Story Excerpt

Twilight's Captives

by Christopher L. Bennett

In Madeleine Kamakau’s long experience, one could learn much about a society from its angry mobs. The focus of their protests could illuminate its values, its priorities, and its degree of unity or division, while their character and tone could reveal much about its rationality and stability. Now, as she followed her escort through the main thoroughfare of the small Daikoku colony, Madeleine observed that the protestors lining its curbs were orderly, civil, and self-disciplined, almost embarrassed by the deep anger they had come here to express. The dense air filtered the light of the setting K-type sun to a melodramatic blood-red, evoking the familiar footage of the firelit riot that had already become an interstellar flashpoint, and yet these people who had lived through that riot resisted the urge to succumb to the same fury once again. Nevertheless, their chants and placard animations left no doubt that they felt violated to the core by what the Nocturne League had done here. “No negotiation!” “Don’t make deals with darkness!” “Give us back our babies!”

Inwardly, Madeleine ached for them. It had been well over a subjective century since the war in Chryse Planitia had taken three of her children, but at times she still felt the grief as though it were fresh. She vividly remembered the terror when her fourteenth child had been kidnapped to undermine her peacemaking efforts among the Martian states. And she still lived with the pain of the day, half a century ago at the start of the warp era, when she’d returned from a months-long diplomatic mission to find that her latest husband had divorced her in absentia and taken their two children. She knew every flavor of the anguish, loss, and rage she saw in these parents’ eyes, and then some.

Yet if that flame were allowed to spread, it could spark an interstellar war that would only kill more children. Madeleine could not, would not, allow that.

Daikoku’s governor, Sato Leiji, met his people’s eyes supportively. “Our League clientship has been trouble from the start,” the younger man told her with quiet intensity. “So many rules they insisted we follow—just excuses to impose extortionate penalties, gain control bit by bit. But we never expected it to go this far. Interpret the rules differently and they steal your children?” he went on with rising volume. “Burn your houses, kill your families?”

This was a dangerous time to play to the crowd. “I’m sure no one is assuming the loss of life—either human or Aksash’sk—was intentional,” Madeleine countered, using a tone of gentle implacability developed over more than a century of motherhood and politics.

Sato calmed under her gaze. “Certainly, it was a tragedy. But the Aksash provoked it.”

Madeleine’s Denzeuur colleague, Rabnaara Vutiiri, flipped his head up and over on its swanlike neck to face the governor. The quadruped’s pear-shaped body was front-back symmetrical, and the vertical symmetry of his head let it function either side up. To human eyes, it was a disarming trait, and Rabnaara used it cagily. “That’s one way of looking at it,” he observed in his soft clarinet voice. “But every point of view has its flip side.” He blinked his loris-like eyes and waggled the sunburst of whiskers around his broad, lavender-furred face. Madeleine smirked. Denzeuur were subtle, shrewd people, good at putting others at ease . . . and off their guard.

Sato faltered a bit. “Even if the Nocturnes had a case about our alleged violations, it wouldn’t justify kidnapping. Or precipitating an incident that claimed lives. The Akisu are the criminals here.”

Madeleine’s gaze subtly chastised him for the racial slur, the Japanese word for “sneak thief.” “Who did what, and why, is a matter for our investigation,” Madeleine replied. “But it would surely be a crime to let our anger spark a war.”

“Is that all you see?” One protestor stepped forward: a tall woman, bronze-haired with epicanthic green eyes. “Some cold exercise in galactic strategy? Are our children just variables in an equation to you?”

“Claire . . .” the governor cautioned. “Ambassador Kamakau, Mediator Vutiiri, this is Claire Takeuchi-san. Her Shannon-chan is one of the prisoners.”

“I’m sorry for you,” Madeleine said sincerely.

Claire was unmoved. “Of course you are,” she scoffed, looming over the ambassador. “The pain of a small colony out in the boondocks matters so much more to the Planetary Commonwealth than your vital trade arrangements. What do you plan to do? Buy peace with our children’s lives?”

“There’s no reason to believe their lives are in danger,” Madeleine tried to reassure her.

“You face down an Axe charging you with bloody claws and tell me that. You watch your house burned down, your daughter get ripped from you by those claws, and tell me that!” Her rhetoric began agitating the crowd. Reluctantly, the governor nodded to the guards to escort her away. “This isn’t some diplomatic puzzle, this is about family!” Claire called out.

“Don’t sell our children!” a protestor cried in sympathy. The crowd readily picked up the chant.

Rabnaara stroked Madeleine’s back, seeking calm as much as offering it. “Don’t listen to her. If she had any idea how many children you’ve raised . . .”

“It’s all right, Rab.” Madeleine understood how the young mother felt. Modern medicine and relativistic starflight had brought her through more than two centuries with her Polynesian features unlined and her meter-long hair still shimmering black, save for the well-cultivated white streak emerging from her left temple. But outliving great-great-grandchildren made one feel one’s age.

*   *   *

The Denzeuur who met them within the Nocturne League compound (dimly lit as a symbolic compromise between nocturnal and diurnal negotiators) was larger, longer-furred and brighter-hued than Rabnaara, looking just a bit too perfect and engineered. Madeleine recognized that this was a native of the species’ birthworld, Toraam. “I am Mufii-kalaa, Senior Negotiator, native to the argosy Holy Reciprocity,” the Toraau bass-fluted. Mufii and Rabnaara greeted each other with ritual grooming, but Madeleine sensed veiled tension in Rab’s body language. The Toraau had chosen to become asexual, factory-grown organisms, anathema to the family-centered value system of Rab’s far-flung colony, Taarzerek. And to Madeleine’s own, come to that, but she had more experience with keeping her objectivity.

Despite her extensive experience with xenosophonts, Madeleine felt an instinctive chill when the Aksash’sk emerged from a shadowed doorway. They were fearsome beings, theroid pack-hunters built like raptor dinosaurs with bulbous fishy eyes, a spiked fin cresting the bristle-haired skull, and a snapping-turtle beak with snake tongues writhing from the corners. Madeleine wondered if her heat pattern was as disquieting to the Aksash’sk’s infrared vision. Well, maybe their tongues would savor the scent of the Cybelene flower in her hair.

The lead Aksash’sk stepped forward. “Rha Tak Ch’kihha,” Mufii introduced him, rendering the barks and snaps with their approximations in Denzeuur phonetics. “Senior Arbiter of the High Business Council of Aksash.” A specialist from the homeworld. Not regular League? It was sometimes hard to tell where Aksash left off and the League began.

Ch’kihha’s tongues probed Madeleine’s breath as the human introduced herself. Not that Madeleine Kamakau needed introduction—Mother of the Mars Republic, Midwife of the Planetary Commonwealth, bringer of warp cages to the Nocturne League, moderately acclaimed poet and linguist, written about in countless history texts and still around to correct most of the distortions . . . or cultivate the ones which suited her. But there was nothing an Aksash’sk negotiator loved more than overconfident prey across the table. She gave her name with unaffected modesty.

Once the introductions were past, Ch’kihha lowered his head in submission to an unseen superior. “May the Higher Powers bless this exchange and bring satisfaction to all parties,” read the translation text in Madeleine’s retinal HUD, supplementing her own interpretation of the language. “May both sides gain profit and enlightenment in equal balance.”

They sat on cushions around a low table, accommodating Nocturne anatomies as well as Daikokujin customs. “First,” Ch’kihha opened, “we express profound regret at the loss of life on both sides. The Nocturne League exists to promote balanced exchange and satisfaction, thus to eliminate the causes of conflict. Know that we are committed to understanding how the process failed here, so that such failures will not recur.”

“We have confidence in that commitment,” Madeleine said smoothly, “and share it. We look forward to working together to discover what caused this tragic misunderstanding and to arrive at a peaceable resolution.”

Ch’kihha’s tongues swept across his eyes—the Aksash’sk equivalent of a blink. “Your offer is gracious, but the Arbiters’ Branch is thorough and efficient. We are prepared to present our findings now.”

“Excuse me,” Madeleine replied. “It was our understanding that this was to be a joint investigation.”

“Daikoku is a signatory to the Nocturne Code of Mercantile Ethics and Standards,” the Arbiter declared. “We have the authority to investigate and punish Code violations.”

Sato bristled. “This isn’t a business deal! Petros and Midori Makarios died in that fire—and their boy Teruo is still missing! Is he one of your prisoners, or did you murder him too?”

“The fire was started by human agitators resisting our punitive action!”

“My people were defensively armed with whatever was available, including arc welders and other tools. The fire would never have happened if you hadn’t decided to steal our children. Let’s not forget—Nishimori Kenji’s death came at Aksash claws! A death so brutal there was no way we could reverse it with the resources we have here.”

“We defended ourselves,” Ch’kihha hissed, his tail lashing with suppressed anger. “The first kill was yours.”

Madeleine turned to Sato. “Is this true?”

Some regret showed through his anger. “It wasn’t deliberate! We . . . the Aksash are from a Jovian moon. Their bones are more fragile. And then the fire engulfed the . . . the body . . . and there was no chance for revival. Kenji-san was no killer. He was a father fighting to protect his little girl from creatures who wanted—”

“You’ve made your point, Governor,” Madeleine advised, softly but irresistibly.

Mufii-kalaa’s head craned forward. “Agreed . . . recriminations for the past cannot help us build a better future. We of the League seek balance in all things. There is blood enough on both sides of the ledger, so let us call it balanced and close it for good.”

“Very wise,” Rabnaara purred. “We should focus on the future. On our children, who are our future.”

“Thank you, Rabnaara,” Madeleine said. He’d expressed her thoughts perfectly. “The children are the real issue here. Our first priority is to verify the safety of the hostages and assure—”

“Hostages?!” Ch’kihha was on his feet, neck thrusting toward her. Madeleine yelped and fell back off her cushion. “How dare you? Taking what someone already has, to offer in trade for more of what they have . . .” He growled disgustedly, his claws twitching. “It is unbalanced! Shameful! Do you take us for barbarians?!”

Ashamed of her moment of panic, Madeleine strove to regain her center along with her seat. “Forgive . . . my misunderstanding, Arbiter. No offense was meant. But then . . .”

“We acted in the children’s interest,” Ch’kihha went on, anticipating her question. “Rescued them from the criminal irresponsibility of their own community. Now, raised by our finest brooders, they will have the best of care, education, and opportunity.”

“Call it what it really is,” Sato challenged. “Slavery, pure and simple!”

“In fact, your children have a noble destiny before them,” Mufii-kalaa interposed. “We do not blame the Daikokujin for your failure to understand our Code and abide faithfully by its wisdom. Adjusting to alien values can be difficult and confusing.

“But human children raised within the Nocturne League will be able to internalize our principles and relate them to our human clients in terms they can appreciate. The children of Daikoku will be the bridge between League and Commonwealth, bringing a new era of understanding and peaceful commerce.”

“That’s a commendable goal,” Madeleine said carefully. “Surely many would volunteer for such a project.”

“The proposal was made,” Ch’kihha said. “Our terms were rejected.”

“They amounted to the same thing,” Sato protested. “Separating us completely from our own children!”

“While we salute your high ideals,” Rabnaara said to the arbiter, “your choice is regrettably based on a misunderstanding. The effect of separating children from their families cannot be positive.”

“The commitment of the Taarzeuur to their system of genetic bonds is well-known,” Mufii-kalaa replied. “But the wise being adapts to each situation, reversing where needed.”

“In general, a sound philosophy.” Both Denzeuur grew smoother and more polite with each sentence. Madeleine could tell they despised each other. “But my esteemed counterpart from Toraam has perhaps forgotten that there is . . . asymmetry . . . in matters of family. Parents cannot reverse themselves if it takes them away from their young.”

“Guiding the development of a new mind is a task of unmatched importance and delicacy. Surely it is best pursued by highly qualified personnel. These children will be in the hands of Aksash’sk brooders, a sex solely dedicated to the nurturing of young, and of Toraau educators with centuries of practical experience.”

“Children need more than skill and experience,” Rabnaara insisted, his whiskers gone rigid. “Take away the bond of family and you destroy a part of them.”

“Does the mere fact of contributing genes to a child automatically make one an expert in childrearing? If so, how could there be abused children, neglected children, children raised without proper moral guidance?”

“How can there be love when offspring are made to order in a lab?”

Madeleine laid a hand on Rabnaara’s arm, halting his achingly civil tirade. “Gentlebeings,” she addressed the room, “I don’t think any of us intended this first meeting to be an intensive debate. Perhaps we should adjourn to absorb tonight’s discussion and prepare our cases.”

Ch’kihha made a thoughtful sound in the back of his throat. “You will download our findings for review. After sufficient time for study, we will reconvene to clarify any confusion.”

“Meanwhile,” Mufii-kalaa injected, “we will take your concerns about the children under consideration.” In the wake of the negotiator’s prior statements, the concession highlighted the Denzeuur knack for compromise.

“Yes,” seconded Ch’kihha after a moment’s thought. “You have a right to be reassured of your children’s well-being. We will prepare for discussions on this point.”

Now if only Madeleine could decipher what it meant. Might they be willing to negotiate the children’s release after all? And if so . . . what price might they demand?

*   *   *

The human young were still huddled in their chamber when Ch’kihha entered the brooders’ compound at his alpha’s side. Sh’thai, the senior brooder, approached them with a drooping neck and tail. She was larger than the males and females whose seed she carried to term. Her body hair was thick and soft and her fingers unclawed, the better to handle the cubs she reared. “They still do not let us near,” she said to Alpha Kh’tlau. “They must have been so neglected, with no brooders to care for them. How can we help them heal when they fear we will eat them?” She absently shooed a cub away from the four mammaries on her belly.

Ch’kihha had been uneasy about bringing brooders and cubs into this dangerous situation. But Rha Kef Kh’tlau hadn’t wanted to show fear by splitting the pack. She had also insisted that the human children belonged in the care of Pack Rha, not some obscure Leaguer pack in the outmarches.

“Perhaps,” Mufii-kalaa ventured, “my argosy should take them. There are many Denzeuur there. We can pronounce their speech, and their children are usually comfortable with us.” Mufii and the Aksash’sk spoke in their respective dialects of Nocturne Trade Language, differing only in phonetics. “And if the goal is to teach them the ways of the League . . .”

“The goal,” interposed Kh’tlau, “is to teach them the Holy Code. Better done where the Code was born than among mere followers.” The Alpha’s taut, golden-skinned frame was adorned in the finest kilt and jewelry, befitting her status and offsetting her small size.

“Ahh, but the majesty of the Holy Code is such that it glows as warmly even far from the hearthworld. And seeing it in action—”

“Would expose them to alien ways. Confuse them. They must know the pure Code before they face the chaos it would tame.”

Mufii hesitated. “Of course. I unwisely assumed that, since generations of our kinds raised in the argosies have matured without such confusion, these human children would necessarily do the same. Thank you for . . . reminding me of the wisdom which springs from the hearthworld alone.”

“Still,” Sh’thai mused, “Mufii-kalaa can speak their language, and thus perhaps could reassure them.”

Kh’tlau peered skeptically at the Toraau but finally gestured approval. “Do it.”

“As always, we Leaguers are at your command,” Mufii replied before moving into the humans’ chamber, seeming quite eager to retreat. Ch’kihha admired the enthusiasm with which the negotiator followed orders.

The human children seemed to benefit from Mufii’s visit. Before long, some snuggled against the Toraau while others made those staccato pant-hoots they used for social bonding, baring their omnivorous teeth. Kh’tlau bore the aggravating sound, studying the children solicitously. “We should take them to Aksash now. Severed from their past, they will adjust better.”

“That would provoke a fiercer response,” Ch’kihha cautioned.

The Alpha growled in assent. “Yes. I fear them, Tak,” she confided, rubbing her side against his for comfort. “Undisciplined, violent creatures.”

Ch’kihha entwined his tongues tenderly with hers. Kef had fought her way from runt to Alpha through sheer force of will, and she never showed weakness to anyone save Ch’kihha and the brooders who’d raised her. He cherished her trust. “Our wars were fiercer,” he reminded her. “We are more implacable.”

“That is how we ended war! Once committed to peace, we never let go. These half-foragers lack our constancy. They end their peaces as easily as their wars.” She barked in contempt. “And what is their peace based upon? ‘Equality’—a random assignment of tasks with no regard for innate suitability. ‘Charity’—the free sharing of plenty with nothing in return. As unbalanced as taking by force! It must surely collapse back into savagery. And they may drag us down with them. Look how they’ve disrupted the League already!”

Ch’kihha shook once, convulsively. “Sapients’ blood on good Mercantilists’ claws . . . this is much to atone for. We dare not revert to what we were.”

Kh’tlau’s thick tail lashed against his, and Ch’kihha tried to wrap his own tail around it, soothing its convulsions. “We must bring them Holy Mercantilism,” his matriarch and mate went on. “The way of true balance can tame their souls, as it tamed ours. Can’t it?”

“Of course,” Ch’kihha reassured her, clasping her hands. “The Higher Powers command peace throughout the Universe. All will bow to their loving wisdom in time.”

*   *   *

Shannon Takeuchi, at the venerable age of eight standard years, had found herself accepted as leader and spokesperson by the younger children. So she strove not to cower before their fearsome captors or the perpetual dark. Still, it was a relief to cuddle up against the Denzy’s soft purple fur. “Why are you on their side, Mufii-san?” she asked, peering up at those big round eyes. “You’re nice. You should take us back home.”

“I’m on your side as well,” Mufii told her. “Take it from a Denzy . . .” and Mufii’s head flipped over to address a boy opposite her, “there’s more than one side to everything.”

The children laughed. “How do you do that and still see right-side-up?” seven-year-old Nishimori Hiro asked.

Mufii blinked. “The sky is up. My feet are down. It’s not so hard to keep things straight when you turn onto a new path. You just have to keep track of yourself. If you all do that, you’ll do fine in your new lives.”

“But we want our old lives!” Shannon said. “We don’t wanna live with the Axes.”

“They’re scary,” Hiro whined.

“I understand,” Mufii assured him. “Sometimes they can scare me too. They even scare themselves.” The children reacted with disbelief. “Yes, they do. That’s why they try very, very hard to be good and just and peaceful. They developed a wonderful Code for living in peace. They saw that fighting comes when one person has something another doesn’t have—when they’re out of balance. But if one takes what the other has and gives nothing back, the imbalance continues and causes more fighting. So the only way to stop fighting is to create balance: For everything you take, you give something back. For every wrong you do, you must do something to set it right. The people who lived by this Code instead of fighting found they were happier and richer, and so they convinced others, until eventually they’d all stopped fighting.”

“I don’t believe that,” one boy challenged.

“It’s true. They fought because their instincts drove them to—but they didn’t really like it, because they also have an instinct for order and efficiency. War is messy and wasteful, so they were glad to give it up when they found a better way.

“Tell me—in the weeks you’ve been here, have any of them tried to hurt you?”

“No . . . I guess not,” Shannon admitted. “But the other ones did. Took us, fought our parents. My house burned down.”

“And who saved you from that fire? Who healed your burns?”

She looked away. “The Axes.”

“They only tried to help you. They feared your parents weren’t giving you the attention you need or helping you learn the right things. They tried to change things, but your parents refused. When they came to rescue you, your parents fought back and hurt them.” Mufii paused before continuing. “It . . . was your parents who started the fire.”

Some of the children were crying now. Shannon was confused, distraught. Mufii held her closer. “The brooders only want to help you. Give them a chance. Their whole job in life is to take care of children’s needs.”

“You mean,” Hiro dared, “they have to do what we say?”

Mufii waggled his whiskers. “I mean they’ll protect you and guide you and always be there for you. They’ll never ignore you or send you away because they have ‘more important’ things to do.

“And they’ll teach you the way of peace, so that when you grow up you can bring it to your people, so they’ll always treat each other right and not start any more fights.”

“You mean we can see our parents again?”

“In time. When you’re all grown up and they can’t boss you around anymore.”

Mufii stood, gingerly dislodging the children. “Let me bring Sh’thai, the head brooder, in here. You can start to get to know each other.”

“Hai,” Shannon finally conceded. “But could you get them to turn up the lights?”

“They’d like to, but it’d hurt their eyes. Mine, too.” Mufii stroked her hair soothingly. “Trust me. Once you get used to it, you’ll find the darkness very comforting.”

*   *   *

“Is there any real chance the Makarios boy is alive?” Madeleine asked Sato as they neared the geshuku where the diplomats were lodged.

“We can only hope. The local wood burns very hot. But we found Teruo-kun’s DNA in the ruins, and no clear traces outside. We’ve made repeated demands to know his status, but they won’t answer. I believe they killed the boy and are trying to cover for it.”

“There are many reasons for keeping silence,” Rabnaara observed. “Especially in a negotiation.”

“Negotiation!” The disbelieving echo came from Claire Takeuchi, the protestor from the embassy, whose presence in the geshuku’s entranceway was decidedly not a startling coincidence. “So you admit that you’re negotiating with the Axes. Using my daughter as a bargaining chip.”

The Denzeuur pulled back reflexively from her anger. “Rabnaara didn’t mean that,” Madeleine reassured her. “He was simply making an observation about Nocturne motivations. We have to understand how they think if we’re to find a solution to this crisis.”

“Oh, of course. Madeleine Kamakau’s legendary rapport with nonhuman cultures. No one relates to them better—so no one’s more likely to give in to their agendas.” She turned to Rabnaara. “Except maybe a scavenger who’s better at dodging and retreating than standing up for a cause.”

“Claire, you’re angry; that’s understandable. But it won’t do any good if you turn it against those who are here to help you.”

“‘Angry?’ I don’t know where my daughter is, what’s being done to her. Can’t you understand that?!”

“I understand being a mother, Claire.”

“How long ago? A hundred fifty years or more? Oh, I know all about your life story. My husband’s always telling Shannon about the exploits of his great-to-the-eighth granny.” Satisfaction shone in her eyes as Madeleine’s quiet poise slipped for the first time. “That’s right, Ambassador. We’re family. Your own flesh and blood is in Aksash claws. So what are you going to do about it?”

Madeleine refused to let her shock show. She’d learned too much discipline over decades of delicate interactions with unfathomable minds, whether children or xenosophonts. She wouldn’t give Claire the satisfaction of breaking that down.

No. Best not to think of her in that way. Claire was family, after all. And certainly a part of Madeleine’s soul was screaming for her to liberate her flesh and blood from danger. She wanted to reach out, to share those feelings with Claire and help her work through them.

But an audience was forming. These people were on edge, yearning to do something that might slake their rage. If she showed sympathy with Claire’s desire for action, it might be the pebble that started the avalanche. She had to play this like a professional.

“Right now, Claire,” she said with a calm that was pure façade, “I’m going to get a good night’s sleep. Then I’m going to talk to the Nocturnes and find a way to bring our children back peacefully. I’m sure the last thing any of us wants is more blood on our hands.”

That scored points with the crowd. They were genuinely ashamed of regressing to violence, even Claire. But her descendant recovered quickly. “Of course nobody wants that. The question is, how much will you sacrifice to avoid it?”

“Easy, Claire-kun,” Sato urged. “I promise you, we will get Shannon and the others back. We won’t surrender them, for any reason.”

“You can’t make that promise for the Commonwealth, Governor.”

“They’re only here to arbitrate. This is our world, and our crisis to solve. I’m watching out for your interests, you know that.” Sato turned her around with a gentle hand. “She’s right about one thing—you should try to get some sleep. All of you.” His sympathies may have lain with the crowd, but he had no desire to see more chaos erupt in his community.

But as Sato led Claire away, she turned back for a parting shot. “Go ahead and get a nice, cozy sleep, obaa-sama. Why not? This is just some abstract problem in interspecies relations to you. You’ve been living with aliens so long you’ve forgotten how to be a human being, let alone a mother!”

Once they were alone in the lift, Madeleine sagged against Rabnaara. “That was cruel of her to say,” he fluted, stroking her shoulders.

“She’s young, angry. And she loves her daughter desperately. To see me so stoic about . . .” She took a shuddering breath. “I can’t blame her for hating me.”

Rab nuzzled her in commiseration. After a moment, he met her eyes and asked, “Now that you know . . . does it change anything?”

“No. My family or anyone else’s, I’m here to get them back.” She recovered her balance as they exited the lift. “But it means Claire is family too. I should’ve handled it better.”

“I felt you were admirably controlled. You could hardly have anticipated this.”

“Are you kidding? I’ve had twenty-six children, starting more than two centuries ago. I’ve been estimated to have over four million direct living descendants.”

Rabnaara showed his admiration openly. “I pray the Mother and Father will let my line be so fecund.”

She grew wistful as they entered their suite. “But maybe it’s been too long since I was a mother. I keep meaning to go back to it . . . but the one time I tried, on Taijitu, it didn’t work out.” The rejuvenation treatments for her reproductive system had been the easy part. But in her eagerness for motherhood, she hadn’t chosen her husband well, and he’d proven unwilling to share her with her diplomatic obligations. “Maybe Claire’s right. Maybe I’ve grown too detached from family, from humanity. Forgotten how to care for my own.”

“I can’t believe that,” said Rabnaara as he knelt on his futon. “You left for your heirs’ sake, so they could finally take leadership of the clan as they deserved. And ever since, you’ve worked for the safety and enrichment of your extended family throughout human space.”

She smiled—his admiration of her as a maternal figure was endearing. “But at what cost?” Settling in against the slope of his warm, furry torso, she told him, “I miss it, Rab. I miss motherhood so much. But everybody’s always coming to me with another world to explore, another bridge to build, another fire to put out. I’m kept too busy being everyone else’s mother.”

Madeleine grew quiet, thinking. “But I made a beginner’s mistake tonight,” she admitted. “Calling the children ‘hostages.’ I was unthinkingly defining what they’d done as a terrorist act.”

“That’s how many see it.”

“But I should’ve known better than to judge. There are even human precedents, like the Ottoman Empire’s devshirme system.” She sighed. “I guess I’m as scared for the children as anyone else is. And it’s affecting my judgment.”

“Don’t worry.” He stroked her hair with a knobbly palm. “You’re . . . not the only one whose reputation for tact suffered tonight.”

She smiled sympathetically. “You and Mufii-kalaa . . . that was practically a brawl.”

“The Toraau have no love of family. A child is simply a replacement you order when an old cog in the machine goes away or dies. I wish they’d altered their genes more, because I’m ashamed to be related to them at all.”

“And here I thought you were so good at seeing every side of a question.”

Rabnaara met her gaze frankly. “Just because Denzeuur are good at sudden changes of direction doesn’t mean we abandon our basic goals. We’re circumspect with other species as a survival trait, but within our own kind, conflicts can be more overt.”

Madeleine nodded. The Denzeuur’s one asymmetry was between the legs: reproduction at one end, elimination at the other. Their ambivalent sense of bodily direction created confusion between the two functions and a set of sexual hangups that dwarfed even the human variety—and commensurately intense conflicts between the sexual mores of different Denzeuur societies. If anything, it was amazing that the Denzeuur worlds were able to coexist as Nocturne League clients at all. Perhaps the Code really worked as advertised.

“Luckily,” Rab went on, “since we never developed hunting instincts or weapons, we never redirected them into warfare.”

“No . . . you settled for espionage, sabotage, blackmail, poisonings. . . .”

“I never said we were saints. Just that we don’t make as much of a mess as you predator types.”

“Armchair sociobiologist,” Madeleine teased. “There’s more to it than hunting, you know,” she went on more seriously. “What would you do if someone tried to take Dilaasi or little Kuuvaara from you?”

Rabnaara paused—not because the answer was elusive, but because it was so potent. “Anything I could.”

“The Aksash’sk badly miscalculated. Maybe it’s a symptom of their segregation of gender roles—the ones making and enforcing the decisions aren’t the ones rearing the children.”

“Isn’t that somewhat judgmental?”

“Frankly, Rab, I feel judgmental. I hate what they did. If I were still as young as Claire, I’d hate them for doing it.” She sighed. “I wish she could understand—I feel the same things she does. But this whole tragedy happened because passions got out of hand, because we let our mutual fear and tension drive us to strike out.

“There’s too much at stake to give into those tensions. I can’t let myself make any more mistakes.”

“Remarkable,” Rab fluted. “You can decide whether or not to be fallible? What an extraordinarily useful talent your evolution has blessed you with.”

She laughed and snuggled up against him. Life without children was lonely, but it meant a lot to have such a friend.

*   *   *

“An exchange of students is an admirable idea,” Madeleine told Arbiter Ch’kihha the next day. “Certainly we could institute such a program. But shouldn’t it be a balanced exchange, with both peoples enrolling students?”

Kh’tlau hissed in frustration. “You bleed our words of meaning! Your minds are like your eyes, seeing only the surface!” It was common enough for the Alpha to join the negotiations at this phase, but Madeleine couldn’t help thinking that it had gone more smoothly without her.

Ch’kihha issued an untranslated bark, causing his matriarch to subside—a reminder that, although she led the pack, diplomacy was his domain. “We have explained this,” the Arbiter said. “The exchange was balanced. The Daikokujin’s persistent violations demanded punitive response. The League’s sanction was at once appropriate and ultimately constructive. Rejecting their judgment can only bring imbalance and renewed danger.”

“The only thing we’re guilty of is trying to become self-sufficient,” Sato insisted. “They kept manufacturing new ‘regulations,’ reinterpreting their Code to keep us dependent.”

Kh’tlau hissed. “We do not twist sacred law on whims. You misunderstood it, complained when corrected, then willfully defied it.”

“Translation can be an inexact science,” Mufii-kalaa interjected. “However, there were clear instances of defiance on the Daikokujin’s part.”

“We resisted their efforts to impose import quotas, to force us to buy things we didn’t need. We’re too busy building a world to have much time for luxuries. But they pressure us to waste resources and effort on pointless trade.”

“Pointless!” Kh’tlau exclaimed. “You are intractable. No wonder you have brought us to the brink of war!”

“We have?”

“Governor.” Madeleine’s soft voice overwhelmed the shouts. The others quieted instantly. “It seems to me that commerce isn’t always about material needs. The League worlds could exchange information and manufacturing patterns by laser if it were that simple. Physical trade between the stars is more about the intangibles—the value of the rare and exotic, the skills and perspectives of individuals, or the power of trade itself as a form of cultural expression. In human cultures, like Imperial China, trade has often been the basis of diplomacy. The material profit or loss has been considered secondary to the maintenance of good relations.

“To the Aksash’sk, peace is secured by a bond of interdependence in much the same way. Like Earth’s Iroquoian peoples, they see the severing of trade ties as a severing of diplomatic ties, a breach of trust—practically a declaration of war.”

That gave Sato pause, but only for a moment. “I know my Earth history too, Ambassador. China’s trade was not just about ‘diplomatic ties,’ but about exacting tribute and submission to the Emperor. That’s what the Nocturnes want from us—acknowledgment of their dominance. Oh, the early argosies gave no hint of it. But once they got us comfortable, then the higher officials came in and started treating us like imperial subjects. There’s a deeper agenda at work here, and we can’t afford to overlook it.”

“The governor has misinterpreted,” said Mufii-kalaa. “The argosies have always faithfully represented the intentions of the League authorities and the homeworlds.” The negotiator seemed to be trying to assure the Aksash’sk as much as their Commonwealth counterparts. “The League is not an empire, but a system for cooperation between worlds. A stable relationship requires a commonly accepted set of guiding principles. Naturally we in the League always seek to clarify and promote those principles.”

“Tell me,” Rabnaara ventured, “have argosies in the past ever . . . confiscated the children of a client people?”

“Each client relationship requires unique solutions,” Mufii responded smoothly. “There is precedent for offering convicted criminals rehabilitation through our interstellar labor exchange.”

“But these aren’t criminals,” Sato protested. “They’re innocent children.”

“In this case,” said Ch’kihha, “the intent was to penalize the parents. And to protect the young from their . . . negative example.”

Sato barely held his anger in check. “What gives you the right to decide how our children should be raised?”

“Children belong only to the future. We have taken them under our care so they may bridge our cultures and create a better future. Few penalties bring such honor.”

Madeleine leaned forward to catch the arbiter’s gaze. “That will bring small comfort to parents whose children have been wrenched away without their consent. Speaking as a mother, I know—that pain will override all objective appraisals or abstract future gains. Even if your charges against the Daikokujin are proven, Arbiter . . . the price you’ve exacted is simply too high. It’s a loss we can never accept.”

“So should we have asked what price they would find convenient? If they could accept it, what would be the point?”

Rabnaara interposed. “This is not the forum for a debate on punitive philosophy. What matters is the well-being of the children. Should they be harmed to punish their families?”

“How often must we say,” Ch’kihha sighed, “that they are in the securest care?”

“No doubt the finest you are able to provide. But even your fine brooders lack the necessary experience with human children to guide their proper social and emotional development.”

“Then the Planetary Commonwealth should provide experts on human child care. We would welcome this.”

“These children have a right to their heritage,” Madeleine countered. “Daikoku is a branch of an ancient culture in which ancestral ties have profound significance.”

“They will be allowed to learn of their ancestral culture. But they will be raised in Nocturne culture, to provide a bridge between us. They will share in our identity, our heritage. Must culture be dictated by genetic lineage alone? If that were so,” Ch’kihha said, “then I would be a holy warrior against Mercantilism, for that is the precedent of my bloodline.”

“I have a proposal, Ambassador Kamakau,” Mufii-kalaa interjected. “We have among us one of humanity’s most experienced and celebrated providers of child care—yourself. Although you gained your experience in a more . . . informal way than, say, a Toraau caregiver, you no doubt acquired a wealth of practical knowledge over decades.” Madeleine forgave the slight. “And today you are a recognized expert in interspecies relations, renowned for your ability to empathize across species lines and build common ground.

“I suggest that you would make an ideal consultant for this project. If you join with us in the care of these children, you can ensure that they receive the proper socialization and care. You can help them develop the skills to negotiate across species and cultural lines. And you can keep Daikoku and the Commonwealth assured that the children are well off. You, Ambassador, could play a key role in building a lasting peace between our peoples.”

Madeleine found herself at a loss for words. Rabnaara came to her rescue. “We . . . request a recess to discuss this proposal.”

*   *   *

“You can’t be seriously considering this,” Sato said. “Letting them keep the children?”

“I am not about to accept that, Governor. But if I agree to consider the possibility, they might let me see the children, determine their well-being. This is how negotiation works—give a little, get a little.”

“You’re not used to dealing with Aksash. To them, business is a sublimation of hunting instincts. And once they take a bite out of their prey, they pursue it relentlessly. Give them a little and they’ll never back down from taking it all.”

“Are our instincts really so different? And have we never overcome them with reason?” She put a hand on his shoulder. “You know I have as much reason as you to want your children back. But making sure they’re safe and well right now is just as important.”

“Madeleine . . .” Rabnaara led her aside as Sato pondered. “What do you plan to say to them?”

“I’ll agree to consider the possibility, if they’ll let me see the children. It’ll be their chance to sell this devshirme project—they won’t pass that up. First rule of sales, get the customer in the door.”

“And you will get to see the children and reassure them that everything will be all right.”

The very thought of it brought relief. “That’s what matters most. All this maneuvering, interstellar politics . . . the children don’t care. They need someone to hold their hands and tell them they’ll be safe.”

“They need someone to mother them.”

“Exactly.”

Rabnaara made an intrigued sigh. “The one thing you miss the most ardently. And you could have it without losing the challenge of building interspecies bridges. How marvelously convenient.”

Madeleine frowned. “Rab, I’m not saying I’ll accept their offer. I just want to visit, reassure the children.”

“And once you get in the door, how hard will it be to resist the sale?” He whispered in her ear, whiskers tickling her face. “Could the children be in better hands than yours? Surely if the Daikokujin knew a human they could trust were looking after their children, it could put them at ease. They might even let you take responsibility for them—oh, with visitation rights, of course, but you could raise them and love them like your own. Be surrounded by two dozen raucous, needy children, always getting into trouble, never giving you a moment’s peace—what could be more heavenly?”

Madeleine laughed—more out of nervousness (and the tickling) than humor. Rab was right—that would be just like old times, simpler times, and she might just sell her soul to have it back. And if Rabnaara could see that, how much clearer would her feelings be in infrared?

“You’re right, Rab,” she sighed. “I’m not . . . I’m not a mother anymore. Someday, but not now.”

*   *   *

“Kamakau has forgotten what it means to be a mother!” Claire's words provoked an angry rumble of agreement from the cluster of parents around her. “She’s selling our children to preserve her precious good relations. Well, I’m not going to lie back for that!”

“But what’s the alternative?” a distraught father asked. “I killed a sophont, Claire. I don’t want to go through that again.”

“Nobody does, Hideaki. Nobody did before. But we still did what we had to when our children needed us.

“And you know what? They still need us. And what are we doing? Being patient. Talking it out. Sitting around placidly like good little civilized people while our babies cry out for us! Well, I for one am fed up with being civilized!” She could feel the crowd’s energy building, feeding her as she fed it. “I say we go in there and take our children back!”

Some of the faces were clearly reluctant, but the pressure of the crowd kept them silent. Only Hideaki spoke in dissent. “Isn’t there another way?”

“Don’t worry. They know now that we’re stronger. They’ll back down once they see how determined we are! That we won’t let anything stand in our way until we get our sons and daughters back home!”

Now the momentum was surging. Claire hardly had to incite them now; they were pulling her along with them, caught up in a tide of relentless action. It frightened Claire, but she embraced it—because the surge would carry her to her precious Shannon.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2016. Twilight's Captives by Christopher L. Bennett

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