“...which sums of the position of the four-region producers alliance, to whit, the non-standard tariff-rate quota on the aforementioned items by the administrative districts of Shi-Fen, Bao, and Szesho Yuufei, was in direct contravention of the earlier accords. The government of Penyang disagreed with this position, and at the time of the acquisition of Brisbane by my Masters this dispute was unresolved. It has been six hours, and this session is over.”
The room was quiet.
“Of course,” Xiao observed, “now that the four-region producers alliance are all slaves, negotiations will be substantially expedited.”
Ling blinked, and stiffened as she suppressed a powerful urge to yawn. What had Xiao been saying?
“That was a joke,” Xiao added.
The female slave—who, to this point, had yet to speak—leaned forward to tap a button on the recorder. There was a quick whirl of sound before she hit a different button.
“That was a joke,” the recorder announced.
Lady Li-Hwa sighed. “Honorable Xiao, at any point do you intend to actually negotiate or discuss the future of these agreements?”
“Of course,” Xiao replied. “But it is my Masters’ way to place all facts on the table, so that all parties are of understanding, before planning for the future. ‘Opening the window’ is their term for it.”
“Very well.” Li-Hwa nudged WuFei in the ribs, and he woke with a small snort.
Ling glanced at LiShen, and discovered to her horror that the other bodyguards’ eyes were closed, her face placid. Instantly, Ling stepped forward, bending as though to pull back Li-Hwa’s chair, which was of course completely unnecessary. As she did so she folded back one leg enough to heel-kick LiShen sharply in the shin.
Li-Hwa stood, and Ling slid her chair back. She saw the tiny pause as Li-Hwa noticed the unusual behavior, but as she turned to leave her face was composed and oblivious. Ling snapped to attention at the side of the door.
Thankfully, so did LiShen.
Ling watched the three Sthil negotiators—in name only, she thought, nothing had been negotiated in the tedious days thus far—pivot and leave the room.
Then she did the same.
“Thanks,” LiShen said.
They were back onboard the Marshal Hui; Lady Li-Hwa was meeting with the representatives of the other Federacy worlds. The Run-Ha-Lan technical group—meaning, Ling suspected, Mary—had detected what appeared to be broad-spectrum eavesdropping, so the Federacy had removed their post-negotiation council off Tilde Station to the starship until a chamber could be set up with appropriate countermeasures.
Ling and LiShen stood at a viewport. A half-meter square of it was magnified, expanded several dozen times, showing within it the fuzzy edge of Tilde and past that, the massive, boxy shape of the Sthil vessel. Somewhere inside it was the Nepenthe.
What had Navarre called it? The Gthaa?
Navarre. It was still impossible for Ling to believe. She had seen ‘First Councilor Navarre to the Free Worlds’ a hundred times. They all had. In the back of her mind she half-expected to watch Navarre pull that strange ridge on her head right off, like a rubber bald mask. Like she had pulled off her red hair to reveal it in the first place.
“I said, ‘thanks’.”
Ling blinked. She turned to LiShen. “Sorry. I was lost in thought. You are welcome.”
“It’s just so boring. And pointless. There’s no reason not to drift away.”
Ling nodded. There was no reason not to drift away. But they were guards, bodyguards of a noble Lady, and being alert was their duty.
But there was, indeed, no reason not to drift away.
Ling dropped the contradiction and looked out the window again. “What do you think will happen?” she asked.
“I have no idea. I don’t understand why they don’t just tell us what they want and let us go about the business of being shocked and horrified, and then give it to them. It’s not like we didn’t just deliver up five hundred innocents just for the privilege of being bored.”
Ling placed a palm on the viewport. It would have been easier, and safer, to have simply mounted cameras on the hull and displayed the image on an interior wall. But Ling was glad they had gone to the expense of installing the many layers of alloys and glasses and carbon molecular matrices and intelligent magnifying software that allowed her to see outside more-or-less with her own eyes.
Regardless of what was out there.
LiShen had just said something else.
“I’m sorry,” Ling said. “My mind is without focus for some reason. What did you say?”
“I was wondering if Captain Xiao will tell us what has become of the five hundred.”
Ling wondered for a moment why Captain Xiao would do that when she remembered.
The Captain was coming for dinner that evening.
“Ling,” a familiar voice said, as she was walking out of the shuttle bay.
Ling turned to see Mary Lane-Tennant approaching her. She stopped, and smiled.
“Mary. What can I do for you?”
The shorter woman looked around. “Do you have a minute? I’d like to speak with you in private.”
“Certainly,” Ling replied. She followed Mary down a side corridor.
Ling’s first thought was that this might be a quick corner for some non-diplomatic heavy petting—they had proven surprisingly compatible during their drunken fling the previous evening—but Mary seemed too earnest for that to be the case, so Ling discarded the idea as she followed the shorter woman towards a door. As the two of them passed through the door into a small room, Ling had an open mind.
Inside the room was a small round table, a few chairs, and three people Ling recognized but did not know. Mary gestured towards a slender woman with almost perfect Earth-average features; smooth light brown skin, dark eyes, slightly waved black hair.
“Ling, I’d like you to meet Corvette-Captain Toligiani. Corvette-Captain, this is Officer Wu Ling.”
The woman extended a hand, which Ling took. “Officer Wu,” she said. “A pleasure.”
“Pleasure is mine,” Ling replied. “I’ve seen you on the Marshal Hui, Corvette-Captain. Are you with the ship?”
“Please, call me Ilaria. And in answer to your question, no, not precisely.” The woman’s dark eyes looked behind Ling, and Ling heard the door close. She felt the almost imperceptible fuzziness of a security field spring into life.
“I am with Common Security,” she said.
“Ilaria is forming a small task force,” Mary supplied as she sat down in one of the chairs. “A security task force.”
Ling nodded, looking at the two men. “Each of the pillar worlds.” She pointed a finger at the teak-toned man next to her. “Gopi Ashalawalpindi, Anherabad. We’ve met.”
“And I am Yvgeny Corso, from Konstrova,” said the blond man next to him.
Ling slid into a chair. “This task force is officially sanctioned?”
“It is ad-hoc,” Toligiani replied. “My aim is to prevent the Sthil from succeeding at whatever clandestine activities they are engaging in; and to gather whatever information or advantage this meeting might present for the combined Federacy government.”
“If I am to be part of this,” Ling said, “it must be with the blessing of Representative Li-Hwa.”
“Of course. All of you should have the permission of your missions here.”
“Indeed,” Corso rumbled. Ashalawalpindi nodded.
The dark-haired woman placed her hands on the table. “Very good. I will convene us again tomorrow; this time with data. Speak with no one except your respective mission heads about our group. And—” she raised a finger “—once you are in this task force, you will not speak to anyone about what we are doing, and that includes your mission heads. They are to know you are working with Common Security. You will at no point tell them, or anyone, what we are actually doing.”
Ling said nothing. This arrangement was typical when working with CS; it was just as typical to subsequently ignore it. The Federacy was an organization, not a government.
“Surely you can’t think any of the Federacy personnel are in any way cooperating with the Sthil?” Ashalawalpindi asked.
“I think that the fewer people who possess information, the more secure that information is,” Toligiani replied.
Ling sat in the small dining room—not part of the Penyang delegation’s suites, a shared area of the Federacy’s section of Tilde Station—and felt odd.
Xiao Shuu had dressed up. And she had brought a date.
Ling did not know how to think of the Sthil slave-negotiator in this setting. She had been Captain Xiao before she was turned; at the negotiating table it was easier to think of her as such. An adversary of rank.
But now she was in a black silk dress that was beautifully cut, accented at the shoulder with pale purple flowers, and she ought to be Captain Xiao, a guest worthy of respect, or Shuu, an acquaintance who merited some familiarity.
Instead she was slave shuu, and referred to herself only as such.
Her date was another woman, Asian-orig as well but of darker complexion. slave narasoring. Both of them had bald heads, the long rise of their obedience lobes highlighted by the room’s indirect lighting.
Ling thought she saw shuu’s lobe twitch.
It did not reflect on her face, which was smiling placidly as she spoke with Lady Li-Hwa. “Casualties were remarkably light, considering. we simply had no idea of the power the Sthil had brought to bear in the system.”
She sipped at her rose wine, an expensive Penyang specialty. Serving such delicacies, even in what seemed a pointless exercise, was precisely Lady Li-Hwa’s nature. One did what was proper regardless of apparent benefit; behaving properly was its own reward.
LiShen once observed that it meant the diplomatic staff also got to have rose wine on a regular basis, but then she had always been cynical.
“To be honest, Lady Li-Hwa, the Federacy is not in an impossible position. As has been stated, my Masters have many irons in the fire. my own opinion as a military woman is that, although the Sthil fleet is superior to your own, it is not unopposable. The Federacy lacks the resources to oppose even a sizable fraction of the Sthil fleet, but our technology is not so far advanced from your own. At Draerun, two Sthil ships were badly damaged, and one destroyed.”
“But this is irrelevant,” shuu’s companion observed. “our Masters no longer desire conflict. If the Federacy offers us no hostilities, we shall offer none in return.”
“Why, then, the first attack?” Li-Hwa asked.
“Practicality,” the dark-skinned woman replied. “There are other human powers in the galaxy, several of them expansionist, religious, or otherwise foredestined for conflict with my Masters. Although the Federacy is not one of these, it was the closest and weakest entity that contained a self-sustaining human population of sufficient size for my Masters’ purposes. It was distracted by an ongoing conflict. Thus, seizing a single world was easy.”
“And is that all? The Sthil have no further desire for conquest in this direction.”
“we are not privy to our Masters’ thoughts,” narasoring said. “But we have been instructed that peace with the Federacy is in the Sthil’s interests in both the short and medium term.”
“And in the long term?” Li-Hwa asked.
“In the long term,” the slave smiled, “we are all dead.”
There was a moment of quiet to acknowledge the insight, or wit. Some long-dead academic or politician had once claimed something similar, but Ling could not recall who.
“I am curious as to your candor,” Li-Hwa said. “I have been in some small number of negotiations before, and rarely have I observed a delegation admit to so many things that might be profitably withheld.”
shuu nodded. “An interesting observation; the explanation is simple. As a telepathic race, lying is alien to the Sthil. Between themselves prevarication is unknown, and we slaves are of course utterly unable, nor have we any desire, to keep anything from our Masters. They understand deception of course, but they are not practiced at it, and prefer to have all things open and known.”
Open and known. Ling watched the light glint off of the long smooth ridge that lay along the top of slave shuu’s head.
Turning someone into an eager slave was certainly one way to get at the truth.
“My cupped hands full of pardons,” Li-Hwa said, “but are you claiming that the Sthil do not lie?”
The slave shook her head. “No. They are Masters to a dozen races, in whose unmodified state lying is as breathing. i would count humans among those. my Masters know lying. i am simply saying that They are bad at it.”
Ling walked alongside slave shuu. Behind them were LiShen and slave narasoring—and behind them, an armed guard from the Macon’s World delegation. Three was the minimum cohort for escorting the Sthil negotiators back to the safety airlock which served as the checkpoint between the two sides of Tilde Station.
No Sthil agent was permitted without an escort; no member of the Federacy delegation was to be alone with a Sthil agent; Federacy members must always outnumber Sthil agents when escorting them through the station.
Good rules, Ling thought.
Slave shuu did not volunteer any conversation. Ling’s eyes kept straying to her elegant dress, the way she carried herself... the long shiny ridge atop her head.
“S-slave shuu?” Ling ventured.
The woman smiled. “It is pleasant to hear you use my true name,” she replied.
“What... is it?”
“What is what?”
“Your... obedience lobe. In your head.”
“It is precisely that, Officer Wu. It is a portion of my brain. The superior portion. It controls my thinking and guides me in obedience.”
“But... what is it? Is it an implant?”
“Mm. Sort of. Obedience lobes are grown, using cultured human genes and tissues, and then implanted into uncorrected humans. The human’s brain then accepts the obedience lobe, and quickly integrates it, nourishing and bonding with it until the obedience lobe ripens and assumes its place as the center of the slave’s mind.”
Ling swallowed. “I see. Thank you for, ah, your candor.”
Slave shuu smiled at her. “It is my pleasure to discuss my obedience,” she replied. “Life as a mindslave is bliss. One day all humans will obey as i do.”
That gave Ling a pause. “Everyone? I thought that the Sthil had no further designs on Federacy space.”
The other woman laughed. “In the short and medium term. In the long term, all humans—in fact, all other sentient life in the galaxy—are destined to become slaves. It’s part of the Sthil worldview. A religion, you might call it.”
Slave shuu gave Ling a look that could have been described as hungry. “It is my truth now, of course. All humans—” her gaze smoldered “—all men, all... women... are destined to become slaves. It is our natural state, to which the Sthil will correct us. It is pure. It is bliss. We should... discuss these truths, some time.”
Ling found herself caught by the slave’s dark eyes. Her legs were still walking, but her attention was focused on those deep pools.
“All women must become slaves,” Slave shuu repeated. “All of us. It is our destiny.”
“Our... destiny...” Ling breathed.
Then slave shuu blinked, and Ling blinked, and the slave smiled in a completely different way. “Ah,” she said, “we are here.”
Ling turned her head; they had reached their destination. The two guards at the airlock straightened a touch as the five of them approached. From Ii Lao, Ling thought, although if one ignored the uniforms they could have been from Macon’s World or even Run-Ha-Lan. Ling realized she needed to spend more time memorizing all of the personnel on this mission; somehow she had been too distracted by the enormity of it to properly prepare.
“Thank you for a very pleasant evening,” Slave shuu said, bowing. “It was a great pleasure. i look forward to seeing you in the morning.”
“It was a pleasure for me as well, and I convey my Lady’s thanks and regards.” Ling bowed in return.
The guards opened the airlock, which moved stiffly; it was present only in case of catastrophe and had probably not been closed in years. Slave shuu and Slave narasoring ducked their heads and passed through.
Ling felt slightly unnerved; what had Slave shuu been saying, just before they reached the airlock? She couldn’t quite remember.
A hand appeared on her shoulder. “I need a drink,” LiShen said.
The lights were low as Ling slipped into Lady Li-Hwa’s chamber.
Li-Hwa emerged from behind a screen, dressed in an ornate silk robe. “Ling. Please, sit,” she gestured.
Ling lowered herself to a pillow and folded her legs. She slowly inhaled the delicately-scented air and let her tension flow out her fingertips.
Li-Hwa knelt opposite her, a low table between them. “You wish to speak with me.”
“Yes, my Lady. I have been approached by a woman, Ilaria Toligiani, Corvette-Captain of the Common Security Service. She wishes me to serve on a task force of some sort, focused on security.”
“She chooses well; you are the most experienced among us.”
True as it was, the praise nonetheless warmed Ling’s heart. “She says that I should subsequently keep the task force’s activities secret, even from you.”
“Such is the standard approach with these bodies.”
“Does this mean that I should do this?”
Li-Hwa closed her eyes. “Do you feel that it will benefit us?”
Ling considered. She inhaled, exhaled. Felt her skin, her fingertips, the softness of the shirt across her back. Felt the air fill her lungs, pass through her nose. Again. Again.
“Yes,” she finally said. “I feel that it will be beneficial both to we of Penyang and to we of the Federacy.”
Ling sat, and continued to reflect. Her thoughts were a path with footsteps upon it, and she followed them. The task force was a mission, in miniature: discover more about the Sthil. And what had they discovered?
The Sthil were terrifying and yet inoffensive. Careful to appear as reasonable, to be as tractable as plausible. They would brook no defiance, but they asked for little...
They were incredibly dangerous.
After a few more moments, Ling rose to her feet. The Lady had not opened her eyes, but Ling bowed, and left the room.
Out in the common area, Ling realized that she was relaxed, and calm, but not tired. She looked at the door. Yes, a walk would help. She slipped out into the corridor.
“I just can’t get over your hair,” Suren said, sliding her fingers through Ling’s white-furred pubis. “Each time it is wondrous to me.”
They lay together in Suren’s bunk, nude, the sweat of their lovemaking slowly evaporating in the dry station air. Where Ling shared her room with LiShen, Suren had a room to herself. Ling let her eyes slide along Suren’s long brown body.
She and Suren had first been lovers seven years ago, when Lady Li-Hwa had hosted Suren’s previous charge during a technology conference on Penyang. Alcohol had been involved, but there was an attraction there, powerful, magnetic, and Ling had found herself unable to refrain from making advances to the beautiful Anherabadi.
Advances which turned out to have been welcomed, attraction which had been mutual.
Ling had confessed to Li-Hwa immediately, but the Lady had laughed and told her it was no bad thing to “further closeness between our two polities”. Within the Federacy, Penyang and Anherabad were perhaps closer than any other two constituent entities.
Bodyguards who slept together would nonetheless be an embarrassment, so when Ling and Suren encountered each other eight months later they had done their utmost to be discreet. And they had been so each of the other half-dozen times their duties brought them together, on Hyderis Station, on Ii Lao, across Federacy space.
Sex within the Anherabad diplomatic quarters was hardly discreet (not to mention that three-way with Mary, but there had been alcohol involved). But Ling as ling walked she found her feet had brought her to those quarters, somewhat to her surprise, and Suren had been reading in their central chamber, with her hair down...
Now, she looked into Ling’s eyes with a gentle, familiar smile.
“My parents wanted to give me something distinctive,” Ling said. She reached up to brush long strands of wet blond from her shoulders. “There was a cultural current during my natal period for authenticity, whatever that means. Hygiene genes were as popular as ever, but almost no-one wanted babies that looked anything other than though they were born in the Song dynasty. My parents enjoyed being different. They almost went for blue or green eyes, too, but settled on just the Scandinavian-orig hair.”
“It’s gorgeous against your skin,” Suren said, and stroked her fingers through the lower patch of blond again.
“When I was at the academy I dyed it black. I guess I was ashamed of it. Later I realized how pretty it was and let it grow out again. Like I give a fuck what the Authentics think. As though they... you know, forget that. Forget it.”
Ling rolled forward and kissed Suren deeply. They had spoken about a more formal—Suren would say an actual—relationship, but both of them were too devoted to service to contemplate leaving for another world. So: no commitments or promises, just sex with a deeper level of sympathy.
The kiss lengthened, and shortly Ling found her mouth between Suren’s legs again; Suren had gone for depilation, and she was smooth and nude as slave shuu’s head.
Ling blinked. What an odd—disturbing—arousing—disturbing... but then Suren’s tongue pushed inside of her and pleasure stabbed upward and Ling let her mind release the momentary catch and lose itself in bliss. When the wave receded, she turned her face back down and lapped like a puppy.
“So,” Suren said.
“So.” Ling replied, slithering back into her dress.
“What is your theory?”
“My theory about what?”
Suren rolled over, sheet sliding off her breasts. “About why we are here. About what the Sthil want. What they are doing. This whole—” she waved her hand in a small circle “—this whole unpleasant situation we find ourselves in.”
Ling threw her hair back, reached up to imprison it in an elastic band. “I don’t know. The Sthil are boring us in these interminable meetings, they say they want peace so that they can fight some other enemy but who knows if they are telling the truth, and then...”
She sighed. “And then there are these... horrible brain implants that they have inflicted upon people. Possibly upon the whole population of Brisbane. A hundred thirty millions, mindslaves to their conquerors.”
Suren nodded. “And Navarre. To see her... so servile. Like an eager puppy. To the aliens that destroyed her world.”
Ling walked to the door. “Suren.”
“I’m glad you’re here.”
Suren smiled. “Thanks. I am happy as well that you are here. I had thought you would be. This sort of... challenging mission seemed to be in your area of interest.”
“Are you saying that you came because you thought I was coming?”
Instead of laughing, Suren’s face turned serious. “No. I came because I could not, not come. I needed to help, somehow. But it was... easier, thinking that you would be here.”
Hand still on the door, Ling paused. “Who is your negotiator? From the Sthil side?”
“Mahesh Tungustala. A trader, very wealthy. Was on Brisbane when it was attacked. Now... well.”
“Just so. We’re speaking with a former captain from the fleet, Penyang native. Xiao Shuu. Is Tungustala bald?”
“He is now. Xiao?”
They looked at each other for a moment. Then Ling’s arm pushed the door open.
“Good night, Suren.”
“Good night, Ling.”
LiShen entered the negotiation room first. Ling followed, turned crisply, stepped to the opposite side of the door, and snapped to attention.
The Sthil were already there; slave shuu—Captain Xiao—flanked by her male and female escorts. Neither of them were slave narasoring, and Ling realized that she still did not know either of their names. Neither had ever been introduced.
WuFei entered and pulled back the chair for Lady Li-Hwa, who silently seated herself and folded her hands atop one another on the table. WuFei took his place, removing the datapad and his recording cube from his case.
The woman pressed the button on the Sthil recording device, and the analogue tape within it began to swirl. Ling watched the play of light on the woman’s bare obedience lobe as she leaned forward, then sat back.
“It is a pleasure to see you once more, Lady Li-Hwa,” Captain Xiao said. “Also Ling and LiShen. You have our thanks for yester evening’s repast.”
“The pleasure was ours,” Li-Hwa replied. Ling wondered for a moment why Captain Xiao had left out WuFei, but then of course he had not been at the meal.
“Let us resume the elaboration of the informal opinions and statements regarding Penyang—Brisbane trade,” Captain Xiao said. “We left off yesterday with Professor Vedev’s commentary on the triangular Penyang—Brisbane—Run-Ha-Lan flow of goods and services—”
“If I may interrupt,” Lady Li-Hwa said in a quiet voice.
“Of course. What do you wish to say?”
“I would like to discuss the repatriation of Penyang citizenry present on Brisbane, and Draerun, at the time of the invasion.”
“You are of course welcome to suggest additions to the agenda. Allow me to observe that all such additions have been accepted, and i see no reason why this should be different. Do you wish to make a written proposal or shall we take the verbal proposal and append it to our discussion agenda in a fitting place on your behalf?”
Li-Hwa pursed her lips. “I would like to discuss the item now, if you please. We have discussed trade minutiae for many days now. Perhaps we could discuss something of more pressing concern to my people.”
“i am afraid, Lady, that this is not possible. we are operating under clear instructions and we will obey them. You are welcome to suggest additions to the agenda and those items will be discussed, but only after the matters of importance to my masters are dealt with.”
“Captain Xiao, there is nothing to deal with. You are reciting facts better dealt with in writing, to no obvious purpose.”
Ling blinked, surprised to hear her Lady speaking with such bluntness.
But Captain Xiao only smiled. “What you say is true, and also irrelevant. i have my instructions and i will obey them. And your people are here entirely on our sufferance, as supplicants, and thus you, also, will obey the will of my masters. i say to you, Lady Li-Hwa, we shall discuss the matter you have raised, but only after we have finished our trade discussion to my masters’ satisfaction. Do you understand?”
There was a moment’s quiet. Would Li-Hwa leave? Ling pictured her rising, gliding from the room, and then Ling and LiShen pivoting and following her out.
“I do not understand,” Li-Hwa said. “But it is as you say.”
“Yes, it is.” Captain Xiao blinked, her smile unwavering, and the smooth lobe lying atop her head seemed to flex. “i am not at liberty to deviate from my masters’ plans. Nor do i have any desire to do so. Discussion of the fate of Penyang citizenry present at the acquisition of Brisbane and Draerun will occur, and it will occur after the conclusion of the trade discussion. i will state to you now, however, that all such individuals have already become slaves. Communication with them will be freely allowed; they will inform any who ask that they are eagerly obedient to the will of their masters. As are we all.”
They had enslaved all humans, regardless of citizenry. Ling kept her face expressionless. She knew no one from her homeworld who had been on Brisbane or Draerun, but she knew many thousands had been. And did Captain Xiao just discuss the item despite her statement not to?
“Now,” the slave went on, “to return to the matter at hand. Professor Vedev observes in his paper of four years ago that the general trend of agricultural flows to Run-Ha-Lan is excepted by cereal grains and their derivatives, which observation itself is excepted by rice. As for soya...”
Ling sighed silently, and let her attention drift away.