Her Scandalous Affair (previously titled “Restoration”, KS Augustin)
Author: KS Augustin
Release date: January 2015
Publisher: Challis Tower
Format: Ebook (Epub, Mobi)
Links: Book page at Challis Tower – Author’s website – Subscribe to author’s newsletter
SFR Galaxy Award for Best Exploration of Real Life Issues in an SFR (Judge Heather Massey)
Her Scandalous Affair features a forbidden May-December romance. Van is a mature, older heroine with a fully-realized life, including friendships, family, career, and the complications that come with her advancing age. A philosopher by trade, she’s tasked with helping the hero, Eton, re-integrate back into Rahfonian society after he’d lived among aliens since childhood.
Her Scandalous Affair is remarkable in a number of ways. Chief among them is the story’s non-Western setting. It’s the type of story element that makes me go, “Oh wow, I really needed this! The whole genre needs more of this!” Her Scandalous Affair is character-driven and prompts one to reflect on the impact of major life changes and milestones, especially as it relates to aging. The plot is of the quiet kind, focusing as it does on Van’s day-to-day work with Eton and their forbidden romance.
There are no “shoot ‘em ups,” space battles, or violent confrontations. This story is about deeply personal stakes as opposed to external ones. Her Scandalous Affair is a cerebral palate cleanser and the subtle creative choices are wonderfully innovative.
The office was cold, but Van had expected that. She drew her jacket closer around her body and tried not to fidget while she waited for Yical Blen. He had been uncommonly busy of late; too late, she’d heard, to even meet up with his departmental peers at the sector park. She wondered if the summons to his office had anything to do with his preoccupation. Usually the institute ran on silent, well-lubricated wheels, but the rumours she’d been hearing…
Administrator Blen entered in a bustle of movement. He shot her a small, tight smile then proceeded to lock down the room. Van’s eyes widened as the door slid shut behind her, the windows beyond darkened, and the soft hum of white noise filled the air.
“Is this really necessary, Yical?” she asked.
“Good day, Van,” he said, not answering her question. “I’ve taken the liberty of suspending your slate’s normal functions for the time being.” He settled in his chair, but couldn’t seem to get comfortable. If Van didn’t know better, she would have said he was…afraid. But what would the administrator of a small and prestigious institute be scared of?
“Van, I’ve been given information…” He paused. Shifted position again. Stared at her and blinked a few times. “How closely do you follow the news?”
“Is this a lesson in civic responsibilities, Yical?” Her voice was mild.
“As much as any other in my position.” Her shrug was a small, elegant rise of a shoulder. “I have to keep up-to-date if I hope to convince undergraduates that I haven’t yet reached senility.”
Blen’s lips didn’t even twitch. “So you’ve heard of the Ithari, then?”
“The Ithari?” Van frowned. “You mean that alien species we’ve just contacted? Yes, we’ve begun discussing them in a few of my tutorial classes. I believe they’re not at the same level of technology as us, which makes for some very interesting thoughts on inclusion, exclusion, perceptions of progress, and so on. Still, it’s difficult to arrive at any firm conclusions because what we’re hearing is being filtered through so many levels.” Her voice grew wistful. “I wish we had the opportunity to invite one here, so I could question it in person, instead of relying on second- or third-hand reports.”
He looked down at his desk. “You may just get your wish.”
Blen muttered the words, but Van picked them up well enough. She straightened and her eyes brightened. “One of them is coming? Here? That’s wonderful, Yical.”
He batted down her enthusiasm with a wave of his hand. “No, no. Sorry. Nothing like that. I didn’t express myself well. It’s more like…we’ve been given an opportunity.”
He said it as though something nasty had just bitten him. Hmmm, that was definitely not the kind of reaction she was expecting from Yical Blen. Administrators usually fell on such opportunities like fasters on a juicy steak; Blen looked as though his meal was about to consume him.
“This is completely confidential, Van,” he said. “Nothing is to go beyond the confines of this office.”
She glanced pointedly at the opaque windows. “As if it can.”
But it still took many long minutes before Blen opened his mouth again. “It’s not common knowledge, but we didn’t have first contact with the Ithari seven months ago. We’ve actually been communicating with them for more than a year.”
Van wasn’t surprised. She’d been around too long to be startled by anything the planetary government did. “I presume this is because of the treaty we’re negotiating with them?”
“Yes, exactly. We needed to be at the stage where they trusted us fully before the Ergifani found out about them, so the details were kept secret as long as possible.”
“Because we were afraid the Ergifani might have negotiated something with the Ithari while we dithered?”
“An entire species of merchants,” Blen complained, “with nothing better to do than go around undercutting their partners. Of course we had to keep things quiet. The planetary council made sure any information regarding the Ithari was locked down so thoroughly, it was an incarceration offence merely mentioning their name.”
Van watched Blen closely. “The news reports say that we are operating at unseemly haste in negotiating this trade agreement.”
“Yes, of course they would say that. As far as the rest of the planet’s concerned, we’ve only known the Ithari for a few months. Now you know that it’s been much longer.”
“And I presume it’s progressing well?”
“Well enough. I suppose.” Blen looked down at his desk again. “I’m not sure. On a ‘need to know’ basis and all that.”
Van’s lips tightened. She was starting to run out of patience. “Yical, why are you mentioning all this to me? What does an interstellar trade agreement have to do with the Emaak Institute?”
He was quiet for such a long time that Van thought he was ignoring her. Then he said: “They have a Rahfon native.”
She stared at him. “I beg your pardon?”
He tensed his fingers then clasped them together and rested them on his desk. “It seems that, thirty years ago, a vessel crashed on their home planet. A Rahfon stellar yacht.”
“Stellar…?” Van frowned. “But stellar yachts didn’t exist thirty years ago.”
Blen looked up at her. “Actually, they did. It’s just that not many people could have afforded them back then. This particular family could.”
“So there was just one family on the yacht? It wasn’t a prototype commercial venture?”
Blen shook his head. “We think we know who they are. A scion of the Albess family.”
“Oh.” Van didn’t know what else to say.
“That’s right. Louis Albess got his share of the inheritance when his uncle died and spent all of it on the most extravagant spacefaring vessel he could afford. He, his young wife and two children went off on a jaunt—a Grand Tour of Rahfon space, he said—and were never heard from again.”
“Tragedy seems to stalk that family like a vengeful slithcat. But if we’ve found them—”
“Not ‘them’. Him.”
“Not the whole family?”
“The Ithari say that by the time they reached the wreck,” Blen held up a single finger, “they only found one person alive. Louis Albess’ son.”
“And we’re sure it’s—”
“We told the Ithari what kind of tests to run. His identity’s been confirmed.”
“Well.” She let out a breath. “Pity there’s nothing left of his family’s fortune. Poor soul.”
“It gets worse. At the time they found the crash, the Ithari didn’t know who or even what he was. A different species, certainly, but one they’d never encountered before.”
Van drew in a sharp breath. “What did they do to him?”
“It’s nothing like that,” he hastened to reassure her. “They treated him like one of their own. Even fostered him out to one of their biologists, who brought him up with the rest of her family.”
“I can hear a ‘but’ in your voice, Yical.”
Blen spread his hands. “They want to give him back. Now that they’ve found out exactly what species he is, they want to return him—give us the chance to restore him to Rahfon society.”
“And this is a problem because?”
“He doesn’t know anything about Rahfon or Rahfon society, Van. He can’t even speak our language.”
Van shook her head. “Surely there would have been systems aboard the yacht that would have taught him the essentials.”
“An alien-to-the-Ithari system? Running on alien-to-the-Ithari hardware? They said it took them years to figure out our physics, but they were still stumped when they got the basic ship systems running. They said that engineering theory was the easiest because it’s pretty much standard across the galaxy. But, by the time they started understanding anything in the social or linguistic spheres, the Abless boy had already been in Ithari society for almost a decade and fully assimilated.”
“How old is he now?”
“Still a child!”
“That’s the only piece of good news I have for you. By Rahfon standards, he should still be studying. Which is why,” Blen licked his lips, “it’s been decided that you should be the one to teach him how to be Rahfon again.”
Van stared at him. “Me?”
Blen remained silent.
“Yical, this isn’t a job for me. You should be talking to exo-biologists, exo-linguists. Hads, exo-anything.”
“The situation’s a bit more complicated than that. And the Ithari want you.”
“The Ithari want me?” That didn’t make any sense. “But…isn’t he already living with an Ithari biologist? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to transfer across to a Rahfon biologist? In fact,” Van asked, as a thought struck her, “why are they only talking about the boy now? Shouldn’t he have been transported to Rahfon a year ago, when we first established contact?”
“There were,” Blen glanced away for a moment, “complications.”
“What kind of complications? On the Ithari side?”
“No. On ours. You have to understand how it looks, Van. We establish first contact with a species we’ve never encountered before and, suddenly, they tell us they have one of our species. The planetary council was sceptical.”
“They didn’t believe the Ithari had a Rahfon survivor?”
“Not until they ran the tests we requested.”
Van was wry. “Lucky for them.”
“But that still brought up other questions. Where did the survivor’s loyalties lie? If we accepted him unconditionally, would he spy on us for the Ithari? Send them sensitive information? The council debated for months over the issue.”
“We debated over whether to accept one of our own species back to the planet of his birth? Yical, that’s despicable behaviour.”
“They were thinking of Rahfon, Van, and of Rahfon society. In their place, I don’t know that I would have done any differently.”
“Hmmm. And now I presume he’s free to return to his homeworld?”
“Yes.” Blen paused. “As long as you are the one to guide him back into society.” He stopped her objections with an upraised hand. “I know how difficult this must be for you, Van. You’ve got Retirement to think of, a lot of changes coming up in your life, a lot of transitions. If it were up to us, we would have picked a low-level scientist, just as you’re suggesting.”
That hadn’t been what she’d suggested, but Van kept silent.
“Unfortunately,” Blen said, “although we could make recommendations, the Ithari insisted on having the final word. I think they were upset over how long it took us to come to a decision.”
“How do they even know about me?” Van asked.
“Three months ago, after we agreed to have the survivor repatriated, they had us send them details on all instructors on Rahfon, in addition to our list of preferred candidates. We tried to object, but they threatened to shut down negotiations if we didn’t agree.”
“There must be thousands of instructors on Rahfon.”
“Tens of thousands,” Blen said.
“And only three months to read through them? That seems a very short time to me.”
“The Ithari are,” he hesitated, “short-lived, compared to us. They approach everything at a much faster pace. The scientist who fostered Abless, for example? She’s already dying.”
“After only thirty years?”
“They say she was already of mature age when they found the vessel.”
“Maybe the Abless child was harbouring some Rahfon bacteria in his body. Maybe he infected her—”
“We checked. They only live for about sixty years. Seventy at the most. You see, as far as we can tell…”
Only seven decades of life? That seemed strange to Van. The Rahfon had already made contact with other species and the one thing they all had in common was longevity. How could the Ithari have ventured to the stars without a similar advantage?
Blen, not noticing her preoccupation, kept talking and Van only tuned in at the last moment. “…of the things they’re hoping to trade with us.”
She frowned. “I’m sorry, did you just mention longevity treatments?”
“A natural foundation for trade,” Blen said, nodding. “The Ithari are excellent engineers and, from scientific papers they’ve released to us, we know they’ve developed several alloys we’d be interested in. A number of Rahfon companies are already interested in setting up research facilities and fabrication workshops in Ithari space. In return, we will work with their medical specialists to develop gene therapies for their species in order to prolong their lives.”
“You’re going too fast for me, Yical.” She shook her head. “I don’t know anything about alloy fabrication and, to be honest, I don’t want to know.”
He smiled. “It’s clear you’re no scientist, Van.”
“No, I’m not. I’m a Rahfonist and philosopher and, apparently, the person the Ithari have chosen to restore this Abless boy to Rahfon society. Could they be mistaken?”
“You mean, by picking you? If they were after a philosopher, I’d say they couldn’t have picked anyone better qualified. The Emaak Institute has been proud to have you as a faculty member for more than twenty-five years.” He lowered his voice. “Can I let you in on a secret? The other institutes were as mad as freezing kendels that they didn’t get it. Seems that when we were all supposed to forward our staff’s details, more than a few slipped in some additional ‘inducements’.”
“Inducements? You mean, they attempted to bribe both the planetary council and the Ithari?”
“Well, it’s not called a bribe in a war, is it? And this was one of the fiercest battles I ever took part in.” Blen’s eyes shone. “One prestigious organisation offered the Ithari purpose-built complexes, and as many assistants as they required, for however long they wanted. Another offered to ‘smooth’ the trade negotiations through some high-level connections.”
“And what about us, Yical? What did we offer?”
Blen narrowed his eyes. “Don’t go all hard-core Rahfonist on me, Van. What we offered was no more than any other entity of our standing would offer. And, by the sounds of things, actually a lot less.”
Van crossed her arms and waited. Under her withering stare, Blen cracked first.
“All right. We guaranteed absolute privacy for him, a full-time Rahfonist to tutor him (that’s you), as well as a team of guards and carers to ensure that he remains safe at all times. In addition—”
“No,” Van cut in. “Can we go back over something?”
“Er, well surely we can talk over the details—”
“You said that the institute offered a full-time Rahfonist as tutor.”
Van exhaled. “Yical, you know that’s not true. I have a full workload this year, not to mention the field trips to the alien settlements on the other side of the planet. I suppose I’d have a bit more time if Nuisa hadn’t injured himself surge-jumping over—”
“That’s all irrelevant, Van. As of this moment, you are off the active teaching roster.”
“Off?” Her voice rose. “And when were you going to inform me of this?”
“I’m telling you right now.”
“Yical…” She breathed out and started again. “Yical, how can you have a Rahfonist teaching at this institute and still behave so unethically? You’ve forwarded my name and details, consulted with the planetary council, made recommendations, and had me taken away from my students in the middle of the semester, all without even consulting me?”
“These are unusual circumstances, Van.”
“Unusual circumstances are exactly the time when we should be sticking to our ethics, not throwing them away.” She ran her gaze over him, in much the same way as a scientist would peruse a new form of bacteria. “I’m of the opinion that you require a refresher course in what it means to be a Rahfon. In fact, I’m wondering if the entire planetary council needs one too.”
She held up a hand when Blen opened his mouth. “I understand that the Ithari have brought a complication to the table and, no doubt, they’re eager to have a member of a previously unknown species off their claws, or tentacles, or whatever it is they have, but he’s not here yet, we’re still planning for his arrival, and already you have contravened some basic civilities. You should have spoken to me first about this change in my duties.”
“I’m sorry, Van. I would have, but we didn’t have time. When the Ithari gave us their final approval five days ago, I had to give them an immediate answer, and we’ve been hard at work nailing down the details ever since. I didn’t have the liberty that a month or two of time would have given me.”
Van stared at him, but Blen didn’t budge, his expression apologetic but resolute. “All right,” she said. “Now onto my next point. Did you say, ‘guards’?”
“As much for his safety as anyone else’s. The planetary council insisted on it, and even the Ithari agreed it would be a sensible precaution.”
“Private quarters, carers, guards…me. How much is all this costing?”
“You don’t have to worry about that. It’s all being covered by the council. We have full funding approved for a period of six months.”
“Only six months?”
“Van,” Blen ran a hand through his hair, “why are you being like this? I thought someone like you would’ve jumped at the chance of getting a real alien in her hands.”
“I thought you said he’s Rahfon.”
“Rahfon on the outside, Ithari on the inside.” Blen was irritated. “Think of it, Van. Think of all the papers you could write on this. It would increase your already formidable reputation. You could set up your own consultancy once you reach Retirement. I’ll even talk to the council and suggest we retain you as Ithari liaison, if we get such an opportunity.”
Van shook her head slowly, in admiration. “And if I ever forgot how you talked me into joining Emaak, Yical, I think I’ve just been forcibly reminded.”
He watched her carefully. “Does that mean you’ll do it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Of course you have a choice. I know it appears that I’ve been crashing through all your objections but the final word is yours. Say no and, I promise, I won’t bring it up again.”
The smile he gave her was so tentative, with a dash of pathos, that Van burst out laughing. “You win, Yical. I’ll get myself ready for Master Abless. I presume you have some material for me to look over?”
“The Ithari have already forwarded enough information to keep you busy for months.” He reached for his office input pad and tapped on it, frowning every few seconds at the clearscreen floating in front of him. From Van’s side, she saw blurs flash across the air between them. “I’m sending you the biologist’s reports…” tap-tap-tap, “psychological profiles—from an Ithari perspective, of course…” tap-tap “…some background information on Ithari society…” tap-tap “…and a confidentiality agreement.”
“Does that mean I’m not to tell anyone of this?”
“Not even your family. The news will get out eventually, but we’d rather not force the issue.”
A small light gleamed green on her wrist. She glanced down at her bracelet. “All your files have transferred across. How long will I have to go through all this? Three months? Four?”
“What?” She stared at him. “A week? Yical, I can’t analyse everything—anything—in a week!”
“Just skim it, get a feel for what you’re getting into. I don’t imagine you’ll be with him for more than a few hours a day, leaving you the rest of the time to become more familiar with the material. He’ll be your full-time workload, remember?”
“A week,” Van said, her voice soft.
“If anyone can do it, Van, you can.”
He smiled at her proudly and Van got the distinct impression she had capitulated way too easily.
Through with the meeting, Van left Blen’s office. Checking her bracelet, she confirmed that what Yical had told her was correct. Replacement instructors had already been assigned to her classes, and her texts and notes had been shared with them. She was now officially off the teaching roster for the next six months. She should have resented the pre-emptory manner of her reassignment, but couldn’t. A thread of excitement rose in her belly. Restore an alien-reared Rahfoni to society? Yical had been right. Nobody in the history of the planet had ever done that.
She stepped out through the institute’s main doors and took a deep breath, scanning the precinct. She was curious about how it looked when she was normally busy in class. She heard children playing and focused on the park in front of her. During the day, it was used as a playground and set of outdoor classrooms. Small figures in vibrantly coloured clothing danced around two taller figures. To their right, a group of older children were taking samples from the lush green vegetation that fringed the narrow creeks that emptied into an oval lake. Beyond them, a cluster was sitting cross-legged in a circle. At this distance, it was difficult to see who was the teacher and who were the pupils, but this was the biggest concentration of youngsters Van had seen in years. It looked like the precinct’s entire population of younglings was present.
By the time dusk fell, the area would be altered and configured for adults—the short railings around the lake and waterways would disappear, entertainment domes would rise from beneath the grassy surface, and acoustic shields would be put in place to keep venues private from each other.
To her right, partially eclipsed by the institute’s campus buildings, were the supporting industries of the precinct—food markets, shops, some accommodation and general maintenance facilities. She normally sent Rek to do the grocery shopping but, occasionally, liked to saunter to the market herself, especially if she knew out-precinct merchants were visiting. Perhaps she could introduce the Abless boy to the markets. She found it cheerful and invigorating, full of the scents of Rahfon life. It would be a good introduction to what it meant to be a Rahfoni.
This morning, knowing she had an impossible deadline to meet, she turned left, walking briskly down the wide promenade towards the residential area. There was enough traffic around to be comforting but not claustrophobic, and she nodded to people she recognised. They smiled and nodded back.
She liked the Emaak precinct because it was smaller than the Rahfoni average. Before Yical Blen poached her, offering her a package she couldn’t refuse, she’d been teaching at Disen, a region easily twice as large and three times as busy. People came and left the major spaceport city on a regular basis, quickly moving on to other opportunities, and Van had found it difficult to form more than a handful of cursory relationships. Favil had loved it, of course. He loved everything that was dynamic and exciting. When Van had left for Emaak, Favil hadn’t followed.
The residential buildings hove into view as she approached, rising up out of the surrounding landscaped shrubbery like neatly separated plates of white. The panes of yellow, blue, green and pink crystal glass that separated the levels of each building glinted in the sunlight, giving the area a bright, hyper-realistic glow.
She really should be grateful to Yical for rescuing her from Disen’s overwhelming anonymity. Emaak may be smaller, but it was also more intimate, more soothing. Her creative and academic output had more than doubled in the first ten years after her move. Whereas, in Disen, she had been a competent philosopher, in the quiet of Emaak, she was able to pull her ideas and experiences of social chaos together in such a way that she was now one of Emaak’s stars—a Rahfonist and philosopher who had her pick of conferences. She was truly content, something that a person could only aspire to when reaching the major life-event of Retirement.
Van reached her building and, with only the slightest of pauses so her identity could be confirmed, the foyer doors slid open. She climbed the wide stairs of the residential block up to the second level, palming the door’s access panel in an offhand gesture born of habit.
There was a moment of silence when she entered, then a bright voice greeted her. “Am I mistaken, or did you leave for work less than two hours ago?”
Van smiled. “Noticed, did you?”
She looked at the AI unit now approaching her. Rek trotted forward and sat down, his tail swishing gently from side to side. From his relaxed facial expression, Van could see he was in a teasing mood.
“Hard not to when the door interrupted my mid-morning nap,” he said.
“Yical Blen gave me a new assignment.” She sobered and dropped her voice. “Ultra-high privacy, Rek. Nothing I say or watch is to go beyond these walls.”
“So I can’t tell the fresh pawgury trader about it.”
She smiled. “As much as I love steamed pawgury…no.”
“I shall set up the appropriate protocols. All communications will be on a delay, with acknowledgement-required handshakes for all incoming calls. That should give you enough time to suspend whatever you’re working on should someone contact or visit you.”
“Would you like a kevey? I can make one for you just the way you like your men—dark and sweet.”
“That would be lovely.” She walked over to the largest console in the living room, fishing her slate out of her bag. Glancing down at it, she noticed that Blen had uploaded one hundred and sixteen files. This was going to be a long week. She acknowledged the device interlock on both devices, set the transfer for encryption and walked back to the sofa.
“How are we doing for food?” she asked, raising her voice.
Rek’s muffled tones carried from the kitchen. “Thinking of staying in?”
“No ‘thinking’ about it. I have an entire week of enforced solitude. Lots of information to absorb.”
“I see. In that case, no, we don’t have enough food.”
He entered the room. He had changed to bipedal mode and was carrying a steaming mug in one hand. “Would you like me to go to the market today, instead of tomorrow?”
Van took the mug, tasting the dark, aromatic liquid with pleasure. “Good idea. Use the opportunity to purchase extra groceries. I’m not sure when I’ll be free. Nice kevey, by the way.”
“Thank you. I presume your current assignment will be lasting for more than a week?”
“That’s right. All in all, I’m going to be away from my regular duties for the next six months. This first week is just preparation time. How did you know?”
“You are preoccupied. Your voice is exhibiting stress. I would have guessed that whatever is troubling you will not be resolved in a short time.”
She looked up at him and shook her head. “You can read me like a neo-hoth novel.”
“That’s how I was programmed.” He folded down to a quadraped so Van didn’t have to strain her neck. “So you are off regular duties for six months?”
“I am scanning your schedule. If you’re going to be otherwise occupied for such a length of time, you need to make some decisions about upcoming commitments.”
Van hesitated for a moment, then groaned and hit her forehead with the palm of her hand. “You’re talking about the East Rahfon Conference on Order and Chaos, aren’t you? How could I have forgotten?”
“You are one of their speakers. You also promised a column for Rahfon Today magazine and an interview for Philosophy in Life.”
She took another sip of kevey. “I don’t know. I can’t make the conference. Will you pass on my apologies?”
“As for the column and interview…”
“I can analyse past issues of the magazine, with particular emphasis on articles from previous Rahfonists, cross-referencing social questions of that time. I’m sure I can suggest something from one of your previous papers.”
“Yes, please do that.”
“I will also contact the editor of Philosophy in Life. Perhaps she can forward the questions in advance. We can record your answers here and send them to her.”
“It’s not ideal but,” she paused, “I think that’s the best I can do for now.”
“Do you want me to refuse future engagement requests?”
“Yes. I don’t need the distraction. And it’ll only be for six months.”
“Very well. I shall contact the conference organisers then go to the market.”
“Thank you, Rek.”
Even though she knew the AI unit was her personal property and entirely trustworthy, she waited for him to leave before she moved Yical’s files to a new folder and opened it. From the looks of things, everything had been translated into Rahfoni. That should make things slightly easier.
Van skimmed the file names and metadata, using the larger console to help organise the overwhelming amount of information available. She created sub-folders—Early Life, Most Recent, Ithari, Health, Other—and further classified the files. By the time she was ready to delve into the actual data, more than an hour had passed. Rek hadn’t yet returned, but Van wasn’t worried. He often used the time away to download news from Emaak-specific sources and interact with his friends.
Where to start? After some thought, she chose “Early Life”, then the file with the lowest number.
“Play,” she told the console.
A laboratory appeared on the monitor. Van saw benches, long-legged chairs, and familiar looking equipment—was that a server bank? Those rounded oblongs over there looked like sensor displays—but the lighting was very bright and everything looked sheathed in bright metal. When the first Ithari came into view, standing in the middle of the frame facing the camera, Van held her breath.
She had flippantly mentioned “tentacles” to Yical but saw now that she was wrong. Not tentacles but certainly claw-like appendages. The Ithari individual she was looking at was tall and spindly, with the kind of leg musculature that made each step look like a bounce. There were only two fingers on each hand with one opposable thumb. Its language appeared to be a combination of vocalisations and deliberate body movements. Rahfoni subtitles flashed above its head.
“I would like to make this recording of the specimen we retrieved from the crash in [untranslatable],” it said. “If I could ask my assistant to bring it here…”
Another Ithari entered the frame, leading a small Rahfon child. Yes, about five years old would seem right. He was naked and walked stiffly, as if ready to bolt in an instant. Van had to quell a stab of sympathy and the instinctive spasming of her hands. This had already happened thirty years ago. There was nothing she could do to change it.
“It is a warm-blooded creature. Its skin is thin and easily lacerated. Skull capacity is proportionally large, indicating the potential for higher brain function. Fluid analysis has revealed a blood chemistry different to ours, yet with some similarities in nutrient uptake, morphology, and thermoregulation.”
Van watched the young boy, her gaze lifting occasionally to the subtitles to keep track of what was being said. He was standing very still, a stance unnatural in such a young child. Almost catatonic.
“…fluid from its eyes. We have analysed it. It contains water, salts, [untranslatable] and enzymes of the [untranslatable] group. It appears to be unrelated to any biological function that we can ascertain, but is accompanied by flushing of facial tissues and high-pitched vocalisations…”
Poor thing. He was gripping an Ithari’s hand as if his life depended on it. Did the Ithari have pain receptors? Was he hurting it? Had they hurt him?
“…autopsies of the other bodies retrieved in an effort to further classify this being. Unfortunately, with only one living specimen available, benchmarking our findings remains problematic, however we have established some baseline measurements that we hope…”
The second Ithari—the one identified as an assistant—tugged on the boy’s hand and began moving in a tight circle. The boy followed, executing a full turn in front of the camera.
“…not encountered a species like this before. Our report has been tabled…”
Van was shown the boy doing another turn, then the video cut out abruptly.
The console chimed, indicating that playback was complete.
Van looked down at her hands and found them curled into fists. The muscles in her entire body were tense and rigid and she had to make an effort to relax them so she could take in a full breath. She hadn’t expected such a visceral response to the image of a Rahfon child being examined by aliens like a…a specimen. That’s what they had called him.
They hadn’t known any better. To them, he was a specimen.
Yes, she should concentrate on that, she thought, blinking back tears of emotion. From what Yical had said, they had taken care of Abless for the past thirty years. They wouldn’t have done that if they hadn’t come to respect and care about him in some way. And they had kept working on the crashed space yacht, slowly decoding information from the damaged ship’s systems. None of these actions indicated a ruthless, uncaring people.
But she couldn’t forget the image of the young boy—in shock and terrified. If only the tasks the Ithari had carried out could have been reversed: decode the systems first, then raise the child. But how were the Ithari supposed to do that? If the Rahfon had been thrust into the same situation, Van doubted they could have done any better.
Finishing the kevey, she put the empty mug to one side and chose another file, skipping over an entire sequence. This one had a timestamp marked a year later.
It took a while for Van to sort out what she was watching. Unlike the sleekness of the lab, she was now looking at things that appeared to have no function. It was a room and, beyond that, high walls. The light was still bright, but less blinding than before. Two small Ithari galloped into, then out of, the frame. There were spikes on the floor (weapons?), a table containing bulbs that made crackling sounds as they rocked to and fro. Why were there rags next to the spikes? What were those stains on the floor?
Then it dawned on her. She was looking at a home! Fascinated, she leant forward, her gaze moving from one object to another. Were those rocking things toys or plants? And what about the deadly-looking spikes? Surely they couldn’t be toys.
An adult Ithari arrived and picked up the rags. Its body language was stiff. It perched on a tall stool and looked into the camera.
“This is weekly report sixty. I am Biologist Ar [unintelligible but sounding like ‘sack’].”
The biologist who had fostered the boy! But was it male, female or other? The swept back ridges on its head were rounded, perhaps indicating a female, but it seemed a larger individual than the two Ithari from the previous video, so perhaps it was male? There were so many questions here but Van forced herself to put them to one side. For the moment, she had to let the information wash over her. She needed an overview before she began drilling for specific answers.
“[Unintelligible but sounding like ‘Ob’] is adapting well to life. Its weekly health report showed a deficiency in iron and I have requested another four weeks’ worth of supplements from the Central Lab. Side-effects have been greatly diminished and I have confidence in the revised formulae.
“At this point, we believe Ob is an immature hermaphrodite form of its species, as it exhibits both male and female characteristics. As you can see,” an image of Abless, looking slightly older, flashed on the screen, “it has external genitalia indicative of male penetration, yet it also has dormant fat glands on its chest capable of nutriment production and feeding. We believe there are also immature organs capable of young-bearing in its torso.”
The frame returned to the biologist. “I have requested further data drops from the team handling the alien translations and hope to have my hypothesis confirmed very soon.”
Van raised her eyebrows. It wasn’t a bad analysis, as far as it went. Incorrect, but logical.
“It is a very social animal, often requesting physical touch when it exhibits clear signs of anxiety or, contradictorily, happiness. My children are quite taken with it, although I have had to restrict the range of physical activities Ob participates in as some have resulted in injuries to its body.
“Cognitively, Ob is intelligent but has problems with language. Its mathematical ability is solid and average for a child at the [unintelligible] level. I will be attaching my written findings to this report.”
The screen went blank.
Van was still digesting what she’d seen when Rek returned.
“You look deep in thought,” he said as he skimmed past, taking the empty mug in his mouth.
Van kept staring at the screen. “I have lots to think about.”
“Lunch will be ready soon. We can discuss it then, if you like.”
“Yes.” Van’s voice strengthened. “Yes, why not.”
Van’s best thinking always happened when she had someone to talk to and—considering the magnitude of what she was undertaking, and the amount of data she had to sift through—she’d have to talk to someone soon or burst! Under the circumstances, and considering the security precautions, Rek seemed the best choice.
She rose from the sofa, leisurely padding after her votary down a short flight of steps into the kitchen. Behind him, and through the panes of crystal glass, Emaak stretched, a jigsaw of overlapping green circles cut through with grey, white and blue.
“The groceries will be delivered within the hour,” Rek said, looking up. “Would you like me to set the table?”
“No, I’ll do it.” Van walked to a wall unit and pressed one of the panels. It slid forward and petalled open. She took out a setting for one—an antique placemat, a set of cutlery that had belonged to her paternal grandfather, and a more modern plate, rippled around the squared off edges.
“What are we having for lunch?” She knew she’d be the only one eating, but it felt more convivial including him in her daily rituals. She placed the mat at one end of the table and began arranging the other items on top of it.
“Since today is a special occasion—a top-secret confidential mission that you haven’t told me about yet—I decided to get some roasted braefon with steamed red pawgury, dressed greens and a side-dish of hosvah sauce.” Rek winked at her across the counter. “The vegetable merchant told me he’d been keeping the pawgury specially for you.”
Van smiled. “I’ll have to take a walk down there and thank him in person. Any other news around the market?”
“I met Nex. She told me you’d probably be hearing from Ageta later today as your name was mentioned before Ageta left for work this morning.”
“That’s nice. I haven’t seen Ageta for a while.”
“And there’s a new play opening next week. It was a big hit in the capital and the company’s touring the continent. There is also a Traydor art exhibition opening next month.”
Seeing that her meal was almost ready, Van walked back to the dining table. It was a long, polished piece of timber—a luxury, considering she was often the only diner—but she hadn’t been able to resist it. After Rek, it had been the first thing she’d bought for herself after moving to Emaak. She pulled out a chair and sat down.
“I don’t know, Rek,” she said. “I’m not sure how busy I’ll be over the next month…”
“I’ve booked two tickets for you at the theatre. They’re for the week after next. I can always release them if you can’t make it, but they were going fast and I was afraid I would have missed out if I’d waited any longer.” Rek slipped a plate and shallow bowl in front of her, following it up with a glass of chilled wine, then he took a seat to her left.
“In that case, thank you. Put it on my schedule, with a reminder.” Would the Abless child like to see a play? Or was two weeks too early to attempt such an activity?
Rek nodded. “Executed.”
Lunch was excellent, as Van knew it would be. Rek’s culinary upgrade, an expensive accessory twenty-five years ago, had been worth every credit of its price.
The conversation over the meal was light. Rek recited the major news items of the day, interspersing them with a few comic pieces. Van sipped at her wine and listened.
“—and the trade negotiation with the Ithari species is on schedule to be signed within the next few months. Ah.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Van asked, keeping her voice light. “‘Ah’?”
“I don’t know exactly what the connection is, but your secret project has something to do with the Ithari, doesn’t it?”
Van stared at him for a second, then a wry smile curved her lips. “Physiological indicators giving me away again?”
“The Rahfon are full of them. From what I’ve heard, many more than the Ergifani. Which is good. I would find serving one of the Ergifan less stimulating.”
Van laughed. “That’s just mischievous, considering that votaries like you are originally Ergifan technology.”
“Ergifan technology that the Rahfon have improved upon with specialised programming.”
“Of course. Because I’m Rahfoni.”
She saluted him with the glass. “In that case, we’ll have to see what kind of magic we get from the Ithari that we can improve on.”
“Your project does have to do with the trade negotiation, then?”
“No.” Van shook her head. “Not quite. Why don’t we clean up here and I’ll explain.”
As they cleared the remainders of lunch from the table, Van gave Rek a capsule description of Blen’s assignment and what she was supposed to achieve over the next six months of work.
“Yical gave me more than a hundred files and only a week to absorb them,” she said, leading Rek to the living room.
He sat on his haunches and looked at her. “What is your initial aim with the data?”
“Hmmm.” Van tapped the bowl of her glass with one finger. “I want to get a feel for this child’s growth. Not necessarily physical at this point, although I’ll go through that again later. I’m more interested in his emotional state and how that’s evolved.”
“And you have more than a hundred files, you say?”
“One hundred and sixteen.”
“That’s a great idea. How long will it take?”
“If I stop all non-core activities, I believe it could be done in less than an hour.”
“Then please do it, Rek. It sounds like an excellent idea.”
The votary froze in position, his head cocked attractively to one side as he processed the files. While waiting, Van finished her wine and caught up on her journal reading.
Forty minutes later, Rek moved again. “I have finished,” he said, his eyes gleaming. “Would you like to begin?”
Van took a deep breath. “Yes. Why not?”