Simon was out roughly six hours. He awoke to find Ramla and Lina standing to one side of his bed. At its foot was Nakato, the young Vuur Curator. For a moment he thought himself dreaming.
Then the agony in his arm swelled and surged. The sudden recognition of the power room cemented reality. His cot was against wall on both one side and at its head, hence the seemingly arrangement of nearby persons.
“Simon?” Lina asked, injecting him with mild pain-killers. “How are you?” He groaned, half-shrugged. “You need anything?” He shook his head. “When you’re up to it, Curator Nakato would like to speak with you.”
He groaned a “Nuhhhh.” Then, focused through the remnant drug-haze at the small Vuur. “About?”
“Your people,” she said sheepishly.
He was suddenly reminded of a girl he’d met after being crowned “hero,” how utterly terrified she’d been. It was another new, unnerving experience. Simon feared others. He was never feared. He’d done enough of the former that the latter was impossible to fathom. Nakato seemed to be exhibiting the same response.
It was both unnerving and confusing. She was a Vuur; only the second non-Solsian species to make contact. Beyond that, she was relying on him as his people’s envoy. Most people could describe that as insane. Fear of him was insane.
Then again, who knew how the Vuur really felt. They were benevolent, sure. They were kind, generous, supremely understanding– but this was their first first contact; as Zelphod had been Sol’s. There was no telling what those rock-like hides and velvet-sand-paper voices were masking. He certainly wished no ill to or from, but felt a curious duty to be as observant as possible.
For that reason, he agreed, provided someone brought coffee.
Lots of coffee.
Niala’s sedative was nice while he slept, but its after-effects left his tongue numb. His brain and eyes were heavy. He was sure the morphine sulfate was having an effect, but beyond keeping the third-degree burn to its current, dull throbbing, he wasn’t sure what.
Coffee arrived, and in the spirit so common of one in need of it, imbibed with rising vigor at gulping speeds. By his second cup, Simon found himself capable of more than a few, noncommittal grunts. Nakato knelt where a normal person might sit. This was clearly a habit or preference, given the roomful of chairs. Lina excused herself, leaving the two utterly alone and at a loss.
Simon cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Would you like a chair?”
She softened slightly– literally; the rock-like bone plating was somewhat malleable, turned as if from cartilage back to skin. How, he wasn’t sure. She spoke with calculated calm, still grasping the social intricacies of her new language. Simon guessed everything up to now was rehearsed in some way. Now that formalities were past, she’d have to form thoughts into words new to her.
“I… find them uncomfortable. Thank you. Vuur bodies are not used to such positions. We lack crucial… posterior padding for such furnishings.”
“No worries, I have no ass either.” Her brows vee’d. She suddenly understood, laughed. “Broke the tension nicely.” Nakato agreed with a gravelly chuckle. “What d’you want to know?”
There was a thoughtful silence. Nakato burst with passionate excitement, “Everything!”
“Everything!” She repeated, no less enthused. “You’re our first alien contact. Your existence has confirmed so many suspicions, disproven so many others. And best of all, you’re friendly!”
He grimaced, “Curator Nakato–“
“Please, call me Ka’at.”
“Okay… Ka’at. I understand you’re excited, and none of us would hurt you, but the rest of Sol… may not be so welcoming. I worry you may get a false impression.”
Her passion was only temporarily quelled. “I understand completely, Dr. Corben–“
She smiled queerly, “Simon. You need not worry about me. We Vuur are notoriously hard to injure. Bone-plating and all.”
His grimace widened, “That’s not what I meant.”
“Nor I. Not entirely.” She inched over on her knees, as a Solsian scooting a chair forward might. “You must understand what your very existence means to all of us. Not just the Vuur, but to Solsians, and Zelphod, and every other yet-undiscovered species.”
Simon couldn’t deny his sudden intrigue, “Go on.”
“Our Sages,” she began irreverently. “Have for hundreds– thousands– of years, foreseen oncoming events. For millennia, they were ignored by all but a few otherwise only half-heartedly believing them.
“Partly, this is a result of their unwillingness to show themselves. But also their claims have, at times, been seen as panic-stirring. The truth is much more complex but the end result remains: the Sages have been right. Almost every-time.”
Simon’s skepticism reared; Occupational hazard, he’d have said. Instead, he replied, “Almost?”
“Yes. Almost. But historical records indicate such incidents of wrongness often and invariably the results of unknown forces tampering with the flow of events. In a sense, those whom defined the skepticism, caused it. Their distrust of the Sages interfered in ways that changed predicted events. In present times, our people recognize that.”
“I see,” he said only half-honestly.
She continued anyway, “Only over eons did such trust grow. Cataclysms otherwise avoidable, weren’t avoided. Not in proper numbers. As a result, diminishing returns on successive generations of skeptics were wiped from refusal of proactive measures, metaphysical in origin or otherwise.”
Simon gathered a little of what she meant. “So your Sages are gaining regard among society.”
She bowed her head slightly. His arm tingled with pain as he lifted coffee to drink. He sat up on the cot, switched the coffee to his other hand.
“If they’re so concerned about keeping people safe, why not show themselves?”
“Why require a powered shield now?” Ka’at replied. Simon squinted. “Simply, they are important. That importance might make them targets.”
“I thought you said your people were peaceful.”
“As a general rule, yes. But did you not consider your arrival to be in peace, despite the obvious threat we face?” Simon’s head hung in shame. Ka’at’s gravelly throat softened to a finer grit to comfort him, or try. “Do not regret the course taken. It is the best presented given the pitfalls about us.”
Simon found her insight curious, “How old are you anyway?”
“In your time, fifteen solar-revolutions.”
“And you’re Curator!?” He blurted.
“You are surprised. It is understandable, given what little we know of your culture. You must remember, we do not live as long as you and greatly stress education from birth. Apart from agriculture, it is our top priority. There is also a mandate– a general consensus, that the Curator be a youth. It is the youth’s world, their future, most affected by the position and its colleagues. A certain logical sense to it is evident, you agree?”
He did, though he found it difficult to reconcile Ka’at was basically a teenager.
But what did that mean to the Vuur, really? To Simon, and most of Sol, it meant a time of tumult and emotional instability. It meant spending a half-decade or so as a walking, biological time-bomb.
That was, of course, if the instability ended there. From what he knew of his people, their history, and their present, more than a portion retained that label well beyond so-called maturity.
The difficult reconciliation was complicated by her next question, sprung in the manner of a snare trap. It appeared innocuous, but the ensnared creature ended up no less gutted. Thankfully, that was only metaphorically– usually.
“What of Human society? Is it not similar to ours?”
So innocuous. So simple. Simon almost welcomed the snap of rope against him. Almost pitied the universe’s lack of a dangling, upside down view. Yet, countless generations of honed instinct reminded him snares had only one outcome.
“Uhm… Hmm…” He stalled, at a total loss.
Humanity had a long, sordid history; in effect the polar opposite to the Vuur. Humanity didn’t care about anyone but themselves. Not on an individual level. Collectively, they’d grown to tolerate and occasionally embrace evolved life, but vastly by virtue of their being stuck together.
That was part of what made the anti-Humanists so dangerous: Progress in Sol was important. To preserve it without ending up in a dark age of prejudice, Sol needed to slow, methodical expansion. Expansion presided over by those without prejudice or bias.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a general sentiment of peace among the various species. There was… for precisely as long as was convenient to otherwise narrow minded or unintelligent groups.
Simon’s frequent readings of Scientific Solsian had revealed Sol’s colonies tended most toward coexistence when one of two parameters were met: When varying species occupied the same class bracket; or, when multiple species of increased intelligence and-or education worked as colleagues, with or without lower-intelligence members.
In other words, if money put you in the same area, you were equal. If intelligence or chance put you in the same area, you were equal. Those were the main equalizers in Solsian society. There were others, but those were the two that revealed Solsian civility for what it was; an equality of convenience.
There were exceptions, of course. With growing frequency, Simon admitted hopefully, but Ka’at’s question blindsided him. He wasn’t sure how to answer. Being honest meant being a poor rep for Humanity. For Solsians. But lying meant damaging the fledgling relationship with the Vuur, and Ka’at in particular, whom he found fascinating.
He heaved a long sigh, “Where do I begin?”
Ka’at perked up, began questioning him at length. He did his best, in a few hours, to relay all of Human history to the present day. The speed with which she absorbed the information, and the pace he set, allowed him to gloss over distasteful things without losing their importance.
There were no questions ’til the end. That was when he found himself dangling; slowly cut open, gutted by the nightmarish savagery of all the necessary evils that had led Humanity to this point. By the end, the shine had worn off Ka’at’s enthusiasm– more from fatigue than anything, but Simon wondered.
He ate lunch alone then awaited another morphine dose. Niala appeared, trailing all but Melchondo, his crew, and Mataan’s escort. Something was about to happen. Simon ate cautiously, awaiting an explanation. Of all people, it came from Lina.
“We have a plan,” Lina said. A single brow rose over chewing jaws. “You’re not going to like it. And you’ll have to stay here.”
He hesitated, swallowed food, hesitated again. “What kind of plan?”
Snow balked, “Kind that involves saving our asses before the siege really sets in.”
He considered it carefully, chewing another bite of his lunch. Niala administered his morphine with a shot he didn’t feel. Endorphins and opiates flooded him; his eyes drooped slightly. He swallowed. They snapped back open.
“Should probably get on with it then, don’t you think?”
Snow smiled even more smugly than Simon had ever seen. Why, he wasn’t sure, but it didn’t matter. Nothing did, save that soon they’d be safe again, one ally richer.