Saturday, October 17, 2009

Verasheyan by J. Trout

“Master Zane?” The man in the impeccable Earth Security Force uniform, bearing the clear rank of Captain, tried to keep his face impassive, but a ghost of a sneer slipped past his control.

“Yes, Captain Blair.” The athletic man behind the desk kept his calm expression far better than his visitor. “I received your message. Please tell me why the Earth Security Force needs to call upon a civilian, such as myself, to deal with a military prisoner.”

The captain briefly gave the impression of a man biting into an apple and finding only part of a worm. “Your…specialized knowledge,” he managed to say, then rushed into his next words. “We know you began as a doctor, specializing in neurology and psychology, then you moved on to exobiology, and somewhere along the line you picked up an interest in…in…” He fell silent.

“In the BDSM phenomenon.” Master Zane remained as calm as before. “Yes, it does appear in nonhuman species. How does this relate to your prisoner?”

“He’s an Althori!” the captain spat out, giving up all pretensions to disinterest. “You know how they are: Death Before Dishonor, never betray a client, all that. We caught this one when we finally got Boss Prendergast. It—he was Prendergast’s bodyguard, went with him everywhere, and saw everything he did. That alien’s a goldmine of information if we could just…” Captain Blair was definitely blushing now.

“I see.” Master Zane leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “‘Ke’, you mean.”

“What?”

“The Althori are hermaphrodites. The proper personal pronouns for an individual would be ‘ke’, ‘kir’ and ‘kim’.”

“Fine, fine. The problem is…getting the information.”

“I understand completely,” said Master Zane. “The usual police and military methods of interrogation have a record of failing with Althori, so you need the help of—to be blunt—an expert in the nature of torture, particularly a form of torture which does the victim no permanent harm and won’t look bad at trial. Yes?”

The captain blushed as red as a turkey’s wattles. “We’ve got to get the information soon,” he managed. “The civilian cops are nagging us to hand Prendergast over to them, saying he’s a civilian crook, even though we caught him in open space, and you know how the civilian courts are. Without the Althori’s information, that bastard might get off again.”

Master Zane interlaced his fingers, and smiled: a slow, powerful smile. It made Blair squirm.

“Yes,” the Master said decisively, “I’ll take your case. There’s a good holding-room in the basement; I’ll give you the coordinates. Please transfer the prisoner there.”

The captain let out a breath that he didn’t seem to have been aware of holding.

“I’ll also need a complete file on the prisoner, another file containing everything not available on MediNet concerning the neurophysiology and psychology of Althori, and a list of the precise questions you wish to ask kim. I’ll send you one of my contract forms in return. How soon can you have all that delivered?”

“Uh… Noon tomorrow! Everything,” Captain Blair almost gushed. “Tomorrow, then.”

He did a quick about-face and strode rapidly out of the office.

Master Zane waited until the monitor on his desk showed that the front door had closed behind his visitor, then asked the computer’s microphone: “Nell, did you get all that?”

“Oh yes,” a mellow voice replied from the speaker, adding a brief giggle. “Wouldn’t it be fun to get that one on the rack!”

Master Zane smiled again, a much softer smile. “Fun indeed, my dear, but right now we have work to do: researching Althori. I think this will be an interesting challenge.”

* * * *

The moment Reshayn-Lareth opened kir eyes, ke remembered that ke’d been stunned by a guard. Ke saw that ke was now transferred to a different cell—possibly in a different prison. This room had four solid walls, an enclosed washroom, a plain food-replicator slot, a simple table and chair, and a likewise simple but comfortable iron-framed bed. But for the lack of a viewscreen and communicator, it might have been any cheap room for visiting spacers on any of a dozen different space stations.

Don’t raise your hopes, ke reminded kimself as ke looked more carefully.

Oh yes: kir cage-pot of sapphire-mice, feed-grass and the little idol of Larashath were absent. So were all kir weapons, including kir ritual knife. Kir clothes had been replaced by the standard gray prisoner’s jumpsuit, and even kir translator was gone. Ke was definitely still a prisoner. Ke had nothing left but kimself and kir honor, and in situations like this one’s honor quite often led to death. That was not a comforting thought.

As soon as the buzzing faded from kir head, Reshayn got up and tried the door. No, it was firmly locked, and kir best efforts couldn’t break it. Ke went back to the bed and sat down with a sigh.

“Why didn’t I wait?” ke asked the walls, as if ke hadn’t asked the same question a hundred times before. As always, ke knew the answer. Ke’d been desperate for an off-planet job, anything that could get kim off overcrowded Althor and into space, and ke’d made the classic mistake of taking the first offer that came up—without doing thorough research on kir prospective master. Ke’d learned soon enough that Prendergast was a crook, wanted by security forces from Earth to Rigel for a dozen different interplanetary crimes, and he’d be caught sooner or later, but by then the contract was signed and registered.

“A contract is a pledge of honor,” Reshayn repeated to the silently accusing walls, as ke’d likewise done a hundred times before. And honor required that ke follow kir pledged master down to defeat, capture, and probable death. The Earth Force captors wanted kim to talk—talk, talk, talk, as that fool Captain Blair had shouted at kim for hours—and honor demanded that ke refuse them. “Loyal unto death” was not just the motto of the Lareth clan; it was demanded by Larashath, kir patron god. Break faith, and ke’d be reborn as some lowly creature, which didn’t bear thinking upon.

Though the gods know you were fool enough to merit rebirth as a teegh-goat.

Reshayn quashed the treacherous thought and stiffened kir resolve.

So, let the Humans do what they would. Their drugs, ke knew, either didn’t work on Althori or killed them outright. Their laws restricted what they could do as torture, and simple beatings ke could endure handily. They might send kim off to some prison planet to eke out kir days battling the elements, which couldn’t be that much worse than struggling for survival on crowded Althor. More likely, they’d kill kim in their frustrated attempts to get information about kir pledged master; in that case, ke’d be reborn on Althor—possibly, ke formed a treacherous hope, as a higher-ranked child in a much higher-ranked clan, rich in lands and livestock, free to choose a life-mate, Bond and Change and mature, and have children of kir own…

Seeing that there was nothing else to do, Reshayn closed kir eyes and let kimself daydream about kir next life.

* * * *

Nell was just rubbing oil into the last of the leather cuffs when she heard Master Zane’s laugh come echoing from his office. It wasn’t his usual quiet professional laugh, but an honestly light-hearted guffaw. That was curious enough to make her place the cuff hastily in its cabinet and go see what it was that amused the Master so.

She found him chuckling over the computer’s screen, and he gave her a distinctly merry smile as she came in. “Pull up a chair and look,” he said, pointing to the screen.

“This is a fascinating example of convergent evolution.”

Nell tugged a chair out from a corner, placed it where she could see the screen, shoved a wayward lock of blonde hair out of her eyes and looked at the monitor. It displayed a nice image of a nude Althori, accompanied by several lines of small print.

“They’re remarkably like humans in structure,” Master Zane explained, “Particularly in their nervous systems—which are exquisitely sensitive, by the way. Their bones are thicker and muscles denser, enough to give them remarkable strength along with that deceptively tall and slender build, but not to a superhuman degree. They’re pure carnivores, eating vegetable matter only for bulk and flavorings—they do drink alcohol and enjoy it—and their metabolisms make much more use of cobalt, which explains their lovely purple-blue skins and blue-silver hair. No one knows what caused them to develop those tall pointed ears, but that’s a trivial difference. The exceptional difference is in their reproductive systems, which are something unique in this part of the galaxy.”

“I’ve heard it said,” Nell ventured, “That the sex of an Althori is of interest only to another Althori.”

“And for good reason.” Zane thoughtfully rubbed his hands together. “Althori are true hermaphrodites. Each individual possesses a penis and a vagina—the testicles are tucked safely up in the abdomen, not far from the ovaries—and can use either at any time. The uterus can, and usually does, accommodate a litter of from two to six young, which also explains those six nipples running from chest to abdomen. This offers some interesting possibilities…”

“I’ve heard that Althor is overcrowded, which is why the Althori are always looking for off-planet work and new planets to colonize. I suppose that habit of bearing litters explains it, but don’t they have any sort of effective birth-control?”

“Indeed, they have a built-in form of it.” Master Zane steepled his fingers and studied the screen. “They’re semi-telepathic—empathic, to be precise; they can pick up emotions and physical states, if not precise thoughts—and this features heavily in their breeding process. You’ve noticed that our subject, like most of the Althori one encounters in the usual space-trade, has nipples but no breasts?”

Nell glanced at a monitor screen to one side of the desk, which displayed the Althori prisoner seated in a meditative pose on kir bed. “I was wondering about that,” she murmured.

“The reason is that Althori enter a form of puberty at roughly the age of twelve, after which they’re quite able to mate—and enjoy it—but they don’t grow breasts and become fertile until after they bond with their chosen mates.”

“Bond telepathically?”

“More like empathically. Althori find True Love, bond empathically with their soul-mates, become fertile and then settle down to a long life of guarding their lands, raising their livestock, and reliably breeding two to six children—apiece—every year. Until that point, they’re infertile. It’s in the hope of someday finding a true mate and maturing that Althori neuters always carry with them a cage-covered flowerpot filled with their native soil, feed-grass, a small colony of native animals—sapphire-mice, at least—and a little idol of their tribal god. That’s symbolic of land, crops, livestock and a family altar, all the more precious since most Althori never gain more land than that.”

“And they need land to feed the livestock that feed their armies of children,” Nell guessed. “But Althor is overcrowded already…”

“They can’t conceive while still nursing a litter, so they often nurse their young as long as possible—about to the age of two. But it’s also not surprising that most of the population of Althor remains in, hmm, neuter phase all their lives; it’s the one form of birth-control that reliably works for them.

“Must be frustrating,” Nell considered.

“Not sexually frustrating, anyway,” Master Zane smiled. “Althori are notorious for ‘sporting’—which is their term for infertile mating—with anything or anyone that will hold still for them, all over the known galaxy. They have very few sexual taboos, and those deal only with rape, incest and child abuse. The ‘sporting’ of neuters is considered inconsequential, and bonded pairs are incapable of…hmm, voluntarily mating with anyone else.”

“So we shouldn’t have any taboos to deal with: just a simple dissolving of the will.” Now it was Nell’s turn to smile.

“And all that exquisitely sensitive sexual tissue to work with,” Zane grinned back.