No one noticed the rock.
And for a very good reason. The rock was nondescript, one of millions of chunks of rock and ice floating in the parabolic orbit of a long-dead short-period comet, looking just like any chunk of that deceased comet might. The rock was smaller than some, larger than others, but on a distribution scale there was nothing to distinguish it one way or another. On the almost unfathomably small chance that the rock was spotted by a planetary defense grid, a cursory examination would show the rock to be composed of silicates and some ores. Which is to say: a rock, not nearly large enough to cause any real damage.
This was an academic matter for the planet currently intersecting the path of the rock and several thousand of its brethren; it had no planetary defense grid. It did, however, have a gravity well, into which the rock fell, along with those many brethren. Together they would form a meteor shower, as so many chunks of ice and rock did each time the planet intersected the comet's orbit, once per planetary revolution. No intelligent creature stood on the surface of this bitterly cold planet, but if one had it could have looked up and seen the pretty streaks and smears of these little chunks of matter as they burned in the atmosphere, superheated by the friction of air against rock.
The vast majority of these newly minted meteors would vaporize in the atmosphere, their matter transmuted during their incandescent fall from a discrete and solid clump to a long smudge of microscopic particles. These would remain in the atmosphere indefinitely, until they became the nuclei of water droplets, and the sheer mass of the water dragged them to the ground as rain (or, more likely given the nature of the planet, snow).
This rock, however, had mass on its side. Chunks flew as the atmospheric pressure tore open hairline cracks in the rock's structure, the stress of plummeting through the thickening mat of gases exposing structural flaws and weaknesses and exploiting them violently. Fragments sheared off, sparkled brilliantly and momentarily and were consumed by the sky. And yet at the end of its journey through the atmosphere, enough remained to impact the planet surface, the flaming bolus smacking hard and fast onto a plain of rock that had been blown clean of ice and snow by high winds.
The impact vaporized the rock and a modest amount of the plain, excavating an equally modest crater. The rock plain, which extended for a significant distance on and below the planet surface, rang with the impact like a bell, harmonics pealing several octaves below the hearing range of most known intelligent species.
The ground trembled.
And in the distance, beneath the planet surface, someone finally noticed the rock.
"Quake," said Sharan. She didn't look up from her monitor.
Several moments later, another tremor followed.
"Quake," said Sharan.
Cainen looked over to his assistant from his own monitor. "Are you planning to do this every time?" he asked.
"I want to keep you informed of events as they happen," Sharan said.
"I appreciate the sentiment," Cainen said, "but you really don't have to mention it every single time. I am a scientist. I understand that when the ground moves we're experiencing a quake. Your first declaration was useful. By the fifth or sixth time, it gets monotonous."
Another rumble. "Quake," said Sharan. "That's number seven. Anyway, you're not a tectonicist. This is outside your many fields of expertise." Despite Sharan's typical deadpan delivery, the sarcasm was hard to miss.
If Cainen hadn't been sleeping with his assistant, he might have been irritated. As it was, he allowed himself to be tolerantly amused. "I don't recall you being a master tectonicist," he said.
"It's a hobby," said Sharan.
Cainen opened his mouth to respond and then the ground suddenly and violently launched itself up to meet him. It took a moment for Cainen to realize it wasn't the floor that jerked up to meet him, he'd been suddenly driven to the floor. He was now haphazardly sprawled on the tiles, along with about half the objects formerly positioned on his workstation. Cainen's work stool lay capsized a body length to the right, still teetering from the upheaval.
He looked over to Sharan, who was no longer looking at her monitor, in part because it lay shattered on the ground, near where Sharan herself was toppled.
"What was that?" Cainen asked.
"Quake?" Sharan suggested, somewhat hopefully, and then screamed as the lab bounced energetically around them again. Lighting and acoustic panels fell from the ceiling; both Cainen and Sharan struggled to crawl under workbenches. The world imploded around them for a while as they cowered under their tables.
Presently the shaking stopped. Cainen looked around in what flickering light still remained and saw the majority of his lab on the floor, including much of the ceiling and part of the walls. Usually the lab was filled with workers and Cainen's other assistants, but he and Sharan had come in late to finish up some sequencing. Most of his staff had been in the base barracks, probably asleep. Well, they were awake now.
A high, keening noise echoed down the hall leading to the lab.
"Do you hear that?" Sharan asked.
Cainen gave an affirmative head dip. "It's the siren for battle stations."
"We're under attack?" Sharan asked. "I thought this base was shielded."
"It is," Cainen said. "Or was. Supposed to be, anyway."
"Well, a fine job, I must say," Sharan said.
Now Cainen was irritated. "Nothing is perfect, Sharan," he said.
"Sorry," Sharan said, keying in on her boss's sudden irritation. Cainen grunted and then slid out from underneath his workbench and picked his way to a toppled-over storage locker. "Come help me with this," he said to Sharan. Between them they maneuvered the locker to where Cainen could shove open the locker door. Inside was a small projectile gun and a cartridge of projectiles.
"Where did you get this?" Sharan asked.
"This is a military base, Sharan," Cainen said. "They have weapons. I have two of these. One is here and one is back in the barracks. I thought they might be useful if something like this happened."
"We're not military," Sharan said.
"And I'm sure that will make a huge difference to whoever is attacking the base," Cainen said, and offered the gun to Sharan. "Take this."
"Don't give that to me," Sharan said. "I've never used one. You take it."
"Are you sure?" Cainen asked.
"I'm sure," Sharan said. "I'd just end up shooting myself in the leg."
"All right," Cainen said. He mounted the ammunition cartridge into the gun and slipped the gun into a coat pocket. "We should head to our barracks. Our people are there. If anything happens, we should be with them." Sharan mutely gave her assent. Her usual sarcastic persona was now entirely stripped away; she looked drained and frightened. Cainen gave her a quick squeeze.
"Come on, Sharan," he said. "We'll be all right. Let's just try to get to the barracks."
The two had begun to weave through the rubble in the hall when they heard the sublevel stairwell door slide open. Cainen peered through the dust and low light to make out two large forms coming through the door. Cainen began to backtrack toward the lab; Sharan, who had the same thought rather faster than her boss, had already made it to the lab doorway. The only other way off the floor was the elevator, which lay past the stairwell. They were trapped. Cainen patted his coat pocket as he retreated; he didn't have all that much more experience with a gun than Sharan and was not at all confident that he'd be able to hit even one target at a distance, much less two, each presumably a trained soldier.
"Administrator Cainen," said one of the forms.
"What?" Cainen said, in spite of himself, and immediately regretted giving himself away.
"Administrator Cainen," said the form again. "We've come to retrieve you. You're not safe here." The form walked forward into a splay of light and resolved itself into Aten Randt, one of the base commandants. Cainen finally recognized him by the clan design on his carapace and his insignia. Aten Randt was an Eneshan, and Cainen was vaguely ashamed to admit that even after all this time at the base, they all still looked alike to him.
"Who is attacking us?" Cainen asked. "How did they find the base?"
"We're not sure who is attacking us or why," Aten Randt said. The clicking of his mouthpieces was translated into recognizable speech by a small device that hung from his neck. Aten Randt could understand Cainen without the device, but needed it to speak with him. "The bombardment came from orbit and we've only now targeted their landing craft." Aten Randt advanced on Cainen; Cainen tried not to flinch. Despite their time here and their relatively good working relationship, he was still nervous around the massive insectoid race. "Administrator Cainen, you cannot be found here. We need to get you away from here before the base is invaded."
"All right," Cainen said. He motioned Sharan forward to come with him.
"Not her," Aten Randt said. "Only you."
Cainen stopped. "She's my aide. I need her," he said.
The base shook from another bombardment. Cainen felt himself slam into a wall and collapsed to the ground. As he fell he noted that neither Aten Randt nor the other Eneshan soldier had moved so much as a fraction from their position.
"This is not an appropriate time to debate the issue, Administrator," Aten Randt said. The flat affect of the translation device gave the comment an unintentionally sardonic quality.
Cainen began to protest again, but Sharan gently took hold of his arm. "Cainen. He's right," she said. "You need to get out of here. It's bad enough any of us are here. But you being found here would be a very bad thing."
"I won't leave you here," Cainen said.
"Cainen," Sharan said, and pointed at Aten Randt, who was standing by, impassive. "He's one of the highest-ranking military officers here. We're under attack. They're not going to send someone like him on a trivial errand. And now is not the time to argue anyway. So go. I'll find my way back to the barracks. We've been here a while, you know. I remember how to get there."
Cainen stared at Sharan for a minute and then pointed past Aten Randt to the other Eneshan soldier. "You," he said. "Escort her back to her barracks."
"I need him with me, Administrator," Aten Randt said.
"You can handle me by yourself," Cainen said. "And if she doesn't get the escort from him, she'll get the escort from me."
Aten Randt covered his translation device and motioned the soldier over. They leaned in close and clacked at each other quietlynot that it mattered, as Cainen didn't understand Eneshan language. Then the two separated and the soldier went to stand by Sharan.
"He will take her to her barracks," Aten Randt said. "But there is to be no more argument from you. We have wasted too much time already. Come with me now, Administrator." He reached out, grabbed Cainen by the arm and pulled him toward the stairwell door. Cainen glanced back to see Sharan staring up fearfully at the immense Eneshan soldier. This final image of his assistant and lover disappeared as Aten Randt shoved him through the doorway.
"That hurt," Cainen said.
"Quiet," Aten Randt said, and pushed Cainen forward on the stairs. They began to climb, the Eneshan's surprisingly short and delicate lower appendages matching Cainen's own stride up the steps. "It took far too long to find you and too long to get you moving. Why were you not in your barracks?"
"We were finishing up some work," Cainen said. "It's not as if we have much else to do around here. Where are we going now?"
"Up," Aten Randt said. "There is an underground service railroad we need to get to."
Cainen stopped for a moment and looked back at Aten Randt, who despite being several steps below him was nearly at the same height. "That goes to hydroponics," Cainen said. Cainen, Sharan and other members of his staff would go to the base's immense underground hydroponics bay on occasion for the greenery; the planet's surface was not exactly inviting unless hypothermia was something you enjoyed. Hydroponics was the closest you could get to being outside.
"Hydroponics is in a natural cave," Aten Randt said, prodding Cainen back into motion. "An underground river lies beyond it, in a sealed area. It flows into an undergound lake. There is a small living module hidden there that will hold you."
"You never told me about this before," Cainen said.
"We did not expect the need to tell you," Aten Randt said.
"Am I swimming there?" Cainen asked.
"There is a small submersible," Aten Randt said. "It will be cramped, even for you. But it has already been programmed with the location of the module."
"And how long will I be staying there?"
"Let us hope no time at all," Aten Randt said. "Because the alternative will be a very long time indeed. Two more flights, Administrator."
The two stopped at the door two flights up, as Cainen attempted to catch his breath and Aten Randt clicked his mouthpieces into his communicator. The noise of battle several stories above them filtered down through the stone of the ground and the concrete of the walls. "They've reached the base but we're holding them on the surface for now," Aten Randt said to Cainen, lowering his communicator. "They haven't reached this level. We may still get you to safety. Follow close behind me, Administrator. Don't fall behind. Do you understand me?"
"I understand," said Cainen.
"Then let's go," Aten Randt said. He hoisted his rather impressive weapon, opened the door, and strode out into the hall. As Aten Randt began moving, Cainen saw the Eneshan's lower appendages extend as an additional leg articulation emerged from inside his carapace. It was a sprinting mechanism that gave Eneshans terrifying speed and agility in battle situations and reminded Cainen of any number of creepy-crawlies from his childhood. He repressed a shiver of revulsion and raced to keep up, stumbling more than once in the debris-strewn hallway, heading all too slowly for the small rail station on the other side of the level.
Cainen panted up as Aten Randt was examining the controls of the small rail engine, whose passenger compartment was open to the air. He had already disconnected the engine from the railcars behind it. "I told you to keep up," Aten Randt said.
"Some of us are old, and can't double the length of our legs," Cainen said, and pointed to the rail engine. "Do I get on that?"
"We should walk," Aten Randt said, and Cainen's legs began to cramp preemptively. "But I don't think you'll be able to keep pace the entire distance, and we're running out of time. We'll have to risk using this. Get on." Cainen gratefully climbed into the passenger area, which was roomy, built as it was for two Enesha. Aten Randt eased the little engine to its full speedabout twice an Eneshan's sprinting pace, which seemed uncomfortably fast in the cramped tunneland then turned around and raised his weapon again, scanning the tunnel behind them for targets.
"What happens to me if the base is overrun?" Cainen asked.
"You'll be safe in the living module," Aten Randt said.
"Yes, but if the base is overrun, who will come to get me?" Cainen asked. "I can't stay in that module forever, and I won't know how to get back out. No matter how well-prepared this module of yours is, it will eventually run out of supplies. Not to mention air."
"The module has the ability to extract dissolved oxygen from the water," Aten Randt said. "You won't suffocate."
"Wonderful. But that still leaves starvation," said Cainen.
"The lake has an outlet" Aten Randt began, and that was as far as he got before the engine derailed with a sudden jerk. The roar of the collapsing tunnel drowned out all other noise; Cainen and Aten Randt found themselves briefly airborne as they were hurled from the passenger area of the rail engine into the sudden, dusty darkness.
Cainen found himself being prodded awake an indeterminate time later by Aten Randt. "Wake up, Administrator," Aten Randt said.
"I can't see anything," Cainen said. Aten Randt responded by shining a beam from the lamp attached to his weapon. "Thanks," Cainen said.
"Are you all right?" Aten Randt asked.
"I'm fine," Cainen said. "If at all possible I'd like to get through the rest of the day without hitting the ground again." Aten Randt clicked in assent and swept his beam away, to look at the rock falls that had them closed in. Cainen started to get up, slipping a bit on the rubble.
Aten Randt swung the light beam back to Cainen. "Stay there, Administrator," Aten Randt said. "You'll be safer." The light beam dipped to the rails. "Those may still have current in them." The light beam trailed off again, back to the caved-in walls of their new holding pen. Whether by accident or design, the bombardment that struck the rail line had securely closed in Cainen and Aten Randt; there were no openings in the wall of rubble. Cainen noted to himself that suffocation had once again become a real consideration. Aten Randt continued his examination of their new perimeter and occasionally tried his communicator, which seemed not to be working. Cainen settled in and tried not to breathe too deeply.
Some time later Aten Randt, who had given up his examination and cast them both into darkness while he rested, flicked his light back on, toward the wall of rubble closest to the base.
"What is it?" Cainen asked.
"Be quiet," Aten Randt said, and moved closer to the wall of rubble, as if trying to hear something. A few moments later, Cainen heard it too: noise that could have been voices, but not of anyone local, or friendly. Shortly thereafter came the blasting noises. Whoever was on the other side of the wall of rubble had decided they were coming in.
Aten Randt moved back from the wall of rubble at speed and came up on Cainen, weapon raised, blinding him with the light beam. "I'm sorry, Administrator," Aten Randt said, and that was when it dawned on Cainen that Aten Randt's orders to get him to safety probably only went so far. On instinct more than thought Cainen twisted away from the light beam; the bullet intended for his center mass instead went into his arm, spinning him around and slamming him into the ground. Cainen struggled to his knees and caught his shadow splayed before him as Aten Randt's light beam fell on his back.
"Wait," Cainen said, to his shadow. "Not in the back. I know what you have to do. Just not in the back. Please."
There was a moment, punctuated by the sounds of rubble blasting. "Turn around, Administrator," Aten Randt said.
Cainen turned, slowly, scraping his knees on the rubble and putting his hands in his coat pockets, as if they were manacles. Aten Randt sighted in; given the luxury of picking his shot he leveled his weapon at Cainen's brain.
"Are you ready, Administrator?" Aten Randt said.
"I am," Cainen said, and shot Aten Randt with the gun in his coat pocket, aiming up into the light beam.
Cainen's shot coincided with a blast from other side of the rubble wall. Aten Randt didn't appear to realize he had been shot until blood began flowing out of the wound in his carapace; the wound was barely visible to Cainen through the light. Cainen saw Aten Randt look down at the wound, stare at it for a moment, and then back at Cainen, confused. By this time Cainen had the gun out of his pocket. He fired at Aten Randt three more times, emptying his projectile cartridge into the Eneshan. Aten Randt leaned forward slightly on his front legs and then fell back an equal amount, the bulk of his large body settling on the ground with each of his legs splayed out at angles.
"Sorry," Cainen said, to the new corpse.
The space filled with dust and then light as the rubble wall was breached, and creatures bearing lights on their weapons flowed through. One of them spotted Cainen and barked; suddenly several light beams were trained on him. Cainen dropped his gun, raised his good arm in surrender and stepped away from Aten Randt's body. Shooting Aten Randt to keep himself alive wouldn't do him much good if these invaders decided to blow holes in him. Through the light beams one of the invaders came forward, jabbering something in its language, and Cainen finally got a look at the species he was dealing with.
His training as a xenobiologist kicked in as he ticked off the particulars of the species phenotype: Bilaterally symmetrical and bipedal, and as a consequence with differentiated limbs for arms and legs; their knees bent the wrong way. Roughly the same size and body plan, which was unsurprising as an inordinately large number of so-called intelligent species were bipedal, bilaterally symmetrical and roughly similarly sized in volume and mass. It was one of the things that made interspecies relationships in this part of the universe as contentious as they were. So many similar intelligent species, so little usable real estate for all their needs.
But now the differences emerge, thought Cainen, as the creature barked at him again: A broader torso and abdominal plain, and a generally awkward skeletal structure and musculature. Stump-like feet; club-like hands. Outwardly obvious sexual differentiation (this one in front of him was female, if he remembered correctly). Compromised sensory input thanks to only two small optical and aural inputs rather than the optical and aural bands that wrapped nearly entirely around Cainen's head. Fine keratinous fibers on the head rather than heat-radiating skin folds. Not for the first time, Cainen reflected that evolution didn't do this particular species any great favors, physically speaking.
It just made them aggressive, dangerous and damned hard to scrape off a planet surface. A problem, that.
The creature in front of Cainen jabbered at him again and pulled out a short, nasty-looking object. Cainen looked directly into the creature's optical inputs.
"Fucking humans," he said.
The creature swiped him with the object; Cainen felt a jolt, saw a multicolored dance of light and fell to the ground for the last time that day.
"Do you remember who I am?" the human at the table said, as Cainen was led to the room. His captors had provided him with a stool that accommodated his (to them) backwards-facing knees. The human spoke and the translation came out of a speaker on the table. The only other object on the table was a syringe, filled with a clear fluid.
"You are the soldier who knocked me unconscious," Cainen said. The speaker did not give a translation of his words, suggesting that the soldier had another translation device somewhere.
"That's right," the human said. "I am Lieutenant Jane Sagan." She motioned at the stool. "Please sit."
Cainen sat. "It was not necessary to knock me unconscious," he said. "I would have come willingly."
"We had our reasons for wanting you unconscious," Sagan said. She motioned to his injured arm, where Aten Randt's bullet had struck him. "How is your arm?" she asked.
"It feels fine," said Cainen.
"We weren't able to fix it entirely," Sagan said. "Our medical technology can rapidly heal most of our injuries, but you are Rraey, not human. Our technologies don't map precisely. But we did what we could."
"Thank you," Cainen said.
"I assume you were shot by the Eneshan we found you with," Sagan said. "The one you shot."
"Yes," Cainen said.
"I'm curious as to why you two engaged in a firefight," Sagan said.
"He was going to kill me, and I didn't want to die," said Cainen.
"This begs the question of why this Eneshan wanted you dead," Sagan said.
"I was his prisoner," Cainen said. "I suppose his orders were to kill me rather than to allow me to be taken alive."
"You were his prisoner," Sagan repeated. "And yet you had a weapon."
"I found it," Cainen said.
"Really," Sagan said. "That's poor security on the part of the Enesha. That's not like them."
"We all make mistakes," Cainen said.
"And all the other Rraey we found in the base?" Sagan asked. "They were prisoners as well?"
"They were," Cainen said, and felt a wave of concern for Sharan and the rest of his staff.
"How was it that you all came to be prisoners of the Eneshans?" Sagan asked.
"We were on a Rraey ship that was taking us to one of our colonies for a medical rotation," Cainen said. "The Eneshans attacked our ship. They boarded us and took my crew prisoner and sent us here."
"How long ago was this?" Sagan asked.
"Some time ago," Cainen said. "I'm not exactly sure. We're on Eneshan military time here, and I'm unfamiliar with their units. And then there's the local planetary rotational period, which is fast and makes things more confusing. And I am also unfamiliar with human time divisions, so I can't describe it accurately."
"Our intelligence does not have any record of the Eneshans attacking a Rraey vessel in the last yearthat would be about two-thirds of a hked for you," Sagan said, using the Rraey term for a full orbit of the home world around its sun.
"Perhaps your intelligence is not as good as you think," Cainen said.
"It's possible," Sagan said. "However, given that the Eneshans and the Rraey are still technically in a state of war, an attacked ship should have been noted. Your two peoples have fought over less."
"I can't tell you any more about it than what I know," Cainen said. "We were taken off the ship and to the base. What happened or didn't happen outside of the base in all this time is not a subject I know much about."
"You were being held prisoner at the base," Sagan said.
"Yes," Cainen said.
"We've been all through the base, and there's only a small detention area," Sagan said. "There's nothing to suggest you were locked up."
Cainen gave the Rraey equivalent of a rueful chuckle. "If you've seen the base you've also no doubt seen the surface of the planet," he said. "If any of us tried to escape we'd freeze before we got very far. Not to mention that there's nowhere to go."
"How do you know that?" Sagan said.
"The Eneshans told us," Cainen said. "And none of my crew planned an excursion to test the proposition."
"So you know nothing else of the planet," Sagan said.
"Sometimes it's cold, other times it is colder," Cainen said. "That is the depth of my knowledge of the planet."
"You're a doctor," Sagan said.
"I'm not familiar with that term," Cainen said, and pointed at the speaker. "Your machine is not smart enough to give an equivalent in my language."
"You're a medical professional. You do medicine," Sagan said.
"I am," Cainen said. "I specialize in genetics. That is why my staff and I were on that ship. One of our colonies was experiencing a plague that was affecting gene sequencing and cell division. We were sent to investigate and hopefully find a cure. I'm sure if you've been through the base you've seen our equipment. Our captors were kind enough to give us space for a lab."
"Why would they do that?" Sagan asked.
"Perhaps they thought if we kept busy with our own projects we would be easier to handle," Cainen said. "If so, it worked, because as a rule we kept to ourselves and tried not to make any trouble."
"Except for when you were stealing weapons, that is," Sagan said.
"I had them for some time, so apparently I didn't arouse their suspicions," Cainen said.
"The weapon you used was designed for a Rraey," Sagan said. "An odd thing for an Eneshan military base."
"They must have taken it from our ship as they boarded," Cainen said. "I'm sure as you search the base you'll find a number of other Rraey-designed items."
"So, to recap," Sagan said. "You and your crew of medical personnel were taken by the Eneshans an indeterminate time ago and brought here, where you've been prisoners and out of communication with any of your people. You don't know where you are or what plans the Enesha have for you."
"That's right," Cainen said. "Other than that I suppose they didn't want anyone to know I was there once the base was invaded, because one of them tried to kill me."
"That's true," Sagan said. "You fared better than your crew, I'm afraid."
"I don't know what you mean," Cainen said.
"You're the only Rraey that we found alive," Sagan said. "The rest had been shot and killed by the Eneshans. Most of them were in what appeared to be barracks. We found another near what I imagine was your lab, since it had quite a bit of Rraey technology in it."
Cainen felt sick. "You're lying," he said.
"I'm afraid not," Sagan said.
"You humans killed them," Cainen said, angrily.
"The Eneshans tried to kill you," Sagan said. "Why wouldn't they kill the other members of your crew?"
"I don't believe you," Cainen said.
"I understand why you wouldn't," Sagan said. "It's still the truth."
Cainen sat there, grieving. Sagan gave him time.
"All right," Cainen said, eventually. "Tell me what you want from me."
"For starters, Administrator Cainen," Sagan said, "we'd like the truth."
It took a moment for Cainen to realize this was the first time the human had addressed him by his name. And title. "I've been telling you the truth," he said.
"Bullshit," Sagan said.
Cainen pointed to the speaker again. "I only got a partial translation of that," he said.
"You are Administrator Cainen Suen Su," Sagan said. "And while it's true enough that you have some medical training, your two primary areas of study are xenobiology and semi-organic neural net defense systemstwo areas of study that I would imagine mesh together well."
Cainen said nothing. Sagan continued. "Now, Administrator Cainen, let me tell you a little of what we know. Fifteen months ago the Rraey and the Eneshans were fighting the same off-and-on war they'd been fighting for thirty years, a war that we encouraged since it kept the two of you out of our hair."
"Not entirely," Cainen said. "There was the Battle of Coral."
"Yes, there was," Sagan said. "I was there. I almost died."
"I lost a brother there," Cainen said. "My youngest. Perhaps you met him."
"Perhaps I did," Sagan said. "Fifteen months ago the Rraey and the Enesha were enemies. And then suddenly they were not, for no reason that our intelligence could figure out."
"We've already discussed the shortcomings of your intelligence," Cainen said. "Races stop warring all the time. After Coral, we and you stopped fighting."
"We stopped fighting because we beat you. You retreated and we rebuilt Coral," Sagan said. "Which is the pointthere is a reason we stopped fighting, at least for now. You and the Enesha don't have a reason. That worries us.
"Three months ago the spy satellite we parked above this planet noticed that for an allegedly uninhabited world, it had suddenly begun to receive a lot of traffic, both Eneshan and Rraey. What makes this especially interesting to us is that this planet is claimed neither by the Enesha or the Rraey, but by the Obin. The Obin don't mix, Administrator, and they are strong enough that neither the Enesha nor the Rraey would think lightly about setting up shop in their territory.
"So we placed a more advanced spy satellite above the planet to look for signs of habitation. We came up with nothing. As a defense specialist, Administrator, would you like to hazard a guess as to why?"
"I would imagine the base was shielded," Cainen said.
"It was," Sagan said. "And as it happens, by the very sort of defense system you specialize in. We didn't know that at the time, of course, but we know it now."
"How did you find the base if it was shielded?" Cainen asked. "I am curious, in a professional sense."
"We dropped rocks," Sagan said.
"Excuse me?" Cainen asked.
"Rocks," Sagan said. "A month ago we salted the planet with several dozen seismic sensors, which were programmed to look for seismic signatures that suggested intelligently designed underground structures. Speaking from experience, secret bases are easier to shield when they're underground. We relied on the planet's natural seismic activity to narrow down areas to investigate. Then we dropped rocks in areas of interest. And then today we dropped several right before our attack, to get an exact sonic image of the base. Rocks are good because they look like naturally occurring meteors. They don't scare anyone. And no one shields against seismic imaging. Most races are too busy shielding against optical and high-energy electromagnetic scans to consider sound waves much of a danger. It's the fallacy of high technology; it ignores the efficiency of lower orders of technology. Like dropping rocks."
"Leave it to humans to bang rocks together," Cainen said.
Sagan shrugged. "We don't mind when the other guy brings a gun to a knife fight," she said. "It just makes it easier for us to cut out his heart. Or whatever it is that he uses to pump blood. Your overconfidence works for us. As you can see because you are here. But what we really want to know, Administrator, is why you are here. Eneshans and Rraey working together is puzzling enough, but Eneshans and Rraey and Obin? That's not just puzzling. That's interesting."
"I don't know anything about who owns this planet," Cainen said.
"And what's even more interesting is you, Administrator Cainen," Sagan said, ignoring Cainen's comment. "While you were sleeping we did a gene scan on you to tell us who you are, then we accessed ship's records to learn a little of your history. We know one of your primary areas of xenobiological interest is humans. You're probably the Rraey's leading authority on human genetics. And we know you've also got a particular interest in how human brains work."
"It's part of my overall interest in neural nets," Cainen said. "I'm not particularly interested in human brains, as you say. All brains are interesting in their way."
"If you say so," Sagan said. "But whatever it was you were doing down there, it was important enough that the Eneshans would rather see you and your crew dead than in our hands."
"I told you," Cainen said. "We were their prisoners."
Sagan rolled her eyes. "For a minute, let's pretend we're both not stupid, Administrator Cainen," she said.
Cainen moved forward, leaning closer to Sagan from across the table. "What kind of human are you?" he asked.
"What do you mean?" Sagan said.
"We know there are three kinds of human," Cainen said, and held up his fingers, so much longer and more articulated than human fingers, to count off the variations. "There are the unmodified humans, who are the ones who colonize planets. Those come in varying shapes and sizes and colorsgood genetic diversity there. The second group is the largest part of your soldier caste. These also vary in size and shape, but to a far lesser extent, and they're all the same color: green. We know that these soldiers aren't in their original bodiestheir consciousness is transferred from bodies of older members of your species to these stronger, healthier bodies. These bodies are extensively genetically altered, so much that they can't breed, either between themselves or with unmodified humans. But they're still recognizably human, particularly the brain matter.
"But the third group," Cainen said, and leaned back. "We hear stories, Lieutenant Sagan."
"What do you hear?" Sagan said.
"That they are created from the dead," Cainen said. "That the human germ plasm of the dead is mixed and remixed with the genetics of other species to see what will arise. That some of them don't even resemble humans, as they recognize themselves. That they are born as adults, with skills and ability, but no memory. And not only no memory. No self. No morality. No restraint. No" He paused, as if looking for the right word. "No humanity," he said, finally. "As you would put it. Child warriors, in grown bodies. Abominations. Monsters. Tools your Colonial Union uses for the missions they can not or will not offer to soldiers who have life experience and a moral self, or who might fear for their soul in this world or the next."
"A scientist concerned about souls," Sagan said. "That's not very pragmatic."
"I am a scientist, but I am also Rraey," Cainen said. "I know I have a soul, and I tend to it. Do you have a soul, Lieutenant Sagan?"
"Not that I know of, Administrator Cainen," Sagan said. "They are hard to quantify."
"So you are the third kind of human," Cainen said.
"I am," Sagan said.
"Built from the flesh of the dead," Cainen said.
"From her genes," Sagan said. "Not her flesh."
"Genes build the flesh, Lieutenant. Genes dream the flesh, wherein the soul resides," Cainen said.
"Now you're a poet," Sagan said.
"I'm quoting," Cainen said. "One of our philosophers. Who was also a scientist. You wouldn't know her. May I ask how old you are?"
"I'm seven, almost eight," Sagan said. "About four and a half of your hked."
"So young," Cainen said. "Rraey of your age have barely started their educations. I'm more than ten times your age, Lieutenant."
"And yet, here we both are," Sagan said.
"Here we are," Cainen agreed. "I wish we had met under other circumstances, Lieutenant. I would very much like to study you."
"I don't know how to respond to that," Sagan said. "'Thank you' doesn't seem appropriate, considering what being studied by you would probably mean."
"You could be kept alive," Cainen said.
"Oh, joy," Sagan said. "But you might get your wish, after a fashion. You must know by now that you are a prisonerfor real this time, and you will be for the rest of your life."
"I figured that out when you started telling me things I could report back to my government," Cainen said. "Like the rock trick. Although I assumed you were going to kill me."
"We humans are a pragmatic people, Administrator Cainen," Sagan said. "You have knowledge we can use, and if you were willing to be cooperative, there's no reason you couldn't continue your study of human genetics and brains. Just for us instead of for the Rraey."
"All I would have to do is betray my people," Cainen said.
"There is that," Sagan allowed.
"I think I would rather die first," Cainen said.
"With all due respect, Administrator, if you truly believed that, you probably wouldn't have shot that Eneshan who was trying to kill you earlier today," Sagan said. "I think you want to live."
"You may be right," Cainen said. "But whether you are right or not, child, I am done talking to you now. I've told you everything I'm going to tell you of my own free will."
Sagan smiled at Cainen. "Administrator, do you know what humans and Rraey have in common?"
"We have a number of things in common," Cainen said. "Pick one."
"Genetics," Sagan said. "I don't need to tell you that human genetic sequencing and Rraey genetic sequencing are substantially different in the details. But on the macro level we share certain similarities, including the fact that we receive one set of genes from one parent and the other from the other. Two-parent sexual reproduction."
"Standard sexual reproduction among sexually reproducing species," Cainen said. "Some species need three or even four parents, but not many. It's too inefficient."
"No doubt," Sagan said. "Administrator, have you heard of Fronig's Syndrome?"
"It's a rare genetic disease among the Rraey," Cainen said. "Very rare."
"From what I understand of it, the disease is caused because of deficiencies in two unrelated gene sets," Sagan said. "One gene set regulates the development of nerve cells, and specifically of an electrically-insulating sheath around them. The second gene set regulates the organ that produces the Rraey analog for what humans call lymph. It does some of the same things, and does other things differently. In humans lymph is somewhat electrically conductive, but in the Rraey this liquid is electrically insulating. From what we know of Rraey physiology this electrically insulating quality of your lymph usually serves no particular benefit or detriment, just as the electrically conductive nature of human lymph is neither a plus or minusit's just there."
"Yes," Cainen said.
"But for Rraey who are unlucky enough to have two broken nerve development genes, this electrical insulation is beneficial," Sagan said. "This fluid bathes the interstitial area surrounding Rraey cells, including nerve cells. This keeps the nerve's electrical signals from going astray. What's interesting about Rraey lymph is that its composition is controlled hormonally, and that a slight change in the hormonal signal will change it from electrically insulating to electrically conductive. Again, for most Rraey, this is neither here nor there. But for those who code for exposed nerve cells"
"it causes seizures and convulsions and then death as their nerve signals leak out into their bodies," Cainen said. "Its fatality is why it's so rare. Individuals who code for electrically-conductive lymph and exposed nerves die during gestation, usually after the cells first begin to differentiate and the syndrome manifests."
"But there's also adult onset Fronig's," Sagan said. "The genes code to change the hormonal signal later, in early adulthood. Which is late enough for reproduction to happen and the gene to be passed on. But it also takes two faulty genes to be expressed."
"Yes, of course," Cainen said. "That's another reason why Fronig's is so rare; it's not often that an individual will receive two sets of faulty nerve genes and two sets of genes that cause later-life hormonal changes in their lymph organ. Tell me where this is going."
"Administrator, the genetic sample from you when you came on board shows that you code for faulty nerves," Sagan said.
"But I don't code for hormonal changes," Cainen said. "Otherwise I'd be dead already. Fronig's expresses in early adulthood."
"This is true," Sagan said. "But one can also induce hormonal changes by killing off certain cell bundles within the Rraey lymph organ. Kill off enough of the bundles that generate the correct hormone, and you can still produce lymph. It will simply have different properties. Fatal properties, in your case. One can do it chemically."
Cainen's attention was drawn to the syringe that had been lying on the table through the entire conversation. "And that's the chemical that can do it, I suppose," Cainen said.
"That's the antidote," Sagan said.
Jane Sagan found Administrator Cainen Suen Su admirable in his way; he didn't crack easily. He suffered through several hours as his lymphatic organ gradually replaced the lymph in his body with the new, altered fluid, twitching and seizing as concentrations of the electrically-conductive lymph triggered nerve misfires randomly through his body, and the overall conductivity of his entire system heightened with each passing minute. If he hadn't cracked when he did, it was very likely that he wouldn't have been able to tell them that he wanted to talk.
But crack he did, and begged for the antidote. In the end, he wanted to live. Sagan administered the antidote herself (not really an antidote, as those dead cell bundles were dead forever; he'd have to receive daily shots of the stuff for the rest of his life). As the antidote coursed through Cainen's body, Sagan learned of a brewing war against humanity, and a blueprint for the subjugation and eradication of her entire species. A genocide planned in great detail, based on the heretofore unheard of cooperation of three races.
And one human.
Copyright © 2006 by John Scalzi