human slaves. Ling wondered if the hostages had seen those slaves, had gotten to stare at their fate before it swallowed them.
The portal was closing now, the Nepenthe safely inside the belly of the huge vessel.
Ling blinked the tears away.
“We’ll beat them,” she whispered. “We have to.”
Suren just held her.
The agenda was not unreasonable.
The transfer of the volunteers had been first, and non-negotiable. Afterward, working out the details alone was scheduled to take two days, although the Federacy diplomats had found little to complain about. Many timeslots during the conference were already allocated for Federacy ‘initiatives’, i.e. anything that the Federacy delegation wanted to use the time for.
On the third day, meetings were scheduled to start at three o’clock station time. All of the meetings were to be held between delegations representing the individual human worlds, and the Sthil. There were to be no meetings with any joint Federacy presence.
Yount had protested. The Federacy had to present a united front, he said. The delegates had agreed with him. They would negotiate together, as a people.
Navarre vetoed the objection. “The Federacy worlds are all nominally independent,” she said. “my Masters know this. we will meet with each world’s delegation individually and assess their feelings and willingness to negotiate. This point is not flexible. You are free to leave if this is unacceptable.”
Yount had then complained that the agenda was too open, that none of the individual meetings had an agenda or even a topic.
“Senator Yount, you seem to be as much a slave as i, only in the service of some paper agenda,” Navarre had quipped. No one laughed, but her blissful smile had not wavered. “We have yet to conduct even the preliminary meetings to determine such things. These negotiations will take some time. You have not come here short of supplies, have you? If so we can provide them to you.”
And with that, the agenda was accepted. The Federacy delegations, one each from the eight represented worlds, had met afterward and set up their own, internal agenda. Top on the list was a general meeting of the delegations subsequent to each day’s meetings with the Sthil, to discuss what had occurred, what had been offered and what demanded.
Divide and Conquer was not a strategy that could be accommodated.
Tilde station turned out to be well-configured for conferences. Centuries of inhabitation, of design for one use and then another, had left it filled with rooms of every shape and configuration.
This room was small, with two doors. One door led to a hallway which opened on other similar rooms and ultimately led back to the Federacy-occupied quarters; the other door opened on a hallway which led to the areas of the station now occupied by the human slaves of the Sthil.
Tilde station had in fact been divided, cordoned into two parts; one for the officers and diplomats of the Federacy (and the station personnel), one for the representatives of the Sthil. The meeting rooms with the opposing doors were one of only a half-dozen points where the two sections connected; all other points of access had been sealed with rock, and laced with sensors.
Presumably, the Sthil had installed sensors on their side as well.
The Federacy-occupied portion of the station was much the greater. Instead of staying on the station, as the Federacy diplomats were doing, the Sthil had simply docked the Heart of Steel alongside, connecting via a semi-permanent airlock. They would use the station only for meetings and meeting preparation, and would otherwise remain on the destroyer.
The Marshal Hui—wisely, in Ling’s opinion—remained in nearby orbit, ready to strike or depart as the situation required. Not that there was anything the elderly vessel could do against the Gthaaa, but the gigantic Sthil ship had withdrawn to the far side of the gas giant. It was still visible, but far enough that the Marshal Hui could attack the Heart of Steel and then jump away before the Gthaaa tore it apart. Not that Ling could think of any reason for that series of events to happen.
In the small meeting room, Ling shifted her weight slightly. They were waiting. She embarked on another thought trail.
Aside from the giant Sthil vessel, all the ships the Federacy delegation had seen so far were human, as were all the representatives of the Sthil.
Ling wondered at that. There seemed to be no xenos among the Sthil delegation, although obviously xenos were by far the larger portion of the Sthil polity. Why only human diplomats? To put them at ease? Seeing these formerly proud individuals as helpless, brain-implanted sycophants surely caused the opposite reaction.
To unnerve them, then. But why?
There were four of them in the room, alone. Ling and LiShen stood at attention, in crisp uniforms, hand on wrist behind their backs. They flanked Lady Li-Hwa, who sat at the small metal table. Sitting with her was an assistant, WuFei, who had a datapad and a recording device. Lady Li-Hwa had a pad herself, laid on the table, and held a stylus loosely in her left hand.
At precisely the time indicated for the meeting, the door opposite opened. The Asian-orig woman that had been seated next to Navarre entered, no kepi this time, just a gleaming bald head with that long lobe running down the center of it.
She entered the room, blank-faced and uniformed, and sat in the chair opposite Lady Li-Hwa. Two others entered behind her, a woman of euro extraction and a man of afro extraction, both bald and with visible obedience lobes. The man was in uniform while the woman was in an executive’s suit. He carried a stuffed attache case. She was carrying a large device, box-shaped with a single flattened cylinder atop it.
The woman placed the device on the table. “This is a recording device,” she stated. She pressed a single button with a red fingernail, and the cylinder on the top of the box began to slowly rotate.
“i am testing the recording device,” the woman said. She pressed another button and the cylinder stopped its rotation; a third button and it spun quickly backwards. She pressed down a fourth, the cylinder turned, and the box stated in her voice: “i am testing the recording device.”
Satisfied, the woman pressed the original button again. The cylinder resumed its slow gyration.
The woman and the man sat down, on either side of the Asian-orig woman. That woman spoke.
“i am slave shuu. You may address me as slave shuu, shuu, or as xiao.”
“I know who you are, Captain Xiao,” Li-Hwa replied.
Ling blinked but kept her stance, staring at the wall opposite, seeing everything with her peripheral vision, prepared for any move that the other side might make.
The pistol at her hip was a reassuring weight.
The slave woman smiled. “i was Captain Xiao. now i am slave shuu. my former title has no meaning any more.”
“As you wish.”
Xiao gestured, and the man next to her opened a valise and produced a thick cream-colored envelope. Xiao opened it. “These are trade deals, all of which occurred during the last decade between Brisbane and Penyang.” The man handed over another folder. “And these are the various treaties which were in force at the time of the acquisition of Brisbane by my Masters.” Another folder, even larger. “Here are court cases and rulings pertaining to this bilateral trade.”
The lobed woman looked at Li-Hwa. “We shall review these documents. my Masters desire that trade should be resumed on a normalized basis between our worlds. It falls to us to determine what a normalized basis is, or if more advantageous terms might be struck.”
Li-Hwa nodded. “Very well. Are we to take these documents for review?”
“No. We are to review them together, here. When you are ready i shall begin.”
Ling’s peripheral vision took in the stacks of print-outs—paper!—and internally she was taken aback. The woman Xiao could not mean what she had said. Was this some bizarre play for time?
Li-Hwa folded her hands. “Should we not first discuss... more structural things? The nature of our negotiations? Our goals? Rules?”
“If you wish to discuss such things you may do so. However, i have been instructed by my Masters to review this data with you, and to reach agreements to resume trading at a satisfactory level. These things i will do unless you indicate that you wish to cease negotiations entirely, in which case i will return home and we shall prepare to conquer Penyang.”
The room was quiet, except for the soft hiss of the recording device. Ling could not see Li-Hwa’s face, but she knew that her Lady was looking thoughtful.
“I see. Very well, then. Proceed.”
Xiao opened the top folder. “An overview. The Federacy governing articles stipulate that trade between member worlds...”