Story Excerpt

La Terrienne

by John Richard Trtek

 

Monsieur Picot had always found a sense of renewal in the bracing atmosphere of Unemone and so, for the third straight day, he took breakfast outside upon the promenade deck of his great wind barge as it lay docked against the seawall at Mesmauran.

Nestled atop the only genuine rattan lounger within five kiloparsecs and shaded by an aging canvas umbrella that had once been green, he lovingly studied the omelet that lay before him, its mosaic of unspecified proteins flecked with precious bits of parsley. Dining tongs in hand, the Frenchman reminded himself yet again that, an eternal absence of tarragon notwithstanding, the artistry of Cook was in itself sufficient reason to stay indentured to the Krinn—quite apart from the fact that extinction was perhaps his only practical alternative. Indeed, he had to admit, even the sumptuous family feasts of childhood, remembered so vividly from the bittersweet perspective of decades and cosmic distance, could hardly compare with these glorious repasts of the present, each assembled with diligent care to please the Chief Acquisitor and Highest Factor for the Seventeen Systems of the Shalaf Locality.

Lu lay-kukay,” he quietly intoned, invoking his favorite Maarlek wish chant.

Someday he would hit upon a truly satisfying translation of that mantra, but even without its assistance, Picot on this particular morning felt quite secure in both his immediate comforts and the prospect of their continuation. Contentedly, he glanced with idle interest through deck railings at the quay below, its familiar slate planking already alive with the usual kinetic mix of travelers, actuators, drudges, and con artists of mixed species, a never-ending flow of bodies that variously sublimated, sweated, or flaked according to lifeform. Savoring subtle interplays of ingredients so rare in this forlorn galactic armpit, the high factor kept chewing peacefully on his meal until a fellow human unexpectedly crossed his line of vision.

With amazement and a very ambivalent sense of delight, he bolted upright to better follow the loosely cloaked body plan that seemed to match his own as it retreated along the pier. Removing sunglasses before blinking four times to boost magnification, Picot quickly covered his unaugmented right eye, allowing the left to zero in and confirm his first impression: Despite a somewhat odd gait, the figure did appear to be human—a human female in particular, for gender was apparently binary and well-defined in this case, though as always age was indeterminate from such a distance.

At once, the high factor clicked teeth together twice to begin documenting.

Picot could not remember how many passages back and forth across the Seventeen Systems he had made since last glimpsing another Terran—and it had been a dead one at that. For a fact, here on Unemone itself he had never before cast eyes on a single Earth refugee in any state of health, good or bad.

Once the stranger had exited the quay through a far gate to vanish into city crowds beyond, the Frenchman again moved his jaw twice, this time to end and save the recording. He lowered the one hand and blinked three times, restoring sight to normal. By now somewhat unsettled, Picot pensively held a temple end of the sunglasses against his lips until repeated flickering at the corner of one eye stirred him.

Just above the ever-present blur that substituted for a horizon, several minor flashes—pinpricks upon the retina—were begging for the high factor’s attention, and he again donned his black frames before leaning out, almost beyond the umbrella’s protective shadow, to squint into a dazzling sky.

Disturbing the uniform glare of hot lavender, tiny sparkles of silver raced upward. Picot recognized them as a clutch of Krinn orbital ferries—no doubt the set scheduled to lift this very hour from the union port across the great bay at Guillemaat, their cargo holds packed with the latest collection of artifacts and goods approved for eventual jump shipment to his employers’ homeworld, including one of two massive chunks of jeweled sediment he had recently fingered from under the unsuspecting respiratory ducts of their Jhir excavators.

Picot thought for a moment of the second slab, now safely secreted within his stateroom’s personal vault aboard this very barge, and imagined a little smile. Then the high factor sighed, leaned back, and resumed his relationship with the omelet. Without looking up, he called to his majordomo, stationed at the far end of the deck.

“Neephas, do you presently have access to planetary customs records?”

“Of course, missoo,” droned the lithe Vishekki as they gracefully approached. “If, that is, one assumes the data desired are those relevant to Unemone alone. What categories?”

“Sentient Immigration.”

“Both transient and permanent?”

Upon a hunch, Picot said, “No, just transients.”

“Machine as well as organic?”

“You should know better, Neephas, particularly on your own homeworld,” observed the high factor with mild amusement. “Organic only, of course; there are no sentient machine visitors to be found here.”

The high technology embargo imposed by the Krinn, Jhir, and Maarleks upon Unemone and those other planets where all three species happened to share principal influence was often a source of awkward friction with the silicate sensibilities of the Autonomy, but in this instance, it simplified matters somewhat.

“As with organic beings, machine intelligences could still enter any prime race’s diplomatic redoubt with neither declaration nor penalty, so long as those entities—and their avatars—remained quarantined there,” Neephas noted primly. “Or,” they added, “be declared and then confined to such roaming entourages as are licensed by the tripartite authority.”

“A good point well taken,” Picot admitted, thinking of Cook. “However, I was referring to strays, and in any event, I am not interested in a machine entity—I think. Search for organic transients only, if you will.”

“Synthetic as well as naturally spawned?”

“Yes. In particular, though, flag only Terran arrivals of either type during the past ten years, local.”

“Ten years, missoo?” asked Neephas, as if the request had been misstated.

“Yes,” replied Picot before depositing another delicate slice of omelet in his mouth.

“Of course. Ten years, local. It is assumed missoo seeks information from all three union ports on Unemone.”

The high factor looked up and nodded as he chewed.

“Excepting the records of missoo’s own comings and goings,” the Vishekki said after a moment, “the total number of Terran visitors during the desired period is . . . nil.”

“Of course it is nil,” said Picot after swallowing. “It is nil because I am supposedly the only Terran who has ever set foot on Unemone. Indeed,” he added in a whisper, “I am the only human known to have cheated the implications of The Great Rule long enough to be noticed by anyone of significance in the totality of this cesspool called the Farther Reach.”

“The last comment was inaudible. Missoo has another request?”

“What? No, Neephas . . . or rather, yes, I do have one more wish.”

The majordomo lifted a digit to their tablet in anticipation.

“Contact all of our Mesmauran station agents,” the high factor ordered as he closed both eyes and then clenched his throat muscles twice to replay the recording on an indefinite loop—Picot wriggled his ears to mute the sound. “Have them put every available drudge on the lookout for a particular being, her incomplete description as follows . . .”

*   *   *

“Did missoo not consider that even a small contingent of Brasques might provide some degree of reassurance?” Neephas asked the high factor, who kept in the lead along a teeming streetway. The Vishekki once more made a point of brandishing their furled parasol, prompting Picot to take hold of his hat’s wide straw brim with a gloved hand to reemphasize that the headgear was in itself sufficient protection against the F5 blazing overhead.

“I am not expecting any violence,” the Terran explained. “And I wear my official jacket, after all, designating me as the prime agent of a preeminent species and thus protected by The Great Rule.” With silent irritation, he now noticed how the upper garment clashed with his habitual white trousers, which he had not taken time to exchange for the bottom portion of his Krinn uniform, for there was urgency in this errand: Picot had even postponed his first midday meal on account of it.

“And what of the safety of missoo’s entourage?” asked the majordomo with wry concern.

“Even if a disturbance of some sort were to break out, we both should be safe from harm. Remember, this is the Maarlek quarter of Mesmauran.” The human gestured at that portion of the streetway ahead of them, where members of the species just mentioned outnumbered native Vishekkis by a ratio of at least two-to-one. “If trouble erupts, all these Maarlek bystanders can be counted on to suppress it, and one or more of their peaceguards will undoubtedly be lurking about to assist. We need merely keep to those open spaces that are well populated. At least our quarry was not reported to reside in the Jhir section of town. Ah,” Picot said abruptly, “here we are already.”

He paused before a tall adobe complex that appeared to serve as a Maarlek preening house, and Neephas gave a short nasal burst.

“You may wait outside if you like,” the high factor informed his majordomo.

“One’s place is with missoo,” the Vishekki replied. “The progenitors would say thus.”

Picot gave an appreciative nod. “Around the corner we go, then,” he instructed. “To the male portal.”

Neephas made another loud exhalation and followed.

The building’s outer petal doors yielded to the slightest touch, and both visitors walked down a short surveillance corridor and into the male foyer, where a Maarlek attendant of that sex stood behind a small circular table set just below the alien’s shoulder arches. The being looked up and smoothed its feathered cloak before drawing back the garment’s edge to reveal a scabbard holding a common grabber.

“We cannot accommodate alien broods,” the attendant said mournfully in spidgin as Picot removed his sunglasses. “Our establishment is woefully under-provisioned, and the skills of our providers most deficient in the arts of offworlder maintenance.”

“I more than appreciate the limitations that you must endure,” said the high factor, extending his arms and spreading fingers. “To face such burdens without flinching and proclaim them openly is high beak indeed.”

The Maarlek cocked its head.

“Your obvious disappointment is expressed in an uncommonly polite fashion. You have spent time among us?”

“Not really,” replied Picot, exaggerating more than a little. “But in my way, I have nonetheless acquired some small understanding of my obligations to you and your sort.”

The attendant was relatively young, barely into adult stage, with a bill that was minimally abraded, and even those light scars appeared the result of ceremony rather than experience. Some lesser scion of a privileged brood, Picot supposed.

“You wear the partial livery of the Krinn,” the Maarlek observed. It more carefully studied the Frenchman, who caught flashes of intelligence in a pair of beady eyes. “You are the singular mazhoo who serves them as high factor here, are you not?”

“I am,” admitted M. Picot, somewhat surprised that a young Maarlek in a peripheral city such as Mesmauran should recognize him at all. “And I have approached you not for routine maintenance but rather to inquire after an offworld member of your entourage. I assume she is a new addition—and I know she is a Terran, like myself.”

“Ah,” said the attendant. “You must refer to Madooleek.”

“Uh, yes . . . Madelique. She is here?”

“As the being in question only recently arrived at our door unsolicited and without representation, I do not know that a regular work period has yet been assigned her. She is a lodger drudge, however, and so should be in the house rookery if currently inactive. I can summon her, if you wish. Your business is of what nature?”

“I wish to indenture this Madelique to my masters,” Picot bluntly declared. He waited for the Maarlek’s reaction.

“I must notify my chief superior in that case,” the attendant replied. It turned to go, then paused. “I leave the furnishings unguarded.”

“Your vulnerability will take you far,” said Picot, smiling with his eyes and wriggling fingers as the youngster fluffed up its cloak before leaving.

While waiting, the high factor took a quick survey of the foyer, which was rather lacking in amenities: The floor was not furred, the high table the only piece of furniture, and the room’s curving walls, here and there in need of new coating, were hung with several unimpressive fragments of jeweled sediment that collectively made for sad comparison with the two magnificent pieces he himself had recently lifted from the Jhir.

Picot’s assessment was suddenly interrupted by the unaccompanied entrance of a second male Maarlek. This being was much older than its predecessor and bore patterns of extensive beak wear strangely familiar to the high factor, though he could not place the individual in memory.

“Ah, what a delicious, unexpected surprise,” said the Maarlek, spreading its hands and quaintly employing the high common tongue instead of spidgin. “From a chasm of years, I greet you with pleasure at our reunion, Mazhoo Peecaw.”

“And I you, of course,” replied Picot, trying furiously to recall the identity of the newcomer.

“You remember me?” said the alien with some surprise as it bowed. “More often than not, I leave scant memories in the minds of those I come to know.”

“Only the brave can truly grasp the essence of being forgotten,” murmured Picot, trying to buy more time as he returned the bow.

“I am termed f’Lerekh,” said the Maarlek to Neephas as introduction.

The name, however, meant nothing to the high factor.

“For years, I was a lesser scribe at my sort’s diplomatic redoubt in Guillemaat,” the alien continued, still speaking to Neephas rather than the Frenchman, “and often received from your esteemed associate here those routine messages the Krinn would send to our emissaries.”

At last, Picot recalled the other being.

“This was, of course, when I was still but a courier for our masters,” he informed his subordinate as if he had remembered all along, before turning toward the old Maarlek without missing a beat. “I always deem it a privilege to be among those who can recount your gallant service. This is my majordomo, termed Neephas.”

“I greet you both once again. After my tenure at the redoubt ended, I decided to remain on Unemone a brief while longer and enrich myself from work of a less communal nature,” f’Lerekh explained as he gestured about the room. “That expected wealth never materialized, however, and the short stay has since become a rather lengthy exile, for my brood at home survives well enough without me, as has always been the case. Alas, they have never begged me to return to the comforts of the Central Rookery.”

“To be dispensable is the greatest burden,” Picot noted with a hidden irony only he could appreciate. “You carry it well.”

“I give thanks,” replied f’Lerekh. “And you in the meanwhile have advanced to more prestigious ranks, as is well known. Lu lay-kukay, I say to you. Indeed,” the Maarlek went on, eyeing more closely the insignia on Picot’s jacket. “I knew you had become a high factor, but I see you have now attained the most exalted rank possible in that circle—and been appointed the Krinn’s Chief Acquisitor for this locality to boot. My congratulations.”

“Your jealousy is appreciated,” said the Terran in a ritual way as he bowed.

“My young associate informs me that you wish to co-opt the services of our Madoo­leek.”

“That is correct.”

“Alas, she was taken on with high hopes that her unique—well,” f’Lerekh corrected as he again bowed to Picot, “that her almost unique, Terran origin would attract additional patrons. Thus, we gave her employment despite the lack of an immigration chip—something that I trust you will not see fit to report to the tripartite authority.”

“I cannot report what has, ah, never been mentioned to me,” the high factor assured the alien. “After all, there is no deliberate desire to weaken your entourage, though I know such will be the effect of removing Madelique from this establishment.”

“Our operation here is already rather pathetic as it stands,” f’Lerekh noted wistfully. He sniffed—as much as was possible—through his beak. “Losing another link in an almost nonexistent chain will have little effect. As you are well aware, our sort does not employ the formal vise of obligatory contract, as do the Jhir and your own masters. You need only convince Madooleek herself, for she is free to come and go as she wishes, though it is not clear to me that she fully appreciates that fact yet. Shall I summon her?”

“If you are willing to take on that obligation, yes.”

“It shall be done. Pardon me for failing to employ a grabber,” said the old Maarlek, who waddled to the small circular table and tapped several times with a bare digit on the command screen embedded in its surface. “By this time in life, I have grown rather tired of adhering to everyday etiquette and official protocols. Similarly, I now keep my distance from tribal politics, but I assume your battles on behalf of the Krinn against the Jhir and my own sort continue unabated.”

“They do,” the high factor confirmed. “The Jhir in particular have become most troublesome of late, especially here on Unemone.”

“At times, during my term in the old redoubt, I observed them to be as obstinate and uncompromising as your own masters.”

“They remain so,” said Picot. “Both the Jhir and the Krinn, for that matter. Despite its usual attractions, I will not regret departing this planet for a time in order to continue my rounds on Chemereff, which is, happily, a locality world where the Jhir at least have no foothold, let alone a governing presence. However, my hardships obviously pale before the woes you must endure here every day.”

The alien bowed yet again before stepping away from the table.

“Madooleek was indeed in the rookery,” f’Lerekh said. “She has been summoned and should arrive shortly. May I offer you some share of a small meal? It would take but a moment to prepare one for consumption, and I will be more than happy to claim a portion and then regurgitate for you.”

“That is most kind,” Picot gingerly replied. “Sadly, I am already sated, having consumed before setting out for your establishment. I shall hold you to it the next time we meet, however.”

“But of course.”

“I noticed your displays of sediment on the walls,” the high factor said, wishing to change the subject as quickly as possible. “They were pulled from the HeDaan formations, were they not?”

“Oh yes,” said f’Lerekh wearily. “From the northern end of those deposits.”

“Ah, the prime section for uncovering the best portions.”

“These, sadly, are obviously specimens of much lesser value,” the Maarlek modestly noted. “No doubt you have come in contact with far more exquisite samples in your time.”

“In fact, I recently did view from a distance a pair of massive pieces from the very same fields, both in excellent condition. . . .”

Their small talk continued a short while longer, and then into the foyer glided she whom Picot had first set eyes upon two days before. Viewed in full and at close quarters, Madelique’s face, framed by flowing black hair, expressed the very essence of old Earth. Her eyes, however, held a look that betrayed an even stronger affinity for the otherworldly. At first, Picot assumed that particular air of strangeness to be merely symptomatic of the woman’s recent experiences, which no doubt had been harsh ones. After a moment, though, as his attention drifted to her service uniform, that perspective abruptly changed.

Madelique’s present garment was much more tight-fitting than the one worn on the pier when the high factor had initially glimpsed her, and its severe outlines made Picot’s error all too evident to him: The ratio of leg bone lengths was quite wrong, an abnormality even more pronounced for the corresponding proportion in the arms. Then, as Madelique spread hands in greeting, accompanied by a seemingly impossible rotation of her wrists, the Frenchman caught sight of odd flanges on the sides of both palms, each the awkward reminder of an extraneous digit that apparently had been excised.

Picot silently cursed himself for not having kept a clearer mind during that fateful breakfast. He now realized that, rather than pining for tarragon, he should have studied the recording more closely and not allowed an aimless hope to overpower his natural inclination toward caution, for it was now evident that he confronted a problem entirely different than previously supposed.

Madelique, it appeared, was not human after all.

*   *   *

“From Baradeen, you say?”

Monsieur Picot leaned against the deck railing and peered down at that section of the quay where he had first spotted her.

“Yes,” replied Neephas, holding up their tablet so that its screen was visible. “Seemingly of early adult phase and female by the common standard. The first routine, oral samples taken suggested a Terran origin, but those subsequently lifted from other portions made clear her biology is that of Baradeen instead. Closer examination by Ship’s Doctor revealed that cloned glands of missoo’s species had been implanted in the mouth cavity as decoys.”

“That was an inept and rather half-hearted attempt at obfuscation on the part of her modifiers. Well, given the rarity of humans in the Farther Reach, they probably thought they could get away with it. And for the same reason, I suppose, they did not trouble to alter her limb structure, either, perhaps thinking they could pass that off as a sexual dimorphism. Tell me, did the secondary samples taken from her—the Baradeeni ones—enable any individual identification as well?”

“Yes, with a likelihood just short of certain. The greater part of her underlying form appears genetically identical to that of a missing Baradeeni transient whose native designation was Yllafin ai-bannay.”

Picot nodded. “Yllafin without-lineage. A foundling: how convenient. And that individual came to Unemone . . . ?”

“During this very season, as organic transport on a Maarlek container jumpship that originated in the Qanotaph system.”

“Which lies, from Unemone, in a direction opposite that of Baradeen.”

“Yes, that is true, but other than that genetic data taken upon arrival, there is no other information available about her, for according to customs records, when the one designated Yllafin ai-bannay disappeared in Guillemaat within twelve local days of setting foot on Unemone, her immigration chip stopped broadcasting as well. Presumably it was extracted, destroyed, and not replaced with a counterfeit, for the being currently in custody proved completely devoid of implants.”

“Other than the biologics.”

“Yes, other than the biologics. But to continue, it was several phases after the aforementioned loss of signal from Yllafin’s immigration chip that missoo ran across her here on the Mesmauran docks—”

“In superficially human form under the name of Madelique, if it is the same being rather than a clone itself. You cannot disguise genetics as easily as a designation, but ways still exist of confusing it. And there is evidence of memory tampering, you indicated.”

“Only conjectural as opposed to the conclusive, missoo. While evincing no apparent knowledge or recollection of Baradeen, she continues to claim Terran identity and has offered a profusion of random comments concerning missoo’s native world during the ongoing interview on board. Every remark is being recorded for assessment, of course, but missoo must be the final judge of their accuracy. From the point of view of external observation, however, it is certainly true that professed memory is not consistent with presumed planetary origin.”

“And so the tentative answer to the question of memory tampering is ‘very probably’?” said Picot.

Neephas shrugged. “Until she can be given a proper neurocephalon scan in Guillemaat, correct.”

“And is there anything else?” asked the Frenchman. “Have you lifted any information of value from the Maarleks, for instance?”

“From the public Maarlek records?”

“I’m speaking of their planetary security records.”

“Why no, missoo,” replied the Vishekki. “To have probed that classified database would have required use of the illicit connections missoo has previously established with it. Discretion demanded—”

“What it demanded. Yes, I commend you,” Picot said. “It was prudent to not act on your own but rather wait for my permission, which I now grant. Proceed to dip into the Maarlek confidential data stores.”

“This moment, missoo?”

“Yes, please.”

“That will require use of the wind barge’s central lobe,” Neephas observed, “and to draw enough computational power to ensure sufficient stealth, several nonessential nodes will have to be temporarily disabled as well. Cook, for example. Missoo’s next meal may be greatly delayed, perhaps until the morrow or beyond.”

“Preparing my own food in the interim will be an extreme sacrifice, but a necessary one. Do it, Neephas,” the high factor sighed. “And until I indicate otherwise, our Yllafin is to be called Madelique and treated as if she truly were from Terra, with valid memories of that world. Understood?”

“Understood, missoo.”

“Good,” Picot remarked as he saw a Vishekki barge hand guide his newest crewmember onto the promenade deck. “Report to me at once upon concluding your information dive, Neephas. Oh, and have preparations been accelerated to allow departure by morning?”

“Captain has been so programmed, missoo.”

“Excellent. We’ll dispense with our usual lazy cruise along the coastline and instead head straight across the bay to Guillemaat to make up for lost time—and to meet the urgency of this new concern.”

The majordomo nodded and then turned to go, passing Madelique and the deck hand as they approached. Picot allowed the pair to come closer before amiably gesturing for the escort to depart, leaving the human and modified Baradeeni alone with one another.

“You are satisfied with your quarters?” the high factor asked in spidgin as he wandered over to the seaward side of the barge.

The other being nodded as she followed.

“Yes. You treat your passengers very well.”

“In truth, my dear, you are no passenger.”

The alien frowned in her way.

“I am afraid you cannot be taken on as an idle tourist,” Picot explained. “You see, the Krinn do not allow that practice aboard this or any other of their vessels, and they always examine my log books rather closely. No, the only way to transport you across the bay is as a working deck hand of some sort, though that imposition should be considered but a temporary posting until we arrive at Guillemaat. Unless you decide to remain on this vessel for good, your permanent station is more likely to be in that city—indeed, within the Krinn diplomatic redoubt itself, if you like.”

“It is possible to choose?”

Madelique, née Yllafin, spoke in that high-pitched, unearthly voice that Picot nonetheless found to be a perfect complement to her makeshift Terran face. He suggested they stroll back across the deck to lounge under the faded umbrella, but in response she gestured at the near railing, where both were already poised. “I have been sitting inside during much of this latest passage of time,” she informed him. “Might I remain standing here for the moment?”

“But of course.”

“Ah, and so it is as you said,” she remarked with what he took to be an expression of amusement. “It is possible to choose.”

“Sometimes,” Picot replied cautiously. “Sometimes and in certain instances. We shall stay in place then, as per your wish,” he indicated from under the wide brim of his favorite straw hat, eyes still hiding behind sunglasses. “There is a nice view of the bay, if nothing else.”

She approached the edge of the deck and reached out with abnormally long forearms to grasp its horizontal railings. Throwing back her uncovered head, Madelique took in a deep breath of sea air and exhaled.

“Do you not wish any . . . protection?” the high factor asked, lifting one white jacket sleeve skyward.

She shook her head.

“No gloves or eyewear? Not even a suncap?”

“No. I am quite comfortable, but thank you.”

“A Terran would be wise to employ such precautions,” suggested Picot, maintaining the fiction of her origin, though he knew such advice was unnecessary for one of her species. “As you can see, I myself tend to be rather careful here on Unemone, as well as those other locality worlds possessing suns more radiant than my—than our native one. Chemereff or Baradeen, for example. Have you ever been transported to either of them?”

“No, mazhoo.”

“Monsieur,” he corrected, eyes narrowing.

“Mon-sieur.”

Picot made himself smile again. He paused for a moment, watching her gaze out at the bay with a dreamy expression.

“Are you reminded of something?”

“Some location on Terra,” Madelique said. “Though I cannot decide exactly which one.”

“Do you find yourself frequently reminiscing, now that you are out here in the wilds of the Farther Reach? I understand that you spoke a great deal of home to those on my staff who showed you around the barge earlier.”

“I enjoyed telling them what little I could remember about myself and my past. They listened, but in turn related nothing about themselves—or you.”

As they had been instructed, Picot reminded himself.

“Will you do that now?” Madelique asked. “Tell me something about yourself? And more about this new life that you offer me? At the Maarlek house, you gave me such a wonderful list of privileges I would enjoy if I agreed to be of service to you.”

“Of service to the Krinn.”

“Yes, to the Krinn. It seemed so advantageous to become part of this entourage instead of remaining with the Maarleks, even though they had invited me to join their house in the first place.”

“Oh? They solicited your employment, then?”

“Well, one of their kind suggested I go to and apply to them, yes.”

“I see.” Picot thought for a moment. “Have you resided in Mesmauran very long?”

“I do not know.”

The Frenchman looked at her questioningly, then his expression changed to one of concern.

“Ah yes,” he said, “you mentioned that you had related to my staff what little you could remember. That implies there are many things you cannot, eh?”

“The only clear memories I have are recent ones. Indeed, my very first detailed recollection is one of aimlessly walking these piers along the seawall just four days ago, before suddenly realizing that I held permits for a small cubicle at an offworlder compound. It was there at the compound that I met the Maarlek who discreetly suggested I apply at the preening house. Before that, everything is disjointed in my mind, and I do not know why. But we Terrans always suffer somehow here in this region called the Reach, do we not? That is what the Maarlek told me: that we Terrans always suffer.”

“Yes,” the high factor replied carefully. “I suspect that was actually meant as a compliment, but it is one way of expressing some particular truths. Do you think you might have experienced a trauma of sorts, leading to partial amnesia?”

“I cannot say. But please, you were going to tell me more of yourself, monsieur.”

“Was I?”

“Yes, monsieur.”

He joined her in looking out across the bay. “Well, if I have much to say about myself, it will not be about my past or the homeworld.”

“And so you do not remember, either?”

Picot shrugged, trying to hide any bitterness. “I remember all too well,” he said evenly. “No, you see, for me Earth is simply . . . very far away—and not just in time and distance.”

Madelique cocked her head and made an odd expression.

“Earth?”

The Frenchman turned and stared into her face.

“Terra,” he said after a moment. “Terra is far away.”

“Oh yes,” she responded quickly, looking down. “Terra is very far away now.”

“What homeland are you from?” he asked, idly noting that her skin was even darker than his own. “Calee? Headlands of Hope? Perhaps the Peaceful Archipelagos?”

Madelique frowned and remained silent.

“All very old and obscure, yes,” Picot said quickly, seeking to gloss over her seeming embarrassment at being ignorant of Terran geography. “I can never keep them straight myself—except for Pravanne, which is the venerable region from which I come. However, I was about to tell you about the range of possible assignments available for you in Guillemaat.”

“You were?”

“Yes,” he said with another forced smile. “And that is but a portion of the full list of options, for as promised, you will eventually be able to choose from among all the openings the Krinn mission offers over the entirety of this planet . . .”

*   *   *

“And so it was a dead finish, as missoo would describe it?”

“What, Neephas?” Monsieur Picot turned from the fore railing of his wind barge’s observation deck as the vessel ploughed across the bay, its hurried transit to Guillemaat now more than half finished. “What did you say?”

“The matter of Madelique. It was all dead . . . dead ends, was it not? Or is missoo’s term ‘false alarm’ more appropriate?”

“I don’t know that either phrase applies, Neephas. To begin, it is hardly a dead end yet.”

“How so?”

“There is still the matter of her template to consider,” the high factor said. “The Jhir had to have access to a human body—or human tissues at least—in order to implant colonies of cloned Terran genetic material into Madelique. Moreover, given the exquisitely human aspects of the face and hair they sculpted for her, as well as the genuinely native name they bestowed on her, it must have been a living, conscious being they worked from. That in turn makes me hope it is not a false alarm in its way, either, so that the human template might still be among us.”

“And thus . . .” Neephas thought for a moment. “And thus capable of being rescued by missoo.”

“Correct.”

“There is one additional question for missoo,” said the majordomo.

Picot raised his eyebrows.

“Missoo seems to take for granted it was the Jhir who fashioned the Baradeeni into a hybrid.”

“Who else could it have been?” the high factor said. “Your own search of the Maarlek security database yielded absolutely nothing about the being who calls herself Madelique. As for her presumed prior identity as, as . . .”

“Yllafin ai-bannay.”

“Yes,” Picot went on, “there are but two items regarding that earlier Baradeeni self in the Maarlek security archives, you said, one being her certification of arrival on Unemone and the second the subsequent loss of signal from her immigration chip, both already noted in the public record. The Maarleks appear to know absolutely nothing more about either incarnation or the connection between them—and trust me, Neephas, we have access to every piece of information the Maarleks possess on this planet, even their most secret. Thus, since in the meantime I am the one and only being who controls all Krinn operations here—”

“With a stone fist.”

“Yes, exactly,” Picot amiably agreed. “That leaves only the Jhir as possible perpetrators. Still, it seems odd that, according to the Baradeeni female, it was some unknown Maarlek who suggested she go and seek employment at the preening house, while the Maarleks working there insist she showed up at their door unsolicited.”

“And so it is presumed the Jhir brought a Terran to Unemone—directly to their own Guillemaat redoubt, without providing declaration of entry, just as they could a machine intelligence? And then, at some point, in the same city, they abducted Yllafin as well?”

“Yes, and it was they who then must have used my fellow human—undoubtedly named Madelique herself—to modify that poor soul from Baradeen so as to appear at first glance to be from Earth. Since she was on her own when we came across her, I assume this Yllafin somehow escaped the Jhir, though I suppose they might have released her voluntarily—though if they did, it must have been for something of value in exchange. Either way, she lost virtually all of her personal memories in the process, and how and why she then turned up in Mesmauran is any creature’s guess. To be sure, she herself has no inkling of her own true origins.”

“But for what cause was the hybridization executed in the first place?”

The high factor smiled cynically.

“Remember that my fellow humans are all too scarce here,” he answered. “Add to that the hard, cold fact that all living matter has some market value in any region of the Arm, but especially here within the Reach—organisms being dearer than mere tissue, and rare organisms even more so. The Maarleks, for example, were quite happy to take the Baradeeni on at the preening house because she was thought to be Terran, in hopes her supposed singular origin would attract more clients.” The high factor sighed. “She is incredibly lucky their interests did not lie in a more clinical, biochemical direction. That, after all, is the more common practice with obscure lifeforms.”

“Thus, while not of a rare type herself, Yllafin was refashioned in order to appear so to the unsuspecting?”

“The word is scam, Neephas, in case you’ve a desire to add to your burgeoning knowledge of Terran patois.”

“All thanks are given. But to return to the matter of the template being: The laws of Terra compel missoo to find and secure it, do they not?”

“The travel protocols of my species demand that sensible rescue attempts be made when a fellow human is in danger or under duress outside the home system and its protectorates, yes, and I would be bound to follow those strictures were I a free Terran,” said Picot. “However, as I have been for some time an indentured servant of the Krinn, that legal requirement is moot.”

“Ah, and so missoo acts from moral obligation alone.” The majordomo nodded. “That is admirable.”

“In truth, Neephas, my motivations are anything but moral.”

The Vishekki curled their lip patches.

“I do act in part out of curiosity, I admit, but that is a purely objective tropism. And I am governed by another inclination as well, one also independent of ethics. Whatever course of action I eventually take with respect to either the alien woman or her human template—should we ever find the latter—will depend on which impulse turns out to be the more compelling.”

Neephas again waited for explanation, but when none appeared forthcoming, they said, “Missoo is being opaque.”

“By now you should realize that I often am,” Picot declared as he caught sight of the Baradeeni refugee at the prow of the main deck below, bringing up the rear of a cleansing party. “And you said our new crew member was eventually assigned as a stowage assistant on the middle orlop deck?”

“Yes, missoo, with customary obligations in the realm of maintenance.”

Picot grunted.

“No complaints, from either her or her supervising mate?”

“None, missoo.”

“And how does she spend her spare time?”

“In conversation with Ship’s Librarian.”

“Really? What do they talk about?”

“She asks repeatedly about Terra, missoo.”

“But nothing concerning Baradeen?”

“No.”

Picot sighed. “That is a shame,” he whispered. “I had hopes some real memories might begin returning to her. Instead, she inquires after Earth.”

“Which becomes an even greater shame because missoo has never entered any Terran-relevant data into Ship’s Librarian,” said Neephas circumspectly. “Or any of the masters’ other libraries, if it may be said.”

“It may not be said again. Instead, we need to somehow encourage an interest in her own native planet,” the high factor insisted.

He watched from far above as the being calling herself Madelique efficiently unpacked a scrubber unit kit from its case and began assembling the pieces.

“When we arrive at Guillemaat, she will be installed in the redoubt for the time being, pending her final choice of assignment. Some temporary position not too taxing, where she can be kept out of view and easily monitored. I’ll speak to Neeshet about it when we arrive.”

“To provide the Steward of the Redoubt with some small bit of useful responsibility?”

Picot smiled.

“Well, you keep complaining that your sibling performs only the minimum necessary to fulfill the obligations of their post, particularly when you are off planet with me.”

The Vishekki shrugged.

“Another trait for which additional apologies are required. There is, of course, immense gratitude directed toward missoo for the generosity displayed in providing employment for—”

“No need to keep bringing it up, Neephas,” said Picot. “It’s the least I could do to help repay the debt. I do sometimes wish, however, that your kin were as efficient and deft as you.”

“Neeshet may be spoken to yet again, if missoo desires.”

The high factor again gently smiled, this time shaking his head.

“No. As long as we can keep the steward’s shortcomings from getting back to the Krinn, I am satisfied.”

Picot then fell silent for a moment as he watched the alien woman use the scrubber to clean a swath of deck planking.

“I am still wondering, though,” he said after studying her at length, “wondering when and how to tell Madelique the full truth about herself—and how to direct her interest back toward her own native world. It must all be done before we depart Unemone, of course, but I remain uncertain how to raise those subjects with her. Kekku gelanna,” Picot whispered.

“Missoo?”

“What? Oh, nothing. Just one of—”

“Missoo’s Maarlek affectations?”

“Uh, yes, Neephas. I suppose one could call it that. I was just wishing for the power of judgment, was all.”

“Missoo will no doubt be able to make such challenging decisions unaided by superstition, especially superstitions not of his race.”

“The conclusive assessment of memory tampering can be undertaken simultaneously with the installation of a new immigration chip, can it not?” Picot asked, not responding to the majordomo’s comment.

“Such a ruse will not be difficult, missoo.” Neephas said. “Moreover, the latter procedure will of course be reported to the tripartite authority as merely the replacement of a damaged—”

Their tablet suddenly chimed, and the Vishekki glanced at the device, tapped it with one digit, and then looked up at the high factor. “It is a message from Guillemaat. The Jhir are requesting an audience with missoo in their redoubt as soon as possible after this barge has docked. The topic is to be stolen sediments.”

Picot took a deep breath of sea air, savoring its bouquet of mineral salts, and then smiled, this time wistfully.

“Ah, so my little coup did not go unnoticed after all,” he said. “Well, on the positive side, I suppose that saves me the effort of arranging a meeting with them to discuss Madelique, Yllafin, or whoever she was, is, or will be. But more importantly, Neephas, has Cook been rebooted yet?”

 

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