Part Three* * *
“... the Board also estimated that four teragrams of molybdenum were imported from Brisbane to Penyang during the period amongst other off-record items. It has been six hours, and this session is over.”
Xiao pushed back her chair and stood up. The motion sent Ling’s hand flying towards her sidearm, but her fingers only brushed the grip before her mind caught up and stilled them.
The man was gathering up the papers on the table; the woman leaned over to halt the recording device. WuFei attempted to cover a yawn with the back of a hand. In her peripheral vision, Ling could see LiShen stiffening slightly; the other bodyguard had also zoned out as the interminable droning went on.
Not acceptable. Thankfully, readiness had not been compromised. Even mind-numbing boredom could not defang the bodyguard. Still, to have failed in awareness like that—what if Lady Li-Hwa had asked Ling a question? Ling felt as though her knapsack contained a failing report card.
Li-Hwa stood up and bowed slightly. “Thank you for your time, honorable Xiao.”
“i thank you for yours. We shall meet again in forty-two hours, and resume the review. Unless you demur?”
“Not at all. But if I may ask—what is the purpose of this review? I cannot possibly confirm all this data, nor do I see the point of contesting it.”
“The purpose of this review is obedience. my Masters have instructed me to review this data with you, and i will obey them.”
“Very well then. Thank you again.” Li-Hwa turned around and came away from the table, followed by WuFei carrying both datapads. LiShen reached over to open the door.
Ling watched as the three Sthil delegates left the room, then turned on her heel and marched out after her own people.
They were alone in the small common room which the Penyang delegation shared. LiShen had gone to shower and change; WuFei had prepared the transcription with Li-Hwa’s observations and run the encryption; he was now taking it to the launch bay for inclusion in the day’s message drone. Noor was off coordinating some schedule-related issues with another delegation; Bolin was resting in the room he shared with WuFei.
Li-Hwa was meditating, her eyes closed, but she had long ago explicitly instructed Ling not to hesitate in approaching her with questions at these times. She had said precisely that: “If I desired solitude I would be in my room; and your thoughts may help spur my own.”
Li-Hwa’s appreciation of Ling’s humble opinion never failed to impress Ling, nor to increase her devotion.
“Yes, Ling?” she asked, without opening her eyes.
“What... what was the importance of today’s meeting?”
“I am trying still to unravel this. It impressed upon us the devotion of these slaves to their Sthil masters—but we did not need to be impressed with this. It told us that obedience ranks higher than rationality with them, and that I am still trying to puzzle out. And it bored us to tears. There is a purpose to that, too, I am certain.”
Ling nodded. It had bored them past tears and into daydreaming, although Ling and LiShen had both mastered the art of long guard duty, of keeping the body alert, ready to act, even if the mind drifted.
“Do you think there will be many such meetings before they arrive at the true object of these negotiations?”
“Good. You see that this is simply prelude. There will be many, I fear.”
“To what end?”
“We must strive to learn exactly that. Were we negotiating with the Kovians, I would presume they meant to slip something past us during the latter stages, when we were fatigued. Yet these are not the Kovians and they are negotiating from a position of nearly absolute strength. Were they the Vael, I would suspect they were drugging the air or wasting time while burrowing tunnels through the station to release infiltration droids. But again, to what point? We can give them nothing which they cannot simply take. So for now, I am at a loss.”
“Is Xiao simply doing it because she was ordered to? As she claims?”
Li-Hwa frowned. “I do not know. I suspect not, yet we know so little of these Sthil. That thing in Captain Xiao’s head may indeed compel her so utterly that she will obey even in the face of pointless tedium.”
“Or, taken to an extension, death.”
“Perhaps. But then, perhaps they merely wish us to think so.”
Li-Hwa sighed, opened her eyes, and unfolded her legs. “We shall see what shall be, in any case. Ling, you are to be my escort this evening.”
“Escort, my Lady?”
“The Sthil have requested that, in addition to our negotiations, we also interact with them informally. More precisely, they want dinners and parties, and they have asked the Anherabad delegation to offer a reception this evening.”
Ling nodded. She had not accompanied Li-Hwa to the joint meeting of Federacy delegations which followed the day’s negotiations. Had each delegation head brought their guards it would have filled the room. Moreover, it would have shown bad faith, and Senator Yount had impressed upon them all the need to hang together.
“Governor Jaraputra accepted, and has also invited the heads of delegation from our side to the event. I shall bring one escort, and she shall be you.”
“Of course, my Lady. Dress uniform?”
“Please. The event begins in one hour.”
Suren smiled at her from across the room.
Ling smiled back. The reception area was fragrant of roses; scent poetry was an important part of Anherabad’s cultural history, one of the traits marking them as unique within the Federacy and indeed within humanspace.
Was there such singularity in the Sthil polity? Ling doubted it.
There were eight of the Sthil slaves, outnumbered three to one by the Federacy delegates, but nonetheless filling the room with an undertone of menace. They had caps on, matching their fine dress and hiding their swollen skulls, but everyone knew what these smiling strangers represented.
“The three there are from our ‘negotiation’ session.”
Ling turned to find Padesh at her elbow. Suren’s colleague wore a patterned orange sari and had applied delicate traceries of facial art, giving her a delicate, feminine air. Ling knew that a sidearm was placed within that sari so that it could be in Padesh’s hand in less than a second.
She looked across the room. An Afro-orig woman, tall and with strong features, was speaking with Governor Jaraputra and Ambassador Vadek, here as the representative of Konstrova. With the tall woman were two placidly smiling aides in colored headscarves.
“Yours was a reading session as well?” Ling asked.
Padesh nodded. “Just so. Treaties and trade patterns and other irrelevancies. All while that slug on her head glistened at me. If you watch them, they almost seem to throb.”
They were conversing in the usual bodyguard style, looking at the room and their charges, not at each other. Li-Hwa was speaking with an Asian-orig Sthil slave. She wore a military kepi, but Ling could tell she was a slave simply by her placid, docile expression.
“They look almost like cows,” she said.
Padesh snorted. “I would die first.”
The thought was sobering. Was there even a chance to die first? How had they gotten First Councilor Navarre, then? If anyone would have died before submitting, it was her...
Ling focused on Lady Li-Hwa. Speculation was for later, when she was not on duty.
“May i have your attention please?”
The tall, ebony-skinned woman was speaking. She had raised her hands and was slowly turning in place.
“i would like to thank you for coming,” she said. “And i would very much like to thank Governor Jaraputra for offering us this small gathering. It takes courage to be first.”
Ling looked at Governor Jaraputra. He was smiling, but it was pasted on. And clearly pasted on; no politician of his caliber would be seen to be false unless he meant to be.
“The purpose of these gatherings,” the woman said, “is to facilitate understanding between our people. my Masters seek normalization of relations; normalization will never be achieved until the human nations who are not slaves understand those of us who are. Therefore, please—ask questions of us freely. Prevarication is not the nature of either our Masters or we, their slaves.”
Ling’s eyes sought out Lady Li-Hwa. She was impossible to read.
The woman began to speak again, but a brash male voice cut in. “Why are you here?”
It was Ambassador Vadek. Before she could reply, he went on: “You claim that the Sthil have problems elsewhere. With whom? How can we contact them, to ally against you?”
He thrust a finger at her. “If you are so truthful, tell us then who else is your enemy. Who else your Masters have preyed upon, and how they resist you. It is them we wish to bargain with!”
The room went silent.
The tall, dark woman’s smile never wavered; nor was there any emotion other than a vague happiness in her black eyes. “We war with a race known to us as the Virn. They are a biomechanical agglomerative collective with a hive consciousness. Conquered worlds are turned into factories that produce Virn-standard biomechanical life; any non-Virn life is catalogued, stored as samples, studied, and then the bulk of it is reprocessed.”
The woman looked around the room and her eyes found Ling. “My Masters understand that you value your individuality and the illusion of freedom, and i assure you, you would possess none at all of either under the Virn.”
Vadek scowled. There was, of course, no way of ascertaining if she was telling the truth.
The reception ended soon after.
It was late; Lady Li-Hwa was already abed. WuFei had also retired, but the rest of the Penyang delegation was sitting thoughtfully in the common area.
“They just recited bilateral compacts and trade statistics?” Noor asked.
“Exactly,” LiShen replied, stretching. She was in her nightshift, and the thin black fabric of it slid across her rounded muscles. “It was stupid, and weird.”
“And extremely tedious,” Ling added.
“Three of them,” Bolin stated. “And they all had those... bumps?”
“Obedience lobes,” LiShen confirmed. “That’s what Navarre called them. And yeah, they all had them.”
“What do you think they are?” Noor asked. She was a small woman, with dark hair cut very short; her lips and cheeks were naturally ruddy and looked very handsome against her dark brown skin.
LiShen looked at her. “What what are?”
“The obedience lobes. Do you think it’s some sort of bio-mechanical implant? Like Yikkathai limbs? Or do you think it’s actually part of their brains, somehow?”
“It’s probably the Sthil themselves,” Bolin interjected. “I bet they’re some sort of horrible worm that lives in your brain.”
Ling yawned. “What a pleasant idea,” she said. “But I doubt that the Sthil are such a good match for human biology.”
“You never know,” he replied.
“Perhaps not, but we know they have Qth’pak in their collective, and the Stickies are almost entirely non-compatible with our biology. Can barely share a ship, much less a biosphere. I doubt we would share parasites, even mind-controlling worms.”
“Hey, don’t go calling them ‘Stickies’,” LiShen chided. “That’s not diplomatic.”
Ling shot the other guard a look from under a raised brow, and LiShen winked at her.
Noor returned to her subject. “But what are they, then?”
“Until we know more,” Ling said, rising to her feet, “and Bolin’s weird fantasies notwithstanding, Occam’s razor would tend to indicate that those bumps are exactly what their victims say they are. Obedience lobes. Some bio-engineered brain-part that the Sthil have inflicted on them.” She walked away, towards the bedchamber which she shared with LiShen.
“What I want to know is,” Ling continued, pausing in the doorway, “can they be removed?”
The room was different, was in fact next to the other one, but it looked identical.
Ling and LiShen flanked the door, hands at their sides. Li-Hwa sat at the table between them, WuFei at her side. He was moving around panes on the datapad he held.
At precisely the turn of the hour, the opposite door of the small room opened. The same three people entered: Xiao, the dark-skinned man, and the peach-tone woman. Xiao sat down. The woman placed the recording device on the table, tested it, and left it on. The man took folders and binders from the valise he carried, and placed them on the table. Then the two of them sat on either side of Xiao.
Xiao slid one of the folders in front of herself. She opened it, read something silently, and looked across the table.
“Lady Li-Hwa,” she said. “Are you ready to continue?”
“Certainly,” Li-Hwa said.
“In the subsequent period of five Brisbane-standard months, molybdenum imports are listed as being eight teragrams from accounts of record. Unrecorded imports of molybdenum are estimated by the board for this period as being three point two teragrams...”
Ling groaned inwardly. Unbelievable. She was actually going to simply continue reading the trade memoranda.
Ling took a disheartening look at the stack of documentation on the table at Xiao’s elbow.
“...this is observed by Administrator Dong as being within the parameters of the earlier Qian trade agreement. This position was disputed by the Brisbane delegation but the dispute was resolved along the lines of the original Qian agreement. It has been six hours, and this session is over.”
There was a long pause.
“Honorable Xiao,” Lady Li-Hwa said, and Ling noticed the telltale stretch under her jawline as she stifled a yawn, “I request that we discontinue the review of these documents. We have spent six hours at this today to no benefit that I can see.”
“i am sorry, Lady Li-Hwa, but my Masters insist on this point of protocol. It is non-negotiable.”
And this is not a negotiation, Ling thought to herself. It’s a show of dominance.
“How long, then, do you think this will continue, until we can begin some substantive—or, in fact, any—discussion?”
“When we performed this exercise in anticipation of our meeting, the review of the relevant documentation took one hundred twenty seven hours, and forty two minutes.”
Divided by six... twenty-two sessions.
Ling was too well trained to groan. Just.
“And then we will proceed to the agreements, which will be detailed and based upon the reviewed documents.”
“Honorable Xiao, we are willing to proceed to discussion of the agreements.”
“we are not. Thank you for your time, Lady Li-Hwa. We will meet again in forty-two hours.”
Xiao stood up. The woman collected the recorder, the man collected the documents. They filed out.
Li-Hwa’s elbow nudged WuFei, who jerked.
“I think those obedience lobes burn out the brain’s boredom center,” Suren quipped.
Ling and Mary laughed.
They were seated in a room that had been converted into a makeshift club. It was busy; the day’s meetings had ended and the various representatives were preparing for evening events, or relaxing and getting ready for sleep. Despite being on an asteroid orbiting a gas giant and very far from Earth-normal cycles, human diplomacy was generally conducted during a demarcated “day”, and spaced by “nights”, and the Sthil had not seen fit to waive this convention.
Mary was a staffer with the Run-Ha-Lan delegation; the sort with decades of practice in martial arts to augment her systems and protocol expertise. She and Suren had met before, on Run-Ha-Lan, and Ling was finding her a witty and pleasant drinking companion.
Not to mention attractive.
LiShen was on duty this evening, so Ling was free to socialize and discuss events with her counterparts from the other delegations. What she really wanted to do was to take Suren by the hand and lead her into some dimly lit room for intimacy, but drinking and laughing was an acceptable if inferior alternative.
“What could they possibly be seeking to accomplish?” Mary asked. “Reading minutes of meetings that were pointless when they were originally held?”
“Perhaps they seek to keep us here, while they do something behind our backs,” Ling observed.
“But do what? We’re already expendable.” Suren realized what she had said, but a look at Ling and Mary and she knew that the truth in this circumstance was not unpalatable.
“Negotiator Buford thinks that they are just trying to lure us into a sense of normalcy, before springing some sort of surprise,” Mary observed.
“But what?” Suren asked. “I think at this point we’d sign anything they put in front of us, up to the point of surrendering one or more worlds.”
“Lady Li-Hwa,” Ling began, and was gratified at the sudden uptick in interest from her colleagues, “is of the opinion that they are feeling us out in order to ascertain which worlds can be pulled off and diplomatically separated from the rest of the Federacy. Nothing of substance will occur at this conference, but the Sthil will find out which worlds might make individual deals, to keep their freedom, and that itself is the information which they seek.”
Suren and Mary nodded. “Nothing will happen,” Suren observed, “except that we will all wind up in boredom comas and no agreements will be signed at all. I think listening to them ought to come with hardship pay.”
“I just don’t get it,” Mary observed. “We’ve all seen that ship of theirs. They could have the Marshal Hui, Tilde Station, and all of us—and it would not matter one jot to the spatio-political realities. The Federacy would be no more riled up, and no less helpless to do anything about it, than they are now. What’s with the tedium?”
Suren giggled. “What?” Mary demanded.
“’Riled up.’ I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone use that phrase outside of entertainment vids. You Run-Ha-Laners are precious.”
Mary feigned insult, which caused Ling to giggle in turn, and then they were all laughing and Suren waved at the waiter—someone from the Tilde Four staff who had drawn a short straw—to bring them more beer.
“I’ll tell ya one thing, though,” Mary said with only a touch of slur in her voice. “Those brain-thingies of theirs don’t make ‘em stupid. They’ve got some pretty goot systems people over there.”
“What do you mean?” Suren asked.
“They’ve been probing our computer networks pretty hard. Nothing we’re not ready for but very shh, shhtate of the art.” Mary’s face scrunched up in a ‘uh-oh was I supposed to reveal that?’ look; she must have decided that it was an acceptable admission for she relaxed and giggled.
“They’re trying to penetrate the systems?” Ling asked.
“A-yup. Pretty thoroughly. Critical stuff is hardened, of course, and really critical stuff is cable-only, but they’re throwing a lot of... stuff at the datapad and intercom networks. Looking for a way in. ‘S nothing we can’t handle of course.”
Despite Mary’s red cheeks and slightly glassy eyes, Ling believed her.
“Maybe,” Suren said, a bit too loud, “Maybe they’re trying to break into the messenger drones and send back messages. Fake messages.”
“Why?” Ling demanded.
Suren screwed up her mouth and looked thoughtful. “I don’t know,” she finally admitted. “But I don’t trust them.”
Mary and Ling looked at each other, then burst out laughing. Suren blinked, then joined in.
“Oh, oh, oh,” Mary said. “I haven’t been this drunk—I haven’t been drunk at all—for years.”
“It’s the tension,” Ling pointed out. “So much stress.”
“Yeah,” Suren concurred, finishing the last of her drink and clapping the cup down on the table. “This mission sucks.”
Mary was looking at Ling appraisingly. “You know,” she said, “you’re very pretty. You’ve got such a beautiful face.”
“Uh, thanks,” Ling replied.
“And your hair. I thought it was strange that an East-Aizh had such pale blonde hair but it’s really pretty on you.”
“Thanks, uh, again.”
“Is it the same downstairs?”
Ling opened her mouth to reply, then closed it and blinked a few times. “I, uh...”
“I think you’re super pretty,” Mary reiterated. “Can I kiss you?”
Blinking was the only thing Ling managed. A kiss from this sexy Run-Ha-Lanner sounded really good, but...
Mary looked at her with slightly glassy eyes, then frowned. “Not into girls? I understand. ‘Salright.”
Suren snickered and leaned sideways to run both hands over Ling’s body, draping herself on Ling like a cloak. “Oh, she’s into girls, Mary. That’s not it. She’s just trying to slice through the alcoholic fog and get in touch with her propriety. What would the Lady think? Would it cause shame if Ling publically sucked face with a cute redheaded Run-Ha-Lanner?”
Which was... sort of... accurate. Ling’s thoughts whirled. She wasn’t on duty for eight hours—or maybe six, what time was it?—and as a bodyguard, fraternization between Federacy personnel was usually winked at. And Run-Ha-Lan and Penyang had a pretty good relationship, and Mary was awfully pretty. But of course wherever they wound up things might be secretly recorded, and Ling had to think through if that could come to reflect badly on Penyang or Lady Li-Hwa...
“Wow,” Mary said, leaning on the table. “I can see her think.”
“She’s been like this as long as I’ve known her,” Suren chimed in. “It’s like watching a chess player try to order take-out.”
“...yes,” Ling returned, with a furrow still between her brows. “Yes, I think I would like that very much. You kissing me.”
Mary grinned, then lurched across the table and gave Ling a deep, slightly boozy kiss. Ling licked the tip of her tongue.
With a broad smile, Mary sat back. “I’ve got a keycard to an empty entertainment room. It has an expandable couch.” She looked at the two women sitting opposite her. “Suren, you want to join us?”