Malum in Se

“Malum in Se”

by Deborah L. Davitt

Tanoute Atalia woke from her nightmare as she always did, sweating and flailing. Violet afterimages of the explosion, the dark, alien shapes of the boarding party-

She sat up in the dark. Set her feet on the industrial-grade carpet beside her bunk, and settled her face in her hands, noting as always that the sensation from the artificial one was dimmer than from her natural nerve endings.

“Good morning,” Lila, her AI assistant, chirped from her wrist-pad. “It’s nineteen, station time.”

“What’s that in real hours?”

“In your words, ‘sometime next week.’” Lila parroted Tanoute’s tones flawlessly.

“Remind me why I got the smart-alec personality module for you?” Tanoute asked acidly, padding to the lavatory as Lila brought the ambient lights up.

“Again in your words: ‘I want something that distracts me from myself.’”

“Yeah, right.” Tanoute splashed water on her face. “So the time is . . . ?”

“Four-fifteen GMT,” Lila replied primly. “You’ve had a sadly deficient five hours of sleep, and are not scheduled to go back on duty until three.”

“I’ll go in early. No sense trying to sleep after I’ve had that dream.” Tanoute stared at her hands in the washbasin. Military-grade prosthetic on the left; the lack of pores and hair a dead giveaway.

“Whatever you say,” Lila muttered.

Tanoute suppressed a smile. “Before you have what I’m sure will be a properly nutritious breakfast,” the AI added, “you received several transmissions overnight. All from family, none marked urgent.”

Tanoute grimaced as she fastened her uniform and settled her taser and low-velocity slug-thrower in her belt. “Those can wait,” she decided. “Why don’t you take a few revs to check yourself for viruses?”

Lila’s splutter vibrated against Tanoute’s wrist. “Viruses! You just want to get breakfast without me pointing out the carbohydrate count.”

Tanoute grinned, feeling better already. “Guilty as charged. Now shut down, please.”

Outside her quarters, she strode along the curving floor of the habitat ring, feeling gravity, simulated by centripetal force, keeping her anchored to the floor. A glance out one of the windows that showed the outside of the station always slowed her steps.

Above her head, she could see the stationary cylindrical shape of the station’s original body, largely unchanged from when it had been built to serve as a platform for the peace accords. These days, the original station remained a secure docking area for ships, which entered the cylinder through massive hatches on either of its two flat faces. The main generators also were housed in that cylinder. The habitat rings, seven of them, rolled around the cylindrical core like a Ferris wheel, with elevators in the connecting spokes.

The habitat rings radiated out, gradually increasing the effective gravity from about .25 g in the inner rings, to about 1.25 at the outermost. Where she stood in D-ring, she experienced Earth-like gravity—somewhat burdensome, as she’d been raised on Mars.

As she watched, the view rotated and Fomalhaut’s blue-white glare came into view from the other side of the station, blinding her. A shock of errant memory—violet afterimages. Shapes appearing out of the glare-

And then she turned away, resolutely.

An hour later, eating protein slices that a 3D-printer had declared would ‘taste and feel like real bacon!’ she read her case files. Six years as military police after the injury. Four years as Colonial Security on Mars. And now, working Station Sec, and behold: Aliens pickpocket, mug, and assault each other just as much as humans do.

She choked on her synthtea as a clawed hand landed on her shoulder. “Not supposed to be on duty yet,” a voice told her.

“You move too damned quietly, Tashlak,” she accused, mopping the hot drink from her desk. Six months on the job, and she still wasn’t sure how she felt about serving with a Sei’azhi. Just ask my subconscious. It’s got all kinds of opinions. The nightmare kept flickering at the edges of her mind this morning.

Tashlak, her senior detective and partner, tilted his head to the side, his yellow bird-of-prey eyes unreadable before he padded to the cleaning cubby and emerged with an additional rag. “Apologies,” the Sei’azhi male told her. “Didn’t mean to startle.”

Tanoute, having grown up on Mars, had learned English at colonial schools. Her family had spoken Coptic at home in an effort to resurrect a language that had almost died out in the seventeenth century. But while she’d done her best to pick up the dominant Sei’azhi dialect, it all sounded like chirps and trills to her.

Tashlak, however, picked up words in any language she used around him—rapidly. Most Sei’azhi tended to drop the pronouns that were implied with endings in their own tongue, but Tashlak showed even more facility in human languages than normal for his species. He made an effort to use the pronouns that others of his species left out.

“Lost in thought,” Tanoute replied, tossing the sodden rag into the cleaning bin. Disregarding his concern, she squinted at him. “Tashlak, are you growing in your feathers?” Tiny golden stubs had appeared alongside the spines that made up his crest. Sei’azhi get five o’clock shadow?

He snorted. “Yes. Divorce went through last month. Also, have detective rank now. Not constrained by regulations or by need to please a mate.” Tashlak raked a claw along his crest.

She blinked. A fully-feathered crest was a mark of rank among the Sei’azhi, she knew. His wife, however, remained a sore topic, which she avoided. “Anything new come in?”

“In the four hundred station revolutions since you clocked out?” Another head-tilt. “One case, yes. Unfortunate.” He took a seat across from her. The harsh overhead lights couldn’t dull the cobalt of his scales, or the gold strips rippling throughout. Male Sei’azhi didn’t wear much in the way of clothing if they weren’t in armor; shirts would impede the long crest that ran from their heads to their tails from communicating emotion and social nuances. As such, he wore a pair of trousers, a belt for his slug-thrower, and boots.

“Unfortunate how?”

“Probable murder on B ring. Tarukhxi victim—Urdkak Nessu.”

She studied the new file. Most of her work to date had involved mediating disputes between humans and Sei’azhi. “I’ve never had a Tarukhxi case before. Was the late Urdkak Nessu male or female?”

“Female,” he replied, his eyelids flicking in a silent laugh. “At this point, anyway.”

She grimaced. “Anything else I should know? So that I don’t open my big human mouth and say the wrong thing?”

Needle-sharp teeth, bared in an emulation of a human smile. “Big human mouth is charming. Often gets more results from suspects out of shock at bad manners than can be found with tact.”

“Oh, thank you,” Tanoute replied sourly. “I live for compliments like these.”

Taking the elevator to C ring, she could feel the gravity becoming lighter, and fidgeted. You’re not going to fall ceiling-ward, nitwit.

Still, she caught Tashlak’s glance at her. Sei’azhi and their notion of unit wellness. They really do think that anyone who works together is One-of-Many. That’s even what they’ll call themselves, in place of a name, sometimes. Except I’m not one of their many, damnit. Tanoute ignored his unspoken query as she stepped off the elevator into the new habitat ring.

They wended their way through the compartments to the living quarters. Residents hustled out of their way. Some humans in the exoskeletons that spoke of origins on Luna, Callisto Station, or the asteroid belt. Sei’azhi, ducking their crests and lowering their tails in deference to a person of higher rank and authority than their own.

And, of course, Tarukhxi. Compared to the Sei’azhi, whose males topped two meters before the crests, the Tarukhxi seemed tiny. Their males usually didn’t usually reach 1.5 meters, though their females were taller and heavier. Where the Sei’azhi occupied a nebulous area between reptile and avian, the Tarukhxi hovered between fish and amphibian, with bulging eyes that protruded from the tops of their heads. Their mouths, filled with peg-like teeth, occupied half of their faces, and while they were bipedal, they had a particularly slump-shouldered walk that suggested that they’d be more at home in water.

Tanoute took a deep breath, and wished she hadn’t as she caught the odor of swampy, fetid water. “What is that?” she muttered.

“Communal bathing pool. Social center of Tarukhxi life,” he informed her, his tone stolid. “Leave human preconceptions at the door.”

“Trying,” she replied, following him to where a compartment door had been sealed off with yellow crime tape.

Another officer—a female Sei’azhi, from her more muted, maroon-and-taupe scales—was talking to the family comfortingly. A father and . . . five kids? People back home would grump over a family that, what with population controls. . . .

She tried to push her preconceptions away and observed. Studied the black, red, and yellow markings on exposed, mucous-slick skin. Watched how their eyes moved, tongues flickered. “Will take it from here,” Tashlak told the female officer. She nodded, saluted crisply, and retreated.

Tanoute saw five expressions crinkle as the female left. “I am Detective Tashlak khetu’hauk’Arak sizhak’hauk’Sarusa,” Tashlak said in his own language, the long string of affiliations that made up a Sei’azhi name.

That’s right. The Tarukhxi have been Sei’azhi allies for close to a century. Of course they speak his language. Grimly, she woke Lila up, and the AI commenced a scrawl of translation across her field of vision through the chip embedded in Tanoute’s brainstem, the internal HUD a legacy from her life as a shipboard Marine.

“This is Detective Tanoute Atalia,” Tashlak went on. “Could you tell us where you all were for the past four hundred revolutions?”

The elder male wrung his hands—long, spatulate fingers, with webbing rising as far as the middle knuckle. “We gave our statements to the female officer—”

“Father, you know that the Sei’azhi don’t see any distinction between genders.” The oldest son put a protective hand on his father’s shoulder. “Also, Detective Atalia there is a human female.”

The father turned towards her, his eyes flickering. “Really? Haven’t met many humans,” he babbled now. “I work for my wife’s company, but only part-time.” A rapid-fire series of blinks, and then he added, “Too much time needed to look after the children.”

Tanoute tried not to blink herself, realizing she was the Tarukhxi male’s sole focus now. It unnerved her. The two-meter form of Tashlak beside her might as well have been invisible.

“Please answer Detective Tashlak’s questions,” she managed in Sei’azhi, taken aback. “Where was each member of the family? Can anyone—” A frantic tap at her wrist pad brought up the correct word, “corroborate your activities?” She cleared her throat now; the rasping hiss that had ended that word had scraped her soft palate. “Also, I didn’t catch your name . . . .?”

A cough from Tashlak. The husband’s pale green tongue darted in and out of his mouth. “Urdku Nessil is my name currently, of course,” he explained slowly and politely. “Because my wife was Urdkak Nessu. Our sons are Urdku Nessil Ero, Kavo, Nevo . . .” A look at his sons, full of concern and resignation.

The translation flickered across Tanoute’s vision, and she stifled a curse. His name is the possessive form of his wife’s. Indicating that he belongs to her? And each of their children has the same possessive inflection, and they’re not named. They’re numbered. One through five. No wonder they’re defaulting to addressing the female officer on scene. Her eyes flicked towards Tashlak. Still, I’m not here to make them comfortable. These people could just as easily be suspects as grieving family members.

She cleared her throat. “While you give Detective Tashlak your statements, I would like to see the crime scene.”

Inside, the heat and humidity hit her and she choked on clouds of steam as much as on the smell of a rapidly-decomposing body. Fernlike fronds grazed her head and she ducked, getting a confused impression of hundreds of potted plants, coupled with a low ceiling. Having grown up in Cydonia Colony’s tunnels, she didn’t have claustrophobia, but she still edged away from all that profligate green. The only time she’d seen plants in a natural setting had been when she and her squad had landed for a ground assault on a Sei’azhi colony.

Moving further into the dense steam, she found that where a human family would have had sofas and chairs, the living area seemed to be dominated by a huge hot tub, sunk into the tile floor.

A human lab technician, short and dark-skinned, looked up from where he was mapping the turquoise splatters of Tarukhxi blood on the walls. His coveralls clung to his underarms and chest, sweat-soaked. “Howdy, Detective. You look green.”

“I feel that way, too.”

“Walking into one of their houses always does it to me, too,” he said sympathetically. “Take a couple of deep breaths and tell yourself there’s a cold shower waiting for you at home.”

“Thanks, Simmons,” Tanoute said, wiping her face. “Am I good to walk in here?”

“Yeah, already tried for reconstructive motion scans to see if we could replicate the attack in thermographic imagery. They’re cold-blooded, so they match the room temperature, so no detectable trails in this hothouse. No DNA found yet that doesn’t match the family. So just watch your step, and you’ll be fine.”

She edged forward, avoiding anything marked out with evidence tags on the tile floor. “What have you got besides the corpse itself?” Tanoute asked, looking at the female Tarukhxi face-down on the floor in front of her. “Lila, get a visual recording of everything, and audio of this conversation, please.”

“On it, boss,” the AI chirped.

The lab tech shrugged, standing up so that she could see his eyes—pale aqua, startling in a face coffee-bean dark. Between that and his height, she had him pegged for Apollonian—the heavy gravity of that world had demanded that its colonists embrace genemods early in its colonization. “Female vic,” he said, his tone crisp, “about 1.67 meters in height, but over a hundred kilos. Hit on the back of the head with one of these flowerpots, by a right-handed assailant, with enough force to crack the skull. But it was the impact of the skull against the edge of the pool that the ME thinks was the cause of death. Flowerpot doesn’t tell us much. Frogs don’t have fingerprints—”

“What did you just say?” Tanoute’s voice snapped taut.

Abashed, the tech looked away. “Tarukhxi, that is.”

She nodded. “Please continue.”

Rattled, Simmons cleared his throat. “Ah, ME put the time of death somewhere between 16:50 and 17:90 station time.”

She nodded.  “That’s a wide window.” Over two hours.

“The ambient temperature’s high in here. It’s making decomposition speed up. As you can smell.” He grimaced.

“Only one blow?” Tanoute asked, raising her eyebrows. “Most crimes of passion, you see multiple strikes. Well, among humans, anyway.” Leave my preconceptions behind. Except those preconceptions are what let me find patterns. . . . “Who called it in?”

“The husband. Sounds pretty shaken on the emergency call. Said he’d been out doing some shopping, and came home to find her like this. Said the younger kids had been asleep in their pools upstairs, and that the eldest was with him. Shopping. At close to station midnight.” Simmons rolled his eyes. “Course, they don’t have the same sleep patterns as we do.”

It’s so thin an alibi, it might even be true. “Lila, check station records, please,” Tanoute murmured. “Any purchases by Urdku Nessil or his son, Ero, in the last twelve hours?”

“Working on it,” Lila replied cheerfully. After a pause, she added, “Three transactions. The earliest at 16:90, with the last at 18:15. Doctor’s office, a pharmacy, and then groceries. Medical files are covered by privacy locks, but the Sei’azhi physician who saw them didn’t report injuries to the patient seen.”

In other words, they’re not in the clear, unless that time of death can be narrowed down.

After a pause, Lila added, “Eldest son has been to the emergency clinic five times in two years for contusions and a broken arm. These were flagged as suspicious, and records sent to Child Services for follow-up, but they had yet to be investigated due to Tarukhxi cultural constraints.”

At that moment, Tashlak joined them, looking down at the body and the surrounding area somberly. “Always leave your partners to handle the interviews?” he asked as Tanoute fought the urge to put a little extra space between them. You know him. It’s just that the visibility in this sauna sucks, and you’re on edge. He’s not the enemy.

She put on a grin she didn’t feel. “I figured I’d reinforce their respect for me by acting as if I were in charge. If we have to haul them in later for more intensive questioning, could be useful.” She shrugged.

“Or they made you uncomfortable, and this gave excuse to leave?” he replied, his crest elevating.

Tanoute made a face. “Maybe a little.” She gestured down at the body. “Five kids, and no daughters. What are the odds?”

Both the lab tech and Tashlak gave her odd looks. “You really haven’t been on station long,” Simmons returned. “All Tarukhxi are born male. They’re like clownfish. They hit adolescence, get set up with a partner by their mothers, go to live with some matriarch’s family, and boom, one of the happy couple becomes a female and the other half of the pair winds up losing his name and joining his wife’s house until they get divorced or one of them dies. Sometimes that means they have to move back to the house that one of them just left, if, oops, the one everyone thought would stay male, doesn’t.”

Tanoute flushed, chagrinned. Tashlak looked at her quizzically. “Didn’t read up on this?”

“Their sex lives never seemed my business.” Tanoute crossed her arms over her chest. “You get anything of interest out of them?”

Tashlak shrugged. “Not much.” He paused. “Look upstairs before leaving, if senior detective thinks best?”

He’s just as good at poking and prodding as Lila. “That’s going to be a recurring joke, isn’t it?” Tanoute wiped sweat off her brow. “Up we go.”

The upstairs held few clues. She peered into the room apparently held by the five boys in common—one communal hot tub, apparently for sleeping. Wicker-like shelves and rounded baskets for storing their clothes. Wicker-looking desks, with computers for school work. More like a barracks than a children’s room. Of course, that’s just my cultural impression.

Only one personal note to the whole room—a poster, tacked to the wall beside one desk, which showed rank after rank of Sei’azhi troops in full black combat armor, marching through their capital. Faceless behind their polarized masks. The image gave her chills, and she rubbed at her arms through her sleeves.

“Find anything?” Tashlak asked from behind her, and she started.

“Your military had a fan,” Tanoute replied, pointing at the poster. “You?”

“Wife’s computer is encrypted. May take specialists not available on station.” His crest slicked to his spine, a frustrated expression. “Husband’s isn’t. His accounting shows business was in trouble. Big losses, debts.”

“So, maybe someone outside the family had a motive?”

“Possible, yes.” He shrugged.

She peeked into the victim’s room, surprised to see two side-by-side pools in here, instead of a large communal one. A screen on a wall constantly flickered between images of what looked like mangrove swamps to her. A few images of desolate, arid mountains, and then more swamps. “That their homeworld?”

Tashlak nodded. “No polar caps. Sea at equator, pushing up into shallow swamps that cover about a third of the continental plates.”

She nodded, still looking around. “No wedding pictures.” She quirked a glance at Tashlak. “Marriages aren’t important to them?”

He shrugged. “Depends on which culture. Eastern Tarukhxi have a nine-to-one ratio of males to females. Males are . . . smaller, weaker, more numerous. Expendable. Western Tarukhxi have more balance, but still, males marry into other clans, at order of their matriarchs. Tarukhxi ascetics . . .” He made a noise that sounded half-growl, half-snort.

“Are amusing?” Tanoute asked blandly.

“Amusing? No. For as rational of mind as the Tarukhxi are, seems strange that their ascetics believe that they can hold back biology with meditation and diet.” Another half-snort. “Those who can’t stay the same through willpower are cast out of their monasteries. When our species met, they’d never researched own changes. Holy mysteries. Sei’azhi scientists said, no, not holy. Hormonal shifts. Can be controlled with medicine. Resulted in cultural revolution.”

She looked at him askance. “Still on-going?”

Tashlak grimaced, baring his teeth. “Probably.”

“Oh, so you never read up on the culture wars that your people lit off?” She fed his previous words to her back to him with an ironic lilt.

He gave her a look. “Didn’t seem business with which Sei’azhi should be concerned.”

“Or perhaps it just made you uncomfortable?” Tanoute pushed.

He lifted two fingers in the gesture she’d come to understand meant a good hit in sparring practice. “Perhaps.”

She let him off the hook with a nod to a small hologram on the wife’s desk, which showed the deceased next to another mountainously swollen-looking female Tarukhxi. “That would be her and her . . . sister? Mother? I can’t tell the age.”

Tashlak picked up the cube and tapped on it for file information. “Hmm. Urdkak Nessu and mother, clan matriarch, Urdku. The fewer names, the more prestige. When matriarch would have died, Urdkak would have changed name to Urdku, dropping the Nessu part.”

“Ah. Like pop divas. One name means you’re someone.” She looked up at him at the same moment he looked down at her, his expression bewildered. “Nevermind. I think we’ve seen everything we’re going to see.”

He nodded. “Taking husband to precinct for further questioning. About the debts. Wife’s encryption keys. What wife was getting into, to try to repay debts. Someone has to have a motive.”

Such thoughts made it all the more surprising when, two hours later, Ero, the eldest son, arrived at station security’s central station on D-ring and announced that he wanted to confess to his mother’s murder. “It was me,” the young male repeated in the main Sei’azhi dialect, his red-black face composed. “It was me.”

Tashlak regarded the young male in consternation where they currently had him handcuffed to a table in an interrogation room. Can’t imagine him doing it, most of his mind objected. He used to spend two station-hours a week in my apartment, doing homework with my daughter. Should I recuse myself? He considered it for a moment. Not yet. But will let Tanoute take lead.

The human, after a sidelong glance at him for his silence, spoke. “Why did you kill her?” Her accent remained atrocious, but he gave her marks for attempting his language.

Nictitating membranes flickered across the boy’s eyes. “She kept me at home two years into adulthood, refusing to let me join the Sei’azhi army. They say . . . anyone can become Sei’azhi. Regardless of species. You just have to be willing to be one-of-many, submit yourself to the good of the Imperium, right?” A frantic look at Tashlak.

He nodded. “Command has allowed Tarukhxi admission, yes. Oaths of fealty and allegiance given. After that . . . just one-of-many, yes. Same as all.” He glanced at Tanoute and added dryly, “Some human prisoners from the war declined returning to their homeworlds. Took oaths of loyalty to Sei’azhi. Are Sei’azhi, now.”

He could smell adrenaline on her skin as her eyes narrowed “Subject for another time,” Tanoute replied tautly. “Repatriation of war-prisoners is an ongoing discussion for diplomats.”

He’d poked her to see how she’d react, and now regretted the impulse. It was hard enough working with humans, not being able to read their primate faces and eyes as easily as he could read a fellow member of his species. Knowing that not all of them understood what it meant to subsume the self to the greater good. But some of them do. Which is why some of them can become one-of-many.

She turned away, and he could hear skepticism in her voice as she continued, “And you couldn’t just go to the recruitment office on your own?”

“No. Needed Mother’s consent to release me from her family. Wouldn’t give it. Wanted to marry me off soon. In hopes I’d become a daughter, and bring an appropriate male home.” Ero closed his eyes.

It all smelled like truth to Tashlak. Ero’s scent, while stressed, didn’t waver now as much as it had at first. “Didn’t want that?” he asked, his voice neutral. “Been reading Ascetic philosophy?”

The boy nodded guiltily. “Mother said that it was nothing more than fear. Fear of growing up. Of adulthood and adult responsibilities. Told me I couldn’t remain a child forever. For her, that’s what being male was. Her childhood, nothing more, and she’d put away childish things. And that I should, too.” Ero swallowed. “I . . . don’t see any need to change,” the boy added defiantly. “I like who I am now. Maybe in a few years, if I meet the right person, I’ll feel differently, but she wouldn’t give me that time.”

“You like who you are now?” Tanoute said sharply. “A murderer, by your own confession?”

Ero flinched as if he’d forgotten why he’d come here. After a moment, he plowed on dully. “I . . . thought I’d use hormone supplements to maintain my form and gender,” he said, spreading his long, thin fingers.

Tanoute’s tone warmed, disarming in its sudden gentleness. “I understand,” she said, clearly groping for the words in Tashlak’s language. “My parents keep pointing out how the clock is ticking on my starting a family.” She leaned back, pulling a red ball out of her pocket—after a moment, Tashlak recognized it as a medbay hand exercise tool. “Ero? Catch.”

She tossed the ball at the boy. He jerked his hands against the cuffs, catching it. “You’re left-handed,” Tanoute stated, this time in English, letting her AI take over translation now. “Noticed it earlier. You kept putting your left hand on your father’s shoulder. And the physical evidence at the scene says that the killer was right-handed.” She tipped her head to the side, staring at the boy. “I should book you for obstructing justice. You want to explain why you’re wasting our time?” She leaned forward. “Who are you protecting?”

Ero looked down. “You want to play it that way?” she went on relentlessly. “Fine. Hope you enjoy the cells. You’ll have plenty of time in them to reconsider.”

Once the room had been cleared, Tashlak asked, “That was, as humans say, ‘bad copy?’”

“Bad cop,” she corrected. “That leaves good cop for you. Since you’re male, he’ll probably expect you to be more sympathetic anyway.”

“He wouldn’t make a false confession for someone who held his mother’s debts.”

“I know.” She pushed long pieces of her fur out of her eyes. “And the younger children don’t have the strength to pick up one of those potted plants and hit their mother over the head with it. Forensics says the killer has to be the same height as Ero or his father, Nessil.” She made a face. “Calling him, ‘Nessu’s husband’ every time I say his name irritates me. I should look up what his name was before.”

“Undoubtedly possessive form of mother’s name, and a number.”

She rubbed at her eyes with her good hand.  “Depressing.”

He chuffed between his teeth. “Calling other species depressing is hardly the respect for other cultures that humans tell my people we should have.”

A sour look from her. “I’ll go brace the father with his son’s ‘confession.’ Should get a reaction.”

Tashlak shook his head. “Not yet. Give Ero time to stew. Besides. Is eleven sixty-two. You haven’t eaten since nineteen hundred revs yesterday.”

“It can’t be that late,” she muttered, and keyed her AI. “Lila, what time is it?”

“Three o’clock next Wednesday,” a voice at her wrist responded. And then a chuckle. “And no, you haven’t eaten in twelve hours.”

“Damn it,” the human muttered. “All right, we’ll take a break. I’ll hit a kiosk for something and meet you back here—”

“Come and eat dinner with me,” he said, standing from behind the interrogation table. “Former mate has the children tonight. Find a restaurant that serves items nontoxic to both of us.” The offer wasn’t as spur-of-the-moment as he’d made it sound. He’d grown concerned about his partner’s tendency to skip meals and her irregular sleep cycles. “Give each prisoner time to sit in cell and think.”

In a cramped station bistro not far from the station, Tanoute slumped in an upholstered booth, her legs swinging above the floor. This place wasn’t built with humans in mind. She had to watch out for the vegetables—many dishes had toxin warnings on the menu, or were plain indigestible for a species that lacked a crop. But she had to admit, the Sei’azhi could marinade and grill meat amazingly. Maybe that’s why so many human prisoners decided to stay among the Sei’azhi. Maybe they went native for the barbecue.

Black humor to match her mood. Though she had to admit, too, that the food was improving her temper.

Across the table, Tashlak pointed a clawed finger at her wrist. “What is that?” he asked, sounding baffled.

Lila activated the holographic projectors in the wrist unit, forming an image in the air. “This is my avatar,” Lila responded primly. “A tortoiseshell cat.”

“Yes, but why not look human?” he asked, addressing the AI without apparent discomfort.

“Because I’m ninety-eight percent less likely to go on a murderous rampage if I spend the day looking at fuzzy kittens,” Tanoute explained resignedly. A sidelong glance at Tashlak.

“There is actual data on this!” Lila chirped. “In the absence of family or living pets, studies indicate that simply seeing videos or photographs of small, familiar animals helps reduce depression and post-traumatic stress in humans, mitigating some of the potential for suicide in at-risk groups. Also, I like being a cat.” The last, in a supremely self-satisfied tone.

“Suicidal and violent tendencies are a concern?” he asked, sounding concerned.

“The powers that be thought it was a valid one, considering all the questions that I got after the Cydonia Riots last year.” She grimaced. “All I fired were rubber bullets, and I still got more questions than anyone else. My history looms over me.” Half of why I took the job here.

Tashlak chewed noisily on a rib for a moment, and she stared, fascinated, at his white teeth as he crushed the bone to splinters. “Why an AI? Why isn’t your family involved?” He sounded annoyed on her behalf.

She grimaced. “My father’s a little old-fashioned. Copts, well . . . there’s a strong feeling even among those who’ve lived on Mars for generations, that women shouldn’t be fighting in the military.”

“Service is how the Sei’azhi earn rights and citizenship,” Tashlak replied, shrugging. “Humans believe rights are inborn. You’re careless of them because they’re not earned.”

“That’s a very Sei’azhi perspective,” Tanoute replied carefully, taking a bite of meat from the heaped platter in front of her. I’m mastering diplomacy. Go me.

He bared his teeth, and it wasn’t a smile. “And is it also very human, that a family would not help one of its own?” Tashlak retorted.

Tanoute shook her head rapidly. “No, no. When I lost the arm, I was so far out in the black, that they couldn’t just take me home. I got my new arm right on the ship. Finished my tour, went military police since I still wanted to serve, but front lines weren’t an option anymore. And then peace . . .  happened unexpectedly.” She shrugged. “I went home for awhile.” A pause. “My father wanted me to settle down and provide grandkids. That didn’t tally with who I’d become. So I re-enlisted, and he’s been irked ever since.” That wasn’t the whole truth, Tanoute realized. “At least half of it is probably him worrying about me,” she added.

The conversation wandered. He told her about the origins of the Sei’azhi Imperium. How their people had been multiple disparate, warring nations long ago. Some clinging to the old ways of pride life—females banding together as hunter-gatherers, casting out their young males and weak, feeble old males as useless mouths, and keeping only one or two males to serve as husband-father to them all. Such males had used to keep other males at bay and deter competition from other predators. “That kind of life persisted into modern times?” Tanoute asked, stunned.

“Through the invention of the internal combustion engine. Some of them persisted in these archaic ways even when we moved to colonize other worlds. They banded together and attacked the Imperium. Guerilla tactics, bombings, espionage. When the First Empress defeated them, she gave them only one choice: become one-of-many with us, or leave our world. Some chose exile.” Tashlak sipped from a cup of something red and viscous. “My former mate was from such a culture,” he added, his eyes on the crowd behind Tanoute’s head.

That’s practically the first time he’s mentioned her in months. “They see males as useless?” Tanoute offered. “Like the Tarukhxi?” Man, talk about a strain on a marriage, if so.

He shook his head. “Not useless. But they lack the concept of a singular mate. Sei’azhi take one, maybe two at most. Mate’s people also think our estrus and musth are holy mysteries. That hormonal regulation is wrong, instead of the vital necessity to prevent dissension in the ranks. She refused to take the hormones, which kept her out of the military. Prevented her from achieving full citizenship. I agreed to take the hormones for the good of us two. Two-in-one, we call mates. Partners at work, partners in battle. No closer bonds.” His claws scratched the metal surface of the table.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Tanoute quietly. This was a side of Tashlak she’d never seen. Impossible, for the moment, to see him as alien. As the enemy. As a dark shape leaping out from behind violet afterimages.

“You are work partner now. Two-in-one, if you’re willing to be. Partners share truths. Even uncomfortable ones.” Tashlak drank half his cup down. “She swore to be two-in-one with me, and me alone. Always chose to go off-station to an all-female retreat when estrus came. Unfortunately, last time, she came back pregnant with another male’s child.”

Ow, Tanoute thought. “I have some idea of how much stock Sei’azhi put into oaths and loyalty. I’m assuming she’s been, um, demoted?”

“No longer enjoys the benefits of my citizenship, which she could never earn for herself.” He looked away. “Children will retain my status, assuming they serve in turn.”

Tanoute exhaled. “Why are you telling me this?” she asked. “I mean, yes, partners share truths, as you said. But you didn’t need to tell me this.”

Tashlak turned back towards her. “Thought that if I told my truths, you might tell yours.” He gestured at her artificial arm.

She went still. “Not really a conversation for dinner,” Tanoute replied tightly. For an hour, she’d somehow forgotten that he wasn’t human. Is this all part of their one-of-many and two-in-one stuff? she thought uneasily. Is he adopting me or something?

“As you wish. Come,” Tashlak said, paying for their meal. “It’s late, and your apartment is on D-ring. Have a guest-room in my apartment.”

“F-ring is even further,” she pointed out, her eyes burning suddenly as she realized how late it was. And how little sleep she’d had lately. “And I don’t do well in Sei’azhi gravity.”

He shrugged. “Gave that apartment to my former mate,” Tashlak replied. “Took one closer to work, on this ring. Not far from here. Convenient.?

Tanoute held up her hands. “I might actually fall asleep on my way home,” she admitted. “I’ll take your spare bed, and with gratitude.” Of course, the chances of me falling asleep in a Sei’azhi home are slim, aren’t they?

The guestroom had no bed—just a hammock-like sling. Tanoute didn’t want to spit on her partner’s clear efforts to make her feel more comfortable with him, so she folded herself into the swaying hammock and tried to run through the biofeedback activities that were supposed to help her sleep.

And gave up after about fifteen minutes. “Lila, you can come out of silent mode now.”

“Oh, may I? Thank you, boss.” The AI’s tone sounded arch. “Your vitals don’t show gastric distress—”

“The night is young.”

“Stress cortisol levels remain high, however.” A note of cautious concern. “What can I do for you? Ambient light and white noise?”

“Cue up my parents’ messages, please.” Tanoute rubbed at her arms. Remember that you’re alive. Remember that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. Maybe that’s what the human prisoners who became Sei’azhi citizens wanted. To be part of something. One of the many, part of the whole  . . . .

“There are those who might say it would be better to confront the memories than to bury them,” Lila offered cautiously.

Tanoute swore. “I forget that when you’re in silent mode, you’re still listening.” She exhaled. “You want me to tell him about what happened? Sometimes, the past needs to stay in the god-damned past.”

Her voice had risen, and she could hear stirring on the other side of the wall, from Tashlak’s room, so now she murmured. “My parents’ messages, please, Lila.”

Lila surrendered. “On wrist, or on your internal HUD?”

“Wrist, please. Playing messages on the HUD is too much like being there.”

“Isn’t that the point?” With that shot, Lila brought up the first messages on the screen.

Tanoute didn’t answer. Seeing her parents’ quarters plastered across her own retinas as if she were really there, in the place that was home, but wasn’t home, and never would be again, made her ache. Because she’d never again be the person that she’d been under that roof. And she missed that younger self and hated that younger self at the same time. The girl who’d been innocent and foolish. Who’d fit there, under that low roof. I can’t be her anymore. But they won’t let go of her.

The same old banalities about her brother’s growing family, how her father’s responsibilities within the church were increasing—while he was married, and could never be a priest, he served as a lay-officer. As he wound the conversation once more towards how it was the responsibility of every generation to continue the people, so that the faith could endure, Tanoute looked away from his face in time to see the expression on her mother’s. “Lila, freeze frame. Back up a couple of seconds . . . yes. Thank you.”

Tanoute exhaled. Reviewing the sequence, she saw her mother open her mouth to try to interrupt, to intercede. To stop the practiced flow of words. And then, she averted her face before mustering a smile at the end of the video.

I’ve seen that expression before. Today. Tanoute sat up in the hammock. That same resigned concern . . . I saw that in Urdkak Nessil’s face. He was protecting his son. Or sons. But from what? She exhaled. Guess I have a new line of questioning for tomorrow.

Thinking about work raised her heart-rate, and Lila chimed against her wrist, reminding her to relax, to sleep.

But when she did, she found herself sucked down into the nightmare again.

Checking the blunt shape of her miniature railgun. The rumble in the deckplates under her magnetized boots as environmental systems evacuated air from this outer area. Ducking down into cover behind a doorframe, same as her squadmates.

Her world went white as an explosive frame detonated against the outer hull, bringing a hail of shrapnel through the corridor. She’d looked away in time, but violet afterimages danced before her eyes. Behind those glimmers, shadowy figures leaped into the ship through the hole—shapes in armor, taller than any human, with long tails swaying behind them.

The blue backflash of the MRG sending rounds through vacuum, the faint buzz of the railgun’s mechanisms transmitting through her suit—Got one! she  thought as an alien form fell. She leaned out further into the corridor—No, don’t do that, you idiot!

White-violet plasma spat from down the corridor. No sensation of impact. Just a brief impression of searing heat, enough time to look down and see the ceramic plates of her armor subliming into the vacuum as a flicker of mist, and then she screamed as the real pain hit—

—looking up as the aliens advanced remorselessly. And when one of them stepped over her, he paused long enough to look down at her, and she knew his face.

Tashlak.

The strangled sounds of distress snapped Tashlak awake, and he padded to the next room, flicking on the lights. His human partner twitched and fought in her sleep, her fists clenched. “Lila,” he said, remembering the AI’s name. “Can I wake her safely?”

“She might come up swinging,” the AI warned. “I’ll increase biofeedback against her wrist till she wakes.”

After a moment, Tanoute sat up, her breath ragged in her chest. “Are you all right?” Tashlak asked warily.

Tanoute covered her face with her hands. In her sleeveless undershirt, he could see where a straight light demarcated the end of the hairless, smooth synthetic skin of the prosthetic, and the light tan of her upper arm—which had long, pink-white weals of scar-tissue that extended as far as her shoulder. He’d always registered the mechanical odor of it as part of her background aroma. But he’d never seen the direct evidence. “Impressive to have survived that,” he said, when she didn’t respond. He advanced and dropped to a crouch in front of her. The submissive posture made him appear less threatening, and he used it deliberately. “Surprised you wear long sleeves.”

“I should let people stare at it?” she replied through her fingers.

“Scars are badges of honor,” Tashlak replied. “If more humans saw scars, might appreciate service more.”

Inhale. Exhale. No response, but he could see the line of tension in her shoulders easing.  “Happened in the war?” he asked after a moment or two.

A nod as she raised her head, still looking away. “Plasma weapon hit my arm. I moved out of cover a second too soon.” A sidelong glance at Tashlak.

“Is that what you think of every time you look at me?” Plain, bare, simple words.

She closed her eyes on a wince. “Not always,” Tanoute replied softly. “I try to remember that the war’s over.”

“Has been for ten years.”

“I know.” Vehement, but still quiet. “You’re my partner. I trust you. We’ve had each other’s backs going in after smugglers on B-ring, and it’s been fine. Just sometimes . . . things get kicked loose and roll around in my head for a while until I can get them packed away again.”

He nodded, still crouching. The good-of-all is paramount. For our partnership to prosper, she must heal. And I must help her.  So simple to decide. So much harder to execute. Tell me how it happened,” he suggested. “Drain the pus from the wound. Let it heal.”

A chuff between her teeth. “You sound like Lila.”

At first, he thought she’d refuse. But then Tanoute sighed. “It felt as if I’d stuck my hand into a star. And then there weren’t any nerves left to feel, and I passed out.” She grimaced. “Woke up aware that something had happened. Got up and couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t hold my gun properly.” She made a face. “Adrenaline and shock do strange things. My squadmates hauled me to medbay once, ah, the boarding party had been repelled . . . .”

“Which battle?” Tashlak asked into the silence. His crop clenched.

She turned towards him. “I’ve always wanted to ask you if you were on any of the ships attacking us at the time,” Tanoute told him with an uneasy smile. “Third battle of Ganesh. 61 Cygni. Er, I think your charts have it as the . . . Verauzakh Binary?”

Tashlak’s mind flickered through memories he’d long set aside as irrelevant to his daily work. “Was on the Sarusa’chelzha then,” he muttered, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Sent several times to Verauzakh system, yes.” He regarded her, his chest feeling tight. “Was often on boarding teams.” I could have been the one who fired that plasma blast. “Still, odds not good that this hand,” and he held up his own now, feeling oddly helpless, “was the one that took yours.” He phrased it carefully “But I could request my old helmet vid-feed. Probably hasn’t been destroyed yet.” Of course, if the vid-feed shows that I was the one who shot her, that’s going to destroy us. Spirits and ancestors, once a war is over, it’s supposed to stay over.

To his surprise, Tanoute shook her head. “No,” she said. “I’d rather not know. Putting a name or a face on it doesn’t do me any good. I know I killed at least one enemy that day. Would that person’s family be better off, knowing my name, my face? Just . . .” she closed her eyes. “Just let everyone be soldiers, who were following orders. Because that’s what we were. And that’s what we did.”

At that moment, his wrist-pad shrilled, and he tabbed it on. Read the message there. “Pyre’s ashes,” he swore out loud. “Commander says that our timeline on dealing with the murder just got shorter. The Urdku matriarch is coming here. And seems to be part of Tarukhxi planetary government.

Tanoute groaned. “Politics to go with the sex and murder?”

He sighed. “We’d best leave for the office. Will order breakfast once there.”

Back at the station, Tanoute’s tired eyes blurred the words in her files. Still, she felt better now than she had in weeks. Cleaner. Emptied out. Lila will be thrilled that she was right . . . .

She focused on the reports again. Repeated injuries to Ero. Teachers say that he claimed he’d been punished for talking back to his mother. Tarukhxi cultural norms apply—no charges filed.

The look on her own mother’s face came back to her. “I think we’ve got enough to start on the father,” she told Tashlak wearily. “He’s our most likely suspect..”

They had him brought to an interrogation chamber and shackled to the table.  “Look,” Tanoute said, “I’m too tired to translate. My AI will handle that.” She paused. “First, your wife’s mother will be arriving on the station in seven standard days.” She watched as the male’s head snapped back at Lila’s translation. His bulging eyes blinked in consternation as she went on, “Second, your son’s confessed to the murder.”

He didn’t—” That, in Sei’azhi.

“We know that,” Tashlak replied patiently. “He’s not right-handed. But you are. And he doesn’t want to see you charged with murder.”

The male’s tongue flickered in pure distress. Tanoute leaned forward. “We have testimony that suggests that your wife was beating your son,” she said, trying to convey compassion in spite of the AI translation. And she outweighed you and your son by a solid fifty kilos, each. Dear god. “I didn’t see any fresh bruises on him tonight, but that doesn’t remove the threat. Is that how it started?” She paused, waiting for a reply, but got none.

The matriarch will take your sons back to your homeworld,” Tashlak pointed out. “Ero will face jail-time—”

The Tarukhxi male’s throat-sac bulged. And then he said, “No. He won’t, if he confesses to her and submits.”

Tanoute frowned. “A false confession gets the boy off? How does that work?”

“It’s . . . not a crime among us. And this station has rules that state that intra-species interactions are governed by species laws. Only interactions between species come under station law.”

It was true, too. It had to be that way, for so many species as radically different as humans, Sei’azhi, Xi’a, and Tarukhxi to coexist. And yet . . . . “Explain how murder isn’t murder,” she demanded.

“Because it’s not. Or Urdku won’t let it be. Except I have to ensure that it won’t be, but for . . . different reasons.” Nessil swallowed convulsively.

Tanoute stared at the words. “I’m . . . going to need a translation for that translation,” she finally assessed.

The Tarukhxi male’s tongue flickered, and then he explained, still sounding shaky, “Urdkak was Urdku’s only living daughter. Out of her twenty children, only two became female. The elder died five years ago, without female progeny.” Another swallow. “My sons are Urdku’s only chance at heirs. She won’t let go of them easily.”

The cultural stuff she didn’t feel qualified to handle, so Tanoute finally stated, “That still doesn’t explain how murder isn’t a crime.”

Nessil explained, “She’ll ensure that Ero turns female, probably by marrying him to a weak male.” The bulging eyes blinked, and his shoulders slumped. “So that she has a strong heir. Offenses are overlooked, often, if a son proves himself stronger than his mother. Because it means that . . . he’ll be a very strong matron.”

She wrestled with the concept. They overlook it if a child kills a parent? Because that’s how fitness is demonstrated?

Tashlak cleared his throat. “That explains why Ero confessed. He could protect you, and wouldn’t suffer consequences for doing so.”

Nessil’s shoulders slumped further.

Tanoute still felt three steps behind the conversation. “But I thought your son wanted to stay male. That he wanted to join the Sei’azhi, just to avoid that. . .”

And then everything clicked together. “Oh, god. That was the argument.”

It had clearly clicked for Tashlak, too. “Your wife found out that he was talking to recruiters? And to doctors, about hormonal regulation?”

“Yes.” The word sounded like a sigh. “She was outraged. Under much pressure from her own mother to live up to expectations as heir. Not to have a suitable heir of her own? Couldn’t be tolerated.” He exhaled, his throat-sac rippling. “She told him that he was going back to homeworld. That once he underwent the change, he’d understand. He’d be a different person. He’d be what she was. And I couldn’t . . . he’s so bright,” Nessil appealed, nictitating membranes sliding rapidly across his glistening eyes. “I know I should be proud to have a son so strong. I should be delighted when he becomes a matron. Should burble over all the eggs he’ll lay, and help his husband care for them when he—when she’s away on business.” The correction sounded tired. “But he doesn’t want that—not yet. Maybe when he’s older, he will. But if his mother and grandmother had their way, they’d snuff out any chance he has at being anything other than their clone.”

Tanoute exhaled. “All right,” she said wearily. “You got caught up in the argument. You picked up the flowerpot and hit your wife across the back of the head with it. You didn’t follow her down, making sure she was dead. That’s second-degree murder. Crime of passion at worst.” She re-evaluated her blunt words. “Then you panicked and tried for an alibi. Though, since you brought Ero with you, he’d still be accessory to the crime. Even his false report can be construed as that.” Except it’s not a crime to them. Wait, that’s only if a soon-to-be-daughter does it. What happens if a lowly husband does the deed?

“Went out and . . . embarrassing.” Nessil averred, looking down at his webbed hands.

“You’re more upset about embarrassment than murder?” Tanoute heard the words fall out of her mouth.

Nessil explained hesitantly, “As I said . . . not a crime if  . . . perpetrated by an ascending female of the house.”

Tashlak’s crest slicked against his spine, and he switched to English. “Atalia, didn’t records indicate that Nessil and Ero visited a doctor and a pharmacy after the crime?”

Tanoute glanced down at the tablet in front of her. “Yes,” she replied, puzzled. “Medical records have privacy locks, but with a warrant—”

“No need. Nessil bought hormones.” Out of English, and back into Sei’azhi. “Hormones that will turn you into a female. So that you can claim immunity. And because Urdku needs a daughter, and doesn’t want you to take your sons back to your mother’s house, she’ll . . . what? Just let it go?”

“She won’t have a choice,” Nessil said, his eyes on the table. “I won’t be Nessil anymore. Name would be Kukhrak, daughter of Kukhra. Kukhra is a powerful matriarch. Would be pleased to have me home. Has offered many times to arrange for a divorce, but . . . I would have had to leave my sons there, with Urdkak.”

Tanoute pinched the bridge of her nose. “If your son knew that, why did he confess?”

Nessil looked down. “I didn’t tell him,” he whispered. “Told him the visit was solely to obtain his hormones, so he could stay male. Didn’t . . . didn’t want to tell him what I planned to do for him. To make myself what I’m not, to protect him.”

Tanoute’s head spun, and she gave understanding one last valiant effort. “Forgive me, but . . . if you’d just demonstrated that you were stronger than your mate by, you know, killing her . . .” she sieved the sarcasm out of her voice, “why wouldn’t you just have turned into a female spontaneously, as the only adult in the house?”

“Might have,” Nessil said, looking down at his hands. “But not quickly enough. Also,” he shifted uncomfortably, “Ero is stronger than I am. More purposeful. There is a chance that, in a house with no female, my son would have become the female. And then, as an adult male and adult female in the same house, and with existing clan relations between Urdku and my matriarch, they might have just agreed to . . . leave things as they were.” His throat-sac sagged.

Tanoute blinked, trying to process that. “You’d have . . . wound up as your son’s husband? That can happen?” Leave my human preconceptions at the door, my ass!

He would be daughter then. But yes. Such arrangements don’t always happen. But could. Would prefer to avoid that.” Nessil stared at his cuffed hands.

Tanoute looked at Tashlak. “Can we talk outside?”

“Yes,” he told her fervently, and they stepped out of the interrogation room. As the door clicked shut, Tashlak looked down at her. “Thoughts?”

Tanoute shut her eyes. “That they make the Sei’azhi look charmingly mundane.”

A snort. “Very different. Different evolution. Different culture, based on physiology.” Tashlak paused, and she opened her eyes. “What to do now?”

She exhaled. “There are two concepts in human law,” Tanoute told him. “Malum in se and malum prohibitum.” She swallowed before going on stolidly. “Malum in se means something that’s evil because it’s evil. Kidnapping, rape, premeditated murder. Malum prohibitum means something that’s considered evil solely because it’s against the law. Going over a designated speed limit.”

Tashlak gave her a direct look. “Human law doesn’t pertain to Tarukhxi. Shouldn’t. Can’t.”

Tanoute grimaced. “There are really only a few choices, right? If we keep him locked up, we get to watch Ero and his brothers taken off-station by their grandmother, in spite of Ero’s clearly-expressed wishes otherwise. We could impose human or Sei’azhi law on the situation, which is against regs. We might even be able to talk some magistrate on the station into putting Ero and the other boys into protective custody-”

“Ero is an adult,” Tashlak reminded her.

Tanoute waved a hand irritably. “Details.” She exhaled. “Or, you know . . . we let someone who’s confessed to murder just walk. More than that. Let him roll into a position of privilege and authority as a female in his society. Because our law doesn’t cover their culture, even though it happened on a joint-species station.”

“Probably won’t get off free,” Tashlak muttered. “Urdku will make his life difficult for decades.” He held up a hand to still the words on her lips. “One option requires breaking regulations. Not possible. Of the other two, only one seems ethical.”

“Let him go take his pills?” she whispered, her eyes darting up and down the corridor. “Even though we have motive, means, physical evidence and a confession?”

His crest rose. “Humans may ask questions. Sei’azhi will likely understand. Is for the good-of-all.” He paused. “We’ll talk to head of security first, of course. Go through the chain.”

She sighed and nodded.

A week later, Nessil, wearing a matron’s flowing green robes, left the station under the name of Kukhra, bound with four of his—her—sons for the Tarukhxi homeworld. The eldest, Ero, took a different flight, this one heading towards the Sei’azhi homeworld, to enlist in the Imperial Armed Forces.

Tanoute, having actually gotten a decent night’s sleep for once, had her feet up on her desk as she watched the ships depart onscreen.  She still felt lighter and freer than she had in years.

She didn’t know how to thank Tashlak for that. Not for having listened. For having heard her words with a heart that actually understood them. Her family didn’t. No psychiatrist could. Lila was just an AI. No one could have understood her experiences but someone else who’d endured the same.

A datacrystal landed on her desk.  “What’s this?” she asked Tashlak, twirling it between her fingers. “New case?”

“No.” He sat down at the desk facing hers. “Is helmet vidcam feed from when my squad boarded the CTS Resolution ten years ago.”

The crystal dug into the flesh of her right hand.  “I told you, I don’t need to see this-”

You don’t. I did.”

Tanoute went still, watching her partner. “You watched it?” she asked, warily.

“Yes. Saw your injury.” His eyes flicked up. “Wasn’t me who fired the shot.”

Her stomach relaxed abruptly. “Oh.” Tanoute paused. “That’s good.” She paused. “Did you see who did?”

“Yes. Old friend. Died two months after that battle. Hull breach when human ship attacked from ambush. I was the one sent to inform his family.” Curt, terse words.

Tanoute closed her eyes, battling relief and guilt. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not sure I’d have wanted to meet him—” What, afraid he’d have wanted to shake hands?

“He was a good friend. Am sorry you couldn’t meet each other.” He regarded her. “Forgiven each other. Would have been better for all.”

Tanoute swallowed. “And the good-of-all is the most important thing?” she asked. He really does believe that.

“Yes. Always. Must be. But for the good-of-all to be ensured, good of each must be looked after.”

Tanoute swallowed. How did our two governments screw up so completely, that we were at war for forty years? “There’s no need to forgive,” she told Tashlak. “I’m okay. And I’m sorry about your friend.” To her surprise, she meant it. “Maybe after work, we can grab some drinks?” Tanoute offered. “And you can tell me about him.”

He gave a quick, incisive nod. “Yes. Let’s.”

________________

Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Reno, Nevada, but received her MA in English from Penn State. Her poetry has received Rhysling and Pushcart nominations; her short fiction has earned a finalist showing for the Jim Baen Adventure Fantasy Award (2018) and has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show,  Compelling Science Fiction, and Galaxy’s Edge She currently lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son. For more about her work, including her Edda-Earth novels, please see www.edda-earth.com.

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