Judgment at Proteus
By Timothy Zahn
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2012 Timothy Zahn
All rights reserved.
The Filiaelian facing me was a bit bigger than most of those of his species, a couple of centimeters taller than I was and about ten kilos heavier. There was a sheen of sweat on his long, horse-like face, and the dark eyes boring out at me had a deadly earnest expression to them.
The expression, and the face, shook briefly as the hand gripping my throat slammed my head and back hard against the display window of my first-class Quadrail compartment.
From my right came a muffled gasp, and my eyes flicked in that direction. Bayta, my companion and partner in this quiet war I'd joined nearly two years ago, was standing across the room watching us, her eyes wide, one hand gripping the edge of the partially open divider that separated the halves of our double compartment.
I shifted my attention back to the long Filly face bare centimeters from my own. Logra Emikai had once been a cop, genetically engineered for loyalty to the rulers of his species. He had probably also been engineered for strength, agility, and God only knew what else.
The hand around my throat tightened a little. "Well, Mr. Compton?" he asked softly.
His other hand was wrapped around my right biceps, effectively putting that arm out of action. But I still had my left. Nodding my head forward, pressing my chin hard against the top of his hand, I cocked my left arm at my hip and drove a short jab into his upper arm just above the elbow.
Abruptly, the pressure on my throat went slack. I grabbed Emikai's half-paralyzed hand, twisted it hard at the wrist, and swiveled on my left foot to bend the arm over, forcing him to bow forward at the waist. "Well, Logra Emikai?" I countered.
"Better," Emikai said approvingly. "Much better."
"Thanks," I said, letting go of his hand. "I take it I hit the nerve junction properly that time?"
"Indeed," he confirmed as he straightened up, massaging his right upper arm where I'd hit it and shaking his right hand where my chin had pressed into another sensitive spot. "But you should free your right arm from my left before attempting to turn me over. Otherwise I might pull you over with me."
"Yes, but it might also give you enough time to get your balance back," I pointed out. "Anyway, if this had been a real fight, I'd have followed up with a kick to your torso." I snapped a short kick to the area around his heart, stopping my foot a couple of centimeters short of his body. "Right about there."
"Yes, that would put a normal opponent into the dust," Emikai agreed. "But bear in mind that a professional fighter might have had his heart sac strengthened against such attacks."
I grimaced. He was right, of course. A Filly pro might boast a strengthened heart sac, some extra bone in his fists, and enhanced brow ridges to protect his eyes, and might even have gone to the effort to have his more vulnerable nerve junctions surgically moved to entirely different locations. With the Filiaelian passion for genetic manipulation, a Filly with sufficient money and patience could remake himself into almost anything he or his doctor could imagine.
Which was precisely why we were in this mess to begin with.
I turned to Bayta. "How did it look?" I asked.
"Painful," she said, her eyes smoldering as she looked at Emikai. In her opinion — which she hadn't been at all shy about sharing with me over the past few days — our sparring sessions were way more realistic than they needed to be. Certainly more realistic than she liked.
"Pure illusion," I assured her. Actually, my various bruises and strained muscles were in full agreement with her. But once upon a time I'd been a Western Alliance Intelligence agent, and Emikai and I both knew that the only way to learn hand-to-hand combat techniques was by actually practicing them. "Do we have time for one more?" I asked her.
"I don't think so," she said, a little too quickly.
"How long do we have?" I asked.
Her lip twitched. She really did hate these sessions. "Forty-five minutes."
"So plenty of time." I turned back to Emikai. "I want you to try the throat lock you put me in back on the super-express train." I turned my back on him. "I think I've come up with a counter."
His right arm snaked around my neck, his left arm linking with it, his left hand pushing my head forward against the forearm already pressed against my throat. His left foot slapped lightly against the back of my left knee, just hard enough to break my balance and send me to my knees on the floor. He followed me down, maintaining his grip, leaning forward and half over my shoulder.
That was how it had worked the last time he'd pulled this move on me. This time, I had something new to bring to the table. My knees had barely hit the floor when I threw myself forward, pulling Emikai off balance and tumbling over on top of me. As my chest hit the floor I rolled onto my left side, bringing my right elbow up into a shark-fin angle.
And as he belatedly let go of my neck in an effort to break his fall, his torso slammed onto my extended elbow.
In a real fight I would have kept the elbow extended, letting its impact send a shock wave through his heart sac and hopefully ending the fight right there. In this case, since Emikai wasn't an actual enemy and I furthermore didn't want to lug his twitching carcass all the way back to third class, I let my arm fold back down again, with the result that instead of bouncing off my elbow in agony he merely landed full length on top of me.
Fortunately, his extended arms took most of his weight, with the result that we both merely oofed in unison instead of having the air knocked out of us. "Impressive," he said, rolling off and standing up again. "Aside from the obvious difficulty that if it succeeds you'll be trapped beneath your opponent."
"True," I agreed, getting to my feet and massaging my throat where he'd been gripping it. Maybe Bayta was right about Emikai being a bit on the enthusiastic side. "Given that the alternative is to be comfortable but dead, it seems worthwhile."
"A definite point." He paused, tilting his head thoughtfully to the side. "Since we speak of death, what do you intend to tell the director and santras of Proteus Station about Asantra Muzzfor? They will want answers." He eyed me closely. "More complete answers, I hope, than those you have given to me."
"What an odd question," I said, hiding my mild surprise. It had been over four weeks since Muzzfor died his violent death aboard the super-express Quadrail traveling from the other end of the galaxy, and nearly two weeks since Emikai and I had begun these occasional sparring sessions. Not once in all that time had the Filly asked me for details on exactly how Muzzfor had died.
Now, with our train forty minutes from journey's end, he was suddenly bringing up the subject? "I intend to tell them the truth, of course."
"Good," he said as he retrieved his tunic from where he'd laid it on my bed. "The director and santras would not take well to being lied to. By you, or by anyone else they choose to question."
"That anyone else being you?"
"I am a former enforcement officer, and was aboard the train where Asantra Muzzfor died," he said. "That makes me a logical person to question."
"Only since you didn't actually witness the event, most of what you can tell them will be hearsay," I reminded him.
"That, plus my trained assessment of the other persons involved."
I inclined my head to him. "Hence, the exercise sessions?"
His cream-colored nose blaze didn't lighten or darken, the usual Filly indicators of sudden emotional change. Emikai already knew or suspected that I knew or suspected his reason for suggesting these little playdates. "Yes," he said without apology or embarrassment.
"And what do you intend to tell them?"
For a moment he eyed me in silence. "You have purpose about you, Mr. Compton," he said. "But I do not yet know what that purpose is. You have honor about you, as well, but I do not yet know to which person or ideals that honor attaches." His eyes took on a sudden intensity. "And you have knowledge, but I do not believe you intend to give that knowledge to the director and santras."
"An intriguing analysis," I said, trying to keep my voice casual. Damned if he hadn't hit it squarely on the head. "But I do intend to tell them the truth."
"I will look forward to hearing it," he said, finishing with his tunic and wrapping his belt and belt bag in place. "I go to prepare the others for departure. Until then, farewell."
"Farewell," I said. He stepped to the door, tapped the release, and disappeared into the corridor.
I crossed to the door and locked it behind him. "You aren't really going to tell them the truth, are you?" Bayta asked.
"Of course not," I said. "Come on, let's finish packing." Our train pulled into the Ilat Dumar Covrey station exactly on time, which was the way things always worked with the Quadrail system. The Spiders, creatures encased in metal globes carried around on seven spindly legs, kept the trains running perfectly as they facilitated the transfer of passengers, cargo, and information across the galaxy with a calm and understated efficiency.
And as Bayta and I headed across the platform, making our way past Fillies, Shorshians, and assorted other non-Humans, I thought about truth.
It was something everyone wanted, or at least said they did. Emikai wanted it, the director and santras aboard Proteus Station wanted it, and most of the people we were passing here in the station probably thought they wanted it, too.
But did they?
Did they really want to know about the Modhri, the group mind that had started out based in exotic Modhran coral and was now also embedded in thousands, perhaps even millions, of unsuspecting beings? Did they want to know that any of their friends might have a Modhran polyp colony inside him or her, linked telepathically to all the other nearby colonies and coral outposts to form a group-mind segment? Did they want to know that that same friend's words or actions might actually be inspired by subtle suggestions whispered to him or her by that mind segment?
Did they want to know that the Modhri was determined to take over the galaxy by turning more and more people into his walkers? Especially the people who were his current walkers' closest friends and associates?
Probably not. Most Humans hated hearing bad news or uncomfortable truths, and I doubted any of the non-Human species of the Twelve Empires were much better at it than we were. They wouldn't really want to know that the Modhri was nothing less than a sentient weapon, created by a group of master-race types called the Shonkla-raa, who had finally been defeated and destroyed sixteen hundred years ago by a coalition of their conquered peoples.
That was the truth Bayta and I had been living with for the past couple of years as we, the Spiders, and the Chahwyn, who controlled the Spiders from their hidden world of Viccai, fought a quiet war against the Modhri's plans for galactic conquest. And considering how outnumbered we were, that truth had been bad enough.
Four weeks ago, as Bayta and I traveled aboard the super-express from the Human end of the galaxy, the truth had suddenly gotten a whole lot worse.
Because the Shonkla-raa hadn't been their own individual species, as the Chahwyn had thought, but merely a genetic variant of the Filiaelians. Someone had apparently figured that out, and had also figured out how to re-create that variant.
And that same someone was currently working on his very own master-race breeding program.
The late Asantra Muzzfor had been the first of that group that Bayta and I had tangled with, and it had been purely by the grace of God and some unexpected help that we'd survived the encounter. It was from papers Muzzfor had left behind that we'd learned the center of this new Shonkla-raa operation was somewhere inside Proteus Station, a huge beehive of Filiaelian genetic manipulation and a shining example of Filiaelian diplomatic glory and finesse.
The place Bayta and I were currently headed for.
Emikai was waiting near the shuttle bays with the other two members of our party when Bayta and I joined them. "About time," Terese German growled as we came up. "What did you do, stop off for a drink?"
I eyed her, a dozen possible sarcastic rejoinders flashing through my mind. Terese was a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old Human girl — I'd never pinned down her actual age — of the type I usually thought of as a mystery wrapped up inside an enigma wrapped up inside of herself. In this particular case, there was also an outer layer of imported porcupine skin, with the extra-long-quill option. About all I really knew about her was that she'd been assaulted on Earth, that she was pregnant as a result of that attack, and that Muzzfor had pulled some backstage strings to get her aboard the Quadrail and out here to the Filiaelian Assembly.
The why of it all, though, still eluded us. I couldn't wait to get hold of the hidden nuggets of truth in that one. "Our apologies," I said.
She sniffed. "Are we finally ready, then?"
Once again, I resisted the urge to say something sarcastic, and merely gestured toward the shuttle hatchway behind her. She spun on her heel and stalked away, her two small carrybags rolling along behind her. Taking a long step, Emikai settled into place beside her as a good protector should.
"You must forgive her," a soft voice said from my side.
I turned to look at the speaker. Dr. Aronobal was an older Filly, with a graying brown blaze along her long nose and an air of fatigue about her that had grown more pronounced in the two weeks since we'd left the super-express and started wending our way across Shorshian territory into Filiaelian space. "She has been under increasing stress these past few days."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said, studying the good doctor closely. Tired she might be, but her eyes were clear enough, and I had no doubt that her mind was, too. I didn't know what her role was in this little drama, but I had a feeling it wouldn't be wise to underestimate her. "Any particular reason why?"
"Perhaps merely the additional tension of reaching the journey's end," Aronobal said. "Or perhaps the uncertainty of her future."
"Surely it must be the former," I protested mildly. "Now that we're here, I'm sure your colleagues will take good care of her."
"My colleagues?" Aronobal shook her head. "You misunderstand, Mr. Compton. The doctors and genetic surgeons of Kuzyatru Station are not my colleagues. Logra Emikai and I merely agreed to assist them by looking after Ms. German on her journey here."
"Ah," I said, nodding. And if I believed that, I thought cynically, she undoubtedly had some prime Gobi cropland to sell me. "In that case, we'd better make sure she doesn't lose us."
I took Bayta's arm and headed off after the girl, studying the station around us as we walked, my eyes and mind alert for the slow-moving loiterers or casual conversational clumps that might indicate a Modhran mind segment on sentry duty.
If we'd taken this trip a few months ago I might not have bothered. The Chahwyn, who'd been studying the Modhri a lot longer than I had, had assured me that the Filiaelian Assembly was the only one of the Twelve Empires that the Modhri hadn't yet penetrated. The reasoning had seemed solid enough at the time: with the widespread Filly obsession for genetic experimentation, it was hard to see how a group of relatively huge coral polyps could slip through the laser-grid pre-testing required in all genetic restructuring procedures without being spotted. And since the Modhri's best hope for victory was to remain below everyone's radar as long as possible, it followed that he would avoid Fillies, especially the rich upper-class Fillies who would normally be his prime target.
Unfortunately, that comforting logic had gone out the window three months ago on the Human colony world of New Tigris. There, Bayta and I had tangled with no fewer than six santra-class Filly walkers whom the Modhri had clearly had no qualms about taking over. Backtracking those Fillies and finding out what the Modhri was up to out here had been the original reason for our trip to Ilat Dumar Covrey, before Muzzfor and his unexpected revelation had even come up.
And given that we now knew there were Shonkla-raa at Proteus as well, it followed immediately that they would have someone keeping a close watch on the local Quadrail station.
Only as far as I could tell, they didn't. None of the hurrying passengers gave us more than the quick glance one would normally expect between perfect strangers, none of the people poring over schedules or maps looked up as we passed, and there were no head jerks or widened eyes of recognition as the Modhri spotted his two most notorious enemies. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Judgment at Proteus by Timothy Zahn. Copyright © 2012 Timothy Zahn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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