Szkazy forced her attention back to the candle, the flame weak and flickering in the breeze from the ship’s air duct. Somewhere in the computer bowels, the clock was ticking away her allotted minutes for kindling an open flame. She’d had the dispensation renewed last month—and yet it still felt as if the ship itself disapproved, the cold air the sign of its silent rebuke.
No wonder she couldn’t focus. Small reconnaissance frigates like hers never changed course in the middle of the night to head to the very edge of the conflict zone. Especially when the change of course was followed by a file appearing in her cache with a note from the captain requesting an executive summary for the morning briefing.
A file she’d spent the night pouring over the reports on the Xanta system’s main planet and its one inhabitant suspected of intelligence. She could sense where this was going—the Federation wanted to know if they could settle or set up a military base. Existing local intelligence would make either option a violation of the First-Claim clause and spoil the Federation’s righteous image. Of course, the system could be annexed, conquered, or coerced later, but that was another matter—as long as no law was broken.
The prospect filled her with excitement and trepidation. This could be her chance to shine, to show them what their Eskazian science officer was capable of. But this close to the front line, the science was bound to be tainted by politics, pulled by interests hidden beyond her clearance level. Any misstep could have dramatic repercussions—and someone was sure to put the blame on the Eskazian science officer.
Szkazy blew out the candle and returned it to the prayer box. She ran her hand over the ancient wood, the chipping lacquer decorated with spiky outlines of red and blue tsarz flowers. Eskaz’s symbols. Her people’s symbols.
“Personal time over,” the ship said. “Fire safety reengaged.”
Szkazy put on her green-and-gold uniform jacket, her fingers moving instinctively to check the pin with the red and blue flowers on her collar. She wondered for a thousandth time what rank she’d be carrying if not for the pin. But then, what would that rank be worth if she couldn’t reach it without giving up who she was?
She smoothed her hair in front on the mirror and headed out.
Szkazy took her pace at the far end of the obsidian-smooth table. The briefing room was an expandable space between the bridge and the captain’s private office, its flexi-walls shimmering in green and gold, the Aolian Federation colours. A golden glyph stating Aolia’s full name stared at them from the ceiling.
“The good news is that the truce is holding,” Captain Reole said as he entered. He was a stocky man with fashionably natural grey hair and the impatient manner of someone overdue for promotion. He made his way to the top of the table, tapping each chair he passed in his particular way of a greeting.
Oaria, the political officer, appeared behind him, her lean face arranged into a careful frown as if she hadn’t yet decided if the news was indeed good or just the opposite.
All the others were already inside: Jaroe, the surveillance system’s engineer, occupied the seat on the captain’s left, leaving the right-side place for Oaria. The remaining three included Szkazy, from science, Kaloe and Eade from weapons and propulsion, and Saloa, from operations. Saloa was the only other non-Aolian among the officers, though indistinguishable either by his name or his manner. But then, he was from the First-Worlds, well-integrated systems with names everyone recognised. Not like “the territories.”
“We’re still far from an actual peace treaty,” Captain Reole continued. “But nobody’s pulled out of the negotiations, so that’s a first.”
Oaria huffed but didn’t say anything, which meant she had nothing concrete to negate the captain’s optimism—because if there ever was a prophet of doom, the svelte political officer could have auditioned for the role.
Reole swiped his arm above the table. The surface shimmered in patriotic green and gold; light motes drifted up and coalesced into a holo of the sector. The Xanta system lit up in bright red among the lines of disputed territories. The captain gestured to enlarge the display, zooming in on the second planet orbiting the red dwarf star.
“This is where we’re going. Xantiana.” He wrinkled his nose at the name. “At least what it’s called now. And this rat’s ass of a planet has suddenly become important. Colonel?”
Oaria leaned over the table. With a swipe of her hand, she divided the space into three regions of green, blue and purple.
“The borders keep changing, but this is where we are now.” Oaria pointed to the green part of the holo. “This is us, the Federation. The blue area is the Free Republic. The red is the edge of the Tohan territory, though they won’t ever agree there’s any actual end to their glorious realm.” She shrugged, the gesture reciprocated by the others around the table.
“Xantiana is grade five life-friendly, perfect for colonisation,” Oaria continued. “And in a perfect strategic location between the three sectors. Setting up a base there would give anyone a big advantage.”
“But it’s ours, right?” Jaroe asked. He was a square-headed man with one brow permanently raised as if in joke or surprise. “So we’d be the ones settling.”
“It depends,” Oaria said.
“On the First-Claim clause,” Szkazy said from her end of the table.
Captain Reole nodded. “Perfect guess, Lieutenant.”
Jaroe’s brow drifted even higher on his head. “The planet’s inhabited? Then why—”
“The First-Claim clause only applies to intelligent life, as defined by the Thousand Year treaty,” Oaria said. “And so far, nobody has produced proof whether the life on the planet can be classified as such.”
“That’s… odd?” Jaroe glanced at Szkazy, and so did everyone else.
Reole made a sweeping gesture. “Your turn, Lieutenant.”
Szkazy cleared her throat. She wasn’t used to speaking at the briefings, but she’d be damned if she’d make herself look weak, no matter how sticky the issue. She touched her pad, selecting a presentation. She’d prepared several with various levels of details, but in the end dismissed them all. The people here didn’t want facts; they wanted conclusions—and that was the one thing she couldn’t give them.
She chose an image and sent it to the projector. The display shimmered, the light motes coalescing into a bulbous shape, as tall as a human and with an umber brown, rough surface dotted with black orifices, like potato eyes. If not for its upright stance, the object could be mistaken for a boulder, something passed by without a second glance.
Next to Szkazy, Saloa let out a long breath. She had to admit, the creature barely looked alive, let alone intelligent.
“Xantiana-234, as is its official designation,” she said. “Amazing physiology, never encountered before. And a brain—or what functions as its brain—of a size and complexity an order of magnitude larger than ours.”
“‘What functions as its brain’?” Oaria repeated, her face scrunched with incredulity.
“The biology is very different. I can share the details but—” Szkazy glanced at the captain.
“Save those for later. What we need to know is why it’s so hard to determine if these… things are intelligent. I mean, do they build anything? Use tools? Communicate abstract concepts? With the number of lifeforms we’ve encountered, I’d say we should be pretty good at figuring that out.”
“They build structures,” Szkazy said. “Highly complex stone patterns. But none of them have been deciphered so far.”
She touched her pad to transmit another image. The bulbous creature vanished, replaced by a collage of mandala-like structures, round mosaics made of coloured pebbles.
“That’s it?” Jaroe pointed to the projection. “That’s their claim to intelligence? No dwellings, no tools, no industry?”
“Are we sure those are not some form of a mating display?” Oaria asked, her tone no longer concealing her disbelief.
“There’s no data to support that,” Szkazy said, her voice carefully neutral. “I’m sure that was the first thing the scientists there had checked.”
An odd smile appeared on Oaria’s lips. “Speaking of which—”
“I’m sure the surface team is following proper research protocols,” Reole interrupted. “What I doubt is their understanding of the urgency of the situation. That’s where we come in, or more precisely, you, Lieutenant. Your task is to shake a decision out of the researchers here. You have ten days to produce a report. Your word will be final.”
A chill ran down Szkazy’s back. This was the chance she’d been waiting for. An Eskazian finally in charge, her choice vindicated after she’d settled for the military over the indignity of a permanently junior position at the Academy. And yet she couldn’t shake the feeling she was walking straight into a trap.
“Will the Academy accept a military report?” she asked after a moment. Or one from an Eskazian scientist, she considered adding, but that part was obvious.
“They won’t go against you. For as long as we’re on a war footing, you outrank any civilian scientist. And it won’t go unnoticed that you’re an Enlightened yourself.” He pronounced the word with a trace of irony. The customary title of the Academy graduates, the title Szkazy too carried, even if it was now usurped by her military rank.
“Speaking of which.” The odd smile returned to Oaria’s lips. “You might know the current head of research there, Senior Enlightened Myrya. She graduated the same year as you.”
Szkazy stiffened. Myrya’s there. On Xantiana.
She pulled in a slow breath, careful not to betray any emotion. Not here, not under Oaria’s scrutinising gaze. She nodded, her throat dry. “Yes. We… we were acquainted at the time.”
Reole tapped the table. “That’s fortunate. If you so choose, you can let her co-author the report. That could help her career as well.” He grinned. “How does it feel to finally have the upper hand?”
Luckily, he didn’t expect an answer. He moved on to arrival orders: Szkazy and Oaria would go down to the planet with whomever she chose to assist her. All of the ship’s resources were at her disposal. A dream come true. And yet, the misgivings wouldn’t leave, even if she couldn’t quite place the source of her anxiety.
The briefing over, Szkazy rose, her legs stiff and her hands clammy.
“A moment, Lieutenant,” Reole called. He followed the others towards the exit, then slumped into a chair at her end of the table.
She sat back down, uneasiness settling in her stomach like lead.
“I thought a word in private would be useful,” he said when the door closed behind the last of the officers. A flitting smile curved his lips, hesitant or cautious. “I’ll be frank: this is a big opportunity for both of us. I want a promotion, and so do you. If you wanted research, you’d have stayed with the Academy. They’d have found you a nice spot somewhere far away, out of sight. Who knows, maybe on Xanta.” He sniffed at the irony. “Let’s face it, the Academy has never promoted a non-Aolian. The military has its own problems, but usefulness is rewarded.”
Reole paused, his gaze questioning. Szkazy nodded stiffly, unsure where he was going.
“This system’s getting a lot of attention,” Reole continued. “It’s more important than Oaria’s letting on. Your report will go all the way to the top. If we play it right, this can get us both what we want.”
The shiver returned, a hot and cold wave climbing up Szkazy’s back. Reole was right; the report would surely go all the way—not just in the military, but the Science Commission as well. And the Academy. This was her chance. Her work would be read by the most senior scholars, become the Academy’s own Statement. She would be the first Eskazian to author a Statement. An honour she’d never considered a possibility.
And with Myrya there to witness it all.
She felt dizzy, elation fighting with fear. Her opportunity had to be a trap. She had only ten days to crack the puzzle Myrya’s team had failed to solve in the months they’d been here. And even if she managed to reach a conclusion, what if it wasn’t one the Command preferred? Would they blame it on her, question her competence, and call up “real” experts to solve the problem? Aolian experts?
She could already see them, nodding sadly, smug faces contorted into pity: What could you expect from an Eskazian? She tried so hard, poor thing. We only have ourselves to blame for putting her in this situation.
Her “chance” could end up tainting the prospects for every Eskazian entering the Academy, forever.
She swallowed, pushing through the lump in her throat. “And what if we… If I fail?”
Reole nodded slowly. “Whatever your conclusion, the report needs to be watertight. Make no mistake, this will end up in courts, ours or foreign. And if they disprove your findings…”
He didn’t finish.
So, a trap after all. Because how could she produce unassailable evidence in the time she had?
She stared hard at the captain. “Are you sure we’re not being set up?”
Reole glanced away, probably surprised by her candour. When he met her gaze again, his face took on a different expression, troubled but also relieved, as if he appreciated the chance to speak openly. “It has crossed my mind. I have enemies, and you’d be the perfect target. No offence, but since you brought it up…”
She nodded. “It is what it is. We might as well be honest.”
“Right.” The captain felt silent, his eyes on the hologram of the Xanta system, still swirling above the table. “Oaria… She’s not telling us everything. That’s not her job, either, so I’m not blaming her. But I’ll keep my eyes open and let you know what I find out. It’d help if you did the same.”
“Of course.” Szkazy put on a small smile. She had no doubt Reole would throw her to the wolves if that helped his career. But for as long as she was useful, he’d keep his word.
The captain rose and with one smooth gesture swiped the holo out of existence, the borders and the stars scattering under his fingers. “Good. And good luck.”
Szkazy’s arms shook as she lifted the lid of the old box and pulled out the candle, wedge-shaped and embossed with the jagged outlines of tsarz flowers. She pressed it against her forehead before lighting, then slid it into the brass holder, the metal blackened with age and old ash. Smoky aroma filled her lungs, familiar and reassuring. She lowered her head and recited the prayer, the words in her own language, long and swishing with sibilants like the rustle of the leaves in Eskazian forests.
For memory of future and past.
Her breath caught on the last word.
Myrya watches her from the narrow bed they share in the student quarters. She props herself on her elbow, her gaze curious rather than accusing. “You don’t believe any of it, Shee. You’re too much of a scientist. Or are you going to tell me you actually expect to receive messages from your ancestors? Through some cosmic vibes or something?”
Szkazy looks away. Of course she doesn’t believe that. It’s not the reason she performs the ritual.
“Why, then?” Myrya’s voice is soft. Eager to understand.
“It’s a tradition.”
“Come on, Shee. On Eskaz, I’d understand. It keeps your parents happy. But here? You’re pleasing no one. And…” Myrya doesn’t finish.
Your daily requests to disarm smoke alarm won’t go unnoticed. Of course, everyone’s allowed to worship any way they choose, but… why mark yourself as different? Why stand out when you could be one of us? You look just like us, and your accent’s not terrible: exotic but not jarring, enough to entertain but not grate. Why keep reminding everyone that you’re different?
Myrya doesn’t say any of that—yet the questions sit behind her green eyes, her puzzlement so genuine there’s no way she could grasp the answer.
“You could return to your room in the mornings,” Szkazy says. “So nobody thinks you’re part of it.”
“That’s not what I mean!” Myrya sits up and pulls the blanket around her. “Don’t be silly!”
Szkazy doesn’t answer. That evening she finds a present: a fashionable jacket made of exquisite fabric—green with golden trim.
From above, Xantiana resembled an ocean, low hills undulating like endless green waves. As the shuttle descended, thin veins of rivers became visible, black at first, then resolving into purple. There was something disturbing about the view, and it took Szkazy a moment to realise that it was the uniformity of the landscape, a carpet of low vegetation all the same shade of dark green stretching in every direction, unchanging and undisturbed. It appeared not just devoid of any signs of civilisation but of any traces of animal life. This planet was going to be a puzzle to crack, even without the politics involved.
Or the memories.
The thought of Myrya made her heart beat faster. Stars, why was it so hard? It’s been years since she’d left that relationship. She’d had other lovers since—and yet the very mention of Myrya’s name made her pulse quicken.
Szkazy closed her eyes, examining her feelings as if they were a lab sample. She was no longer in love with Myrya; she was sure. Then why did she have any feelings at all? Had that been “it,” the love of her life? Or just something that reminded her of how she used to be: young and naive, and so, so full of hope. Whichever it was, she couldn’t let the memories cloud her judgement. Too much was at stake.
She glanced at Oaria. The political officer sat a row ahead and across from Szkazy, her eyes closed but her face pinched in concentration. Probably reviewing something on her lenses. She should try to have a word with her, Szkazy decided. But not yet—Oaria was too skilled of a politician. Better to watch her first, see how she behaved on the surface and what she said to the scientists. That could just help Szkazy see the truth beneath Oaria’s words.
The shuttle deposited them on the edge of the research base, the entire structure sealed under a translucent dome. Beyond it, the green carpet that was Xantiana stretched far and wide, emerald waves rippling under the orange sky. The cool air smelled slightly sweet, but that could have been whatever bio-agents the dome used to keep the perimeter sterile. The base itself comprised a scattering of squat white buildings, most still wrapped in the gossamer netting of the assembler drones. The scientists had only been here for six months, after the initial, robotic-only recon had proved inconclusive. The place still had the hurried feel of a new outpost, with construction bots scuttling up and down narrow paths to the supply containers. The only fully finished building was the central rotunda roofed with the familiar assemblage of field transmitters and survey drone launchers.
They were halfway to the main building when its door swung open. The first to emerge was a tall, dark-haired man in the standard pale green jacket of a field scientist. Myrya’s slender figure appeared behind him, her red hair longer now but her features unchanged, as if no time had passed since the day they’d said goodbye.
Szkazy let out a breath. She needn’t have dreaded the moment. Sure, her heart was pounding, but her mind was clear. At least one worry off her chest.
She put on a smile—warm, but not overly familiar. “Good to see you again.”
Myrya’s eyes grew wide, uneasy or hesitant, but she too covered up with a smile. “It’s been too long. I hope we have time to catch up.” She gestured to the man next to her. “This is Enlightened Yeano, our chief exobiologist.”
Szkazy introduced her team. Besides Oaria, she’d brought Eno and Jaroe, the surveillance engineer. Eno was the ship’s junior scientist and her assistant—round-faced and slick-haired, with a quick mind, child-like eagerness, and a supply of confidence sufficient for a small college. A complete opposite to Jaroe, the engineer, with his analytical cool and unhurried persistence.
Jaroe smiled a polite greeting; Oaria gave her usual curt nod. Eno, on the other hand, bowed deferentially. These were the most senior scientists he’d met since he graduated, Szkazy realised. Except for her, of course, but she didn’t count.
“Would you like to get settled first?” Myrya asked.
Oaria shook her head, her expression impatient.
“Let’s get to it,” Szkazy said. “We don’t have much time.”
Myrya’s brows shot up in surprise, but she nodded and beckoned them inside. “We only got the message of your arrival yesterday. You’ll have to excuse the mess!”
Myrya laughed, the sound forced and cut too short. She glanced over her shoulder, her gaze sliding from Oaria to Szkazy.
No scientist ever welcomed a military inspection. Especially one led by their ex-lover. Szkazy considered saying something in reassurance but came up empty. There was nothing she could—or should—offer.
They entered the analysis room, arranged in a way typical of all the research stations Szkazy’d visited: displays on the walls, a ring of some twenty seats, each with a personal console, surrounding a projection space. Three other scientists joined them inside, their names the usual sing-song of vowels, but they stayed at the back, watching the procedures rather than participating.
“Here we go,” Myrya said as they settled into the chairs. “The elpots and their creations.”
The projection space shimmered and congealed into a two layered image: two of the bulbous shapes above, and below, a dozen of the mandala stone structures. A flat representation of the same hologram appeared at each of their consoles, where they could magnify and inspect each of them separately.
Myrya pointed to the first one when Oaria interrupted. “Can you confirm that these creatures have produced no hint of civilisation?”
Her voice carried a determined note, as if she was passing a sentence. Interesting. Command wanted this planet, Szkazy decided. Wanted it to be free of intelligence and available.
Myrya and Yeano, the exobiologist, exchanged glances.
“Not in any shape we’d recognise,” Myrya said. “No dwellings, no tools, no industry. But then, they don’t need it. Their lives—”
“No tools whatsoever?” Eno interrupted. “How about feeding? Are they herbivores?”
“They photosynthesise.” Myrya gestured to the projection. “See those vertical slits? When they’re hungry, they extend large, chlorophyll-filled membranes, like retractable leaves.”
“Are they plants?” Oaria asked.
Yeano looked like he was trying not to sigh. “It’s a matter of definition.”
Oaria’s eyes narrowed. “I prefer the ones offered in the Academy’s Guide to Exobiology.”
This was going nowhere. Yeano might have the science, but Szkazy was yet to meet anyone who’d match the political officer’s persistence.
“Let’s go back a bit—” Szkazy started, but Eno cut her off.
“So these structures—they are used for communication?”
Myrya glanced at Szkazy, a trace of reproach in her gaze.
Szkazy gave a tiny shrug. Her assistant was young, ambitious, and Aolian. What more was there to say?
Yeano shook his head. “No—actually, they don’t communicate with each other.”
Oaria leaned back in her seat. “Impossible. They must communicate somehow. That’s the basis of any intelligence, let alone a society.”
“They don’t have a society,” Myrya said. “Not in any sense we’d recognise. And they don’t communicate.”
“Even insects communicate—bacteria even, if we count chemical signalling.” Eno tilted his head, readying a pointed question. “How do they rear their young? There has to be some form of communication, some way to pass the knowledge, especially if we consider intelligence.”
Myrya grinned, her eyes widening and her words tumbling out the way they always had when she found the subject engrossing. “They do transfer knowledge—in a totally ingenious way. The young gestates inside the parent’s body and shares its nervous system until it’s fully mature. So at separation, the young possesses all the knowledge and experience of the adult, and, we assume, all its memories. There’s no more contact between them afterwards.”
“No communication between mates, either,” Yeano added. “They are anemophilous.”
“They’re what?” Oaria asked.
“Wind-pollinated,” Szkazy said.
“They flower,” Myrya said at the same time. “Really, their biology is entirely fascinating.”
Oaria was already opening her mouth to interrupt, but this had gone on long enough. They were going in circles—and Szkazy had already learned all she needed from watching them squabble.
She tapped the edge of her console. “We are here. We should see them in situ.”
Oaria pinched her mouth, looking as if she were filing her supply of questions for later. Eno frowned, the expression Szkazy recognised as “but I’m not done yet.” She ignored him, already on her feet.
“Excellent idea,” Myrya said, a delighted smile brightening her face.
A surface floater lifted them out of the base. Eno slid next to Yeano, the two of them chatting like they were already the best friends. Oaria sat alone, her lips twitching. Talking to the captain? Drafting her report or a message to her friends in Command?
Szkazy pulled in a slow breath, her chest crumpled and heavy. Easy. They’d only just got here. She still had ten days, and plenty of ideas to explore.
The floater turned southward, gliding low over the landscape like a sailboat crossing a living sea. Dark green creeper-plants covered most of the land, the succulent tendrils intertwined into an organic tapestry. Here and there palm-like fronds erupted from the foliage, never taller than waist-high. Szkazy could see no trees, only odd, solitary spikes, rusty-red, branchless and covered in long needles.
“Devil’s fingers,” Myrya said, sliding into the seat opposite. “The sap’s toxic, so stay clear. We haven’t found who eats them, but something must because those needles didn’t evolve for nothing. Maybe those furry lizards that prey on the elpots.”
“Elpots,” Szkazy repeated. “Why the name?”
Myrya laughed. “I’ll let you figure that out.”
She tilted her head, her gaze amused and mischievous, the expression bringing back so many memories that Szkazy struggled not to look away, her heart racing and her uniform suddenly too tight.
She put on a smile—polite and professional, and perfectly in control. “I’m sure I will.”
They touched down moments later. Szkazy put on a breather mask and stepped out through the gauze-like membrane that enveloped her to form a thin bio-suit, cool at first but quickly adjusting to her body temperature.
“This way,” Myrya said.
They’d landed on another green plain, this one sloping gently towards a riverbank, now mostly dry. Szkazy circled the floater, her feet sinking into the spongy foliage—then came to a stop only fifty metres from one of the creatures. It sat motionless, brown and lifeless, and yet she knew immediately this was no boulder. It rested on top of the grass, as separate from its surrounding as only a living creature can be. From close up, it didn’t look like a stone, either, more like a root or a bulb. Or a giant potato.
They inched closer, moving in reverent silence.
“Can it see us?” Szkazy whispered.
“If it’s watching,” Myrya said.
“Where are its eyes?” Jaroe asked.
“It depends. The anatomy is highly unusual. The whole thing, it’s basically a sack filled with what we’ve called a ‘neuro-gel’. It’s a liquid brain, all of it—but it also transports nutrients throughout the body. The organs and the limbs float in the gel and can be moved to wherever they’re needed. Then the skin has all those slits and orifices, like those two, there on the left. See? So if it wants to look, it chooses an opening and puts an eye there. And if it wants to walk, it extends legs. Four or six or eight, depending on size.”
“That’s… quite amazing,” Eno whispered, for the first time seemingly lost for words.
“It is.” Myrya said.
She glanced at Szkazy, her face flushed with excitement. Szkazy nodded. The creature could fascinate any scientist; it would be doubly so for Myrya, who specialised in neural networks.
“This one’s pregnant,” Yeano said. He pointed to a darker area on the elpot’s skin. “That’s where the flower used to be.”
Szkazy moved towards the creature, curiosity winning over her reserve. She was a biologist after all, and this was the most intriguing specimen she’d ever seen with her own eyes. If it really was intelligent…
Myrya was beside her, her hand on Szkazy’s arm, hot even through the bio-suit. The sensation was like a burn or a poisonous bite that radiated through her nerves right into her core. She looked at Myrya’s fingers, then up into her eyes. Myrya blinked, a trace of a blush peeking from under the breather mask. She snatched her hand back, the gesture as awkward as Szkazy felt.
She shouldn’t have let herself forget. The information was clear in the reports she’d studied back on the ship. She should have remembered and reminded the others before charging ahead like a student on a first field trip.
“Are they dangerous?” Oaria asked from behind.
“They can be, when you get too close.” Myrya pulled in a breath, regaining her composure. “They can emit an electric pulse intense enough to kill. Something like an electric eel, only stronger.”
Oaria’s tone hardened, her gaze shifting between Myrya and the elpot. “I’d think this would be something you mentioned before you brought us here.”
“I’m mentioning it now.” Myrya straightened, clenching her fist in a gesture Szkazy recognised as extreme annoyance. She was angry—not at Oaria but at herself, either for forgetting to brief them or for overreacting now.
“The safety zone is five metres across, correct?” Szkazy asked. “What happens when you get closer?”
Myrya threw her a grateful glance. “Yes. Yes, exactly. And they won’t attack till you get closer still. And never without a warning. Look.”
She stepped towards the creature, her footsteps measured. For a moment, nothing happened; the giant potato remained motionless and oblivious. When she reached about six metres distance, the elpot shuddered. A ripple ran through its skin, as if a spasm contorted its insides. A small dark spot began to dilate, then two more, the holes filling with something green—and then moist yellow balls slotted into place. Black pinpricks of irises rotated to focus on Myrya.
Szkazy held her breath—in apprehension, in awe, and in pure enjoyment of the spectacle. This was life at its most vibrant and raw. This was why she’d became a biologist. To witness and study the miracle.
Myrya inched closer. More orifices dilated, more eyes peering at her, and some now staring at the rest of them. A larger slit cracked open, releasing four multi-jointed limbs, stick-thin and long, like a spider’s. The ends expanded into round pads as they reached the ground and disappeared into the foliage. The elpot lifted slowly, rising knee high above the ground.
Another ripple ran through the brown body. There was also noise, Szkazy realised, low buzzing growing louder and more persistent.
“Myrya…” Yeano groaned.
Myrya made another step, then stopped. She rotated slowly towards them, an impish grin visible despite the breather mask. The instant she started back, the elpot’s buzzing receded, then died off. The limbs bent and retracted. The eyes rolled in; the orifices closed. By the time Myrya had reached them, no trace was left of the creature ever having noticed her at all.
“That really wasn’t necessary,” Oaria said coldly.
Myrya ignored her. Her eyes were locked with Szkazy’s, both of them savouring the moment, the torrent of memories too strong to resist. They were classmates again, racing to crack another puzzle.
“Electric potatoes, right?” Szkazy said.
Myrya grinned. “Fitting, don’t you think?”
Behind them, Oaria snorted, but they were already moving again, walking towards the river. The slope grew steeper further down, but a path led down the escarpment over steps made of rocks and exposed roots. The river made a wide turn here, leaving a long, stony plain on the inside of the bend. Five elpots occupied the length of the plain, each with a stone mandala in front of it. Three of the creatures were motionless; the other two hovered on their spider-like legs. One sprouted three additional limbs, equally spindly but longer than the legs, and used them to shift the pebbles inside its mandala. Other structures, about twenty of them, lay abandoned.
Yeano led the way to the nearest mandala. It resembled a mosaic made of tiny, multicoloured stones laid out into an almost-perfect circle. At first glance, the design seemed chaotic: some stones were grouped into patches of the same colour, but most appeared random, scattered by chance rather than any conscious design. And yet there was something in the pattern that wouldn’t let Szkazy dismiss it, like a call demanding to be answered. She circled the structure, searching for some underlying motive, a suggestion this was a work of an advanced mind and not something a primitive animal could have created.
Myrya seemed to read her thoughts. “Many animals adorn themselves or their dwellings, some with impressively complex designs. Yet, without exception, this is always done for a purpose, usually to attract a mate. What you see here serves no such purpose. They create these structures and then abandon them to start on new ones. When the rainy season comes, the river swells and destroys them all. As soon as the waters recede, they return and start again. These structures serve no purpose. The only conclusion is that this is a form of self-expression. Something we call art.”
“Or maybe they just like playing with stones,” Oria said. “Maybe it gives them some tactile pleasure?”
A frisson of disappointment ran through Myrya’s face. “Physical pleasure was one of the things we’ve considered. But that could be satisfied just by playing with the stones, as you suggest. It wouldn’t lead to all the effort and perseverance needed to build such complex structures. They can spend weeks on a single pattern, hours of just staring at it and not touching a single pebble.”
“Do they ever look at each other’s creations?” Jaroe asked. “Maybe this is how they communicate but we have yet to decipher the language.”
Yeano shook his head. “Sometimes they do, other times not at all. It seems to make no difference either to the individual or the structure.”
“Have you tried to use them for communication?” Eno asked. “Move the pebbles and see what they do?”
“Yes, that was one of the many things we tried,” Yeano said. “The reaction is always the same. They either reposition the stones to their original places, or, if we bother them too much, abandon the structure. As if our interference was nothing more than bad weather. They just ignore it.”
Szkazy nodded, more to herself than to anything the others had said. “So, they don’t communicate—and yet they make ‘art’?”
“We’ve eliminated all other possibilities,” Myrya said. “It’s not used for mating or to procure food or shelter. We’ve also played with some extreme ideas: a hive mind, communication of a kind or frequency ranges beyond the usual, anything our imagination could produce. All our tests came out negative. And here’s the clincher: not all Elpots build the structures. Those who don’t live the same life as the rest. It makes no difference to their life cycle. Self-expression is the only explanation—which means that they have minds to express.”
Szkazy didn’t answer. As much as they made sense, these were all assumptions—intriguing, fascinating, maybe even correct. But not facts, nothing approaching the proof she needed. She wandered away, heading to the next mandala. The others followed, their footsteps crunching on the stony bank. She felt their eyes on her, their expectations. Nobody spoke; even Eno seemed to have run out of confidence.
The remaining structures were simultaneously entirely different and identical in their incomprehensibility. Still, something pulled at the edges of her perception, a feeling more than an understanding, as if the very fact that the patterns were incomprehensible meant that there was a meaning that could be comprehended if only she had the right tools. Or the right mind.
Jaroe crouched next to her, scanning goggles over his eyes.
The engineer lifted the visor. His mouth scrunched into a grimace under the breather mask. “Some repeated ratios, some regularities in the numbers of stones. But nothing I can say for sure.”
“Make images of all the structures. See if you can work anything out.”
“We’ve got hundreds more in the library.” Myrya gestured towards a spot where the air shimmered around a cloaked object. “The scanning equipment has been here for years. We’ve been analysing the patterns ever since we got here—but you might have better tools.”
“Our AI is a top-grade encryption breaker,” Jaroe said. “If there’s anything to find, we’ll crack it.”
So, being in the military was finally proving useful. Szkazy blew out a relieved breath. Maybe she’d solve this puzzle after all.
They agreed that Jaroe would return to the ship as soon as he uploaded the archives. Oaria decided to go with him—supposedly to help, even though the engineer made it clear no help was needed. Whatever the real reason, Szkazy didn’t mind being rid of the political officer for a few days. There was still time for actual research before her report was due, and that would work best without Oaria constantly looking over her shoulder.
But first, she needed that chat.
The political officer didn’t look surprised when Szkazy asked for a word in private before she departed. They met back in the analysis room, the two of them taking the observer seats at the back of the auditorium. Three scientists worked on consoles on the other side of the room, far out of earshot.
Oaria sat at the edge of her chair, attentive but impatient. She was not a woman for needless pleasantries; something Szkazy had always appreciated. So she decided to get right to the point.
“My job is to produce an independent report. And yet it’s clear that one outcome is preferred. It’s only natural that Command would want this planet to be available to our military. What happens if my conclusions make this impossible?”
Oaria nodded, which was as much appreciation Szkazy had seen her give. “You are not entirely wrong. But that preference is mine, not Command’s.”
Szkazy’s surprise must have been clear, because Oaria added, “It would save us from some possibly messy consequences. But I’m glad you asked; I’m not officially supposed to tell you this, but if it helps your work… remember how I said this sector is a bargaining chip?”
“Everybody wants to set up a base here. So there’s another thing Command could do: trade Xanta for something better, only to block whoever gets this place from ever setting down.” Oaria leaned back, waiting for Szkazy to digest the news. “As they see it, both outcomes have benefits. But what Command needs most of all is a bulletproof report—whichever way it goes. Your conclusions will direct their actions.”
A hot wave crawled up Szkazy’s neck as the implications congealed in her mind. She thought she’d be in trouble if she failed to give Command what they wanted. This was worse. Whatever her conclusion, someone was going to be affected—if not the Federation, then the Tohans or the Free Republic. The consequences were clear: one, if not all of them, would challenge her report in the Mediations Court, where it would be analysed and debated by the most prominent lawyers and scientists. If they found any loose thread, they would tug at it till the whole thing unravelled. And Szkazy would be left with the consequences. At best, her career would be over. At worst… If Command traded the system to the enemy, and they won the case to establish a base, she’d end up with a court martial and a treason charge. The military didn’t take kindly to officers who put valuable assets into the enemy’s hands. Especially Eskazian officers.
Szkazy pulled in a slow breath, something heavy shifting in her chest as if she’d swallowed mercury. Whatever she decided, she would most likely end up disgraced—or dead.
She looked away, hiding from Oaria’s scrutiny. Her gaze rested on the familiar gold-on-green symbol nested in the ceiling above. Aolia’s name, in a stylised glyph composed of two radicals: one meaning “justice” and the other “power” or “radiance.”
It should it really be “radiation”—insidious, and affecting everything it touched.
“If it’s any consolation… I don’t envy you the task.” Oaria said. Her face had softened, and her voice was warmer than Szkazy had thought it capable. She probably meant it, too. But that changed nothing.
“Thank you for telling me,” Szkazy said, rising.
She and Eno settled in the guest quarters in one of the newly constructed buildings, each with a private bedroom and a study hooked to the main terminal. Szkazy said goodnight to the others the moment it didn’t feel rude; she’d barely touched the welcome dinner of pasta and roasted vegetables, smiling politely as the scientists devoured the sweetmeats they must have been saving for a special occasion.
She found her travel case waiting in her room and proceeded to unpack, the tediousness of the process being just what her mind needed to stop it from spinning.
She’d thought the worse that could happen was that she’d bring disgrace to Eskazinas. Now she was wondering if she’d get out of this alive. All while trying to decide the future of an entire species.
At the bottom of the case sat her prayer box. She pulled it out and gently ran her fingers over the smooth, worn wood. She hadn’t realised how much it had faded, the lacquer chipped off at the corners, the inlay pattern on the lid barely recognisable. What would it look like to a stranger? Something old and decaying. Ugly. Out of place in the scientific sanctum of the base. Yet all she could see were her mother’s hands as she wrapped it in soft blue cloth on the day Szkazy set off for the Academy. To her, the box was beautiful and full of meaning. Perception was everything.
What did the elpots see when they looked at their stone structures?
A knock on the door made her wince. She lay the box on the desk, for a moment considering hiding it back in the case. No, Myrya would know it was there anyway. Because this couldn’t be anyone else.
When Szkazy opened the door, Myrya was leaning on the frame, her pale green jacket unzipped and her hands in her pants’ pockets. She’d pushed her hair behind her ears the way she used to do when she checked her reflection on her way out, nervous or late.
Her lips twisted in an uneasy smile. “I hope I’m not disturbing?”
“No. Of course not.” Szkazy stood motionless for a moment, then beckoned her inside.
Myrya entered, her steps hesitant, silence stretching between them. “I trust you’re comfortable. If there’s anything—”
“I’ve got all I need. This place is twice the size of what I have on the ship.”
“Are you enjoying it? Your work, I mean?”
They stopped in the middle of the room, their postures equally awkward and their smiles forced.
“Why have you come?” Szkazy asked. “Because if you were curious about my work, then you could have sent me a message years ago.”
Damn. She shouldn’t have said that. It made her sound like a petulant child—and she shouldn’t let herself forget that it was she who left, even if she never really meant to, even if it had broken her heart.
Szkazy waved her hand. “Forget it. I don’t know why I said that. Busy day.”
“No, you’re right. I could have sent a message. Should have. Tried too, about a hundred times. Always deleted it, though.”
Szkazy shivered. All the messages she never received, all the times she’d sat longing for a word and hating herself for it. So long ago—and yet, why was her heart rattling like a trapped beetle?
She moved to the chair in the corner of the room and slid into it. The silence returned, sharp and prickly.
Myrya looked at the floor, her lips twitching as if she was working herself up to something. “I need to know, Szkazy. Why is the military suddenly interested in us?”
Szkazy met her eyes, wide and pleading. “You know I can’t tell you more than what you read in the briefing.”
“But Shee…” Myrya stopped as Szkazy winced at the nickname. “I’m sorry. I just… I’ve got to know. They’re not going to close us down, are they? I’ve called Dean Ealo, remember him?”
Szkazy nodded, her neck stiff and her muscles tensing. She’d never forget the Academy’s Dean.
“He says it’s this damn war…” Myrya continued, oblivious to Szkazy’s discomfort. “But how? We’re nowhere near the front.”
Szkazy stared. Could Myrya really be so blind? So absorbed in her own world that she failed to see what was happening around her? “You’re only a day’s jump away from the disputed territory. Draw your own conclusions.”
Myrya winced. “We need more time… I know they are intelligent. We just need to find a way to prove it. We can’t let the settlers in; they will destroy everything.”
Szkazy wanted to comment but clamped her mouth shut. The last thing she needed was having “revealing military secrets” added to the list of her offences.
Myrya kept staring, her eyes begging for an answer.
Szkazy shook her head. “I mean it. Draw your own conclusions. And look up Paneon while you’re at it.”
Szkazy didn’t answer. Few in the Federation remembered the small world, one of the many absorbed into the ever-growing “territories”—and then bargained away to the Tohans for trading concessions. Apparently, the citizens had been “provided for”—yet no one had heard from them since.
She rose. Some part of her wanted nothing more but to pull out a good bottle and chat about the old times—but really, there was nothing left to say.
Myrya moved to the door. Her gaze caught on the prayer box on Szkazy’s desk. A small smile tugged at the corner of her lips, sad and hesitant. “I’ll make sure fire sensors are adjusted for your room.”
“Thank you.” Szkazy’s chin trembled. She bit her lip; balled her hands into fists.
Myrya stopped with her hand on the doorframe, her head low and her back to Szkazy. “I missed you so much, Shee. So much.”
She hurried out. Szkazy remained standing for a long while, her gaze on the closed door, and her eyes stinging with held back tears.
“Why do you keep doing that? You’re going out of your way to remind everyone you’re not Aolian. Like you need to rub it in. And then you complain they treat you like you’re not one of us.”
“I’m not one of you.”
“It’s your choice, Shee. You’re screaming as much in people’s faces every damn day. That purple sash, that damn candle—why? If it really was your faith, I’d respect that—”
“Yes, I would!” Myrya bobs her head so vehemently that a strand of red hair escapes its careful arrangement and falls across her face. “I’d support you because it’s your right. But you’re not a believer. It’s like you’re doing it just to spite us. Like you’re trying to sabotage your every chance.”
Szkazy turns to the window. Outside, the crystal towers of the Academy peak from the parkland of the capital city like ice stalagmites. She’s almost an Enlightened now, the first Eskazian to reach this level. Every day they ask her how proud she must be, how grateful. She must be famous on Eskaz now, surely. Isn’t it amazing how the Federation allows anyone to progress.
Myrya moves in behind her. She feels the warmth of her body, the feather-soft caress of her breath against her neck.
Myrya lays her head on Szkazy’s shoulder. “I love you, Shee, you know that. I want you to succeed. I want us both to succeed. We’ve worked so hard to get here. Just one more year. If you would…”
She doesn’t finish; there’s no need. Szkazy knows exactly what she means. If you could just compromise, not wear your sash on the first days, drop the rituals, stop insisting Eskazian works be displayed in the library, that everyone learn to pronounce the names of your leaders. If you became more of us, and less of you.
Just one more year. And then she’ll have the title and a field job somewhere out of sight where she can practice her silliness any way she wants as long as her reports are properly formatted and, of course, in the right language. Some might even get published. A dream come true.
“What’s my little name?” she asks.
Myrya pulls back. “What do you mean?”
“On Eskaz, everyone has two names. The main one is what we use here; just one name, like the rest of you. But we all have another one. The one our families use. Our friends. Lovers.”
“You never told me…” Myrya’s voice trembles, but Szkazy can already hear the sharp note pushing its way under the hesitation.
“You’d know it if you’d visited with me, even once. You’d have heard my parents use it. In our language books, it’s usually the first lesson.”
Myrya stands behind her for another moment, her warmth fading from Szkazy’s skin.
“I keep trying, Shee. I really am. Have you considered how your choices affect my career? It’s not just about you.” Myrya says eventually, and then the sound of her footsteps retreats towards the door.
The base was disturbingly quiet at night, the hum of air circuits no match for the soothing throb of the ship’s engines. After two hours of trying, Szkazy gave up on sleep and returned to the research reports. She woke up with her head on the desk and a feeling she’d overslept, only to realise it was still hours till breakfast. At least it was later by ship time, so she decided to check on Jaroe.
The engineer looked tired, his eyes red from lack of sleep. He shook his head when he saw her, his unruly eyebrow riding up his forehead. “I’d stayed up most of the night, but… it’s too early to say.”
“Nothing at all?” Szkazy asked.
“No, that would be easy.” He paused, chewing the inside of his lip. “I keep finding something, but it’s like… seeing ghosts. I don’t even know if I’m not imagining things.”
“Get some rest. And let’s talk again in the evening.”
Jaroe nodded. “You’re right. I’ll ping you as soon as I have something.”
They disconnected, and she caught herself yawning, the engineer’s tiredness creeping into her like a contagion. Her room had a drinks dispenser, but she knew from experience that the coffee it’d produce would be tasteless. Besides, she was feeling restless, the walls pressing down on her with silent persistence.
She headed to the mess for a coffee and a snack. The room was empty except for two technicians in orange service uniforms, looking like they’d just finished some overnight maintenance job. They spoke in a heavy, guttural language that she couldn’t place. They fell silent as she entered, their eyes on the empty plates in front of them. She considered asking where they were from, but there was no way that wouldn’t sound patronising, no matter her intentions. She was an Enlightened and telling them she was from Eskaz would just sound like she was trying to lower herself to their level. Instead, she smiled as she passed, coffee in hand, and managed not to wince as they returned a polite Aolian greeting.
She spent the rest of the morning in the analysis room, studying the archived projections of the mandalas. Myrya was nowhere to be seen, which was probably better, but Yeano joined her right after breakfast. Eno worked independently—at her suggestion, but much to her assistant’s delight. They met for lunch, but Eno departed quickly, likely already anticipating his chance to outshine his boss and uncover what everyone had missed.
She decided another field trip would serve her better than staring at the reports others had already dissected. She wasn’t sure what she was hoping to find, but the clues to solving the elpots’ puzzle would more likely come from the creatures themselves. Yeano’s face lit up at the idea, and ten minutes later they were leaving the base, gliding over Xantiana’s green waves.
“This really feels like an ocean,” she said.
“It does, doesn’t it? Luckily for us, the waters are calm today.”
Szkazy laughed. “I’m glad to hear that!”
She leaned back in her seat, enjoying the view. The tiny, two-person floater had a transparent canopy that let the orange light flood inside. Unlike yesterday, only a few yellow clouds sauntered across the sky while the red ball of the sun hung high above the horizon.
“Where on Eskaz are you from?” Yeano asked.
Szkazy started. Usually people avoided the subject. She preferred it that way. “The East Island.”
“Right. My nanny was from the South Island. She was lovely. So patient with us!”
Yeano’s smile was warm and friendly. He was trying to be nice. It wasn’t his fault that the only Eskazians he knew were domestic staff or menial workers. It wouldn’t occur to him how much that hurt.
“I hear South Island is beautiful,” she made herself say. “I really should visit. They have the most outstanding collection of pre-Federation holo-art.”
“Oh really? I didn’t know that.”
Of course you didn’t. She forced a smile. He was trying to be nice, and she didn’t need enemies now.
She turned back to the window. A cloud had obscured the sun, the shade making the foliage look almost purple.
Yeano glanced at the sky. “It should clear out soon. This is about their dinner time. I wanted you to see this. The first time I saw them feed… that was when I decided to stay here.”
“When was that?”
“Eight months ago. Myrya’d just got the post and talked a bunch of us to join on a recon. I was sceptical at first.” He gave a small smile, almost embarrassed. “It’s really out of the way—geographically, and in the current research trends. Not the best career move, really. But once I got here, I knew I couldn’t leave.”
“Was it the elpots?”
Szkazy bit her lip. What else could it be? The elpots, or Myrya.
Yeano was nodding, oblivious to her unease. “Yes. Such a puzzle. And such unexpected beauty.”
Szkazy cocked her head. “Not exactly the word that comes to mind.”
Yeano laughed. “Not yet. I think we’re just in time.”
They were approaching a low hill where a group of maybe a dozen elpots stood motionless along the southern ridge, like pieces of some giant’s forgotten game.
Yeano pulled back on the controls, slowing to something barely faster than a stroll. He glanced up, squinting as the edge of the cloud drifted past and the orange glow lit up the sky.
“Look,” he whispered.
On the hill, the elpots stirred. The floater was close enough now so Szkazy could see their spindly limbs extend, one by one lifting the creatures off the ground, unlikely ballerinas rising en pointe. New slits appeared in their brown skin, long and narrow, then something poured out: blue-green and almost translucent, flowing down like reams of silk.
“Is it…?” Szkazy began to ask.
Silvery veins appeared in the green silk, thickening as they lifted and stretched the tissue. The membrane extended, higher and higher, reaching almost five meters above the ground, and then spread out, opening like a butterfly’s wings. The elpots twisted gently to catch the best angle of the sun, the wings fluttering in the afternoon breeze. Szkazy held her breath. The brown rocks had transformed into mythical creatures, green-winged angels of the hills, emeralds glistening in the sunlight.
Next to her, Yeano’s face was filled with wonder. “Beautiful, aren’t they?”
“I must say… I saw the pictures, but this… this is something else.”
“Water, air, and sun, that’s all they need. One generation after another, they just enrich themselves.”
Szkazy turned to face him. “You believe they are intelligent?”
“Yes. In fact, I think their minds are so far beyond our grasp that it may take us centuries to understand them.”
“Then why have nothing to show for that? No science, no civilisation?”
“Maybe they don’t need it. Or maybe they had it, once, a long time ago, but gave up on it now.”
“Have you found ruins?”
Yeano shrugged. “Maybe they didn’t build in stone. Maybe it was all organic and has now decomposed. There are so many options. But that brain evolved for something. It must have a reason.”
Szkazy considered this. They were still struggling to understand the elpots’ brains, the task made more difficult by having to locate recently dead individuals before the neural structures decomposed beyond usefulness. Lucky for them, elpots didn’t bury or cremate their dead—though if they did, the question of their intelligence would have been answered. From what they did manage to learn, the brain’s structure and organisation was unusual, but its complexity undeniable. This was a brain made for higher functions. Quite possibly more advanced than human. And yet…
“I find it hard to imagine an intelligence that would limit itself to just…” Szkazy searched for words. “Well, just sit there. Without contact with other individuals, without a goal, with nothing to do for its entire life—except for those structures, which they then abandon. What kind of mind does that?”
“I know it feels odd,” Yeano said. “But who are we to judge what does or doesn’t make sense? What kind of civilisation is ‘right’, what kind of expression? They are different—not less, not more. This shouldn’t be so hard to accept.”
Szkazy tried to shake her head. She couldn’t. A lump caught in her throat; her chest heaved, lungs searching for air.
This shouldn’t be hard to accept.
They are just different.
Like Eskaz. Like her.
She wanted to laugh—at herself, for falling into the trap, at Yeano, for being so generous towards the elpots while all over the Federation lesser cultures struggled for the same acceptance. And for the joke the universe was playing on her: making her the one who would single-handedly determine the future of an entire species.
Szkazy, the Arbiter of Worlds.
She had little doubt that the elpots wouldn’t survive long into colonisation, especially if they happened to electrocute some hapless settlers. A military base would be a better outcome—at least the military mostly worried about issues off planet, not on the surface. But once she passed her verdict, things were out of her hands.
What judgement would the elpots pass on her if they knew? What judgement would she herself pass, back in those proud Academy days when truth and justice seemed so clear?
Did it make a difference that her life was at stake?
She turned away from the sight, away from the emerald wings glistening in the setting sun. “Let’s go back. Thank you for letting me see this.”
A message from captain Reole waited for her when Szkazy returned: a request for a debrief, as soon as possible. That didn’t sound encouraging.
Szkazy put on a comm headset. She took five quieting breaths and sent a confirmation. Within moments, Reole was on her visor’s screen. He looked troubled, his face drawn and his hair and uniform unusually untidy. Oaria was next to him, perfect as ever, though her fingers twitched as she kept her arms folded across her chest.
“We’ve received news from the head of Intelligence,” the captain said after the curtest of greetings. “The negotiations have reached a critical stage. Their approach so far has been to lay the ground for the best outcome from either decision regarding Xantiana. Unfortunately, that’s no longer possible. That means our ten days got cut in half—which leaves you with three days to prepare your report.”
Szkazy opened her mouth, but Reole silenced her with a flick of his head.
“I know; it’s less than optimal. But it is what it is; we have our orders.”
“I understand,” she made herself say.
Three days? All she’d seen on Xantiana so far only brought her more questions and no hint of a path to follow. What could she do in three days?
“Another thing,” Oaria said. “For some reason, Command believes we’re close to proving Xantiana’s intelligence. I got the feeling someone from the Academy has been talking to them.”
Stars! Myrya—she said she’d spoken to the dean. What exactly had she told him?
Oaria was watching her, her head tilted, her expression curious rather than suspicious.
“I’m afraid the damage’s done—when you tell a bunch of scientists that the military is coming to inspect their work, they are bound to start asking around. I can’t stop them from doing that, either.”
Oaria produced the tiniest of shrugs. “Anyway, Command made it clear that proof of sentience is now their preferred outcome and are proceeding accordingly in the negotiations. So if you happen to be leaning towards a different conclusion, I strongly suggest that you don’t take the full three days before handing in the report.”
Szkazy held her breath. Command was preparing to give Xanta away—because they believed her report would stop anyone from using it as a base. But if she failed to produce the unassailable proof…
The captain drummed his fingers on the table, his expression grim. “That test you want to set up—how long will it take?”
Szkazy stared. “The test?”
Reole and Oaria returned her stare, the three of them locked in momentary confusion.
Eno. It had to be something he’d suggested.
The captain grimaced, the curve of his lips marking displeasure, though not surprise, not exactly. “Your assistant’s very zealous.”
“I’ll have a word with him, sir. Right after I check that test he proposed.”
Reole nodded. “He got Myrya to sign off on it, so they must believe it’s a good idea.”
Szkazy clenched her fists. She managed to keep her face straight, but it took all she had and left nothing for a reply. She forced a stiff nod, her nails digging into the balls of her hands.
“Or they’re just desperate to keep going,” Oaria said.
“I’ll let you know immediately,” Szkazy said, the harshness of her voice surprising even to her.
“Do so,” Reole said, then put on a small smile. “Don’t go too hard on him. He must be feeling the pressure with all those Enlightened around. I have it on good authority that it almost broke him to miss out on the Academy.”
The captain nodded and cut off the link.
Szkazy pulled off her visor and threw it on the desk. Why was Reole defending him? Poor Eno, not making the cut for the Academy and having to settle for the second-best school in the Federation, the school that most non-Aolians could only dream of attending. Currency rates made the cost of living prohibitive to anyone without family on Aolia. Even the First Worlders couldn’t do it without government sponsorship. For those from “the territories,” the newly settled or annexed worlds that made up the Federation’s provinces, the only hope was winning the annual science competition. Only one non-Aolian had ever won it. Szkazy.
She dropped her head, listening to the sound of her breathing. All her trying, her fighting—would it ever stop?
Maybe. But not today.
She reached for her pad and checked the messages. There it was: Eno’s proposal, time-stamped at precisely the hour when she’d left the base with Yeano. As if her assistant had been waiting for her to get out of the way. The proposal—a new take on manipulating the mandalas to elicit a reaction from the elpots—was interesting, though nowhere near as ground-breaking as Eno seemed to think. Her gut said it wasn’t different enough from what Myrya’s team had already tried, but at this point anything was worth trying.
Included at the end, Myrya’s response sounded enthusiastic. Oaria had been right: the scientists were clutching at any chance of a positive result, anything that would keep the research going. Szkazy read the response again. Myrya’s language indicated that she was reacting to a team project, not a maverick proposal from a cadet going over his boss’s head. She probably had no clue that was what he was doing. Szkazy let out a breath. At least that; one less betrayal to deal with.
She found Eno at the workstation he’d commandeered in the analysis room. He lifted his head as Szkazy entered, his expression uncertain at first, then congealing into something between embarrassment and defiance. What he saw on her face, she couldn’t tell. She held herself straight, still trembling inside but beyond anger now, beyond shame. He didn’t matter; he was just another spoiled offshoot of another rich Aeolian family. Inevitable like the solar wind. She’d navigated her whole life around them; one more wouldn’t make a difference. Even if he was her subordinate.
“It’s not a bad idea,” she said as she reached him, her voice as flat as she could make it. “Though I’ve included some adjustments.”
She whisked a pad from her pocket and tapped the icon that sent a file to his terminal. Eno bent over his screen, his posture tense and all of his attention on the display. He’d be studying tea leaves if that kept him from looking at her. She let the silence linger, till he could no longer pretend she wasn’t there.
“These… these look good,” he mumbled, not quite meeting her eye.
“I’m glad you approve.”
Damn. So petty of her. She was above that. Or was she? She could have sent the file just as easily from her room. And yet, she’d come here to do that in person. As if she could ever change the wind.
She turned to leave.
“I should have sent it to you first,” Eno blurted behind her.
She rotated slowly back towards him. “This isn’t college, Eno. You’re not doing yourself any favours by going over your boss’s head. That’s not how the military works.”
“I know.” He nodded, his gaze sliding away.
“Then why did you—” She paused.
Eno’s chin was trembling even as he was trying hard not to look at her. “I thought… It was such a good idea. I didn’t want you to…”
“You thought I’d steal your idea? Why in the universe would I do that?
Eno didn’t answer, his lips pursed and his eyes locked firmly on something behind her.
A tremor run through her as she finally understood. He thought that was how she’d gone through the Academy. How she got the distinction. How else would an Eskazian reach that level—a level that he’d failed to achieve—if not by stealing the work of her betters?
Her limbs stiff, she made herself turn and stumble towards the exit. She sucked in air in deep, rapid breaths, her fingers tingling as darkness encroached from the corners of her vision. Not this. Not here. Not again. She made it out of the room, holding straight until the door swished closed—then leaned on the wall, trembling.
Three more days.
And the rest of her life.
Szkazy checks her reflection in the mirror: the official robe, her hair made up, her lips red and her cheeks flushed with celebratory drinks. Myrya was right. She looks better without that stupid purple sash. Less stiff. More approachable. More like she belongs.
The others are already gathering in the Academy’s Great Hall: the graduates, the families. Not hers. She’d explained, and they’d understood. It was for the better.
Behind the curtain separating the dressing room from the reception area, the door squeaks open. Footsteps clamour in, a large group, maybe ten people.
“Thank you for joining me here,” a gruff voice says. Dean Ealo, the head of Academy and the Science Council. The man who can make their futures with just one word.
Szkazy starts towards them, but something makes her stop. She can see them through the crack in the curtain: Ealo with his back to her and eight graduates, all with the silver pins of First Distinction.
The same pin she’s wearing.
Szkazy trembles, the feeling of wrongness settling in her stomach. Why haven’t they called her?
“I wanted to personally congratulate you before you get too drunk to remember what happened.”
The others laugh. Myrya’s there, too, her eyes bright and hungry.
“You are this year’s best. Out of the five thousand graduates, only you have reached this level.”
Myrya glances around, unease creeping onto her face. She’s hoping for someone else to speak, but nobody does.
Szkazy waits, her heart pounding. Please…
Myrya gathers her courage. Clears her throat. “There’s also…”
“That Eskazian girl, right. She did surprisingly well, even if she had your help.”
“But I haven’t—” Myrya tries but breaks off as Ealo raises his hand.
“No need for false modesty. You did your part guiding a provincial friend. She’s got a stellar career waiting for her back home—now it’s time to start thinking about your own future.”
Myrya pulls in a breath, her eyes wide and panicked. She glances at the others, but they’re avoiding her gaze, some already shifting away.
“She deserves to be here,” Myrya whispers, her voice broken.
Ealo’s back straightens, his tone shifting into formal. “I admire your commitment, young Myrya, I really do. But understand this: if she cared for you with the same courage you show for her, she would have realised how much damage she’s done to your prospects. Like it or not, the world is watching. As much as we like to encourage the territories, they are not the ones who will become our leaders. This honour belongs to you.” He turns, speaking to all of them now. “You are the future of the Academy. Of Aolia. The First Distinction will open the doors for you, but remember, the grace period is short. What you do now will shape your careers forever. Choose wisely.”
He keeps on talking, rapt faces drinking his every word. Myrya’s face, too—uneasy but still there, still listening. All Szkazy can hear is the pounding of blood in her ears, shame, anger, and disgust sending hot waves through her shaking body.
Another moment and they’re gone, the babble of excited voices cut off by the slam of a closing door.
Szkazy forces herself to move, her breath ragged as if she’s been stabbed in the chest. She needs to go. Run away from here, forget she ever tried.
She’s made a horrible mistake, but it’s not too late to learn. She checks the time. Not enough to get back to her room, but there are back-up matter printers in the foyer. It’s too late to call her parents—but she still has time to print the Eskazian purple sash.
Just the right setting for her First Distinction pin.
The test took a day and a half to set up: first, hours spent digging through the archives for suitable patterns, and then finding appropriate materials and locations. Eno’s idea was to recreate mandalas from a distant part of the planet and present them to the local elpots to see if, and how, they would react. Szkazy’s addition took this a step further: she wanted to reconstruct a mandala one of the elpots built last season and present it back to its creator, possibly with some alterations.
She spent a good half day devising ideas on how to modify the structure to elicit the elpot’s reaction, but that was still only one part of the challenge. The really difficult task was writing up a protocol on what reaction would constitute proof of intelligence. How could they tell if an elpot recognised a structure or merely noticed it? How could she be sure there was a mind and not just instinct behind any of the reactions? The Academy’s guidelines proved painfully insufficient, and the harder she tugged on the definitions, the more slippery they became. And she couldn’t let herself forget for an instant that she might have to defend her findings in court, with a treason charge as the cost of her failure.
Early on the day of the test, Szkazy found Myrya waiting for her at the coffee machine in the mess. She looked exhausted, her eyes bloodshot and her hair reduced to tangled strands. Still, she put on a strained smile.
“I wanted you to know that I really appreciate all your work. The part you suggested, that’s just brilliant.” Her voice broke as she added, “This test can make all the difference.”
Szkazy raised an eyebrow. “Well, thank you.”
She reached past Myrya to retrieve a hot cup from the dispenser. The bitter taste jolted her senses. Maybe it’d be enough to take her through the morning.
“I’ve looked up Paneon,” Myrya said, hesitant. She glanced at her feet, as if searching for courage or conviction. “The people there… the agreement included provisions for their rights.”
Szkazy snorted. “I’m sure they were followed to the letter.”
“And how do you know they weren’t? You’re making assumptions, admit it.”
Szkazy started to shrug, but Myrya continued, the voice urgent. “Anyway, that was a completely different situation. Paneon was an established world, settled for generations.”
She paused, her expression expectant, as if she had just asked a question.
Szkazy took another sip of her coffee. She was tired—too tired to speak, too tired to have this discussion now, or ever. “If you say so.”
Myrya scrunched her brows. She seemed about to protest, but then something in her broke. She looked away, to the row of photographs lining the wall behind them: Xantiana’s landscapes and winged elpots, each image bearing the name of one of the scientists. The corners of her lips quivered. “I’ve looked up some new worlds. The ones just settled. Did you know that on nine out of ten half of the native fauna vanishes after three generations?”
Szkazy followed her gaze to the image of a winged elpot silhouetted against an orange sunset. So alien. So incomprehensible. So beautiful.
“I know,” she managed to whisper.
“At least on Paneon the people knew what was going on. The elpots… We’ve got to save them, Szkazy.”
Myrya pulled in a rugged breath. Her eyes glistened with tears, her pain clear even as she kept her face averted.
Szkazy put her hand on Myrya’s arm. A shiver run through her, a million memories flooding her tired brain. “It’s not over yet. Come, we’ve got a test to run.”
An hour later, Szkazy was back on the stony riverbank where they’d come on the first day. The place was empty at this hour, the elpots gone to feed in the sun above the escarpment. Myrya and Eno observed a location twenty kilometres to the south. Three more groups monitored additional test sites, each trying out a different alteration to the mandalas, each hoping their way would finally elicit a reaction from the elpots.
Two technicians—the same ones she’d seen in the mess the other day—checked the recording equipment, half-disappearing each time they entered the cloaking field. They spoke high-Aolian even when she wasn’t paying them any attention, their accents making the words sound no less foreign than if they used their own language.
Szkazy watched as tiny spider-bots arranged the last stones in her mandala, one she’d chosen from the images of past creations of the elpot that usually worked here. The structure was an almost perfect recreation—except for the centre, where a symmetrical, three-by-three formation of red stones had been replaced by a random scattering of pebbles. Further down the bank, Yeano inspected the assembly of two more structures. All the “new” mandalas were positioned in such a way that their original creators would have to walk past them as they returned to their current projects.
“They’re on the way,” Yeano’s voice sounded in her ear. He was looking at a screen in his hand, showing the feed from a survey drone hovering above.
“We’re all set,” one of the technicians said. “We’ll wait inside.”
She nodded and they withdrew into the cloaking field, disappearing from view. It was just her now, alone on this stretch of beach bedecked with mandalas new and old—and the latest, human-made addition.
“There they come,” Yeano whispered in her earpiece.
Szkazy watched, mesmerised, as the bulbous shapes appeared at the top of the escarpment. It hardly seemed possible that the elpots could move at all, let alone descend the steep incline. And yet there they were, the ungainly potatoes balancing on their spidery legs, sometimes vertical, sometimes leaning perilously as they strutted on, returning to finish their work. She wondered once again what it was that spurred them on day after day. Was it truly the desire to create and express? Or some animalistic instinct hard-coded into their genes, an atavism that no longer served a purpose?
Today was her last chance to find out.
Szkazy swallowed in a vain attempt to release the tension cramping her shoulders. Her palms were moist inside the thin membrane of the biosuit, and she struggled with the itch to wipe them on her trousers. It wouldn’t work, even if she dared to move.
The first two elpots reached the riverbank and turned towards Yeano’s position. Szkazy lowered her visor, checking the creatures against their code tags. “Her” elpot, marked CX2365L, was reaching the steepest part of the escarpment, wobbling precariously on its thin legs. Szkazy held her breath as it overbalanced, almost tipping over. Did they ever fall? Would a fall injure—or even kill it? But the elpot held on, wedging two of its legs against exposed roots. She zoomed in, just in time to see additional orifices opening in the upper half of the bulbous body. A moment later, two limbs emerged: a leg and what looked like an arm. The elpot held on to a hanging root, then dropped on its equivalent of “all fours” and hobbled on down.
Szkazy waited, barely breathing, as the creature made its way towards her. Its current, half-completed mandala lay just ten meters further along the bank. It had to walk right past her. Would it recognise the pattern? Would it seek to restore the former alignment? Would it realise that it was her, a human, who had built this one? She wasn’t even sure if she’d be able to identify those reactions—and if any of them would make a sufficient proof.
The elpot moved closer, its steps steadier after it’d reached the flat surface. One eye peered ahead; two more orifices were dilating on the side facing her. Szkazy stood motionless, her breathing shallow but steady. If the elpot took the closest way, it’d pass her within its five metres protective radius. She was counting on it to swerve—from Myrya’s records, the elpots only ever used force to repel aggression.
The elpot continued on, ten, seven, then just five metres away. Its front eye turned to look at her, but the other two seemed to be focusing on the mandala. She stared back—at the elpot, at the mandala, and then at the elpot again, every fibre of her being urging it to respond.
The creature slowed down, then stopped, its gaze on the mandala. Two more orifices opened; two more yellow eyes studying her—its—work. For a moment nothing happened—but then the elpot reached out, its stick-like, three-fingered “hand” extending toward the centre of the structure, the exact place where the pattern had been changed.
Szkazy held her breath. What now? The elpot recognised its creation, recognised the change—or it appeared to, because this could as well be a coincidence, or a reaction to a change in an ingrained pattern, not more a proof of intelligence than a kreszt bird repeatedly stealing a shiny toy.
She needed more.
Her legs trembling, Szkazy crouched over the mandala and picked up a discarded stone, the right colour and shape for the original three-by-three arrangement in the centre. She dropped to her knees and shuffled forward, over the stones, towards the middle of the structure. The elpot watched her, unmoving. She moved closer, only metres away from the creature, leaving the safety zone. No reaction—no rising on its limbs, no warning buzz of accumulated electricity. She moved on, her gaze shifting from the mandala to the elpot, its one yellow eye still trained on her.
Do something, she urged. Respond. Please.
She approached the centre, the pebble clutched in her hand. She could just put it there, in the right place. Or she could…
She reached out towards the elpot, her arm straight, the stone flat on her palm. A second passed, then another, then ten more. Her muscles cramped; her arm was starting to shake from the exertion and stress. She was so close, only two metres from the elpot, the closest anyone had ever been.
The elpot’s limb moved, slowly extending towards her. It hovered above her hand, above the stone. Szkazy bit her lip, breathless, her muscles throbbing, the pebbles biting into her knees.
The elpot’s fingers curled around the stone. She felt its touch, the digits cold and stiff, like twigs. It lifted the stone and gently positioned it at the correct spot inside the mandala.
That was it—they were making contact, communicating. Or were they? Was this really any better than a rodent accepting a treat? Szkazy crawled back, retreading her steps to where the remaining stones lay waiting. She was almost there, already reaching out for the next pebble, when a rustling noise made her look up.
The elpot was moving away, its eyes withdrawn and its back to her, disinterested and indifferent.
Szkazy waited, frozen, for another moment. No, it wasn’t going to return. Nothing more was going to happen. She dropped her head, then her arms crumpled and she let herself slide down onto the cold stone structure, shaking and spent.
“You did it!”
Myrya ran towards her, her face radiant, tears of joy in her eyes. She stopped at the base of the floater, waiting for Szkazy to disembark and the remnants of her biosuit to evaporate. She seemed to hesitate, ready to throw her arms around Szkazy, but ended up just putting her hand on her shoulder and squeezing gently. “You did it. You saved them.”
Szkazy shivered. She forced a smile, then looked away, away from Myrya’s hot, happy eyes.
A dozen others were approaching from the open doors of the base: scientists and technicians, bright-faced, chatting in excited voices, laughing even. She hadn’t realised how heavy the mood had been before seeing it lifted. Now, hope peered from every eye. Something else, too, something she’d never expected: admiration. Respect. All directed at her.
Eno pushed in front of the others, his smile laced with guilt or shame. He was working himself up to a question, curiosity mixed with shyness she hadn’t thought him capable of. “How did it feel when it touched you?”
Everyone fell silent, waiting for her answer.
Szkazy searched for words, each one insufficient. Her skin still prickled with the sensation of the three twig-like fingers picking the stone out of her hand, the memory of the yellow eye meeting her gaze.
“Glorious,” she said at last.
Voices erupted around her, congratulating, commenting, complementing. That was it, she realised, the moment she’d been waiting for all her life. An Eskazian scientist, respected and acknowledged. Her life’s struggle vindicated.
She blinked away tears, the pain overwhelming her senses. Her success was worthless. She couldn’t prove that the elpot’s reaction was anything different from a canine returning a stick or a talking bird repeating a word. Interaction, yes. But not a “civilisation-building intelligence.”
Her legs stiff, she followed the others inside the base. Myrya walked at her side, her face flushed as she rattled on about future tests to confirm the breakthrough, how they were close, so close, how it was only a matter of months, maybe even weeks…
Szkazy had less than a day left. And no proof that would stand the test of the courts.
An urgent message from Captain Reole allowed her to escape the debriefing. Any other day she’d resent it; now, she was grateful. She left the others in the analysis room, rewatching her encounter in full-scale holo-projection, and hurried back to her quarters.
She checked the time: late evening already, and night back on the ship. The captain’s call didn’t surprise her, though, as if she knew she could no longer stop the flow of bad news.
She slid her visor on and waited as the system took her through three layers of encryption, the connection tighter than ever before.
Reole was at his desk, his face tired and his jacket hanging loosely as if he’d thrown it on his bare skin. He tipped his head as he saw her. “I hear congratulations are in order?”
Szkazy winced. She sucked in air, shaping a response in her mind, but Reole cut her off.
“Some news first. I got a report from our intelligence. Seems the Tohans had managed to sneak survey drones on Xantiana. No idea if it happened before or after we set up the research outpost; it’s not like the scientists were equipped to detect Tohan spies. Anyway, the important bit is that based on the findings, their science council has declared Xantiana ‘below intelligence threshold’.”
No wonder Command cut the timing for her report. “That means—”
“That their negotiators will put a hard bargain for the system. So that’s a stellar opportunity for our side to get something valuable in return—I know they have something in mind already. But it’ll only work if we’re sure we can later stop them from setting up base.”
Reole leaned forward and clasped his hands in front of him. He stayed silent for longer than seemed comfortable, especially for him. Reole was a man of quick decisions. Not today.
“The scientists seem to think you’ve got a breakthrough. The Academy will know soon, if they don’t already. And so will Command. They’re looking at it as a big opportunity. If we give them what they want, I’m sure the reward will be appropriate. I’ll get my promotion, and you—you’ll be able to go back to the Academy. Or anywhere else you want.” He paused again, his brow scrunching as he searched for the right words. “I know you have doubts or you’d have called me with the good news yourself. But consider this: the negotiations will go on for a while, several weeks at the least. Then there will be the treaty signing and all the legalities. That takes time. The time you could use to firm up the proof you need for the courts.”
Reole held her gaze, his expression as full of hope as of pity. He understood exactly what he was asking her to do: take a leap of faith, with her life on the line.
A sad smile twisted his lips. “For what it’s worth, I’ll support you whatever your decision.”
He meant it; she was sure—just as she was sure that his good intentions wouldn’t survive the first harsh note from his superiors. Yet, even knowing that he understood eased the burden a tiny bit.
“Thank you, Captain. You’ll have my report by noon tomorrow.”
The image on her visor blinked out. Szkazy pulled it off. Her room had grown dark, Xantiana’s orange sun long set. She shuffled to the desk, the thin carpet cool under her feet. In the faint light seeping through the window, the prayer box looked like a lump of coal on the silver surface of her desk.
The hinges squeaked as she lifted the lid. She lit the candle and watched the flame sway in its restless dance, twirled by the invisible power of air circulators.
For memory of future and past.
No dead ancestors were going to speak to her, ever. She was on her own with a decision that could cost her life and the elpots’ very existence.
She reached for her visor again. Jaroe would’ve told her if he’d found anything, but still, she had to ask.
The engineer’s figure materialised in front of her—fully dressed, with a two-day stubble on his cheeks and the background looking like he was still in his lab. He nodded a greeting, his face grim.
Szkazy swallowed. “Have you got anything?”
Jaroe rubbed his chin, his one rebellious brow rising high on his forehead. “No. I’m sorry. Nothing definitive. But…”
The engineer grimaced, in hesitation or annoyance. “I’m not finding anything definitive, but I am finding things. Patterns too odd to be entirely coincidental. Primes or exotic series pulled straight from number theory. It’s just…”
She knew what he meant. Low primes or fractals were not unusual in nature. Plants developed geometric patterns simply because of how their cells grew and multiplied. And yet, this was also the difference. The naturally occurring patterns were the consequence of cellular structures, of the organic geometry of growth. The elpots’ mandalas were not natural. They were made, purposefully created.
“Yeah.” Jaroe sounded resigned. “That’s the problem with number theory. If you search long enough, you’ll always find a pattern that fits. It proves nothing.”
He looked away, his gaze lost in the patterns of shadows his fingers cast on the table in front of him.
“What do you think?” Szkazy asked. “Not for the record, just for me.”
Jaroe leaned back. His shoulders heaved as he pulled in a deep breath. “I think the scientists are right. I think those beings are intelligent and so far beyond us that it will take us millennia to catch up. I think that’s the very reason I can’t prove any of it. I don’t think any of us will be able to.”
They sat in silence for a long moment, both staring into the darkness of their own minds.
“Thank you,” Szkazy said eventually and disconnected the link.
The first light was just breaking over the eastern horizon, the clouds brightening with a warm ruddy glow. Szkazy let the floater navigate its way out of the base, then steered it towards the rising sun. The machine was almost silent, the hum of the engine close enough to resemble morning breeze. Xantiana’s hills rolled calmly underneath, purple-black with the lingering darkness, brightening to emerald where the first rays of the sun cut through the shadows.
She didn’t have to wait long before the familiar boulder shapes appeared ahead. They stood motionless, scattered over the landscape, separate as much as part of it. Further to the east, two had their wings out, fluttering like sails of distant ships. Szkazy checked the log. There it was: CX2365L, “her” elpot, all its limbs drawn in, as if still asleep.
She parked fifty metres away, put the breather mask on, and slipped out of the floater. The air was prickly cold; vegetation crunched under her feet, as if frozen. Szkazy shivered.
What am I hoping for?
She slunk towards the creature, her steps shaky but deliberate. Her long shadow skidded over the foliage ahead of her, like a herald.
The elpot twitched. A yellow eye appeared in an orifice, then two more, three black pupils trained on her.
“What are you?”
She wanted to laugh. Coming here was pointless. She didn’t expect the creature to answer—she didn’t expect anything at all, really, but she couldn’t go back either.
Two more eyes opened. The creature’s gaze was electric, burning into her with intensity of intent, a meaning waiting to be understood.
“What are those structures? Why do you make them?”
She was shouting into a void. But what else was there to do? She had hours left till the report was due, her and the elpots’ future decided in one beam of electronic information.
“If you’re so smart, why don’t you show me anything? Damn it, I’m trying to save you!”
The elpot stirred. The eyes blinked, two, then three blinks in quick succession. Was it a sign?
The elpot’s legs extended, just as the soft buzzing intensified. She was still in the safety zone, though.
Or was she?
Something was pulling her, tugging at her limbs, scraping over her face.
There was a sound, too. A voice, so familiar, calling her name.
“Szkazy! Are you all right? Shee, please!”
The tugging stopped. Warm hands clasped her cheeks, hot breath warming her skin through the thin layer of the biosuit.
She blinked. Lifted her heavy eyelids.
Myrya’s face congealed into focus, deathly pale, her green eyes wide with horror.
“Stars, you’re alive. It could have killed you! What were you thinking?”
“I… I don’t think I was, actually.”
Szkazy tried to laugh, but a wave of nausea cramped her insides. She lowered her head, her stomach spasming—but nothing come up, just a painful cough that left her gasping.
“It’s all right. It’ll pass in a moment.”
Myrya pulled her close; Szkazy let herself relax into her embrace. It was warm and safe, and she didn’t need to think or struggle, and she would let herself enjoy that brief instant. Their biosuits sensed each other, the membranes refolding into a perfect, two-body-shaped pod. Myrya’s skin warmed her cheek, her touch ever so gentle as she stroked Szkazy’s hair. She pressed her lips to her head, then again, her mouth against Szkazy’s ear.
“Stay with me. Let’s do research, like we’ve always wanted. Together. Away from the politics and the ambitions. Just you and me and science.”
Szkazy stiffened. Once, she’d have run across the universe to hear these words. She’d left so she wouldn’t be a hindrance—then spent months, years, hoping and waiting for Myrya to run after her. Why did her dream taste bitter now?
She pulled away, her eyes on Myrya. “Would you… Would you go with me, if I asked?”
Myrya blinked. “Where to? The military?”
“Maybe. Or to Eskaz. Or wherever I chose to go.”
“But… Why would we—”
“That’s it, isn’t it? It hasn’t occurred to you to ask what I want. To consider that maybe, for once, you would be the one needing to compromise.”
Myrya let her hands drop from Szkazy’s shoulders, her face settling into an expression somewhere between disappointment and hurt. “I always did, Shee. You just never wanted to see it. Maybe it wasn’t as big or as painful as what you went through—but I tried so damn hard. It will never be enough, though, will it?”
She leaned away, stretching the suits’ membrane till they separated again, each of them cocooned in their own loneliness.
“You left me, Szkazy. You never asked how I felt,” Myrya said, rising. “All I wanted was for you to love me. But you couldn’t. Not with all of Eskaz on your shoulders.”
She walked away, waving to the approaching medics.
Szkazy slid back to the ground, her head spinning from electricity and exhaustion in equal measure.
Not with all of Eskaz on your shoulders.
Myrya was right. Szkazy did carry Eskaz with her, always. How could she not? That was her goal, her mission. She’d set out to do them proud. To win them respect and a place at the table. To make Aolians see how wrong they were to dismiss “the territorials.” And yet, despite all her struggling, she had failed, both Eskaz and herself. And the elpots. And the woman she probably still loved.
She closed her eyes, tears rolling down her cheeks. She’d made a mistake, again. She’d felt the same before, on graduation day, when she’d put her Eskazian sash back on, a purple scar across the green-and-gold. She’d thought she’d learned. But she was still playing their game, still trying to please them on their own terms. Fighting and struggling for approval that was only coming for fitting into their mould.
What a good little Aolian she had tried to be.
Well, she was done with that. That chapter was over. She’d finally become Szkazy, the Eskazian.
She stared at the copy of her report, brief and formatted to the Academy’s most stringent standards, its conclusion highlighted in bright red: NO RELIABLE CONFIRMATION OF INTELLIGENT LIFE.
There was no magic trick. Nothing she had would survive beyond the first hearing in the courts—and she wasn’t going to bet her life on a chance of finding a firm proof in time.
She couldn’t save the elpots—not directly. But there were more paths she could follow, more tricks she could try if she stopped caring about what the Academy would think of her. Her report would ensure that Command would hold on to the sector. And as long as the planet remained Aolian, she stood a chance of influencing what happened here.
Her hand quivered over the button, but it lasted only an instant. She pressed ‘Send’. It was done. No promotion, no fanfare. But no disappointment, either. She’d been dealt a bad hand, but at least now she was playing her own game.
Outside, the corridors were deathly quiet. They were all reading her report; she was certain. She was certain, too, that they’d hate her for it afterwards. No matter. It wouldn’t change anything.
Szkazy rose, wincing at the pang in her chest. The elpot had done some minor damage, the medics had told her, but it’d be gone in a week or two. She found it fitting, though, as if needing a physical reminder of the events. She dropped her things into the luggage pod: her few toiletries, pyjamas, underclothes fresh from the recycler. Only the prayer box left. Szkazy put her hand on the lid, stroking the embossed leaves. Her dead ancestors had sent her a message after all, one that had been with her the entire time. The box itself was the message, the story it carried in every nick of the lacquer and every splinter of the ancient wood. Of the hundreds of hands that had touched it over the ages. Of the hundreds more that would touch it in the future.
For memory of future and past.
Time for one last goodbye.
The base’s log told her Myrya’d gone out in the field, alone. The corridors remained empty as Szkazy walked outside and slid into a floater. Maybe the scientists were still reading. Maybe they were avoiding her. She couldn’t blame them. Still, she wouldn’t leave without seeing Myrya. She owed it to both of them.
The sun hung low on the horizon, the orange glow like a soft caress on the green hills. The elpots were feeding again, awkward boulders transformed into angels, emerald wings glistening in the evening breeze.
Myrya didn’t turn to look as Szkazy’s floater parked next to hers. She didn’t move when Szkazy’s shadow fell beside hers, her footsteps slowed, then stopped.
They stood in silence for a long moment.
No answer. What was there to say?
“Why would you…” Myrya’s voice broke. A shudder ran through her frame, and she turned her head away from Szkazy’s gaze. “Was it for your career? To show them how useful an Eskazian can be? Even if it means destroying an entire species?”
Szkazy wanted to laugh. “I’m not the one destroying them.”
Myrya spun to face her, eyes glistening with held back tears. “But you just did! You sent the report. You did it, Szkazy!”
Szkazy pulled in a deep breath. Even now, she still found herself astonished by how much Myrya could refuse to see. “What do you think would happen if I declared them intelligent?”
Myrya shook her head. “This is not Paneon. It’s different!”
“Really? Do you think the Federation would want to keep Xanta if it wasn’t useful to them? They’ve traded inhabited planets for a tactical advantage before. Loyal citizens, even if from the ‘territories’. Do you think they’d bat an eyelid over the elpots?”
Myrya tried to shrug, but the movement died in another shudder. “Even if—the elpots would be protected. No one could settle here; it’s against the First-Claim rule. Or would be…if you’d declared them intelligent.”
“And you think they’d all accept it? Because my report said so and the Aolian Academy gave it their blessing? The Tohans have already declared Xantiana available.”
“What proof do we have that would stand in the courts? The mandalas?”
Myrya no longer tried to answer, her chin trembling as understanding punched its way through her denial. She could have guessed all of this herself—if she’d considered the world outside the Federation. Outside Aolia and the Academy.
“At least now we’ll keep the system. The military will move in, and probably some settlers, but it’s not the end. They can be reasoned with. The Academy could help, or the bio-activists back at Aolia. It’s hard work, but not impossible.”
Myrya squinted, her gaze lost in possibilities. Then another thought made her wince. “And what will happen to you?”
Was she finally beginning to see?
Szkazy shrugged. “Nobody will be handing me any promotions, that’s for sure. But I won’t be court-martialled for treason, so that’s at least something.”
Myrya stared, her mouth opening in horror. “I… I never realised…”
“You never needed to.”
Myrya’s brow scrunched just like it had when she’d struggled with a math problem too hard to crack. In her world, people didn’t get court martialled for trying to do the right thing. Pity it wasn’t the same world Szkazy lived in.
Up on the hill, only a few remaining elpots still basked in the afternoon sun. Szkazy felt tired now, depleted. She’d done all she could. It was time to leave.
She pulled in another breath. Xantiana’s air smelled of something sweet and stale through her breathing filter. “I’ll be leaving the military as soon as this tour is over. You were right; I’m not exactly the material.”
“Where will you go, then?”
“I can still do research. I’ll find a bio-activist group. Maybe even one interested in the elpots…”
“It’s not the Academy. Not what you wanted.”
“No. No, it isn’t.” Szkazy turned to go, pausing for the final glance at the weird creatures, their wings tucked away now, angels once again reduced to boulders. “Goodbye, Myrya. It was good to see you, regardless.”
She walked away, her feet thumping in the rhythm of her heart.
“Gren,” Myrya said behind her.
Her little name. The one Eskazians used with those closest to them. The one she thought Myrya had never bothered to find out.
Szkazy stood unmoving, her hands trembling, disarmed by the single word.
“I called your mother, soon after you told me. I wanted to… I waited for a special moment. I waited too long.”
Szkazy turned at the sound of Myrya’s footsteps. They were an arm’s reach away, so close, and so far.
“I could put in a word. Ealo, the old dean, he can help—”
Szkazy hung her head. “I don’t want your word. It has to be me, on my own terms. Don’t you understand?”
Of course she didn’t. She stared at Szkazy with big, pleading eyes, hurt and uncomprehending. “I love you, Shee.”
“I love you, too. And if you…” Szkazy’s voice caught in her chest. “You know how to find me.”
She walked away, lighter and heavier, relieved and overwhelmed. In the distance, three elpots, sated with the sun-feast, extended their spindly legs and strutted towards the riverbank to ponder the patterns in stone.
Copyright 2022 M V Melcer
About the Author
Born in Poland, MV has lived in the USA, the Netherlands and Belgium before settling in the United Kingdom. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, and others. When not writing, she is pursuing a degree in astronomy. You can find her on www.mvmelcer.com.