My Enemy, My Ally
Her name, to which various people had recently been appending curses, was Ael i-Mhiessan t'Rllaillieu. Her rank, in the common tongue, was khre'Riov: commander-general. Her serial number was a string of sixteen characters that by now she knew as well as she knew her fourth name, though they meant infinitely less to her. And considering these matters in such a fashion was at least marginally appropriate just now, for she was in a trap.
How long she would remain there, however, remained to be seen.
At the moment her patience was mostly intact, but her spirit had moved her to rattle the bars of the cage a bit. Ael propped her elbow on her desk, rested her chin on her hand, and said to her cabin's wall screen, "Hwaveyiir. Erein tr'Khaell."
The screen flicked on, and there was the bridge, and poor Ante-centurion tr'Khaell just as he had been twenty minutes ago, still hunched over and pretending to fiddle with his communications boards. At the sight of Ael he straightened quickly and said, "Ie, khre'Riov?"
Don't play the innocent with me, child, thought Ael. You should have had that dispatch decoded and translated ten minutes ago . . . as well you know. "Erein, eliukh hwio' 'ssuy llas-mene arredhaud'eitroi?"
She said it politely enough, but the still, low-lidded look she gave him was evidently making it plain to tr'Khaell that if Ael had to ask him again about what was holding up the dispatch's deciphering, it would go hard with him. Sweat broke out on tr'Khaell's forehead. "Ie, khre'Riov, sed ri-thlaha nei' yhreill-ien ssuriu mnerev dhaarhiin-emenorriul -- "
Oh indeed! I know how fast that computer runs; I was building them with my own hands before you knew which end to hold a sword by. Of course, you can't just come out and tell me that the security officer ordered you to let her read the dispatch before I saw it, now can you? "Rhi siuren, Erein."
Poor tr'Khaell's face gave Ael the impression that t'Liun was going to take rather longer than "five minutes" to read the dispatch. Tr'Khaell looked panic-striken. "Khre'Riov -- " he started to say. But "Ta'khoi," Ael said to the screen, and it flicked off.
Pitiable, Ael thought. Truly I could feel sorry for him. But if he chooses to sell his loyalty to two commanders at once, who am I to deprive him of the joy of being caught between them? Perhaps he'll learn better. And after a second she laughed once, softly, as much at herself as at tr'Khaell. Perhaps the galaxy will stop rotating.
She pushed away from the desk and leaned back in her comfortable chair, considering with calm irony how little her surroundings looked like the cage they actually were. They truly think they've deceived me, she thought, amused and contemptuous, looking around at the spare luxury of her command cabin. Pad the kennel with velvets, they say to each other; feed the old thrai on fat flesh and blood wine, put her in command of a fleet, and she won't notice that the only ones who pay any attention to her orders are the ones stuck inside the bars with her. Ael's lips curled slightly upward at the thought. "Susse-thrai" had been the name bestowed upon her, half in anger, half in affection, by her old crew on Bloodwing; the keen-nosed, cranky, wily old she-beast, never less dangerous than when you thought her defenseless, and always growing new teeth far back in her throat to replace the old ones broken in biting out the last foe's heart. You might cage a thrai, you might poke it through the bars and laugh; but it would find a way to be avenged for the insult. It would break out and tear off your leg and eat it before your face -- or run away and wait till you had died of old age, then come back and excrete on your grave.
Then Ael frowned at herself, annoyed. "Crude," she said to the room, eyes flicking up to the ceiling-corner by the bed as she wondered whether t'Liun had managed to bug the place already since last week. "I grow crude, as they do." Chew on that, you vacuum-headed creature, and wonder what it means, thought Ael, getting up to pace her cage.
The most annoying part was that it was true. That courtesy, honor, noble behavior should be cast aside by the young, perceived as a useless hindrance to expediency, was bad enough. But that she should begin to sink to their level herself, descending into brute-beast metaphors and savagery instead of the straightforward dealing that had been tradition for four thousand years of civilization -- that was galling. I will not fight them with their own methods, Ael thought. That is the surest way to become them. I will come by my victories honestly. And as for Sunseed --
She stopped in front of another of her cabin's luxuries, one better than private 'fresher or sleeping silks or key lighting. Beyond the wide port, space yawned black, with stars burning in it -- stars that at Cuirass's present sublight speed hung quite still, apparently going nowhere. As I am, she thought, but the thought was reflex, and untrue. Ael grimaced again and leaned her forehead against the cool clearsteel.
In one way, she had no one to blame for where she was right now but herself. When she had heard about the Sunseed project based at Levaeri V, and had begun to realize what it could do to Rihannsu civilization if fully implemented, shock and horror had stung her into swift action. She had taken leave from Bloodwing and gone home to ch'Rihan to lobby against the project -- openly speaking out against it in the Senate, and privately making the rounds of her old political cronies, all those old warrior-Senators and those few comrades in the Praetorate who owed her favors. However, Ael had not realized the extent to which the old warriors were being outweighed, or in some cases subverted or cowed, by the young ones -- the hot-blooded children who wanted everything right now, who wanted the easy, swift victories that the completion of Sunseed would bring them. Honorless victories, against helpless foes; but the fierce young voices now rising in the Senate cared nothing about that. They wanted safety, security, a world without threats, a universe in which they could swoop down on defenseless ships or planets and take what they wanted.
Thieves, Ael thought. They have no desire to be warriors, fighting worthy foes for what they want, and winning or losing according to their merits. They want to be robbers, like our accursed allies the Klingons. Raiders, who stab in the back and loot men's corpses, or worlds. And as for those of us who remember an older way, a better way, they wait for us to die. Or in some cases, they hurry us along. . . .
She pushed herself away from the cool metal of the port, breathed out once. Somewhere among those stars, out in that blackness, ch'Rihan and ch'Havran hung, circling one another majestically in the year's slow dance around amber Eisn; two green-golden gems, cloud-streaked, seagirt, burning fair. But she would probably never walk under those clouds again, or beside those seas, as a result of that last visit to the sigil-hung halls of the Senate. The young powers in the High Command, suspicious of Ael from the first, now knew for sure that she was opposed to them, and their reaction to her opposition had been swift and thorough. They dared not exile her or murder her, not openly; she was after all a war hero many times over, guilty of no real crime. Instead they had "honored" her, having Ael sent out on a long tour of duty, into what was ostensibly a post of high command and great peril. Command she wielded, but with eyes watching her, spies of various younger Senators and Praetors. And as for peril . . . it came rarely, but fatally, here in the Outmarches -- the deadly peaceful space that the power surrounding most of it called the Romulan Neutral Zone.
Names, Ael thought with mild irony, names . . . How little they have to do with the truth, sometimes. The great cordon of space arbitrarily thrown about Eisn was hardly neutral. At best it was a vast dark hiding-place into which ships of both sides occasionally dodged, preparing for intelligence-gathering forays on the unfriendly neighbor. As for "Romulan" -- after first hearing the word in Federation Basic, rather than by universal translator, Ael had become curious to understand the name the Empire's old foes had given her world, and had done some research into it. She had been distastefully fascinated to find the word's meaning rooted in some weird Terran story of twin brothers abandoned in the wild, and there discovered and given suck by a brute beast rather like a thrai. It would take a Terran to think of something so bizarre.
But whether one called Eisen's paired worlds ch'Rihan and ch'Havran or Romulus and Remus, Ael knew she was unlikely to ever walk either of them again. Never again to walk through Airissuin's purple meads, she thought, gazing out at the starry darkness. Never to see that some loved one had hung up the name-flag for me; never to climb Eilairiv and look down on the land my mothers and fathers worked for a thousand years, the lands we held with the plowshare and the sword . . . For the angry young voices in the Senate, Mrian and Hei and Llaaseil and the rest, had put her safely out of their way; and here, while they held power, she would stay. They would wait and let time do what their lack of courage or some poor tattered rag of honor forbade them.
Accidents happened in the Neutral Zone, after all. Ships far from maintenance suddenly came to grief. That was likely enough, in this poor secondhand warbird with which they'd saddled her, this flying breakdown looking for a place to happen. Crews rebelled against discipline, mutinied, on long hauls . . . and that was likely too, considering the reprehensible lot of rejects and incompetents with whom she was trapped here. Ael thought longingly of her own...