Burning the Ladder
by Adam-Troy Castro
Illustrated by Kurt Huggins
Ambassador Porleth Heng considered herself a blessed woman.
Unlike most members of the Confederate Diplomatic Corps, who had indentured themselves to that service out of economic hardship or an ache to escape the terrible conditions on their respective home worlds, she’d been born into wealth on a paradise planet and had no pressing reason to seek advancement for its own sake. She’d just wanted the leadership position she was entitled to, one where she could control people and show how superior she was to them.
With the support of powerful friends, she had built her rise in the Confederate Diplomatic Corps on a series of unchallenging but high-prestige appointments to alien worlds where the local politics were peaceful, the local weather pleasant, and the local stance toward humanity kind and indulgent. They were all essentially places where any important diplomatic work that had needed to be done had already been taken care of years earlier, by people who were more willing to work than she was; places that were shiny and prosperous, and thus places where pretty much all she had to do was enjoy the ambience. They were not places where important decisions needed to be made.
Under such circumstances, she had built herself a sinecure so low-stress it practically qualified as paradise. Indeed, she had so completely established herself at her career pinnacle—head of the Confederate embassy to the advanced peoples of Grethai, situated on a spacious and elaborately landscaped estate overlooking their magnificent capitol. She was able to rule her little fiefdom as absolute unquestioned leader, only occasionally derailing the careers of any indentures who failed to treat her with sufficient deference. One word from her could get some unpolished young idiot reassigned to a world of ice, or one where the embassy was a little shack with an airlock that protected its staff from a toxic atmosphere. It was not something she took pleasure in, but it helped everyone around her remember who was in charge.
She almost never had any trouble.
Again: a very lucky woman.
It was therefore deeply surprising and upsetting to her when her second-in-command, a quite satisfying toady by the name of Felis Harmon, poked his head into her office and said that there was some real trouble coming, from one of her embassy’s more isolated remote outposts.
This was genuinely upsetting, because she’d had other plans for the day, but when he assured her that this really did seem to be an emergency, she followed him up to the stairs to the embassy roof, to face the kind of glorious day that never should have indicated any trouble: a bright sun, a blue sky, the perfume of the local flowers carried by a pleasant breeze. The manifestation of the promised trouble hadn’t happened yet, but the skimmer carrying it was flying in from the southern hemisphere, and the pilot had made it clear that she was arriving with a diplomatic crisis of significant proportions.
Heng wondered, “Exactly what kind of godforsaken incompetence would it take to create a diplomatic crisis on this planet?”
It was a good question. The three-legged, three-armed Grethaians were one of the few races who had genuine affection for human beings, without any cultural points of friction. Grand conversationalists, they were; practically human, which was the greatest compliment in her vocabulary.
“I don’t know,” Harmon said. Something about the local plant life disturbed his sinuses, and he tended to get sniffy whenever outside the Embassy’s filtered air, a disgusting trait that he had somehow never gotten around to treating. “They just say it’s important. They won’t say why.”
“And who was this, again? Who would even have the power to cause a diplomatic incident, all on her own in the middle of nowhere, that would be such an irritation I’d stash them away in such an out-of-the-way place?”
“The trainee,” Harmon replied. “The Cort woman.”
This explained little. Cort may have been an eighteen-year old, who had the colossal bad taste to also be a prodigy—so much a prodigy that her superiors back at New London had put her on the fast Prosecutor track and sent her on this internship for seasoning—but she was also, like so many prodigies, a social irritant whose desperate attempts to prove herself had irritated the living hell out of Heng in record time. (Mediocrities were by contrast much easier to deal with.) Rudely corrected by Cort on a matter of procedure, Heng had ordered her sent to some piece of crap detail on the ass end of the planet, just to teach her some humility, and had not expected to hear back from her until she learned how to grovel properly.
That had been less than a week ago, not enough time to Heng to relent, and so she vowed here and now that if the quiff’s premature return was based on anything less than a crisis, it would be the price of never seeing anything with sunlight, ever again.
As if aware what Heng was thinking, Harmon sniffed, “She says it’s life and death.”
“It better be. When I tell people to get out of my sight, I want them to stay out of my sight.”
“I know. But she’ll be here in a minute.”
Heng cast a longing glance at the towers of Su-Jin, that glorious Grethaian city that was a fit home for someone like herself, at the peak of a long and exemplary if trouble-free career; a place with cuisine that she adored, a culture she had come to love, and friends among the locals who never stopped treating her as what she was, an honored luminary from another world. She regretted not being on a day trip to the mineral baths there, right now, and vowed that as soon as this Cort nonsense was over she would take the rest of the day off and indulge herself in that particular joy. Soon, she promised. If this were just what she remained sure it would be, a young indenture overreacting to a minor problem. Otherwise there would be hell to pay.
And then a tiny speck in the distance drew close, circled the building twice, and lowered itself to a position half a meter above the rooftop. There was only one human being aboard, the intolerable Cort, who as the vehicle came to a stop directed a few words at some presence hidden by the skimmer’s rim, then picked up something and painfully lowered from the vehicle.
She looked like hell.
It was not like she’d been through a war—there were no obvious injuries—but she was pale and red-eyed, and there were dusty streaks on the legs of her affected severe black suit.
She crossed the distance between the skimmer and Heng as if it were entire kilometers through a battlefield and not just the few steps through sunlight, on a perfect and peaceful day.
“Ambassador,” Cort said. Her voice was hoarse.
Heng addressed her by the most disrespectful term she could, the one that emphasized the lease placed on Cort’s services, by their superiors back at New London. “Intern. What’s the meaning of this?”
Cort opened her mouth but appeared unable to find words—a failure that Heng’s brief prior association with the young twit had established abnormal for her. (Among Cort’s many irritating qualities already impossible to tolerate was, normally, an inability to shut up.)
Heng suffered a moment of uneasiness. She found that she did not want to know.
Cort tried again, but apparently changed her mind, and instead just handed Heng an object.
It was a small box made of a distinctive hand-carved wood derived from one of the Grethaian trees. Heng had multiple artifacts hewn from the material in her office, and had broken protocols by telling a relative back in New London to invest in it, on the artifact market that Dip Corps personnel were not supposed to participate in, themselves.
Not expecting much, Heng opened the lid.
And then she gasped and dropped the box to the ground.
* * *
43 HOURS EARLIER:
The air of the remote Grethaian village named Here was acrid from a burning wind that gathered the desert sands and turned every breath into an exercise in filtering grit.
This was not a place meant for human beings like Andrea Cort, but to be fair, it was not an ideal place for most civilized Grethaians either.
Despite the visible biological differences between them and human beings, the species as a whole defined comfort by the same criteria that Homo sapiens did, and thus would have mostly classified this little spot on the map as too dry, too hot, too harsh, and too stingy with food, for comfort to be possible.
The continued existence of the village was at best a tribute to inertia. It was not one of their civilization’s showcase cities, not one of the great achievements of a race that had spread to four solar systems totaling thirty planets and moons and artificial habitats in space. On a world that was a showplace, this village remained a primitive dump, depressing without a stop at quaint, off-putting without the appeal of the exotic. That it still existed was due to a phenomenon also observed of humanity: that any future they built arrived unequally, leaving some places to languish in medieval times even as others touched the stars. This settlement’s access to a well must have once made it an important if unlovely destination for primitive Grethaian caravans traveling in or out of the hostile wastes. But the village now existed in an era where there was no need of caravans to cross the desert; where there were flying machines capable of crossing those wastes in hours; it was living anachronism. And yet, a little less than two hundred descendants of the village’s original settlers still lived here, in the poverty that had permanently moved in when their home’s historical function as important stop for travelers had moved out.
The buildings were low, stone things the same color as the dust they rose from. Many were crumbling or poorly patched. The streets were dirty and soiled by the fossilized dung of pack animals. It was the height of the day now, and every resident was inside their homes, in part because local conditions made it sensible to pursue a work schedule of early morning and early evening, and in part because of a local religious holiday that Andrea Cort had been told about, but completely forgotten.
As she strolled through the dusty streets, its sand erupting in boot-high clouds with every step she took, the only visible movement came from droges, scrawny and sick-looking predators, knee-high to a human, that scavenged in the narrow places between the squat houses. They were inhabitants of the desert’s edge, who subsisted on the six-legged lizard-things that subsisted by digging for insects. The droges would have made a happier living a few kilometers further away, where the conditions were milder and where there was more food to fight over; but this particular pack had made its territory the very edge of its species range, and had adapted to the proximity of civilization by learning to eat its garbage. Cort had been warned that these droges were notoriously aggressive pests, and best not approached, but that they would leave her alone if she left them alone. So far in her circuit of Here this had turned out to be true. She caught mere glimpses of a visiting pack of about four, who whenever she drew near backed away with their equivalent of snarls, testifying to the lessons that generations of Grethaians had taught them, by throwing stones.
This did not help her own mood, which was right now, as often during her eighteen years of life, self-lacerating.
What was wrong today was going to be true many times in her life.
She was in trouble and damning herself for being so stupid.
One week earlier, Ambassador Heng had ordered her attached to a medical outpost the Corps had established in this very village fifteen years ago. The assignment was open-ended and, in the absence of an apology to Heng, could very well last years. Cort had the idea that Heng would be perfectly happy if it did. The only way out was a groveling apology on the record, a step Cort had been unable to bring herself to take.
For almost a week now she’d stayed within the walled compound of the outpost and felt sorry for herself, reviewed her studies and felt sorry for herself, dosed herself to incapacity with topical euphoric buzzpatches and felt sorry for herself, all while noting that the two other permanent appointees to this installation, who did not have her easy way out, were not living a life of any greater productivity.
Only this morning did she awake from her latest drugged stupor, her head throbbing, to feel herself teetering on a potentially career-length abyss. Late this morning, she’d used the hoarded three-days-worth of her bathing-water allotment—unlimited at the Embassy, cruelly limited in this desert location—to render herself passably respectable.
Then she’d donned her habitual black suit to go out and take a walk in the sweltering heat.
It was early afternoon by the time she left the compound, and scarcely an hour later by the time she’d completed her stroll from one end of the village to the other, all without encountering a single local resident or feature of interest.
By the time she was on her way back to the compound to dig deeper into her supply of euphorics, she almost wondered if the village was home to any Grethaian at all; all she’d seen was those droges.
But then she heard a Grethaian child screaming.
* * *
Throughout the known universe, the young of most species with voices audible to the human ear emit cries similar to those of a human child.
There are exceptions. There are, in fact, any number of exceptions. Given the diversity of life in the universe, it’s an uncounted teeming number of exceptions. But there is a commonality that has come about because there are multiple evolutionary reasons for young to emit a distress call of that specific pitch. First, because they are smaller and their vocal apparatus are not yet mature enough to have deepened; second, because any unbearable piercing sound increases the chances of adults stirring themselves away from other urgent business in order to intervene; and third, because the urgent message the helpless fling out into the universe can sometimes produce positive results even when transmitted between species. Cross-species pity exists. The ability to inspire it can be a survival mechanism. On some worlds, including humanity’s cradle, piteous cries have led even the most vicious predators to attempt care for their orphaned prey.
On this world, Andrea Cort found the Grethaian child cowering on an overflowing trash bin, where she’d climbed to escape being taken by four droges.
The child was small, wide-eyed, and clad in what amounted to a canvas sack, open at the bottom to reveal a trio of spindly legs ending in bare, clawed feet. Its resemblance to a human of the same developmental age was limited to its upright stance. Beyond that, it had a craggier head, three blacker eyes without a hint of white sclera, three arms around a triangular shoulder structure, and a mouth that opened not using a hinged jaw but instead with an irising mechanism on its pointed chin.
What expressions this head could produce were not at all congruent with a human being’s, but that high-pitched cry of terror had no difficulty crossing the species divide to communicate sheer terror and the universal message, Help me.
Cort didn’t waste any time worrying about why the child was on the street by itself, or why no one of its own kind was bursting from any of the surrounding hovels to help.
Instead, she charged the droges.
They had mutually exclusive responses. The smallest and scrawniest darted away in instinctive panic. Another, who barely noticed the sudden complication, refused to release its grip on the trash bin and hung there, its rear leg scrambling for purchase. A third also retreated, whirled toward Cort, and assumed a defensive posture, snarling. Only the largest by half, a mean looking bastard with rippled burn scars dominating its face and only one out of three intact eyes, advanced to meet the threat.
Cort was not insane. She did not rush in to take them on. She stopped as soon as she knew that she was close enough to seize their attention. She doffed her jacket and held it before her, swinging in it from side to side like a pendulum.
One-Eye advanced, snarling.
Cort took the jacket by a sleeve and turned the pendulum swing into a full overhead orbit.
One-Eye backed up a step, uncertain how to deal with this new phenomenon.
Cort drew closer.
This made her a more compelling threat to the meal the pack had found, and so One-Eye decided that this could not be tolerated. It advanced again.
Cort kicked the beast in its one intact eye.
One-Eye yelped in panic, dropped the sleeve, and fell back, its reaction immediately infecting Stubborn, who also retreated and watched its pack leader in search of a next course of action. Its yelp freed the jacket, which Cort returned to spinning. This time she did not target One-Eye, who had already learned that it could be caught, but Stubborn, who received another stinging impact from the button.
Stubborn was more frightened by the sting than One-Eye had been. It yelped and backed up and waited to see what its leader decided to do.
What One-Eye, who was still blinking from the direct hit on its remaining vision, decided to do was let Cort know how pissed-off it was. It did this by emitting a roar that made Cort go chill with the certainty of her own imminent death. It bared its teeth and snapped, not hitting Cort, but promising all manner of pain. Cort reversed the direction of the jacket’s swing and hit it in the face with an arc that came up from below, driving the animal back.
Cort responded in kind.
“Come on, you piece of shit! Stop putting this off! You think I’m made of time? TAKE ME!”
One-Eye was already fighting a creature that had no business being on this world that its own instincts had not evolved to understand, with a smell that marked it as not good for its kind to eat. It had fought this battle for as long as it had only because it was protecting the prey it had cornered. This sound, clearly not the panic of a defeated prey animal, clearly instead something powered by rage and aggression, was another alien element, and forced a sunk-cost analysis that amounted to a calculation of just how many calories were being expended to claim a meal that might not be worth further combat with an unknown. It made One-Eye waver.
Andrea Cort tried to kick it in the eye again.
In a second all four were gone, abandoning the alley and, judging just from the speed of their departure, the village. Andrea Cort found herself swaying on her feet from the terror she now had the time to feel. She considered putting her jacket back on, but instead turned to the top of the covered bin, where the little Grethai child was still cowering, as afraid of Andrea Cort as she’d been of the things with claws and sharp teeth.
Cort said, “Are you all right?”
The child recoiled.
Cort saw that poor little thing was bleeding from a bite-wound in one arm.
“Come on,” Cort said, aware that the kid almost certainly didn’t speak Mercantile. Maybe her tone of voice would be enough. “I’m a friend. I just want to help you.”
For a few heartbeats, the child remained hostile. Feral, perhaps, in the way that even the children of intelligent species can be, as Andrea Cort, who had been, had reason to know. It struck Cort, as if from someplace far away, that she was looking at the product of an alien society with Juje alone knew what factors contributing to the spectacle of a child no one would save from wild animals; and that she really ought to be satisfied with what she’d already done and not tug on threads she knew nothing about.
Then the child advanced and wrapped Andrea Cort in its arms.
Andrea Cort said, “. . . god damn it.”
Copyright © 2022. Burning the Ladder by Adam-Troy Castro