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Authors: Sarah Zettel

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Playing God (8 page)

BOOK: Playing God
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Still, the room was as she remembered it. It was beautiful. It was home.

She collapsed with Senejess and Armetrethe onto a sofa. Res and Theia dropped straight to the sand-colored mats that covered the floor with a cluster of cousins about their own age, languid and relaxed.

They talked easily for a while, about the colonies, about the daughters. The conversation turned colder and drew them closer to one another as they talked about the plague and the long lists of the dead.

Finally, Senejess shook Praeis's shoulder lightly. “Tell us what the Queens were so anxious about they couldn't let you come home first, Sister.”

Between their cousins, Res and Theia stiffened, but said nothing.

Praeis struggled to rise above the enveloping warmth that surrounded her so she could choose her words carefully. “They wanted my thanks for their pardon, Sister, and to inform me I was now their official representative.”

Senejess looked from her to Armetrethe and pulled Praeis into a close embrace. “I'm so glad, Sister.”

Slowly, Praeis realized she was, but that Senejess was also disappointed. She was hoping for more than Praeis had said. A cool thread began to ease through the warmth of her blood. Her skin rippled, and she extricated herself from her sister's arms. “They didn't mention money yet, of course. Is that not how it always is with the Majestic Sisters? Order now, pay when you work out how.”

Before they laughed, another look passed between Armetrethe and Senejess, just a flicker, but nonetheless too long to be imagined.

“So,” Praeis tried hard to sound completely conversational. “Tell me how things stand in the Council of True Blood.”

Armetrethe shrugged. The stump of her missing arm flailed outward. “It is full of arguments as always. Not everyone accepts this Confederation. Some find petty ways to assert what independence we have left instead of working toward effective solutions.”

Well, Sisters, now we have exchanged ambiguities.
Praeis tried to relax again, to sink back into the rivers of warmth and be washed away on their currents. She did hot want this. She did not want to be apart and afraid. She wanted her birth sisters. She wanted them so much, she felt tears welling up in her eyes.

“Ah, nothing new then,” she said softly.

Armetrethe touched Praeis's shoulder with her one hand. “What is it, Sister?”

Tell them, tell them. There is no need for this. You can be birth sisters again. They'll forgive you anything, if you tell them now. Your daughters will have their cousins, and you will have your sisters blood and soul again. Tell them.

But there was that silent look between Senejess and Armetrethe that stood for all they had not told to her.

“Nothing, Sisters. We spent a good deal of today under stress, and I am tired.”

Senejess swallowed. “Of course. We are careless. There is food waiting for you. Daughters, you will bring our meal to the serving tables.”

The daughters scrambled to their feet in a ragged chorus of “yes, Mothers.” Res and Theia went with them as they hurried to the kitchen alcoves to pull platters of sea fish and shellfish, baskets of both flat and raised bread, and deep bowls of legumes, milled and seasoned so sharply, Praeis could smell them where she sat.

The daughters set the food on the serving tables. The dishes were passed around, and the talk turned to nothing but food. The things they ate as children, the prices of shellfish and legumes, the superiority of this food they ate now compared to what could be gotten in the colonies. Time and again, Praeis's soul reached out, seeking the warmth and easy rhythms she had felt when they first arrived. A few times she thought she almost found them, but they always slipped away again.

She cast a glance at Res and Theia. If the daughters felt the unease between their mothers, they were doing a fine job of hiding it. They seemed absorbed in one another, talking about homes and Humans, the food, all the vast strangeness of Mars and the Solar system, of what it was like to travel in space, of all the technological miracles that Humans produced.

The sky darkened and the plates and bowls emptied. The overhead lights came on as the electric service started up for the night.

Then, suddenly, Armetrethe asked, “So, what is this assignment the Queens have given you as their representative? You did not say.”

Praeis's fingers fumbled reaching for a slice of bread. “The Queens say they need a diplomat.” She concentrated on scooping some of the legume paste onto her bread. “They want me to help build support for the Confederation.”

Senejess's ears curled. “You are supposed to understand the complexity of the Confederation agreement and our Great Family's response to it? After living apart from us for twenty years?”

Praeis bit down on the bread, savoring the spices, the smooth richness of the legumes. It helped hold back the bitterness that welled inside her. “No. I am supposed to learn about it. Surely I'll have the help of my sisters for this, or have you resigned your position on the Council of True Blood?”

Armetrethe opened her mouth and shut it again. “No. We have not resigned.”

“Good.” Praeis tried to sound nothing but pleased. “Then you can take me to a session, and introduce me to the Councilors. I'm sure there are many new Wise Sisters I will need to get acquainted with,” she paused. “And many grievances.”

Armetrethe's stump quivered. “I wouldn't class the objections of our Wise Sisters in Council as grievances. Until you understand the situation, you shouldn't either.”

Praeis dipped her ears. “You're right. I'm sorry. I spoke too soon. I need to get started on my mission immediately, though. We only have two weeks before the relocation begins, and we need as much consensus as we can get before then, or things won't go smoothly.” She met her sister's gaze. “After all, we can't make the Humans do everything.”

“I don't see why not,” muttered Senejess. “They enjoy it so much.”

Praeis felt the skin on her back ripple.
Now, we hear something real.

“Have there been problems with the Humans, Sisters?” She popped the half-eaten slice of bread into her mouth.

“Nothing that couldn't be solved by reminding them of their place.” Armetrethe picked at the shell of a shrimp in the seafood bowl. One of the daughters, Oan, took it from under her hand and peeled it for her.

The daughters all remained respectfully silent during this exchange, including her own. Praeis was proud and thankful. Now was not the time to add poor mothering to the list of charges her sisters had surely piled up against her.

Armetrethe bit down on the shrimp and tore it in two. “The Queens deal with our enemies,” she mumbled around the mouthful. “But they refuse to speak firmly with our servants, and they wonder why the Great Family is unhappy.”

“Humans do need reminding who has created their positions from time to time.” Praeis laid a sympathetic hand on Armetrethe's shoulder. “I have contacts in Bioverse. A few words to the proper superiors will go a long way.”

“Thank you, Sister, that will surely help.” There was no warmth to Armetrethe's words.

Praeis edged closer to her sister. “Have I misspoken? Is there something else I should do?”

Armetrethe squeezed Praeis's hand briefly. “No. No. I'm sorry, Sister, you mean well, it's just …” Armetrethe's ears fell back against her scalp.

“It's just that you do not understand,” finished Senejess. “It is not your fault. You did not watch this plague spread and grow even after its origins were supposedly destroyed. You did not see the Queens-of-All wiggling and squirming in d-light at this idea from the Getesaph, the
Getesaph,
to bring the Humans swarming down on us. What is the ‘Esaph's real plan, hmmm? What are they going to do once our daughters and carrying mothers are all caged and helpless in these city-ships, hmmm?”

All at once, Praeis became keenly aware of Res and Theia across the room with their cousins. Her shoulders stiffened. “I have seen the plague, my Sisters. Jos and Shorie are dead of it. Ten of our daughters are dead of it. It is because of Human help that anyone survived in our colony.”

Senejess gripped Praeis's arm. “And what did the Humans do about it?”

Praeis's brow furrowed. “What they could. They helped us treat the symptoms, and create more effective quarantine measures. They kept the sick comfortable and safe, just as they intend to do aboard the city-ships. I have seen the designs for the hospital sections. They are models of cleanliness and efficiency. Our sisters will be well taken care of by those who have made great strides in understanding the nature of these illnesses.”

“But they found no cure?”

“No,” said Praeis warily. Tension sang between her sisters. It worked its way into her skin like a draft of cold air. Her heartbeat sped up, and her skin twitched and bunched. “They said it was more than one disease, that the weapon had mutated some wild viruses, turning them deadly. They said they'd have to go to All-Cradle to find the source and the cure.”

“So!” Armetrethe slapped her thigh, triumphantly. “If they cured the plague, they couldn't come here to us, could they? They'd have no reason to, would they?”

Praeis felt her ears tip backward. “What are you talking about, Sister?”

Senejess leaned even closer. “When the plague broke out, the Getesaph dropped a fusion bomb on the Octrel, destroying, they said, the creators of the plague.” Her intensity thrummed through Praeis's mind. “A year ago, after over a million of our Great Family sickened and died, the Getesaph and their allies contacted the Humans. No one knows what passed between them. Then, they start this idea of Confederation. Bring the Humans in, give them control over our fates, let them take charge of our home. Oh, all for the most benevolent reasons, of course. Let the mighty Humans wipe out the plague and clean up the radioactive zones.”

Dizziness threatened. It had been so long since she'd been with so many family. The room was full of them, all their consciousnesses pressing against her, demanding attention. Her sisters both touched her, and it was as if they touched will and soul as well as skin. She wanted to relax, to let the feelings carry her away to calm and love.

But she couldn't. Something was wrong; she knew it. She tasted it on the back of her tongue like the spices from their dinner.

“I don't understand, Sisters.” Her voice sounded thick.

“Can't you hear? Ancestors Mine! It shouts at us from the sky!” Armetrethe gripped Praeis with all the strength of her one hand. “The Getesaph entered into an agreement with the Humans. If the Humans place us, all of our Great Family, in a vulnerable position for them, the Getesaph will pay the Humans with the life from our planet.”

For a moment Praeis saw it. For a split second, it made perfect sense. But all her long years of living and working with Humans pulled her back.

“Sisters”—she took their hands—“I hear you. I feel you in my blood. But what you're suggesting is not possible. No Human enclave would agree to enter into a war.”

“You've lived with them, Sister,” said Senejess, dejection plain in her voice and the set of her ears. “We must bow to your superior knowledge.”

“You must bow to nothing of mine, Sisters,” said Praeis softly. “But I ask you, on the strength of where I have been and whom I have known, to listen to me closely.”

Cold, hard disappointment welled up through her fingertips, and Praeis knew they would not. Perhaps they could not.

“I call the house!” shouted a voice from outside.

Senejess jerked around. “Who … ?” She got up swiftly and went to the window. “It's a messenger. I'll take it.”

She went to the front door and after a moment returned with a folded, unsealed square of paper.

“It is for you, Praeis.”

Puzzled, but grateful for the distraction, Praeis took the letter. It just had her name and the house name on the outside.

She unfolded the paper. The words inside were machine printed, and the language was English.

Ancestors Mine,
she thought.
It's from Lynn.

“What is it?” asked Senejess, leaning over her shoulder. “What language is that?”

“English,” said Praeis. “One of the major Human languages. I find it more difficult than Mandarin.”

She read:

Dear Praeis,

Hey, look at this, I've put words on paper. This is so strange. I can't manage your thing with the pen. I am even more impressed with you than before.

I was hoping to ask you a favor. David has pulled hospital duty at the
Aurion-in-Uieth
near you.
Praeis sucked in her breath. Lynn had named one of the larger plague hospitals.

He says they're having trouble sorting out the victims and their families for the relocation schedule. Could you visit the site and do a little cultural interp for them so we all know what's up? I'm afraid you were right when you said your home was far more alien than your colony. I appreciate whatever you can do.

All okay with the Queens? Anything you need from us?

GET HOOKED UP. I've got a machine reserved for you. All you have to do is find somewhere to put it. This letter thing makes a great party trick, but we need to do some serious brain dumps soon.

Lynn Nussbaumer

Praeis's ears waved. She could practically hear Lynn's voice reading the letter to her. She looked up and saw her sisters standing expectantly over her.

“It is from one of the Humans with Bioverse,” she said. “I have worked with her a long time.” She translated the letter as best she could.

Senejess touched her shoulder. “Are you going to do as she says?”

Praeis felt her ears droop. She folded the paper back up. “My first duty is to the work my Queens assigned me, but yes, I'll try to visit David at the hospital.” She saw her sister's lowered ears and pinched nostrils. “What would you have me do?”

“You will do as you will, Sister,” Senejess's skin rippled up and down her arms. “As you always have.”

Praeis swallowed hard against the tears that stung her eyes. She turned away and lifted her head and ears.

“With me, my Daughters. Let me show you the night sky of your home. It has been too long since I have seen a proper sky full of moons and stars I can name.”

BOOK: Playing God
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