Missions to new civilizations (at least, new to you) can be fraught with danger, and there’s too many opportunities to accidentally offend those who could be new friends. Be careful that what they value night not be the same as what you value. Most of all, be truthful.
Simiyu flicked out her tongue, tasting the air. Grimacing at the cloying damp, she sorted through the layers of alien scents, reassured that she could at least differentiate between animal and plant. Monstrous trees ringed the small clearing, leaving a ragged patch of blue sky above their heads. Their shuttle had landed at the designated co-ordinates in the forest domain of the Sha Family and their wolves.
‘I thought this was supposed to be their hot season,’ she muttered, sealing the neck of her fleece-lined all-in-one.
Jasi gave a non-committal grunt as he dragged their crate of equipment down the shuttle’s cargo ramp. It joined their backpacks and the box of gifts recommended by the cultural liaison officer. Jasi stood, batting away a cloud of buzzing insects with one webbed hand. The small-framed Siofran looked quite at home in the clammy atmosphere of this backwater planet.
‘I can’t wait to meet the wolf pack,’ he said. ‘If everything I’ve heard about them is true, their level of intelligence is way beyond anything previously observed in pack-based predators.’
Jasi was the xenoanthropologist. As far as he was aware, studying the wolves and their supposed bond with the Sha Family was the sole reason for this scientific expedition. As a young researcher, at the start of a very promising career, he provided the perfect cover for Simiyu’s true mission.
Humming to himself, Jasi shrugged into his backpack. With an irritated sigh, Simiyu did the same, squinting up at the planet’s pale sun. She felt sluggish and ill at ease. Ghyllach should have been an easy ‘conquer by assimilation’ target –– but no, to the negotiation team’s shock and surprise, the ruling Lyenar Families possessed unique telepathic and telekinetic abilities. You could say they saw ‘the con’ a light-year out. They were an itch that the Calestis Coalition couldn’t help but scratch.
She turned on one heel, sampling the air currents as she scanned the edge of the clearing. There was a warm body lurking in the shadows beyond the tree line. The silver torc around her throat would protect her mind from any telepathic snooping — at least that was what the Coalition’s Exec had promised. During their descent from orbit, Jasi had expressed doubts about the effectiveness of such a device, although it hadn’t stopped him snapping a torc around his own neck before they landed.
A figure stepped into the clearing — by its scent, male. Simiyu tilted her head and blinked, inner and outer eyelids clearing her vision in the too damp air: copper skin, grey hair bound into two plaits, simple vest-top and trousers in camouflage greens and browns, belt knives the only obvious weapons. It all matched what she’d been briefed to expect.
The figure hesitated, eyes wide as he looked from one to the other, and then pressed his palm to his chest. ‘Welcome.’ He shook his head, as if in chagrin. ‘My apologies. We were shown images, but reality has a way of taking you by surprise. I am Tam. I have been sent to guide you to our camp.’
His grasp of Lesti was impressive. Granted, all citizens of the Calestis Coalition were expected to be proficient in the core language, but this planet was still only an affiliate member. She found judging the age of soft-skins a challenge — this one did not have the Diamond nose-stud of a Sha adult. Simiyu felt her neck ridges spike at the insult. Where was their promised leader?
Jasi let out a gasp as a wolf loped into the clearing. It was an impressive beast, thickly muscled and tall enough at the shoulder that its jaws were level with her hips. It stared at them with baleful amber eyes. Simiyu glared back.
‘This is Badu, my Shadow,’ Tam said.
Jasi stepped towards the Sha youth, palm pressed to his chest. ‘Jasi Mar, Research Officer. I’m very pleased to meet you and your… and Badu.’
Simiyu bit back her instinctive challenge and pressed her own scaled hand to her chest, ‘Simiyu Keone, leader of this scientific mission. I… we look forward to working with you and your tribe.’
Tam inclined his head. ‘Thank you for the gift of your names. Please, follow me.’
And with that, he turned and vanished into the shadows between the trees.
Jasi set the box of gifts on the uneven, grassy ground of their campsite. Pulling in a deep breath, he sighed contentedly. Nothing like the rich, salt-sharp climate of home, but much better than the dry, recycled air aboard ship. Simiyu didn’t look happy. This climate was the opposite of the dry, desert heat that had shaped her species. The Chraenid had been a surprising replacement for Professor Karan-Min, a respected leader in the field of xenoanthropology, who had fallen ill a couple of days before they were due to leave for Ghyllach. Jasi’s good mood evaporated. Simiyu had snapped ‘diplomatic lead’ at him when he’d dared to enquire about her role in the mission. Coalition diplomacy, as all member-planets knew, could be a very painful process.
The Sha’s camp filled half the clearing, with woven mats spread around several fires; one domed tent nestled in the lee of a huge tree. A young woman stepped forward to meet them, copper-skinned, long ash-grey hair woven into the traditional two plaits. She was dressed in a similar fashion to Tam, the only addition a heavily embroidered scarf wrapped around neck and shoulders. If she’d been Siofran, he’d say she was in her early thirties, but it was hard to be sure, the Lyenar boasted an unusually long lifespan.
The telepaths of Ghyllach were not the planet’s only unique resource. The initial survey team had discovered a new type of crystalline material that had Coalition scientists salivating in anticipation of major technological breakthroughs. Each of the five ruling Families controlled a different variant of the crystal. The nearest translation for what the Sha called theirs was ‘Diamonds’.
The woman’s crystal nose-stud flickered with its own internal light. The Diamond was pea-sized and surrounded by a complex, glittering tattoo that covered half of the woman’s face. It patterned cheek and chin, curling around her right eye.
‘Welcome to our camp, Simiyu Keone and Jasi Mar,’ she said in a soft, lilting voice. ‘I am Vaylo, Mother to this tribe.’
The Sha Family was split into several nomadic tribes, each having a matriarch as leader. That, and their close relationship with wolves, was the extent of the Coalition’s knowledge, and formed a key driver in Jasi’s research proposal.
Simiyu stepped forward and gestured to the smaller crate, ‘Please accept these gifts as a token of our gratitude and respect.’
Vaylo frowned. ‘Now is not the proper time. Tam will show you to your fire. We will call you when all is ready.’
The giving of gifts was an integral part of the Welcome Feast. Professor Karan-Min would have known that.
‘Thank you.’ Jasi pressed his palm to his chest as a sign of respect. ‘We look forward to it.’
‘Forgive the absence of my Shadow,’ Vaylo said. ‘She is caring for her cubs.’
Jasi swallowed nervously. Had the woman read his mind? He’d been wondering why her wolf was not by her side.
He summoned up a smile. ‘Did you say cubs? That’s wonderful news. I hope all are well?’
‘Yes, all are fit and healthy.’ Vaylo smiled, real warmth in her words. ‘I thank you for your concern.’
Tam waved a hand. ‘Come. Your fire is close by.’
And that’s exactly what it was: a small fire, bounded by a ring of smooth stones. Two colourful woven mats were spread on the ground close by. Jasi knew there had been some resistance from the Sha to their visit. He hoped this cool reception wasn’t a foretaste of difficult relations to come. Any data he collected on the relationship between Sha and wolf depended on full co-operation and honest answers to his questions.
Tam pointed out the pile of dry branches meant for replenishing the fire and then sauntered off. His wolf gazed at them for a long moment, nose testing the air, before slinking into the shadows.
Jasi sighed and cracked open their crate of equipment. ‘Might as well get our tents set up.’
Twilight draped the clearing by the time they were called to the feast. Simiyu leaned as close as she could to the much larger group fire, its heat a balm to her frayed temper. She’d left Jasi, with his skinny arms and fumbling webbed fingers, to carry the box of gifts. He hadn’t complained. In fact, the Siofran seemed to be enjoying himself.
She watched as he smiled and greeted the three Sha gathered around the fire, before taking his place next to her on the woven mat. Vaylo sat opposite, with Tam on her right and a much older man to her left. The older man also wore a Diamond nose-stud and had that peculiar glittering tattoo stamped across one side of his face. His design was different to that of the woman. Indicative of rank, perhaps?
Tam was staring. Simiyu stretched her neck, displaying the blue-green sheen of her status ridges. Let them all look. They should feel honoured that someone from her Chraenid clan — one of the most powerful within the Coalition — was present in their squalid camp. There was a flick of silver in the old man’s eyes. Simiyu realised with a jolt that the three Sha were probably discussing their guests, silently, mind-to-mind.
‘This is Olan,’ Vaylo said, indicating the older man. ‘An elder of the tribe.’
Simiyu gave the man a respectful nod and opened the box of gifts. Inside were small carvings of animals and birds. ‘These represent some of the diverse wildlife that thrives across the Coalition planets, and these,’ she pulled out a handful of paper sachets, ‘are spices and herbs favoured by many of our citizens.’
Vaylo exclaimed in delight as she turned the wooden carvings over and over in her hands. ‘A thoughtful gift and much welcomed. I look forward to learning the stories of each of these creatures.’
Jasi beamed at her. ‘It would be my honour to tell those stories.’
Olan sniffed at some of the sachets, sneezed mightily, but seemed satisfied.
Only Tam looked unimpressed, until he spotted… ‘A wolf,’ he exclaimed. ‘You have wolves out there?’ He glanced up at the darkening sky.
‘Yes, but none are as intelligent as yours,’ Jasi said.
That earned the Siofran a smile.
‘As guests at our feast, be assured that the privacy of your thoughts is sacrosanct. May the Gate Keepers hold our Promise,’ Vaylo declared.
‘May the Gate Keepers hold our Promise,’ repeated Tam and the old man.
Jasi cleared his throat. ‘We hear your Promise and offer ours in return.’ His olive skin flushed a shade darker. ‘Well, not that we could… I mean, we’re not…’
The rote response clearly didn’t make sense in this situation, but the cultural liaison officer had insisted they mimic the local customs precisely.
Vaylo’s stiff posture softened. ‘We accept your Promise in spirit, if not in fact. Now, let us eat.’
A couple of youths brought around bowls of a clear liquid, which turned out to be fresh water. Simiyu watched as Jasi took a sip, almost choked on his mistake, and then copied the gathered Sha as they washed their hands. She grudgingly followed suit, rinsing off some of the oil she had spent the last hour working into her scales.
The first course consisted of large wooden bowls full of… leaves? Different colours, shapes and sizes and all smelling vile. Simiyu picked one long purple leaf and a couple of green ones and placed them in her bowl. The number of courses and the quality of food served at a Welcome Feast was, according to the experts, directly correlated to the level of acceptance and trust offered to the guests.
This wasn’t a promising start.
Jasi selected a handful of leaves, asking questions about each one before munching enthusiastically and making approving noises. Simiyu listened to the considered responses given to each of the Siofran’s questions. Speculation suggested the telepathic abilities of the Lyenar allowed the large-scale dissemination of information. But this, along with many other hypotheses, remained untested.
‘You have quiet minds,’ Vaylo said unexpectedly.
Simiyu put down the leaf she’d been nibbling, unsure how to respond. The Coalition’s Exec hadn’t known whether the telepaths would notice the effects of the torc — unless, of course, Vaylo had been trying to probe her mind and been foiled in the attempt? The promises given before the feast were just formulaic posturing, not something to be trusted.
‘So, they work?’ Jasi said. He sounded surprised. ‘They were supposed to ––’
‘Quieten our minds, yes,’ Simiyu interjected. ‘We understand that the “noise” generated by the minds of non-telepaths can be quite unpleasant.’
‘Screechers,’ Tam said with a grin. ‘That’s what we call them.’ He tapped his temple. ‘Can give you a serious headache.’
That was ironic. The subliminal hum of the torc had, over the past few hours, generated a thumping ache at the base of Simiyu’s skull. Another detail the Exec had failed to mention.
Vaylo raised an eyebrow. ‘A useful device. You have our thanks. It is a relief not to have to continually shield our minds.’
There was nodded agreement around the group, and the atmosphere thawed considerably. Simiyu realised that they were genuinely grateful. An unexpected result, but one that she might be able to use to her advantage. Four of the five ruling Families were actively engaged in negotiations, willing to trade their lower grade crystals for Coalition goods. But not the Sha –– they had a nomadic, back-to-nature lifestyle, and claimed to have no need for anything off-world.
‘Perhaps you would be interested in a trade? We could supply you with as many of these torcs as you need,’ Simiyu said.
‘And what would you expect in return?’ Olan asked. His voice was surprisingly deep considering his age.
Before she could reply, the youths were back with bowls full of unusual, multi-legged shapes. When Jasi frowned, hand hesitating over the bowl, Tam spoke up.
‘The roasted giant spiders are my favourite –– lots to crunch and great if you love hot spices. The caterpillars are only lightly toasted, so they’re much juicier. Or you might prefer the fried termites.’ He gave Jasi an encouraging grin. ‘I can eat those by the handful.’
‘You can eat most things by the handful,’ Vaylo teased.
‘He’s a growing boy,’ Olan chuckled.
‘Yes, well… maybe I’ll try…’ Jasi picked out something grub-like and popped it in his mouth. He chewed frantically, eyes watering.
Simiyu did not have time to enjoy his discomfort. A youth was at her elbow, offering her the bowl. Flicking out her tongue, she tasted the air and smiled. This was more like it. She helped herself to a cluster of the giant, roasted spiders and happily bit off their legs, before crunching through their fat bodies.
‘You were speaking of trade?’ Vaylo prompted.
Simiyu swallowed, licking her lips. ‘Yes, indeed. We can provide the torcs and any other useful goods you might need in return for a small quantity of your low-grade Diamonds.’
A shocked silence descended. Jasi stared at her accusingly.
After a moment, Vaylo said stiffly, ‘Our Diamonds are part of this world. They are rooted here, with us.’
‘I did not mean your precious alphas,’ Simiyu said in hasty reassurance. None of the Families would give up the best of their stock. The initial survey team had caused a major scandal when an alpha crystal had been destroyed in an alleged illegal mining operation. ‘But perhaps just a handful of your zetas?’
Full dark had fallen. It was difficult to judge Vaylo’s expression in the crackling flare of the fire. But the uncompromising tone of her voice was clear enough.
‘Our zetas are an integral part of our life. Their light guides our spirits through the dark places and offers hope to those who are lost.’
Simiyu clamped her jaw tight. Once they got into the religious beliefs surrounding the crystals, things could quickly turn sour. The Sha had a reputation for being devout. Olan threw a fistful of what looked like pebbles into the air. They hovered above the group, just out of reach, and then began to glow. The light brightened, white and pure, until it cast long shadows behind each seated figure.
‘Amazing.’ Jasi stared up, mouth open. ‘Those are zetas?’
Simiyu fought the urge to leap to her feet and snatch one of the crystals out of the air. It would be more than foolish. She needed them to agree to trade with the Coalition. Or failing that, leave them with no option.
Helping herself to another roasted spider, Simiyu dredged up a smile. ‘Perhaps there are other items to trade? These spiders would be a real treat back on my home planet.’
The two youths serving food had retreated to the larger cook-fire. Tense minutes passed. Simiyu waited, hoping she had not pushed the Sha too far.
‘Never mind trade. I want to hear about the new cubs,’ Jasi said. ‘Was it a big litter? How old are they?’
Vaylo’s attention switched to the Siofran, drinking in the man’s obvious interest and enthusiasm. ‘Three strong cubs, all male,’ she smiled, ‘though they take their colouring from their mother.’
A moment later, the two youths reappeared, this time weighed down by sizzling trays, which they placed by the fire. The fare was strips of seared meat, oozing blood. Tam leaned in and snatched up a couple of strips and was swiftly followed by the others, loading their bowls.
Simiyu blinked in surprise. Back home, the youngest took the scraps, not the choice cuts.
‘Better be quick,’ Olan mumbled as he chewed.
Simiyu helped herself to the last blood-smeared strip as the youths retrieved the trays. Jasi looked around, crestfallen.
‘Don’t worry. There is plenty more where that came from,’ Tam said.
More trays laden with meat were soon arrayed around the fire, the fat still spitting, ready to burn unwary fingers. Soon, the talk was all of wolves and cubs and hunting. Simiyu watched and listened, her gaze drifting up to the floating zetas now and again. She wondered which of the Sha were using their telekinesis to keep the crystals up there? Edging closer to the fire, she reached inside her jacket and activated the pre-set wideband recording function of her handheld. The presence and activity of so many zetas would provide useful data.
Olan shuffled closer to her. ‘I saw how much you enjoyed the spiders. This forest has an abundance of insect life that your people might be interested in.’
‘And what could we offer in return?’
‘Those packs of yours look sturdy.’ He nodded to himself. ‘And those little tents popped up in seconds. They could prove useful in the winter.’
Jasi only just managed to keep a smile on his face. All that talk about Diamonds and trade! Simiyu had come close to alienating the Sha. It had been hard enough getting permission to come. If she got them sent back, they would never get another chance like this. He was here to study a unique relationship between humanoid and wolf — one that would advance research in the field and land him, with a bit of luck, a post in a prestigious university.
He watched with avid attention as Tam interacted with his wolf. The old man’s wolf, his ‘Shadow,’ Jasi corrected himself, was guarding the perimeter. Only Badu haunted the fire, pacing the circle, pausing to watch Tam chew his way through yet another strip of meat.
‘You made a kill last night,’ Tam said to the fire.
The wolf snorted, gaze fixed on Tam’s hand as he hooked another sizzling strip.
‘And it’s hot. I’m not lying awake all night listening to you whine because you’ve burnt your tongue.’
Olan laughed and said, ‘Try this off-worlder. He’s not such a glutton.’
Jasi froze, hand halfway to his mouth, as the wolf turned its amber gaze on him. The old man had not pointed him out, or indicated in anyway who he’d meant, and yet the wolf had understood. Sweating under that unswerving stare, Jasi blew on the strip of meat and then offered it up.
‘It’s… it’s not too hot,’ he stammered.
‘Throw it, or Badu might just take a finger as well,’ Vaylo said.
And so he did, rather awkwardly. The wolf snapped the treat out of the air and then sidled closer. Jasi spent the next ten minutes assiduously cooling down strips of meat and tossing them to the wolf.
‘I think you’ve lost your Shadow. At least at mealtimes,’ Olan said.
Tam scowled. Vaylo laughed.
Simiyu seemed oblivious, gazing up at the zetas drifting above them. Just like the way Jasi used to stare up at the stars, lying on the deck of his father’s boat, wondering what life was like on those bright sparks so very far away.
Suddenly, Badu turned and loped off into the dark. ‘It’s about time he did some work,’ Tam said. ‘We need another pair of eyes out on patrol. We aren’t the only predators in the forest.’
That was an odd way to phrase it. Direct association with the wolf pack? Jasi stifled a yawn. He wanted to get back to his tent and record his notes before he got too tired. The youths reappeared with yet another set of trays, this time laden with fruit. To his surprise, Tam pulled a face and asked to be excused.
‘We have guests,’ Vaylo said. Her tone was even and reasonable, but Tam flinched.
What else had she said that they couldn’t hear?
Reluctantly, Tam reached for a round, red fruit and bit into it. That seemed to be the signal for Vaylo and then the old man to make their selection. Youngest to oldest? Quickly, Jasi picked up a slice of something orange—he was younger than Simiyu and so should go next –– it was a lot stickier than he expected. Simiyu’s tongue flicked out and she helped herself to a slice of the sticky fruit with surprising enthusiasm.
Jasi took an experimental bite. The fruit was syrup sweet and so soft it almost fell to pieces in his hand. And then something crunched between his teeth. Seeds? He looked more closely. The fruit was dotted with round, black…
‘Beetle eggs,’ Vaylo said, watching his confusion. ‘You need to serve the fruit just before they hatch.’
Jasi choked and Simiyu thumped him on the back.
‘A fine tradition,’ Simiyu said. ‘One that I will take home and introduce on my family’s farm.’
With an effort, Jasi forced himself to take another bite, using the anger he felt at Simiyu’s easy lie to chew through the hard cases of the eggs. As if a Chraenid would ever lower themselves to farm, even if they could grow fruit on the desert world they called home.
Olan was nodding. ‘There’s an art to it,’ he said. ‘One that I’d be happy to share with you.’
Vaylo rose to her feet. ‘Thank you once again for the gifts. The Hunt Master and his pack will be here by tomorrow evening. Until then, I’m sure we can keep you entertained.’ She glanced at Tam. ‘A dawn hunt will be a good way to start.’
Tam groaned. ‘Yes, Mother.’
‘Thank you,’ Jasi said. ‘I’d love to come along.’
‘I have to decline,’ Simiyu said. ‘I find the climate here quite challenging. I fear I would not be able to keep pace with your Shadows.’ She turned to the old man. ‘Perhaps tomorrow you can show me more of these delicious insects you mentioned?’
Simiyu crawled into her insulated sleeping bag and dialed up the heat. As the warmth soaked into her body, she relaxed for the first time since they’d arrived. Not a great day’s work. The old man was open to the general idea of trade, but it was clear that Diamonds were not on the agenda. Her handheld had confirmed the acquisition of a significant amount of data on the emanations from the zeta crystals. If she could combine that with a physical sample… it would at least give the scientists something to work with until the Sha could be brought to heel.
She pulled at the torc around her throat, fighting the urge to rip it off. Instead, she popped another painkiller. Closing her eyes, she snuggled deeper into the heat of the sleeping bag. She hoped the Siofran was suffering as much as she was.
As if called into being, Jasi stuck his head through her tent flap. ‘I need to talk to you.’
‘It’s late. Don’t you have to be up at dawn for your wolf hunt?’
‘This is important.’
She hissed a sigh. ‘Come in.’
He crawled in on his hands and knees and sat crossed legged by the end of her bed.
‘Well? What is it?’ she demanded.
‘You put my research project in jeopardy, pushing the idea of trading their Diamonds. You could’ve alienated the Sha before I even got started.’
‘Your research project?’ Simiyu sat up and glared at the idiot. ‘Where do you think the funding came from for the research grant? Who has the political muscle to make this happen? Who convinced the other Families to put pressure on the Sha to accept this scientific mission?’ She saw understanding dawn in his eyes.
‘You’re a politico,’ he murmured. ‘One of the major factions? The Exec itself?’
Simiyu ignored his questions. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll still get to do your research. And if you’re a good boy, there is a post waiting for you at a university on one of the Core worlds.’
She watched him blink and swallow. All those righteous arguments melting away. His shoulders slumped for a moment, and then he sat up straight and held her gaze.
‘I get unrestricted access to the Sha and their wolves? It’s my project, credited to me. No one else?’
‘Exactly. You do your work, and I’ll do mine.’
Jasi rubbed a hand over his face. ‘All right. Just… don’t hurt anyone.’
‘All we want is a few Diamonds for the scientists to study and find out what, if anything, they’re useful for.’ That was the initial objective, though not the only one discussed at her tactical briefing. She decided to change the topic. ‘How’s the headache?’
He gave her a quizzical look. ‘Headache?’
‘I thought… You looked as if you were in pain.’
‘No. Just tired, that’s all.’
She watched him shuffle out of her tent. It was more than possible that the torc impacted differently on different species. The tech was fresh out of the labs; this was its first real field test. She settled back into her sleeping bag, exhaustion tugging at her. There was always a chance that Jasi’s torc was faulty, and everything she’d just told him was now easy pickings for the telepaths. Or, and this brought her fully awake, was it her torc that malfunctioning?
It was still dark when something rough and wet swiped across Jasi’s face. He spluttered awake. Struggling out of his sleeping bag, he glimpsed the hind quarters of a wolf disappearing under the side of his tent. Muffled laughter greeted him as he emerged, wiping wolf slobber off his chin.
‘Badu just wanted to say good morning,’ Tam said, struggling to keep a straight face. ‘Are you ready to hunt?’
‘What about breakfast?’ Jasi ran a hand through his tangled hair.
‘That’s what we’re hunting.’ Tam loped off, Badu putting on a burst of speed to range ahead of him.
Jasi grabbed his boots. ‘Wait… I just need to…’ Cursing under his breath, he started to run.
Tam was waiting about hundred meters inside the tree line. Panting hard, Jasi took a moment to pick bits of twig out of his socks, before pulling on his boots. At least he’d managed to grab his handheld.
‘Scouting ahead. He’ll let me know when he scents prey.’
‘Why did you take off like that?’ Jasi asked, frowning.
‘I thought you knew how to hunt. You’re old enough. But we’ll never catch anything with you banging and crashing through the trees like that.’ Tam’s eyes took on an unfocussed look. ‘They will do for a start.’
Tam set off once more. Jasi tried to emulate the Sha’s careful, flowing steps. To no avail. More than once, Tam stopped, a look of exasperation on his face.
‘We’ll wait here,’ he said, at last. ‘Or there will be no game left in this part of the forest for us to hunt.’
Jasi sat on a fallen branch, next to the disgruntled hunter. He flicked his handheld into record mode. ‘So, how does it work? How do you communicate with Badu?’
‘We’re bonded. We know each other, feel each other.’ Tam shrugged. ‘It’s hard to explain.’
‘Earlier, when you said “they will do”, could you see the prey? I mean, through Badu’s eyes?’
‘More like the memory of their smell, their taste. Badu wanted to…’ There was that glazed look again. ‘Come on, we’ll get into trouble if breakfast is late.’
Jasi followed, scrabbling his way through close-packed trees. Ten minutes later, he walked into an open area: the ground was uneven, with holes and hillocks and patches of spiky blue grass.
Tam knelt, pulling a short-bladed knife from his belt. ‘Thank you,’ he murmured and began gutting the… Jasi searched for the local name in vain. The creatures were about the length of Tam’s forearm, furred, with round, black eyes.
Jasi glanced around. ‘Where is Badu?’
‘Hunting. These will suffice for the cubs’ mother.’ Tam sighed. ‘But it looks like the rest of us will have to do without.’
‘I might not be much of a hunter on land,’ Jasi said. ‘But in water…’ he smiled and spread his webbed fingers.
An hour later, they strode back into camp with enough fat fish to feed twice their company. Jasi had scented the lake as he’d pelted after Tam; it was a real pleasure to swim in its cool, dark depths.
It bloomed in the two youths first. They had claimed some of the small, wooden carvings as playthings after the feast. She watched as they stumbled across the clearing, faces beaded with sweat, still trying to carry out their chores. Vaylo flung aside her tent flap and rushed outside as the youths began their slow-motion collapse. The Sha woman must have used telekinesis to catch and cradle the youths. Within seconds, the old man had joined her. Together, they knelt by the side of the prone bodies, hands stretched out as if in prayer.
Soon enough, they would come begging for help, demanding access to the acclaimed med-tech of the Coalition to save their youngsters. And she could save them — a simple command via her handheld would re-purpose the invasive nanites and set them to repairing the damage they had caused. But there would be a price.
She’d just decided to stride over and express her shock and concern when Jasi and Tam entered the clearing. They were smiling and laughing — Simiyu flicked out her tongue –– and they’d brought breakfast. Tam dropped his burden of meat and fish and raced across the clearing, disappearing into the trees behind the domed tent.
‘What’s wrong?’ Jasi called out, chasing after him.
Time to play her part. Simiyu approached Vaylo and the old man. ‘Can I help?’
Vaylo pushed to her feet. Instead of distraught tears, Simiyu was faced with thunderous fury. ‘You did this!’
The sudden flare of light from the Sha woman’s Diamond left Simiyu blinking and disorientated. ‘What are you talking about?’
This was not how the scenario was supposed to play out. These wandering primitives should be panicked and grief-stricken. In the briefing, Simiyu had been cast in the role of savior, not villain.
‘The things that ravage their bodies are not of this world,’ Vaylo growled the words.
‘That’s not possible. We went through an extensive decontamination protocol. It’s standard practice.’
‘We have seen them, tasted them. They are yours!’
The Sha had no tech of any kind. There was no way they could carry out that kind of analysis. ‘I can contact our ship. The captain will confirm what I’ve said.’
Tam reappeared. He wiped a hand across his face; he was drenched in sweat.
‘The cubs?’ Vaylo asked.
‘And what of you?’ Vaylo took hold of Tam’s hand. They both closed their eyes. Again, her Diamond flared, only this time with a softer light.
After a moment, Tam sagged, knees buckling. Vaylo kept hold of his hand as that same invisible force lowered his body gently to the ground.
Simiyu picked her words carefully. ‘It’s highly unlikely, of course, but perhaps a contagion did, inadvertently, follow us down to the planet. I have medicines with me to counter most infections. They were meant for our own use, but I’m more than willing to make them available, if ––’
‘There will be no trade between the Sha Family and your Coalition. Now or in the future.’
Simiyu touched the torc around her throat and swallowed. ‘But ––’
‘I said your minds were quiet. Not silent.’ Vaylo grimaced. ‘It is forbidden to touch the minds of guests, especially during a Welcome Feast. Otherwise, your deception would have been uncovered before you caused any harm.’
Simiyu gestured towards her backpack. ‘I can save them.’
‘We will have none of your blasphemous tech medicines,’ Vaylo snarled. ‘We will care for our own. The Keepers will guide our hands.’
Religion, again. The tacticians had clearly not given this variable a high enough weighting. ‘But your youngsters may die if they don’t receive treatment.’
A light sheen of sweat glistened on Vaylo’s forehead. Her hand settled on a short-bladed knife at her belt. ‘If any of these youths pass into the Keeper’s hands, I will have your scaly hide.’
Simiyu took an involuntary step back, instinct warning her that the Sha woman meant to carry out her threat, in a very literal sense. ‘I am a citizen of the Calestis Coalition. You can’t threaten me ––’ A sudden constriction cut her off. In desperation, she clawed at her throat and found only the torc, nothing else, at least nothing she could touch.
‘No. Stop!’ Jasi’s shouted as he ran into the clearing.
He’d been distracted by the cubs; their eyes were open, and all they’d wanted to do was investigate this new plaything, sinking sharp teeth into his jacket sleeve, tugging and growling and making him laugh out loud.
Simiyu dropped to her knees, eyes bulging.
Jasi turned to Vaylo. ‘Don’t do it. Don’t give the Coalition an excuse to send an intervention squad down here.’
Vaylo narrowed her eye, clearly unfamiliar with the term. He searched frantically for words the Sha would understand.
‘Warriors. Lots of off-world warriors. With powerful weapons.’ He gestured towards Simiyu. ‘If you kill her, it will give them an excuse to come stomping in and take over.’
Simiyu fell forwards on to her hands, hissing in fury. At least she was breathing. Vaylo gave her a scathing look and then knelt beside Tam, taking his hand in hers; the old man shuffled around and placed a palm on the foreheads of each of the youths.
Trembling with relief, Jasi looked up in time to see two wolves loping out of the trees. It was Badu and another grey-muzzled wolf. They stalked across the clearing, low growls rumbling in their chests. Simiyu struggled to her feet, neck ridges spiked.
‘Go stand with Simiyu,’ Vaylo said. ‘Stay together. Remain silent and do not approach.’
Jasi did as he was told. His mouth fell open as Vaylo unwrapped the embroidered scarf from around her neck, even Simiyu stopped her infernal hissing. At the base of the Sha woman’s throat nestled a pebble-sized Diamond. As they watched, the flickering light at its center brightened until Jasi had to raise a hand to protect his eyes.
The grey-muzzled wolf took a pace towards him, black lips curled back around a vicious snarl. Jasi slowly lowered his hand. He squinted against the light. It was as if the sun had descended into the clearing, its blazing halo encompassing Vaylo, the old man and the three victims of the Coalition’s plotting.
Simiyu seethed on the flight back to their orbiting starship. She’d been played for a fool. What had seemed an honour for her Chraenid clan, had in fact been a bitter betrayal. Not only had she been set up to fail; she’d been expected to die at the hands of the Sha. Best case scenario? Two members of a peaceful science expedition murdered in a conspiracy by the ruling Families on Ghyllach. A perfect excuse to send in an intervention squad, no doubt with the full backing of her vengeful Chraenid clan.
She glanced at the Siofran as he mournfully prodded and poked at his handheld, trying to find a way to recover the data that had vanished in a haze of static. He would get his university posting, the Siofran had saved her life, after all. Her handheld was a useless charred lump. All they had to offer were eye-witness reports. She hissed in frustration. Observations with no evidence to back them up: floating zetas, the revelation that crystals came in much larger sizes than previously thought, and the seemingly miraculous recovery from an aggressive nanite-induced illness.
It could be argued that the Sha had not received a lethal dose, or that the nanites were defective in some way. As for the supposed ‘crystal-healing’, she could not attest to that. The bright light had temporarily blinded her. Jasi had had to guide her back to the shuttle.
The gloss on the scale? The Coalition’s Exec had miscalculated.
Even now, the ruling Families were calling for an explanation of the ‘attack’ on the Sha tribe, some even denouncing the Coalition and demanding an end to all trade negotiations. Simiyu’s mouth twisted into a predatory smile. She had her own best-case scenario: instead of allying with the Coalition’s Exec, her clan would stand against any further incursions into Ghyllach. There would be apologies and reparations — gifts of tents and other practical items to stimulate future demand for off-world goods. It would be her clan rallying support for Ghyllach to have equal status with the rest of the member-planets. And, in the not-too-distant future, it would be the Chraenid clan that gained preferential trade deals. There was no doubt that those crystals were the gateway to the future. Even the Sha might come around one day.
Simiyu’s clicks of pleasure drew a surprised glance from Jasi. She could see the political landscape shifting and twisting as the backlash put pressure on the Exec, undermining the faction that had come up with the Ghyllach strategy, and creating a power vacuum that members of the Chraenid clan could step into.
New blood for old. The thought warmed her.