A Small Question of Water (2009)


This monster of a story was one of the last to be written for our writing group, before it died away, noteably due to the success of its core members rather than of their apathy! I thought this was really clever when I finished it in February 2009, but I’m not so sure now… You be the judge. It’s very much influenced by the wars we’ve found ourselves involved in this last decade.

A Small Question of Water

The shuttle of the 32nd Speklen diplomatic mission to Neeskedia arrived in orbit just as night was turning into day.

The ship yawed onto its side, a movement the zero-g bound Forlin saw rather than felt. Through the ship’s broad viewing window, he watched as the stars rolled up and Neeskedia slid into view, as if both stars and world were painted onto the inside of a barrel being rotated around the ship, like an incomprehensibly huge version of the carnival rides of Forlin’s home.

Forlin did not feel well, his inner ears protested and the nausea of space sickness fought its way through the chemical barrier of the travel pills, but the sight of the world below seized the whole of his thoughts, and the swirling in his head was forgotten for a moment.

The quarter crescent of the planet slipped beneath him, a marble of perfect clouds and seas so blue they filled his mind with yearning, for there were no seas on Speklen; blue oceans, almost black, studded with the sharp white of icebergs closing like fangs on the equator.

Then the southern ice cap, as bright as pain, moved into view. It extended halfway to the world’s lower tropic, crazed ribbons of it here and there reaching out to touch its northern twin. Forlin’s pupils contracted as the reflected light of millions hectares ice blazed a stark ellipse across the shuttle interior.

Neeskedia was a cold world, far bigger than Speklen, whose sun it shared. A habitable zone barely 4000 miles wide ran round its bulging waste, a ragged belt of green and brown through the world’s endless artics. Forlin moved his gaze across it, from north to south, the home of the five nations of Neeskedia. ‘North’ and ‘south’ obviously meant nothing in space, he thought, but even now with it before him, he couldn’t shake the thought of Neeskedia as the upright globe at the House of Harmony.

The Neeskedian model had stood apart from the dozen other globes of known inhabited planets, its size, severe perpendicular axis and crowns of ice making it appear the king of worlds. He had expected, in a detached way to marvel at the sight, but it was nothing compared to actually seeing it, his first alien world.

The thought of the planet below as a globe he could hold in both hands set his vertigo to action again. He tried to recapture the internal balance the clerics at the House of Harmony had taught him, but to no avail. The planet moved down and away as the ship rolled to present its docking arms to the elevator top, and the sickness redoubled its efforts to unman him, blot out the spark of his trained mind with the urgency of the animal now, and that shamed him. The aura of earthlight brightened as more of the face of the world presented itself to the sun. His eyes hurt with it, and he screwed them shut.

Bitter saliva squirted into his mouth. He swallowed it back, more flooded round his tongue. He needed something steady to focus on. He looked up into the inverted bowl of his helmet, clipped into place above his head, seeking some point that his eyes and ears could agree upon. But it didn’t work either, and Forlin, pushed against his restraints as the ship’s motions threw him outward, felt as if he was falling upwards, the helmet’s dark interior becoming a dizzying corridor. He looked away sharply.

Please, not now, he thought, not now we’re nearly there. He swallowed hard again, his spit forming a ball in his stomach.

Forlin was honoured to share his deceleration couch with First Sire Volno. Vomit in a zero gravity an environment was highly unpleasant, but thought he other three human members of the delegation scowled at him, this old man, the leader, did not seem bothered by Forlin’s grey complexion, and his seamed face was warm and understanding and kind, the corners of his smile visible above the necklock of his spacesuit. “How do you feel?” he asked. His eyes shone out of the shadows of the cabin, the window presented once again to space, the earthlight gone.

“If I am truly honest,” gasped Forlin, “I feel awful, First Sire Volno.”

“Ha!” Volno laughed. “You’ll be fine,” he patted Forlin’s knee with a thin, aged hand. The ends of his heavily ornamented sleeves poked round the cuffs of the spacesuit, moving strangely in the microgravity environment. “You are very honest, Forlin. I doubt I would have been so forthright when on my first diplomatic mission, no matter how poorly I felt.”

“I am sorry, Sire,” said Forlin miserably, fearing that the careful, aloof manner he had so studiously cultivated on their six month voyage was ruined.

“Don’t be,” the old man looked hard at Forlin, and the steel that formed the core of the man shone through his concern. “Frankness can be an asset in our world. Please continue to be so. I do not like to surround myself entirely with yes men.” The inclination of his head at the other two men and woman evoked a scandalised expression from the man named Nasc, and a smile from Mara. The other man, Feklor, snored. “Only Androids never get space sick,” he said, indicating the inactive machine, the mission’s sixth member, bolted to the wall in its transit cage. “There is no shame in it. You know,” he added with a conspiratorial whisper “most people feel like this on their first weightless excursion, you see Mara there?” He inclined his head slightly toward the woman.

Forlin nodded.

“This is my fourth mission with her, and excellent her work is. She looks serene now, eh? But on her first, she threw up like a baby.” His smile widened, showing old teeth worn to a blue grey. “You’re doing much better, but just in case…” another quick pat, this time of the front pocket on the couch. He drew out a zero-g sickbag and presented it with a wink. “I advise you to keep this close.”

“Thank you Sire!” managed Forlin, snatching at the bag before noisily using it.

Sire Volno turned demurely away. Forlin felt wretched, but whether from being sick, being sick in front of his master and his peers, or snatching a bag out of the delicate, important hands of First Sire Volno his spinning head would not let him decide.

The ship docked, and a deeply embarrassed Forlin floated with the others through one airlock, down a long passageway, and then into another. This opened into a pill-shaped space padded all round, with two sets of seven bubble windows set into its nominal floor and ceiling. A double door opened off one side of it.

“The elevator,” said Sire Volno. Forlin nodded shakily, wishing Volno would turn away so he would not smell the vomit on his breath. One by one, they helped each other to the gecko pads. Tethered to the floor, they waited.

There was no delegation to greet them, no fanfare. Uncomfortable minutes passed, then, so suddenly all of them started, a loud hiss broke the silence. Forlin felt the pressure change, his ears popped. The doors opened. A Neeskedian native, wearing a breathing mask, entered the elevator. Two floating helper units trailing racks of muscle harnesses floated behind him.

The man was short and squat, thirty centimetres shorter than Forlin, and Forlin was not tall. His pale skin was so white it bordered on translucent, the ridges and knots of his massively developed musculature easily visible through it. But though he was very different in shape to the slender, dark-skinned Speklenners, he was definitely human. His form was that that all true men wore, two arms and legs, an upright trunk, his mind that of a thinking being. He wasn’t a devolt, for all his outlandishness. It, him, Forlin reminded himself, was as much a man as Forlin.

He came to a stop in front of the Speklenners and nodded, his icy gaze slid from one member of the delegation to the next. Finally, he spoke. Neeskedian possessed several unusual features in pronunciation that were incredibly difficult to replicate, and Forlin alone could manage it with any degree of accuracy.

“Din maskin, utilisere hee derna aotstrengeterere?” The Neeskedian gestured at the android and looked to Volno, but Volno smiled and nodded to Forlin.

“Our interpreter will answer,” he said.

“Ny, sanker ais fur ur besimler, maskinen int berhov derna,” said Forlin. “No, thanks be to you, the machine does not need it.”

The Neeskedian shrugged, if he’d been impressed with Forlin’s linguistic facility it did not show. And neither did he look at the android with more than passing interest. The Neeskedians were not known as a curious people. “Very well. I am Laag-Karrl Hariber, and I am here to provide you with muscle harnesses before you continue on to the surface.” Forlin translated, a breath behind the Neeskedian. “These have been provided by our good leader Stoor-Karrl Harkeen at his own expense for your comfort. The surface gravity is 3.6 times that of your world, and without these harnesses you would find it impossible to move.” The Neeskedian gestured to the automated helper hovering at his right shoulder. Two quick puffs of compressed air sent it forward. Without taking his eyes from the delegation, Hariber took a harness from the trailing rack it carried. “These are the binding points,” he said, pointing out several unclipped clasps that looked, for all the world, like manacles. “There are twenty four of them, so it will fit your forms effectively. Discomfort, I am told, is minimal. I advise only removing it when you take to your beds. You will be provided with body servants below who will assist you. Should you wish to remove it among yourselves, donning it will take two of you to assist the wearer. Do not attempt to remove or don it alone.”

Forlin’s glanced at his colleagues, they all nodded and smiled at the native. They knew all that it said, they had studied all this. They listened politely anyway.

“Remove your over garments so I may fit the harness.”

They spent half an hour swapping their spacesuits for the muscle harnesses. The native bustled with remarkable efficiency. He did not speak while he fitted the exoskeletons, and the members of the Speklenner delegation were mostly silent. They were not invited in to the top station to refresh themselves. Forlin had been briefed that such was the way of the Neeskedians, but he could not help but feel a little outrage that the delegation, the venerable First Sire Volno especially, could be so treated.

Then it was Forlin’s turn, and the native’s wide fingers began working away at his muscle harness. Forlin gasped as he yanked shut a series of click lock chest straps, The native looked up, hard blue eyes locked with his, forcing Forlin to turn away.

The Neeskedian stepped back and nodded with satisfaction. Forlin redid the buttons of his gown. To his surprise, the muscle harness did not feel bulky once on, and it sat comfortably under his stiff ceremonial robes.

“The remainder of the descent will take four hours,” the Neeskedian said, addressing them all. Forlin took up the translation once more. “You will feel some discomfort when you enter the gravity field and the suits adjusts itself to your needs. The greater sensation will come from drag on your internal structures, which the harnesses cannot help, and the gradual increase in atmospheric pressure. The lift descent has been slowed to allow your bodies chance to grow accustomed. You will feel a sensation of tightness. You will feel heavy. But it passes, you adjust, or so I am told by other off-worlders. Now forgive me,” he continued, placing his broad hands together, a clumsy imitation of contrite Speklen body language, “I must leave, the low atmospheric pressure in here is most unpleasant to my kind. Good journey to you.”

The Neeskedian departed without a further word. His automates followed and the doors slid shut, and the lift began its smooth descent.

***

The ride down in the elevator was better than the long space journey and the following shuttle trip, and Forlin looked forward to feeling the gravity swell beneath his feet as the capsule crept down from the elevator top anchor to its planet-side counterpart. For now he gripped one of the handles set at intervals round the padded cabin, and tried not to look through the portals set into the elevator floor again, or to think about vomiting.

“Your brother’s company provided the material for this elevator, did it not Sire Nasc?” said Volno, looking round the capsule, running his hands over its smooth surfaces.

“Of course, First Sire,” said the other man, inclining his head. “My family is the largest manufacturer in carbon fibre composites in the Speklen Combine. I do hope, dear Sire Volno, that you are not implying any impropriety on our part? I renounced my financial ties when I joined the service, as is the law. And I was proud to do so.” Nasc’s manner was indifferent, almost as if the subject bored him, but they all knew Nasc was deeply passionate about his family’s works. So much so Forlin wondered sometimes why he had entered the diplomatic corps at all.

“I meant no offence. I am merely thinking aloud,” said Sire Volno. But no-one could ever really tell what he was thinking, whether he said he was speaking his mind or not. He was quiet for a moment, staring up out of the window before speaking again. “I take it weapons cupolas were not included in the original design.”

“No Sire, they were not.”

“And yet there they are.” Volno looked above them, through the round top ports, to the elevator terminus a half-kilometre above them. Six heavy cannon jutted out from the sides of the satellite. Cruder tech than the Speklenner construct they parasited, yet deadly nonetheless.

“Yes, yes. I noted those earlier. Shocking.” Nasc disengaged his feet and floated over to his superior. He steadied himself on the wall, “Look. Wait… There!”  He indicated a billow of gas silvering the black of space. “They are venting the altitude jets to compensate for the extra mass.”

“You know your subject, Sire Nasc.”

“It is in the blood of all Sito, one could say, first-sire Volno, though my brothers are the true experts,” Nasc gave a diffident wave. “But I know enough of the family trade to say that this constant adjustment of altitude’” he said, gesturing at the gas jets, “will significantly reduce the operational lifespan of the top station, and thus the whole elevator. It is expensive, and unwise. I doubt the Speklen elders would easily bow to requests for more funding for repairs in light of the causes of the damage.”

“Indeed. And you, young Forlin. What do you see?” asked Sire Volno.

Forlin was surprised to be included, but he did not let it show. “I see the cannon Sire,” he said smoothly, “and I see that they are aimed at the world’s surface, not out to space.”

“Well done, Forlin. We shall make a diplomat of you yet, observation is half the battle, is it not?” Forlin once more felt the flush of pride at being included in this historic event. It was of such importance, it would secure the future of his people; if the negotiations went smoothly.

If not, well, Forlin thought of the desert that would never blossom.

The lift lurched, a movement followed by a shocking groan.

“Do not worry!” said Nasc cheerily, “the tether is subject to different thermal stresses at different points of its length. It causes it to flex, you see,” he formed a cage of his hands, fingertip to fingertip, in mimicry of a fullerene structure, then twisted it. “It is always particularly bad in the morning, as the sun heats the atmosphere, even here; but it is nothing that the elevator car cannot handle.”

Forlin stumbled with the motion, but a hard hand steadied him, its grip unnervingly firm.

“Thank you,” he said, looking up into the bronze face of the delegation’s android.

“You are welcome,” said the android, its voice distant. The moulded lips of its mask were immobile, and it did not turn to look at him. In spite of himself Forlin shuddered.

From below, the mass of the frozen world tugged ominously.

***

The doors to the lift slid open, and the silence of their descent was blasted apart by a clamour of noise like a physical force. A crowd, chanting rhythmically, a thousand voices not quite as one, so that as one side of the crowd drew breath, the other was yet to finish their shared words. The effect was the shushing of angry waves upon a pebbled shore. With the noise, came bright, white light. There was a kerfuffle at the door, and a Neeskedian in armour loomed out of the glare.

“You, you, please be come with me,” he shouted in broken Speklen, his accent so thick as to render his words almost unintelligible. He gestured frantically with one hand, the other was fully occupied with a rifle that was so bulky Forlin doubted he could have lifted it. The glare faded from his eyes, revealing three more squat, armoured forms; from beyond them came the chant. Forlin couldn’t catch the words. “I am captain Tur of the presidential guard, I come, take you now. Please hurry! This way, this way!” The captain ushered them down a fluid, moving corridor formed of the alert bodies of his men.

Over the jostling guns and helmets, Forlin got an impression of the terminus as a large, airy space, its walls and roof of glass built with Speklen expertise. But it was empty. Occasionally their escort parted enough so that he could see the indistinct blur of the crowd through the glass, pushing against a cordon of men armed and dressed similarly to those that chaperoned the delegation. He could not make out individual faces, just a flailing of limbs, like a monstrous centipede. Forlin tried to shake off the image. He was forced to concentrate on the clumsy movement of his muscle suit, the movements of which lagged a quarter second behind those of his own limbs. Three atmospheres pressed in at him at all sides, and his eyes felt as if they would burst.

“Come, come, quickly, quickly!” Tur waved them through his men toward a door. It opened at their approach.

A great billow of frigid air curled into the building, insinuating itself under the four levels of clothing Forlin wore. He upped the heating of his thermal undergarment. His breath issued forth from his mouth like smoke from a dragon’s mouth, he felt frost prickle in his nose, and he was glad of the ceremonial hat he was wearing.

“Into the cars,” Tur led them down a gangway, its edges delineated by yet more heavily armed men, their line wavering against the push of the crowd.

“Now, into the cars, yes please, Sires. Come! I am to take you into the palace.”

Four black windowed cars stood by, high bodied, standing a metre and more off the ground on six thick tyres each. The vehicles stood in a temporary compound of linked fence panels, other armed men stood round the interior of this, like animals in a zoo impassively watching the crowd. Some of the faces outside the fence were in pain, fingers hooked through the wire mesh. They were being crushed from behind.

“Shouldn’t they do something?” hissed Forlin. He could hear the chant now, the words were not words, but a complex ululation. It was like a dirge.

“It is not our place to intervene here,” replied Mara through barely parted lips, her ebony face a study in serenity.

A bottle exploded on the road metalling, not a metre away from Forlin.

“Get in, Sires, get in!” hollered the captain, practically pushing Forlin up the car’s access ladder and into the vehicle.

A voice shouted out, robotic, amplified. Several cracking noises split the air, reedy screams following. The crowd began to scatter. Gas spread its haze in front of their vehicle. Soldiers opened up the mesh links in the fence. Two thumps on the roof, the door slid closed, shutting out the sound of the crowd, tinted glass lessening its misery.

People scattered before the convoy, their mouths round ‘O’s, surprisingly childlike in their heavy faces. There was a soft thump as the vehicle rolled over something, and they were driving over discarded placards, through the crowd, and away.

“That,” said Nasc, mopping sweat that had sprung out on his forehead despite the freezing temperatures, “was not a good reception.”

****

A shout went up and the man to Forlin’s left broke off their brief conversation.

“Ah!” said his interlocutor, a female. “Dinner is served!”

The scowling faces of the other diners gave little away. Several of his twenty tablemates ignored him entirely, a couple regarded him with unabashed stares. Like the other Speklenners, Forlin had been placed on his own with the heads of a clan of influential Neeskedians. His were merchants of some kind. He had not yet enquired as to the manner of their trade, and they had volunteered little information on the matter.

The hall was sumptuous, lined with rare wood. The forests of Neeskedia were sparse, their maturation period long. It was inlaid with carved bone panels fashioned from plaited ribs of Neeskedia’s largest land animal, another rarity. Many must have been killed to furnish this room, thought Forlin.

The hall was at least 100 metres in diameter, its conical roof supported by a single ornamented pillar. It was circular, an aping of the round huts that the Neeskedia had found themselves forced to dwell in after the time of the first settlement, but it was squat and massive, exaggerated like the Neeskedia themselves. Forlin wondered how the progen survived here. He imagined their bodies, not unlike his own, subject to the crushing gravity and freezing thick air. Many must have died.

A number of heavy round tables, made of the same woods as the wall panelling, crouched patiently in the space of the hall, their thick limbs giving them the look of broken animals, resigned to bearing the weight of the food heaped upon them. Servants scurried in between the tables, placing dish after dish of meat and precious fruit before the diners. These men and women were much of much healthier appearance than those Forlin had seen outside the elevator, fat even, their hulking Neeskedian bodies rounded and buttery.

“It is fine, is it not, the feast?”

Forlin smiled politely at the woman spoke Speklen, a little throaty perhaps, and there was a series of odd clicks as she tried to pronounce certain consonants, but good nonetheless.

“I have never seen such…” he wanted to say profligacy, but checked himself, “bounty.”

“It is true!”. Her wide mouth smiled in delight, the first time he had seen the expression on any Neeskedian face. “You can speak our language.”

“I try,” said Forlin, a hint of pride colouring his diplomat’s mien.

“Such modesty. Now I know for sure you are not of this world,” she teased.

“And how am I doing?”

The woman smiled again. Forlin found her attractive, as no doubt he was supposed to. Despite her broad features and heavy limbs, she was shapely, and had a pretty, symmetrical face. “Not badly.” Her smile was reflected in the faces about her. “Some of your sounds are a little soft. Oh, do not be offended, I would never have thought a man such as yourself, an off-worlder, to be capable of reproducing our speech so closely.”

Several heads nodded in agreement, the people on the table were paying close attention to the diplomat, even if they pretended otherwise. The Neeskedian reputation for incuriousness was not entirely deserved, then.

“You flatter me madam,” said Forlin.

The lady laughed, her emerald green eyes half closing. “Of course I am flattering you, Young Sire,” she said in Speklen, “it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.”

“You are my… designated companion, then?” he chose the words carefully.

“Yes,” she shrugged, and plucked a grape-like fruit from a broad bowl. She it rolled round her mouth. Her tongue protruded a little, like the rest of her features, it was broad and flat. She grinned. “But we both know that, and now that we have both acknowledged the fact, we are free to enjoy each other’s company on an honest basis, no?”

“It is your way here, to speak the truth.”

“That is what they told you, I suppose,” she sighed and looked around the room. Her attention moved back to Forlin, and her smile returned. “No, Young Sire, not always, we are like other men, and we lie as other men do when we need to, but we do not like to. Honesty is a virtue amongst our people.”

A servant’s elbow interrupted their conversation as he placed a variety of vessels on the table. More came, bearing platters of strange fish and vegetables. The plates were exquisitely fashioned, so delicate, thought Forlin, for things made by such clumsy looking fingers.

“Your people prefer to manipulate, do they not?” continued the girl.

Forlin smiled, was warming to the girl, despite being fully aware that she’d been picked to make him do precisely this. No doubt they had files on him, there were those on Speklen for whom money was of a higher value than loyalty, just as there were everywhere. “We prefer the pen over the sword, if that is what you mean.”

The hall was becoming noisier. Alcohol was working its effect, and the Neeskedian mask of disinterested aggression was beginning to slip. Bright eyed and fierce, the men shouted for more sweet wines. All were armed with traditional sabres. Here and there, arguments turned to slapping and shoving matches, but these were quickly resolved, and Forlin noticed that no blade was drawn.

“And although I was flattering you, it is still true. You have been prepared well. So much so that I am almost sure,” she said, addressing their fellow diners, “that if I were to offer him some of our local wine he would decline. This would be a great shame. Our fruiting season here is extremely short. Barely nine months in every four standard years. Were you aware of this, young sire?”

Forlin smiled. “I was, I cannot lie.”

“This jug,” she continued, plucking a tall, thin necked vessel off the table “is full of our world’s best. It is worth a small fortune. Once it is all drunk, there will be no more for three years.”

“You really should try it, Young Sire,” said another of the diners at the table, wiping the remains of a deep draught from his upper lip, glowering fiercely. So they were going to talk to him after all. Forlin half-wished they wouldn’t, he found the males constant fronting down of each other apish, and he uncomfortably suspected that they in their turn thought him overly feminine.

“Yes, yes! It is the best we have,” said another, a man whose fat made him a grotesque. “To travel all this way and not to sample it when offered, it would be a, a crime!”

There was laughter without smiles, shocking and abrupt, like the barking of dogs.

“I am sorry that I must disappoint you.” Forlin said, holding up an exquisite goblet. “We are not advised not to drink, only not to get drunk. Please, madam, I would love to try some.”

“Then Young Sire, I gladly grant it, this most precious of liquids, which brings all we of Neeskedia together, warming us out of our little winters.”

“Please, call me Forlin, it is my name.”

“And I am Enkriedka.” She laughed when Forlin tried to reproduce the grinding name, though not unkindly. Several more of their tablemates called out their names, more like challenges than introductions. Their skin was already ruddy with the drink, as they laughed in a comradely way at Forlin’s efforts. At least, Forlin thought they were being comradely.

Forlin tried to drink little of the wine, but failed. It was, in truth, delicious, and there was little to drink beside it. The noise in the hall became increasingly raucous, his hosts more avid and openly curious, their eyes glittering like those of cunning animals. At their urging, He told them of his own world, of its quiet deserts, of the wind towers of the monasteries. But he also told them of how dry and solitary life could be there, how strict the denial. At which the Neeskedians bellowed with laughter, and clapped him ungently on the back, wine making them unmindful of their greater strength.

“We are not so different, it seems, not so different!” they cried. But Forlin did not agree.

When he could, he stole glances over at Sire Volno and the others. The First Sire, the android standing at his elbow, was sat at the central table with the five permanent staff at the embassy, three of whom would be exchanging places with Nasc, Mara and Feklor for the journey home. There were rarely many Speklen on Neeskedia, and there were fewer than usual right now. Most Speklen had already returned on the ship that had brought Forlin here.  More Speklenner technicians would come on the ship that would take Forlin and Volno home, and that would be the last for three years, until the planets drew near one another again. It was an inconceivably lengthy stay to Forlin’s thinking.

“Am I not fulfilling my role well?” asked Enkriedka. “Are you tiring of my company?”

“No at all, madam,” said Forlin. He hoped he didn’t sound as drunk as he felt. He gestured clumsily. The delay in the muscle suits reactions, amplified by his own intoxication, irritated him. “I am merely observing my colleagues. It is the first time I have seen them at work in an official capacity.”

“They work?”

“Madam, you know full well they do. Oh, they are enjoying themselves, and all are responding after the manner their personalities dictate to the feast. There is nothing false about our behaviours. See him? That is Nasc Sito, see how abstemious he is, Speklen to the last,” Forlin saw him place his hand over his goblet as a Neeskedian attempted a refill. “That is Third Lady Mar,” she laughed and clapped her hands at some joke or other, “she is considered almost dangerously extrovert on Speklen.”

“She is unusual, then.”

“We all are, all of us here, I mean. We are a reserved society. Most Speklenners would sit through this feast stony faced, as if judgement were upon them. Few even wish to leave the homeworld. They find the thought… distressing.”

“They think all others barbaric, I believe you mean.”

“Well…” said Forlin, and gave an assenting smile.

“Yet you enjoy it…”

“Speklen life is not to all tastes, there are some of us who…” He stopped, fearing he’d revealed too much of himself.  “Now! See! There is Feklor, he is a little more of a standard type.” Forlin pointed at the third man in their party, who was smiling and nodding enthusiastically, “but when surrounded by other academics who share his interests in agriculture, as I am sure he is, he forgets himself, or so our elders would say.”

It was a balanced team, he thought, carefully selected, their mere being designed to have some subtle effect on the negotiations. The Neeskedians joined in the game and attempted to match like with like, though they could not hope to win, thought Forlin, the elders of Speklen had even something as distasteful as this chaotic social interaction down to a precise science.

“What of Sire Volno?”

“Ah,” said Forlin, rotating his goblet slowly. “There is no-one like Sire Volno anywhere at all.”

“And who are you, my dear Young Sire?” bellowed a Neeskedian man.

“My role, Sire, is that of the wide-eyed youth. And youths are bereft of the wisdom of their elders and betters, and I am afraid to say, inclined to become drunk.”

“See! There are men inside those robes after all!” There was more laughter. Forlin gave a little bow of his head. He stared at his mentor for a few moments before he was dragged back into the conversation.

There were speeches that night, homily and platitude delivered by the nation’s prime and finance ministers, welcoming the Speklenners to Neeskedia, but the actual business of the trip had to wait.

Of Stoor-Karrl Harkeen, they saw nothing.

***

The next three days were a hard slog through an endless itinerary of factory visits, agricultural showcasing, and cultural events, upon which they were accompanied by the Speklen embassy permanent staff. Despite their grim demeanour the Neeskedians seemed keen to show them everything, showing off the hazardous heaps they called factories like grim-faced children displaying a ramshackle den, thought Forlin. The conditions within were horrendous, and it was hard for the delegation to keep their opinions to themselves.

They were even shown round the refugee camps. Their guide was Tur. Today he wore no armour, only summer camouflage fatigues of mottled white, brown and dark green. “These are men, who flew, who took flight, I should say, from the front. Do you see?” He gestured with a kind of swagger stick, a thing with the tail tassle of some animal, with which he periodically swatted at fat, slow moving summerflies. “In the old times, all these men, theya would haf killed, and their women and children would haf become our serfs.”

“He looks like he rather misses the old days, wouldn’t you say?” said Nasc into Forlin’s ear.

“No, now Stoor-Karrl decrees that all prisoners and refugees be kept safe until war is over, ne? Fur denna er bezdar veg.” He finished.

“The camp looks very clean, I must say, Sire sergeant Tur,” said Volno.

“Yes, clean, yes. We haf, how say you? Shookhoos…”

“Hospital, Sire sergeant,” said Forlin.

“Ja, ja, hospital; no-one is sick here. All will go home, ne?”

“If you do not mind me saying, they do not look very happy,” said Mara, looking over the neatly demarcated streets. The internees were going about their business with the treacly movements of the hopeless.

Tur laughed the barking laugh of his people. “Of course not happy, half fled war, half want to fight war, but now loose! But they are alive, ne? And they will stay that way. Soon they be happy again, when all Neeskedia is brotherhood. It is bad that Neeskedian should kill another, bad practises from the time of shortages,” he explained to the diplomats. “It last along time, but now it over, now we have contact, ne? Contact with you. Now we can to behave like men.”

Forlin did not doubt the sergeant, whatever Nasc might say. “And how many refugee camps are there, if I might ask?”

“Ask! Ask! Ask if you are interested, it is why I am here, why you are here, to ask and answer. Do not be afraid.” He laughed again. “There are twenty-seven, but we close one, two, every standard month, more go home now fifth and second nation beaten, only third nation of Neeskedia opposed to us now, fourth nation always with us, right for the beginning.” He pronounced the word with one too many syllables. “All these men, girls, children, well most, fron third nation. Some second, but they wait to go home.”

“I am curious, if you are winning, why were there so many protesters to greet us, what do they have to complain about?” asked Nasc.

Tur turned slowly round to face them, then dropped his eyes. He tucked his stick under his elbow “I cannot lie,” he said after a moment, “they hate you. They think you make us weak, they think, before hundred years since, you come, give us new way to live. But not all, we stop killing each other, because we do not haf to, but now, we haf many mouths to feed, we haf many refugees, prisoners of war. Not only, Stoor-Karrl say, we not kill them, so no meat in bad winter, but also we give them our food, so their bellies are empty twice over. This, they say, is your fault.”

“And what do you think?” asked Sire Volno kindly.

“It does not matter what I think, First Sire,” said Tur.

“It matters very much.”

Tur hesitated. “I think it is good to be a man and not destroy other men, this is why I am soldier; to stop this.”

“Thank you,” said Volno.

“No! Do not thank me. Not all agrees; when the war is won, they haf no choice, and I will done my job. Thank me when this is the truth. Not before; is not truth yet.”

The blank stares of the camp inmates suggested that they no longer cared either way.

***

Forlin’s servants were fussing around the fastenings of his muscle harness when the door to his quarters swung open, and Sire Volno strode in.

“Good morning Forlin.”

“Good morning, First Sire,” said Forlin.

“Why the grimace, Young Sire, are they mishandling you?”

“No, no, Sire. It is the taste of the multi-pill, it is vile.”

“Yes, yes they are. But better a bitter pill than a local ailment or vit-D deficiency, eh? Now, are you nearly ready? Today I have an important task for you. Are you up to it?”

“Why, of course, anything,” said Forlin. “It would be an honour.”

“And you say so without even knowing what I would ask of you!”

“If you say it is an important task, then it is First Sire.” The Neeskedians stepped back, appraised their handiwork as Forlin moved his limbs experimentally. He nodded, and dismissed them in their own tongue. “No matter what it is,” he said to Volno. He went over to the wardrobe and took out his robes.

“Well then. We are to see Stoor-Karrl Harkeen, you and I, in but a short time. He has summoned me, and I wish you to attend me.”

“But, but… thank you First Sire!”

“Ahaha!” he held up a hand. “No thanks. That is what you are here for, to learn the ways of others. And I need your facility in their language, it may impress him. Hurry now! We will talk as you dress.”

***

“Thank you for coming, Volno,” said Harkeen, greeting them himself at the door of his office. Harkeen was old, but he had evaded frailty, and he was short and massively stocky as all his kind.

“It is good to see you, Harkeen,” said Volno smiling, grasping Harkeen’s forearm as Harkeen grasped his. “This is Forlin. It is his first diplomatic mission, I thought it would be well for him to see how the wheels of power turn.”

“Why of course. Please, both of you come in.”

The office of the Stoor-Karrl was not as Forlin had expected. It was small and modestly furnished. “You are the Young Sire I have heard so much about? Of course you are. How many Speklenner diplomats are there here!” He chuckled in a surprisingly avuncular manner, smiling as he did so. “I understand you have a great gift for our difficult tongue,” he said in Neeskedian, wagging his finger.

“As I have been told,” replied Forlin in the same language, hoping his nervousness did not show, “though I can make no claim for my ability on my own part.”

“It is true! Magnificent! However, I am sure that though you are keen to practise your Neeskedian, you have many opportunities here, while I have precious few to try out my Speklen on new victims. I trust we may continue the remainder of this conversation in your own language?”

“Of course, Sire Stoor-Karrl.”

“Good, good! Please sit down where you will, I cannot abide stuffy meetings.”

He poured the two Speklenners a glass of fiery spirit. “I will not wander round the desert, as you say, yes?” Volno smiled and bowed his head at the idiom. “We are here to negotiate. I am a busy man, and it our way to speak plainly. So I will. We wish to renew all contracts with the people of the Combine of Speklen.”

“That is good,” said Volno.

“And of great assistance to both our peoples. The papers for the mining rights of Idskidria are drawn up and ready to sign, but I must ask that one clause that stands between us be withdrawn.”

Volno clapped his hands on his knees. “Harkeen, you speak of clause 37, no doubt. You know full well we cannot do that.”

Harkeen sipped his drink through his teeth, and made an appreciative noise. “I do not see why. You were perfectly happy to trade weapons technology with us when we were at war with three of the other nations of Neeskedia. Why not when we fight just the one?”

“And you know full well that you were well-favoured by the Combine’s elders as the greatest chance for stability here; a promise that you have borne out well, but this is too much.”

“Do not patronise me, Volno. Your mathematics may give you insight, but they are not infallible, and they do not let you know the soul of a man, no matter what your scholars may think.”

“You know we cannot give you the technologies for fission or fusion.”

“We will use them for peace.”

“You will use them to enforce peace, you mean.”

“Volno, Volno, let me be honest with you again. Yes, we do need these technologies firstly for weapons. The war with the Third Nation drags on. They are beaten, but will not surrender. They are dug in to the Norrenbarrey, and we cannot move them. They are well equipped, their main clanhalls are there, their centres of production, their hydroponic gardens. We are at stalemate. This will drag on for years, and all the while unrest in the other four nations will build. The stability you wanted for this world is at risk, think on that. We offer you the chance to transform your world, why not give us the chance to complete the transformation of ours?”

“To wipe a city of a 200,000 off the map is not a transformation I could agree to.”

“Consider it. You scholars, you know not truly of the struggle we have had here. This act, brutal as it seems to Speklen eyes, is our chance to abandon savagery for good.”

“Speklen was never an easy place to dwell on. We endeavour to make it so. We never turned on each other.”

“You were never forced to! But we were, and we are strong because of it! But that strength, that… that… how you say, belligerence, that is also our weakness. Thanks to my efforts and your help, that weakness is nearly overcome. The times of war are nearly done. A bright future awaits our entire system, a united Neeskedia, the Friend of Speklen, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Combine! Help me one last time, it is all I need to realise it.”

“The elders would never agree. You know I speak truth.”

“Truth like passing this young one off as genuine?” he said, waving his glass at Forlin. “His abilities are impressive, but he would not be such a linguistic prodigy were it not for the surgery you performed on him.”

“It is a diplomatic necessity to have a fluent speaker in our party.”

“It is, by our ways, dishonesty. Do not be dishonest with me again. While you are on this side of the Solian Belt, communication is impossible, you are the elders. You have the power to sign the trade agreement, you are the head of your delegation, and thus representative of your government. You make the decision.”

“Then I say no. The deaths of a fifth of a million is not help, it is genocide. No, no, no, not for all the water on the moon of Idskidria.”

“Well, First Sire Volno,” the dictator of  Neeskedia drained his glass and set it down with a click, “then we have a problem.”

***

The conference room was silent. As one, the Neeskedian trade negotiation team stood up and left, walking past the statue-still form of the android. Technicians and others filed out after them. Doors of polished wood swung shut silently behind them with finality. The Speklenners were left on their own.

“So,” said Nasc, and pressed both palms down flat on the room’s long table.

“Coded Progen please gentlemen!” said Mara, switching to the secret diplomatic tongue.

“You really think their academics have not relearnt the language by now?” said Nasc, but spoke in Progen anyway.

“No, but the code is still valid.”

“What just happened?” said Feklor, his big eyes blinking slowly. “I am confused. Weapons or tech with military applications were never on the agenda. Did any of you know anything about this?”

“I would ask our leader your question, Fourth Sire Feklor,” said Nasc.

“Is it true, First Sire? Did you know that they would ask for this? Did you know we would waste our journey? It is…”

Volno pressed his palms together and bowed his head. “I only received confirmation of their intentions this morning, a private audience with the Stoor-Karrl.”

“Why does no-one inform me of these matters, am I not a member of this delegation?” Feklor’s voice became shrill.

“Oh do be quiet Feklor,” said Mara levelly. “You suspected, didn’t you?” She did not take her eyes off Volno. “I do not believe that you of all people, First Sire, would walk into this situation unawares.”

“The Elders suspected. I was not so sure as they.”

“Well, well, what do we do?” said Feklor. “What do we do? There is no viable alternative. We have to secure those mining rights!”

“I know that you, as part-architect of the greening plan have the most invested in this at a personal level Feklor, but please calm yourself. It affects all Speklen, here and at home,” said Volno.

“I insist…”

“The answer is simple, Feklor is right,” interrupted Nasc, exhaling heavily. “We had better give them what they want. We need that water, it as straightforward as that.”

“Is it Nasc?”

“Yes! Yes it is – a bald choice between the suffering of our people and another. For a patriot there is no argument.”

“Aha, I see, we get the water we need to transform Speklen, the Stoor-Karrl gets the weaponry he needs to crush all opposition on this world; and trust me when I say he will use atomic ordnance without a second thought. What of common humanity? We are not right to improve our lives, to profit at the cost of the deaths of others.”

“They are barbarians!”

“They are people, Second Sire!” snapped Volno. “Hundreds of thousands of people. To hand over such technology is against all morality.”

“They say it is merely for the pacification of the third nation…” said Feklor. “Could we not try negotiating with them, as a neutral third party?”

“We tried that,” said Mara, “sixteen months ago, we covertly sent a petitioner to the Third Nation government.”

“And? What happened to him, Third Lady?”

“We think,” she said, “that they ate him.”

“Surely, surely the Second Sire has a point…” uttered Forlin, his voice felt out of place in the vast chamber, too weak for such weighty debate.

“This is a man who has, in the past, ordered the deaths of eight thousand prisoners of war, lest they drift back to their comrades, who burnt the capital of the Second Nation even after they had surrendered, a barbaric act even by Neeskedian standards. Forlin, do not be taken in by him,” the sibilants of Volno’s aged voice hissed round the richly decorated room.

“You are sure he would really use the weapons to annihilate the Third Nation?” said Nasc. “Perhaps he intends it as a deterrent, or a threat to force surrender?”

“I fear not,” said Volno, sadly shaking his head. “He has achieved many positive things here, and done a lot of good, but Harkeen is a ruthless pragmatist, and a fanatic. He will not allow his dream of a united Neeskedia to fail at any cost. To threaten and not follow that threat up is a sign of weakness to the Neeskedians.”

“But what is he refuses to release the mining rights without the technology he demands? Where would we be then…”

“There are other sources of water.”

“But not so easily available!” shouted Feklor. “What are we to do?”

“We have little time, First Sire,” said Nasc. “ Feklor may be shaming himself, but the greening cannot wait. Without an immediate input of the water from the ice moon, it will fail.”

Volno rounded suddenly on his second. “Harkeen must not be armed further!”

“If I understand correctly, First Sire,” said Nasc levelly, “the creation of Harkeen was your policy.”

“Then now it is my burden.”

“He pushes us too far.”

“He asked for the weapons because he knows, I think,” said Mara, “that the cometary capture and asteroid mining does not go in our favour. Idskidria is the only viable source of water. And if this is the case, then I am inclined to agree with the Second Sire,” said Mara.

“There are… other considerations, aren’t there?” said Forlin, suddenly grasping the root of Volno’s reticence. “Imagine if Harkeen were to take his dream off world.”

“Explain yourself, young sire,” said Nasc.

“Think Nasc!” said Volno. “What if Harkeen were to decide it would be better to reunite all mankind, starting with our people? Could you imagine an army of Neeskedians on Speklen, or Mori? Consider too, if Harkeen dies, which he inevitably will. What if the Neeskedians then revert to their earlier ways after he is gone? The technology will remain. With atomic rockets, gentlesires, they could land a substantial force on our homeworld inside of seven weeks at the time of approach. Ask yourself, just how civilised are these people? They will get off this world eventually, and for that day we had better be prepared, and we are not prepared yet. They have suffered much here, and bear the other branches of man’s family much ill-feeling for it. The longer the Neeskedian genie stays in the bottle, the better. ‘Friend of Speklen’ or not, I do not trust Harkeen. Never forget, just as our duty is to our homeworld, his is to his ambition, and that ambition is merely an extension, an intensification, of the desires of his people.”

“Then perhaps we could simply give him the bombs. The technology, not the science?” said Mara, her eyes calculating.

“They would dismantle them, no matter what safeguards we put in place. Back engineering would drastically shorten their research time to unlocking fission reactions. The colony database here was severely damaged, but not destroyed. Fragments remain. The central library on Speklen, it is ancient, theirs, though damaged, is as durable. They are well on their way as it is,” said Volno.

“What are we to do then? He has us over a barrel… We do not have much time,” said Feklor.

“That is what we are to decide. And it will not be easy…” Volno’s voice trailed off. He did not speak again for a few moments. “Let us convene again, here, tomorrow. Mara, get the embassy to set a second round of negotiations. We can only hope that they are not in as strong a military position as they maintain, and I suspect that is the case, or I do not think Harkeen would have met me in person. We shall withdraw all offers of trade and scientific aid. Without the other resources on the table, they will find a victory of any kind hard to attain.”

“I am but the scion of industrialists, and bow to your greater wisdom in these matters, First Sire,” said Nasc, pointing at the older man emphatically, “but I pray you are right and they are bluffing, otherwise… the alternative does not bear thinking about.”

They stood, the android coming to life and following, and departed the chamber. The doors opened to reveal a press of Neeskedians, and they were forced to dodge a barrage of questions from lobbyists, representatives of various associations and the few members of Neeskedia’s official press.

They pushed their way through the crowd, their security detail holding back a knot of red-faced, shouting applicants. A paired set of twin doors opened onto the outside world. The jostling of the crowd prevented the inner pair from closing, and frigid evening air gusted into the building. A further gaggle of people stood outside, blocking the way to their transport, but the android pushed them aside without any noticeable effort, clearing a path for the elderly Volno.

Ice had ceased melting during the day, and icicles sheathed the buildings and ornamental trees. The two worlds came closest towards the end of Neeskedia’s summer, as the planet began its long journey back into the outer regions of their shared solar system. Every day the sun became smaller and colder, the sky taking on a livid hue, even at midday, as if the whole of Neeskedia were bruised. There was an icy clarity that made what happened next all the easier for Forlin to remember. A man caught his eye, to one side of the path. He did not know why, until he realised that the Neeskedian was not shouting, only watching.

The first indication he had that something was amiss came from the android. There was a sudden change in its posture, its head coming up quickly, like that of a person who hears his name called out in the distance on a silent day. It moved then, so fast Forlin could barely follow it, knocking Sire Volno to one side. Sergeant Tur yelled something, and bowled Forlin over also, seconds before the transport blossomed with sudden and terrible fire.

There was a tremendous bang that swept away all other sounds as if they were of the utmost inconsequentiality. A blast of force swept over his head, followed a half-second later by a wash of heat. Forlin smelt flesh burn.

Silence, then a persistent ringing in his ears. He struggled and struggled with a slippery deadweight atop him, feeling half in and half out of himself. It was only after some time that he realised the servos down the right side of his muscle harness had ceased to function.  Finally, gasping, he rolled the weight off him, and recognised it as the mangled body of Captain Tur, his wide mouth slack, eyeballs dull and dead. Forlin dragged himself to his feet, the muscle harness juddering and spasming. The ringing in his ears faded, to be replaced by shouts and the clamour of alarms. The transport was as twisted wreck, bent in half in the middle as if it were frozen in the process of jumping into the sky. Flames licked out from it still. Dead and injured Neeskedians lay in a neat ring about it. They would have looked like children playing a game were it not for the thickset body parts strewn everywhere. To his left a man sat, holding up the stump of his right arm and staring at it with stoic puzzlement.

The rest of the team, he thought muzzily. He looked about the littered ground for them.

Of Volno and Mara, only bloodied rags remained, the shattered body of the Android atop them. Feklor lay a little behind where they had fallen, half of his face and right shoulder missing. But Nasc Sito lived. He had lost part of his left hand and his body was burnt and peppered with the telltale black entry points of shrapnel, but his chest rose and fell spastically.

It was only then, as pain throbbed deeply in his shoulder, that Forlin noticed that he, too, was injured. Shaking with more than the cold, he watched the blood run down his arm, off his fingertips, joining rivulets that spread down the path and to feed the vast slick of crimson in the street’s gutters.

Strange, he thought, that now, when it would be permissible, he did not feel like vomiting.

***

In the clean, bare hospital room, Nasc gasped in pain, and struggled for air.

“Rest, First Sire Nasc, Rebuild your strength,” said Forlin, standing back from the bed, afraid of upsetting its complicated lattice of tubes and mesh. A doctor stood by, as grim-faced as all his kind.

“Don’t… be… ridiculous,” gasped Nasc, “I am dying!”

“Karrl Forrlin,” said the Neeskedian doctor. “Leave him be. He is suffering, it is time to finish it for him.” He pulled a short dagger from his belt, and advanced on the bed.

“No! Wait!” the harsh words of Neeskedian clattered out of  Forlin’s mouth like an army. “Suicide is not the way of the Speklen.”

“Then your people are truly as cold as they say,” said the doctor.

“Leave us,” he snapped.

“As you wish,” said the doctor, and bowed out of the room, his unrelenting stare boring into Forlin’s face as he left.

Nasc cried out. Forlin checked the corridor and shut the door.

“Has he… gone?”

“Yes.”

“Then come… close Forlin.”

Forlin did as he was bid. Nasc’s breathing became more laboured, the primitive machines hooked up to him stuttering urgent beeps.

“Forlin, I am First Sire now, but soon you will be…”

“First Sire, I am too young, too inexperienced.”

“You are the last member… of the…” he gulped, his eyes, two bloodied yellow discs peeking through the gauze covering his face, went wild. He groaned, writhing even without his muscle harness. For a moment Forlin thought he had died. The young diplomat leaned in close. A sharp breath, rasping and moist, and Nasc’s good arm shot out to grasp his shoulder. Forlin gasped at the pain in his own wounded arm, but he could not pull away. “You will be First Sire! It is the law, and it will be you who signs the treaty.”

“I will not! I will wait until I have passed through the Solian radiation belts, then I will contact the elders and submit my report. The decision will have to wait for another mission.”

“There is no time!” Nasc shouted. “The water… without it, three hundred years of work, three centuries of toil will be gone.”

“But the Neeskedians, Volno said…”

“Damn them! For all his wisdom, Volno could be blind, too… moral. Do you not see… soon they will… have developed… the technology anyway. Sign the treaty, make our world, Forlin… make it green! Then… we will be strong when they come. We are the superior civilisation. We must persist. The greening must go ahead, no matter… the cost.”

“Give them the weapons? We will be as good as murderers!”

“Then, we must murder so that we can teach our children that it is wrong to murder…”

“First Sire Nasc…” another alarm, piercing and insistent, began to wail.

“Forlin, sign the treaty…” Nasc’s arms slid from Forlin and he sagged back into his supports. His raw fingers left a trail of serum and blood on the crisp white of Forlin’s sling. “Sign the treaty.”

“Please, First Sire, what am I to do?”

Nasc’s breathing came hesitantly, yet his ruined lips crooked into a smile.

“A Sito, a First Sire. Who would have thought it, eh, Forlin? Who would have thought it?”

Forlin turned as the door burst open and the Neeskedian doctor rushed in, followed by two others.

“He has gone,” said Forlin quietly.

“Then you let him die in pain,” said the Neeskedian accusingly. All three glowered at Forlin.

He felt more alone than he had ever felt before.

****

The guard consulted his radio, after a hurried conversation, he stood aside, and opened the door for Forlin and his bodyguards.

The room was an evidence hangar for the Neeskedian police. In the centre sat the ruined transport, its broken components neatly arrayed about it on white plastic sheeting. Around three walls racks of plain steel shelves stood five deep, along the other a bank of glass-fronted freezers which contained the remains of the bomb’s victims, the Speklenners excepted. He had seen to that, the Neeskedian’s lack of sentimentality chilled him, he could not leave Sire Volno to be moved round like a piece of meat in this macabre jigsaw.

He hunted through the shelves until he located the Android. It lay on three separate shelves, bagged and numbered in opaque sacks. Forlin hastily ripped the biggest open, revealing its torso. The head was nowhere to be seen, but that was of no consequence. He took a digital key, disguised as a trinket, from round his neck, and ran his hands down the pitted metal of the Android’s limbless body. The access panel he was searching for was bent out of true, but it opened with a little encouragement. He pressed his thumb against the cracked glass it revealed. Light played along the length of his digit. He withdrew it and looked through the shelving. The bodyguards stood by the door, a good twenty metres away, but he whispered the words of the coded Progen anyway. He could be sure the room was bugged.

“Access 47/3 Forlin, 194398/14 DM.”

“On line, First Sire,” replied a distant metallic voice. It was cool, unconcerned, as if the machine’s state of ruination was of little note.

“The others, they are dead,” he said bleakly.

“It is known to me. Their bio-signs no longer register. Congratulations, First Sire Forlin.”

“Who did it?” he hissed.

“Unknown.”

“Hypothesise.”

“Understood. Four likely hypotheses. Hypothesis One: Disaffected members of First Nation Neeskedian society planted the bomb. Hypothesis Two…”

“Justify hypothesis one.”

“Disaffected members of First Nation Neeskedian society planted the bomb, as they see Speklen support for their leader as sole reason for his continuation in power, and they would overthrow him.”

“Give me all hypotheses. Justify your conclusions to all of them.”

“Very well,” hummed the machine, its voice barely audible. “Hypothesis Two: Members of defeated Neeskedian nations planted the bomb. Hypothesis Three: Neeskedian government itself planted the bomb. “

“Hypothesis Four?”

The machine went quiet.

“Hypothesis Four,” repeated Forlin firmly.

“Classified.”

Forlin’s blood ran cold. He checked, the bodyguards stood still by the door. “Override 97/43-1. I am the sole representative of the Speklen Elders, I hold their command.”

“Override accepted. Hypothesis Four: The bomb was planted by the third party agents of the Speklen government…”

“Impossible. Justify Hypothesis.”

“Kill members of the 32nd diplomatic mission to Neeskedia, blame the Neeskedians.”

“But I survived…” A thought struck him like a blow of ice. “Was my survival intentional?” He said suddenly.

“It is possible.”

“Why?”

“Hypothetical. If you secure a treaty and the mining rights, then Speklen will bloom. But you are inexperienced. The Elders are could use this fact to renounce your decisions without compromising their own ethics. The usage of the weapons they will feel duty bound to supply, for example. They will cite barbarism, revisit the explosion, and retrospectively suggest Hypothesis Three to the Neeskedian First Nation Government. They will use it as a pretext to break off diplomatic negotiations.”

“That,” said Forlin, “that would be a grave insult to the Neeskedians. It would lead to war.”

“Correct. War. It is likely that the Elders desire it. The trade initiatives are failing. They will not pacify the Neeskedians. They are not adopting orthodox governmental practises as deemed by the Elders necessary for stability.

“Harkeen, we armed him, helped him. Is he the cause of this projected failure?”

“That too, is a factor. Probability dictates Speklen Elders will be unable to affect lasting social change. The Neeskedians will attack within 150 standard years no matter the outcome of these and future negotiations. Projection suggests best chance of victory lies now, while planet of Neeskedia is in disarray after conquest of other four nations by Neeskedian First Nation. Against a united Neeskedia, Speklen cannot stand. Speklen must act now, but it is better that the population of Speklen see the Neeskedians as the aggressors.”

“Conclusion?”

“Conclusion,” droned the robot’s torso. “If any of these hypotheses are vindicated, war is now inevitable.”

“List the major elements of the equation that leads to Hypothesis Four.”

“Paucity of resources of Planet Neeskedia, belligerence of Neeskedian male, cultural memory of hardship, envy, need for certainty on part of Speklen Elders. The mathematics of humanity do not lie.”

“And my life? What are the mathematics of that?

“You will be feted, First Sire. You will be a hero.”

“Answer my question.”

“Irrelevant.”

Forlin bowed his head. He felt so tired. His new muscle harness chafed his neck and head where it clamped to his flesh. It pressed into his wounded shoulder, every movement was a minor agony.

“Have the Neeskedia broken our Progen code?” he said after a few moments.
“Code remains viable.”

“Then initiate core brain meltdown. They must not learn of this.”

“Confirmed. Goodbye, First Sire Forlin.”

He walked out from behind the shelves and strode as steadily as he could manage toward his bodyguards.

“I have seen what I needed to see. The machine was damaged beyond salvaging. You will accompany me back to my apartments.”

He walked out, hoping that the faint tang of burning nano circuits on the air would remain undetected.

****

The whole of the Neeskedian government sat round the conference table that only days before Forlin had shared with his countrymen. They stared at him. Stoor-karrl Harkeen at their head.

A young Neeskedian, dressed as they all were in the full regalia of the First Nation government, brought a sheet of thin bark, ornately gilded, on a lavishly decorated tray to the table in front of Forlin, another set a silver pot of charcoal ink by his right, and laid a wooden pen by that. Forlin did not move, his hand remained in the depths of his heavy sleeves. The air felt thicker and more oppressive than ever.

“Why do hesitate? Are we not agreed?” Harkeen smiled the smile of crocodiles. No Neeskedian truly smiled and meant it, Forlin had decided, but did any man smile at his enemy and mean it? “Come now, sign, it is but a small question of water, after all.”

Forlin smiled back, and reached out for the pen. As his fingers closed, Neeskedian trumpets blared. He lifted it towards the ink pot.

The pen felt as heavy as the world.

Comments
  1. [...] & KleinA timeline of the futureOmega PointReality 36Short StoriesA Small Question of WaterInterviewsAlaistair Reynolds (2007)Dario Argento (2008)Joanne Harris (2007)M John [...]

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