[Editor’s Note: Read the whole story from the beginning!]
The next morning, after a night of fitful dreams, Lozlian sat bolt upright at the sound of his alarm, not sure at first that he was safely home. It wasn’t until he heard the sound of rain spattering against his bedroom windows in a familiar pit-a-pat rhythm, that he regained his composure.
Still too young for his elders’ morning stiffness, he walked groggily into his shower room, determined to get the smells of city nightlife out of his pelt. He adjusted the water and, before stepping in, dug at his itchy scalp with both hands — only to find a small, red data cube nestled in the fur at the top of his head.
Startled, he backed out of his shower room, dried his hands and studied the foreign object closely. Though his technical training had been strictly practical, he recognized the data cube’s configuration as human. Had the human street performer buried it in his fur during their theatrical hug? He shuffled into his home office, where a light gray, trapezoidal, all-purpose data reader sat next to a black state-of-the-art quantum tablet and a bevy of other standard office equipment on his metallic workstation. He took a deep breath and popped the data cube into the reader’s receptacle, which was specially adapted to accept a variety of physical formats.
The filtered voice that Lozlian heard when he pressed PLAY sounded exactly like the street performer Humsecta from the night before.
“Pay attention,” said the voice. “You need to hear this.”
Perplexed, Lozlian listened as the speaker laid out a detailed analysis of the political climate. According to him, the Kroleni’s benign reign was facing a serious challenge from the warlike Chyloradrin. That’s why they were so eager to accommodate the humans. If Erwan Duval’s star drive proved itself, it would give the Kroleni a critical edge. Yet the star drive’s promise wasn’t confined to increased speed. It could also be the basis of a deadly new weapon.
Instead of hurling torpedoes or blasting the enemy with particle weapons, an offshoot of the star drive could engulf an enemy ship in a pocket of attenuated space-time. Completely disabled, its crew suffocating, the target vessel would drift in space until the Kroleni recycled it.
“But here’s the kicker,” said the voice. “The new weapon would kill us all.”
If used over a decade or more, the percentage of space-time damaged would grow exponentially. And once the Kroleni’s competitors developed their own version of the weapon it would cause environmental disaster on a scale that dwarfed anything sentient life had seen before.
By now, Lozlian’s mounting anxiety was compounded by the fact that he was way behind schedule. With barely enough time left, he paused the data cube, rushed through his morning rituals and hurried off to the station mere seconds before his usual high-speed train was about to glide out of its moorings. Inside the subdued ambiance of his train car’s lavender interior, he tried to sort through the conflicting accounts he’d heard in the town square and on his data reader. He was astonished to see how many strange ideas had surfaced about the human star drive in such a short time.
Between the menacing Chitinist who had accosted him the night before, and the data cube’s disturbing promise of impending disaster, he wasn’t sure what to believe. Were the Kroleni about to embark on an aggressive campaign of territorial expansion, or were they the deluded pawns of the Chyloradrin and their human servants?
Instinctively, he hesitated to buy into either of these extreme views. Now that he’d had a few minutes to settle down, he realized he had no idea which was closer to the truth. Or was it all propaganda? Stranger still, was why either side was so anxious to approach a low-level civil servant?
Has to be because of the hooms, he decided.
One way or another, Duval’s arrival had set off a firestorm of political maneuvering. Lozlian vowed to reserve judgment until he could assess the situation on his own. Yet how, he wondered, would he do that? It wasn’t as if he were a trained detective.
By now, the commuter train was pulling into his station stop and Lozlian’s first thought was to rush to the nearest exit door. But not wishing to create the impression that he was “on to something,” he strolled out as nonchalantly as he had the morning before.
Yet as he exited the maglev station and reached street level, its calm ordinariness felt positively surreal. How was it possible for the outside world to appear so normal when, inside, his heart and mind were in swirling disarray? Regardless, it was time to focus. Even if he could see himself as a player in a grand political game, he couldn’t afford to lose his insider status — not to mention his livelihood. What if, after so much excited chatter, the events of last night and this morning amounted to no more than the wishful thinking of a few overheated radicals?
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With those thoughts competing for control of his mind, Lozlian entered his office floor to the usual cascade of ritualized morning pleasantries, including a soulful look from one of the females who managed the front desk. Was this, he wondered, how a female might one day look at him when he was mated? For better or worse, her attention was still lost on him. He simply breezed past the dark, hardwood reception desk and hurried to his workstation, located in a secluded, windowless alcove.
The placid color-scheme of the office, a combination of eggshell white, sky blue and medium brown, which was usually quite soothing, failed to work its magic. Instead, nearly breathless, he switched on his standard-issue Kroleni quantum tablet, an object his ancestors could never have imagined. As he waited for it to boot up, he thought back to the time when, at five years old, his grandmother had taken him to visit the village shaman for advice. Only two years after that, the Kroleni had arrived, to utterly transform his world and his worldview. Would that shaman from his old village have the wisdom to help him parse the humans’ true intentions?
But it was a foolish thought. Yonopcry village life was gone forever, not least because the shamans had bravely mounted a defiant resistance against the invaders — and been systematically undermined. Those who weren’t executed were spirited off to a remote “religious conference,” from which most never returned. The few survivors who did eventually come home were affectless husks, their minds blunted by incurable drug addiction.
No, he decided, he was on his own, all the more so when he saw the official communiqué he’d received overnight from his immediate supervisor, Phaldisran. It read in part:
In the past rote you were seen speaking to a known Chitinist and to interact with a member of a rogue human cell, known for spreading seditious conspiracy theories.
I must caution you, my boy, against associating with such fringe personalities. You are off to a good start in life, on the verge of Omah-Drunan, and I would hate to see your bright prospects snuffed out by reckless behavior.
It is especially important that you understand the delicacy of the situation, given the special assignment entrusted to you by Councilmember Achimlemoor. Trusting to the good nature you have shown me, I have decided for now not to mention last night’s incident to her. Nevertheless, I need your firm promise that it was an isolated moment of indiscretion, which I am even prepared to consider may have been accidental.
Now, regarding your mission, know that the human Elizabeth Duval will contact you soon to arrange a first meeting. I know you will give her your full cooperation. To reassure you, I have explained our customs clearly, to avoid any embarrassment on your part, should certain topics form part of her inquiry into Yonopcry culture.
Go forth, Regional Liaison Lozlian and make the Department proud….
Lozlian sank back in his flexible, mesh office chair and fought to dampen his rage. In an office full of telepaths, any strong emotion would soon spill over into the minds of his co-workers and cause a serious commotion. But how could Phaldisran be so quick to assume the worst? Lozlian took a deep breath. Most likely, a colleague, jockeying for position in a busy administration, had seen the young Yonopcry in the town square and jumped at the chance to put him at a disadvantage. For his part, Phaldisran was simply covering his bets to avoid being accused of inaction if there were trouble later.
It was, however, a classic case of being both a hundred percent right and a hundred percent wrong. No matter how justified, neither hurt feelings nor righteous indignation would help him weather office politics, let alone interstellar intrigue. If only he could see to the bottom of it. What did each of the players hope to achieve? And what part would he be expected to play? Given his restless state of mind, it was probably for the best that his comlink chimed in at that moment. Shoulders tense, he read the ID tag that scrolled across the comlink’s bright, 2-D screen:
There was nothing for it but to answer and plunge deeper into the mystery that threatened to drag him either into a fiery pit of recrimination, or elevate him to the heights of heroism. Or maybe, he reflected, these recent incidents, as disturbing as they were, would amount to nothing.
“Ms. Duval,” he said into his comlink, “How nice to….”
“Think you can meet me in a few blinks?” said Elizabeth. “I’m sending you’re the coordinates now. See you there. Must dash.”
As before, the human’s fluty voice was at once irritating and oddly irresistible. Regardless, he’d received his marching orders in the strongest possible terms. To be on the safe side, he sent out an automated confirmation notice. After shutting down his office equipment, he retraced his steps down to the street. With luck, a hover taxi was waiting at the stand, right outside his building. He jumped in, gave the coordinates to the AI and leaned back against the car’s comfortable tan seat cushions. After the disturbing note from Phaldisran, any excuse to be free of his office was a blessing. As the car sped on, he felt his thoughts settle down. Finally, his taxi came to rest in front of the low-rise, stodgy human consulate building where Elizabeth had asked to meet him.
What, he wondered, did she want to “study” about the Yonopcry? Was her interest purely biological or, if the humans were really in league with the Chyloradrin, would she actually try to ferret out his species’ vulnerabilities? After being announced and following a rapid ride in a state-of-the-art maglev lift, the lift doors opened onto a spacious laboratory, decorated in multiple shades of white. At its center was Elizabeth, seated on a high stool, bound and gagged and surrounded by three insectoids, one of whom looked familiar. Lozlian’s shock made him blurt out the obvious.
“Chitinists!” he said.
Just as surprising were the “food service” uniforms worn by the three conspiratorial insectoids
“Oh, very astute,” said Ralshinatrioor. “You’ll go far … only not in the direction you expected. ”
Frantic, Lozlian turned this way and that in a vain search for some kind of weapon that he could use against Elizabeth’s captors. Though he was hardly a trained fighter, as a Yonopcry, he had a natural weight and strength advantage over the spindly insectoids.
But any thought of heroism drained from his mind as a dark red, heavy gauge Kroleni servicebot with powerful, articulated limbs, pinned Lozlian’s arms to his back while a smaller, more delicate model stuck a hypodermic needle into his neck. The room went dark, his mind blank, his body limp and he fell to the consulate’s lush, carpeted floor with a luxurious thump.
“Idiot,” said Ralshinatinoor. “Come on now. Get these two into the transport.”
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Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.