Authors: Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Klaaynch’s dream of being a
linguist was considered odd, and it
odd, for the Quurzod. The only
thing that saved her, the only thing that gave her any kind of power and
potential, was her ability to fight.
She was considered the best of
And she proved it.
It took her four hours to die.
I know because I watched.
It was the only time I had been
allowed in an actual violence pool during fighting. I sat behind Klaaynch and
sat there, all except the two who escaped. Klaaynch and her
young team. Me and mine. Twenty-three lives from the ship, lives I wasted in my
attempt to learn the wrong form of Quurzid. Awnings attached to the small
buildings shaded us, but the air was hot—hotter than anything I had ever
The Quurzod gave us water. They
gave us something to keep our fluids balanced. They wanted us to live—at least
until the fighting ended.
I was not allowed to speak, and I
Around me, Quurzod I had met—most
in their teens, some barely adult—fought for their very survival.
But the match that mattered was
It took four hours for their best
fighters to kill her. A dozen adults against one thin girl. Four hours.
If she had survived for six hours,
she would have lived and been granted favors. One of the favors she wanted was
to get permission for me to study street Quurzid.
Not the violence pools
Just street Quurzid.
And while I did that, she wanted
me to teach her Standard. Standard, and all of the other languages I knew.
She was so marvelous. So strong.
So brave. So beautiful.
But three hours and forty-five
minutes in, someone snapped her right femur. She kept fighting, but she had no
base, no way to maintain her balance. At three hours and fifty-eight minutes,
It took only two minutes to
finish her off. The others in her violence pool, those who had been
contaminated by me, died that afternoon as well.
The fighters dismantled the
buildings. Beneath the largest was the pool itself. A hollow, empty pit in the
ground, designed to hold the losers of any large fight.
Klaaynch had told me this as we
waited for the others to show up. She told me that the pools often were not
used, and when the time came to move the violence pool, the actual pool itself
This one got filled too.
Most of my team fought back. When
it became clear that we would die, they fought. But they were no match for the
They went into the pool. Then me,
then Klaaynch’s friends.
And finally, Klaaynch.
No one touched me, except to
knock me unconscious. It should have been enough to kill me. In the heat, among
the dead, in the dryness.
I should have died.
But I did not.
~ * ~
her credit, Leona does not speak as I tell my story. She tries to keep her face
expressionless, but she cannot control her eyes. They narrow, they widen.
Several times, she keeps them closed for a few extra seconds, as if she does
not want to look at me any more.
I don’t want to look at me
“The other two, they were right,”
I say. “I caused this. I’m why we’re here. Becalmed.”
Leona does not nod. Nor does she
reach out a hand to comfort me. She sighs. “They abandoned their post.”
They did. They left the Quurzod
as the rest of us went to the violence pool. They should have stayed with us,
but they thought something might go wrong and they fled.
I should have told the others to
go as well. The mistake was mine, not theirs.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “I
shouldn’t be here.”
“The Captain decides that,” she
says. “He brought you back.”
“When he didn’t have all of the
information,” I say.
She inclines her head. She is
conceding that point.
“Tell him I’m ready. He can’t
send me back, but he shouldn’t keep me here either.”
“You’re volunteering for
execution?” she asks.
“It’s the right thing,” I say.
“I don’t think that’s your
decision,” she says. “Not any more.”
~ * ~
return me to my quarters. The apartment no longer looks like mine. I recognize
everything in it, I even remember hanging the quilt, scrunching the blanket on
my divan, but the place feels strange to me, like a memory that I have
abandoned. The apartment has a dusty odor, as if I’ve been gone for months,
which is impossible. First of all, I have not been gone more than a few days,
and secondly, the air gets recycled in here. Nothing should smell of dust.
I make myself dinner and sit in
one of the chairs to eat it. Normally, I would play a language quiz or watch an
entertainment, but I do neither. I sit and listen.
The Quurzod whisper all around
me. The sound infects me, like the memories infected me. The memories are
there, but I no longer slip into them accidentally. Instead, I roll them around
in my mind, worrying them, like my tongue would worry a chipped tooth.
No wonder I blocked them. All
those people, dead because of me. Because I did not understand—when I am
trained to understand.
I should have known. I should
have figured it out.
And I did not.
Not even when Klaaynch said to me
that she could chose her own friends. When she said it with defiance, with that
glow the rebellious get as they anticipate a fight.
If the Quurzod so strongly
protect the language they use for family and friends, it should have seemed
obvious to me that they would viciously defend the language they strove to keep
secret. I should have known—maybe I did know—of course I knew.
And that is why I blocked the
I didn’t want to remember that
feeling—that I’ll-deal-with-it-later feeling—the one I ignored.
I have been sitting with my plate
in my lap for nearly an hour when the door chime sounds. Coop’s chime.
It does not surprise me. A part
of me has expected to see him all along.
He looks big, powerful, as he
comes through that door. His presence is almost too much for the room.
“Leona tells me you volunteered
for execution.” He does not sit. He towers over me. “I won’t do it.”
“It’s regulation.” I clutch the
plate. I have not really moved, except that my muscles have tensed.
“Regulation is what the captain
says it is,” he says.
I shake my head slightly. “If
that were true, each ship would be a tiny dictatorship.”
He sits on the divan across from
me, balancing on the edge, leaning toward me. “It’s not like you to give up.”
I look at him. When we met, I
predicted the lines that formed around his eyes. But the one that furrows his
brow is a surprise; he frowns more than I would have ever expected.
“I haven’t given up,” I say. Even
when I should have. I’m the one who caused this, not him. I’m the one who didn’t
die in that pit. I’m the one who climbed out—over bodies, over people I knew. I’m
the one who staggered through that desert, to the borders where I knew the
Xenth would find me. I’m the one who made it to that village, against all odds.
I did not give up.
And I should have.
“You haven’t thought it through,”
he says. “They tricked us.”
I blink, frown, then get up. I
walk the plate to the recycling unit. If I don’t eat that food, someone else
should get the nutrients.
“They didn’t trick me,” I say
with my back to him. “I went to that violence pool of my own free will.”
“Not the Quurzod,” he says. “The
I turn. I didn’t deal with the
Xenth. Most of the negotiations with the Xenth happened before I was brought
into the discussions.
I am suddenly cold.
He’s looking at his hands. “They
tricked all of us.”
I walk back and sit down. I wait.
He raises his head. Those lines,
those sad eyes.
“Think about it,” he says. “The
imbalance of power that has existed there for centuries. Then, one day, a fleet
of ships arrives, a fleet with more power than the Xenth can imagine. And we
offer to help.”
He twists his hands together. He
has thought of this for a long time.
“They ask the initial
negotiators, they say—”
“If we ask you to obliterate the
Quurzod, you would do so?”
whisper this in Xenth. I have read the documentation. They did say that, and
the initial negotiators wrote it off as a test.
I believed the initial
negotiators. After all, they’re the ones on the ground. They watch body
language. They know the culture—or should know the culture. They’re the ones
who understand what is going on.
Besides, the Xenth’s question
wasn’t unusual. Every culture we encounter wants to know our limits. Our limits
are that we help, we do not engage.
Unless we are engaged first.
Coop quotes the line, ignoring my
Xenth, which he does not understand. He is used to me muttering in other
languages. I have done it as long as he has known me. “We refuse to destroy
Quurzod. We spend time studying the situation, and then we offer our diplomatic
services to the Xenth. But during the time we studied them, the Xenth studied
So buttoned up, so formal and
proper. Hidden, too, but we should have expected that.
Only that isn’t my mistake. I
wasn’t with the initial group. The initial groups came from elsewhere in the
Fleet, and somehow they overcame—or maybe never had—their aversion to the
Xenth, and their hissing, sibilant-filled language.
I, on the other hand, never
But I did trust my commanders. I
trusted my orders, figuring they all knew the history, the facts, the
personalities of both sides.
“The Xenth knew,” Coop says. “They
knew about the violence; they’ve suffered from it. They accused the Quurzod of
massacres, not telling us that this was part of Quurzod culture, that they kill
anyone—regardless of nationality—if they violate certain rules. The Xenth made
sure we did not know those rules. They sent us in blind.”
It is so easy to blame another
culture. But I shake my head. I believe in mistakes before I believe in
“That can’t be true,” I say. “The
Xenth left too much to chance.”
“They left nothing to chance,” he
says. “If we had actually figured out a way to negotiate with the Quurzod, the
Xenth would have gained a solid border, some defined territory, an end to a
long war. But if we did not find a way to negotiate, if we aggravated the
Quurzod, the Quurzod would come after us. They would have