The V’Dan

50 Books Donated 100 min

AUTHOR’S NOTE

 

 

Jacaranda MacKenzie, ex–Special Forces psychic and polyglot translator, had been requested by former Premiere Rosa McCrary to resign from being the Councilor for Oceania Province, representing hundreds of islands and their multitudes of cultures on Earth. Once she did, however, she found her military commission being reactivated and herself given orders to report to the Tower on Kaho’olawe Island, at the heart of the Space Force.

 

 

One more thing: For those of you familiar with my previous series Theirs Not to Reason Why, you may already know this, but for those who do not, I would like to explain something that has been overlooked by certain readers, which in turn has caused some of them unintended discomfort.

 

Enjoy,
Jean

 

 

CHAPTER 1

APRIL 24, 2287 TERRAN COMMON ERA (C.E.)
DEMBER 17, 9507 V’DAN STANDARD (V.D.S.)
TUPSF EMBASSY 1, V’DAN SYSTEM

 

Getting changed in zero gravity was not easy. Clothing did not “fall naturally into place” but had to be tugged this way and that. Hemlines remained rumpled unless pulled straight and tucked into waistbands and so forth. And a skirt? Forget it. Forget all skirt-like objects in the weightlessness of insystem space. Jacaranda MacKenzie might wish to dress in a formal outfit to properly represent the people of the Terran United Planets, and she had brought skirts for wearing when they were in a gravitied environment, but she was not doing so in zero G.

 

Jst added 100 min to #ProjectReadathon w. @PenguinRandom by reading #TheVdan e 2 support @SavetheChildren #Readwell

 

That meant donning her military uniform. No longer a mere Major, equal in rank to their pilot, Commander Robert Graves, she had been promoted to the rank of Colonel. It was an awkward promotion, but the new, revised regulations on how an embassy should be conducted included the fact that all military operations within that embassy’s jurisdiction had to have civilian oversight.

 

Just as the highest-ranked officers of the Space Force reported to the Secondaire and the Premiere of the Terran United Planets, all of the military personnel headed to V’Dan space had to report to the Ambassador. Which meant she had to outrank all of the personnel who were already assigned, and who possibly could be assigned, to her jurisdiction. By preference, she would defer as quickly as possible to Secondaire Pong and Premiere Callan . . . but should circumstances isolate the embassy, they had to have a clear-cut leader.

 

Jackie didn’t feel like she was qualified, but Rosa McCrary had confided to her in private that she, too, had never felt like she was qualified to lead the military during her tenure as Premiere. Jackie, at least, had military experience. Still, Jackie only had to don her shirt with its silver eagles on the collar points and shoulder boards. She wasn’t the Commander-in-Chief, and she never would be at the rate things were going, and that was just fine by her.

 

They did have an illusion of microgravity on board the Embassy 1, but only because the ship was gradually slowing down in its approach to the planet V’Dan. That meant anyone or anything unsecured had a habit of “drifting” forward into bulkheads and doors. Jackie was somewhat used to zero-gravity maneuvers and could sort of brace herself telekinetically, but that did nothing for hemlines. Or fellow travelers.

 

“Ah, sorry!” Ayinda muttered for the third time as she swayed and bumped into Jackie’s back. “Sorry, Jackie . . . At least we won’t have to deal with this for much longer. Right?”

 

“They did promise us quarantine facilities with full artificial gravity,” Jackie replied, adjusting her pant cuffs. Today’s outfit was a white shirt, black slacks with gray and blue stripes down the outer sides, black socks, and black shoes. Lace-ups, which meant having to fuss with the ties.

 

“Sí,” Maria de la Santoya agreed, speaking in Spanish. “But from what I learned from our guests, the facilities are military-grade at best. No paintings, no cushions, no artworks, no colors . . .”

 

Jackie gave up after a halfhearted try sent her twisting awkwardly. She focused her thoughts while Maria spoke, lacing them telekinetically. Still, the doctor’s words had to be addressed. Sort of.

 

“Speak in V’Dan, Maria,” she reminded the doctor. “We all have to speak it from now on unless we’re talking to the folks back home.”

 

Everyone on this expedition spoke V’Dan, the language of their forthcoming hosts. She and a handful of other telepathic polyglots had spent hours and days transferring the language over and over just to ensure that everyone who came along would be able to speak, read, and write in their host nation’s tongue. Perhaps not with complete fluency, which would only come with practice, but Jackie was good at psychic language transference.

 

They also all spoke Terranglo, obviously, but Jackie had wisely suggested a third language. Maria would have preferred Spanish—Terranglo was predominantly English with some Spanish mixed in—but for security reasons, Mandarin had been selected. Mandarin was not in the least bit related to the European languages underlying Terranglo. The phonetically written form of Mandarin had been transferred in its full to each embassy member, but so had a good chunk of classic ideographic Mandarin as well. That would give them a shorthand way to pass messages with a minimum of writing.

 

“Sorry,” Maria apologized. “I think first in Spanish, not in Terranglo, let alone V’Dan. I’ll be very bored in quarantine when I am not working if the quarters are as dull as we were warned. Unless they exaggerated.”

 

“From what I gathered, they are indeed that dull. We will have the equally dubious joys of learning V’Dan etiquette while stuck in cramped quarters,” Jackie added, sorting through her bags of jewelry. “But I’ve conferred with Rosa on some ways to keep us constructively occupied. Games and such that’ll engage bodies and minds, and our new vocabularies . . .”

 

Adding a necklace was also not a good idea in zero G, but Jackie did have a pin formed from the ideogram for Double Happiness crafted from silver and a rich blue cloisonné. Deciding it would suit the neckline of her blouse, Jackie started to pin it on. An inbound blob of brown and black warned her in time to quickly angle the pin in her hand out of reach even as she flung up her arm to physically cushion the woman drifting her way.

 

“Sorry!” Lieutenant Jasmine Buraq apologized, quickly twisting and grabbing at the nearest handles. “My toes slipped out of the grips when the ship altered speed.”

 

“No harm done, but everyone hold on just in case, while I pin this thing on my shirt,” Jackie said. “I don’t need to go into this first meeting bleeding.”

 

Jasmine twisted around, orienting herself upside down to the other woman. “Let me get that for you, since we don’t have a mirror in here. Centered, right? Got it . . . It goes a little weird with the silver eagles,” she added, her fingers working deftly. “But not too badly. There, centered. At least, upside down.”

 

“I have to remind the grunts somehow that I’m still a civilian as well as their superior officer,” Jackie joked mildly. Her own toes were firmly lodged under a set of handgrips. The ship braked again, though this time to the side, making everything first sway, then feel briefly heavier as their bodies pressed against the ship. She quickly pushed against the bulkhead, then clung to a handgrip when they shifted direction yet again.

 

Commander Robert Graves’ voice came over the speakers in the crew cabin. “Sorry for the rough maneuvers, folks. We’re getting some last-minute changes in our approach vectors from our hosts. ETA to buckle-up time, ten minutes.”

 

“Lock-and-Web, ladies,” Jasmine reminded the others in the crew. There were five guards on this ship, not including herself, three of them women. All of the females floating in the cabin, Jackie included, started packing away everything that was floating and bumping against the cabin walls. It wasn’t as if there was anyone else available to do it; while they were a fairly large expedition compared to the usual skeletal scoutship crews, everyone had to be their own janitor as well as whatever other role they were meant to fill.

 

For safety’s sake, the embassy staff, guard contingent, and their V’Dan guests had been broken up across several ships. Rosa McCrary, former Premiere and Jackie’s backup for the post of Ambassador, was on a different ship specifically in case one of their vessels emerged from hyperspace and smacked into an as-yet-untracked asteroid or something. It was a very, very small possibility given the vastness of space and the fact that they had done some previous astronomical surveys along the route, but nobody wanted to take chances by placing all their important people on one ship.

 

The last time that had happened . . . it had been on the Councilor One. Thanks to the efforts of a criminal with a serious grudge and too much technical knowledge, Jackie’s own grandfather had died, along with a lot of other Councilors, crew members, and even some Advisors. Several safety laws had been enacted since then, some of them common sense, and some of them perhaps a bit redundant and old-fashioned, but ones that had saved lives.

 

The only exception to that rule was placing Imperial Prince Kah’raman Li’eth V’Daania on the same ship as the premiere Terran ambassador, Jacaranda MacKenzie. That was a necessity because Li’eth and Jackie were in the earliest confirmed stages of forming a Gestalt bond, a sort of psychic quantum entanglement of their minds and mental powers.

 

Separating a Gestalt pair brought on mental, emotional, and even physical distress, something the Terrans had learned over nearly two centuries of scientific study of verifiable psi phenomena. It could be done for short distances and for short durations, but that was it. Putting the thirdborn child of the Empress of V’Dan through unnecessary torment was not considered diplomatically appropriate, and so onto the Embassy 1 he went.

 

He, of course, was changing in one of the other long, rectangular cabins, bumping elbows with some of the men. Just as she turned to pull herself out of the crew quarters, Jackie heard with both her ears and her mind his exclamation of pain.

 

“. . . Ai!” (Saints take you!)

 

. . . . ?) Jackie queried. She got an impression of someone’s foot having shoved—accidentally—against his face. At least he knew it was an accident; the soldier’s quick, almost babbled apology was sincere.

 

(I will be deeply grateful for the day when your people install artificial gravity on all your Saints-be-damned ships,) Li’eth groused. (No offense meant; I know you lack our tech, just as we lack yours.)

 

Jackie, mindful of the others waiting for her to move, pulled herself through the doorway and hovered in the middle passage out of the way while Ayinda and the rest scattered to find their assigned docking seats. She had to wait for Li’eth, since she had the aisle seat for their place in the cockpit. Waiting patiently, she could sense him putting away a few last items and latching the cupboards. (None taken, don’t worry. Even I could wish for artificial gravity—whup!)

 

The ship swayed again, and she had to clutch at the handgrips, steadying herself with her mind. The others yelped, and there was at least one thump of flesh into bulkheads that she could hear. Luckily, no one seemed hurt.

 

“Again my apologies, folks,” their pilot called out over the intercom. “Apparently, they’re having to calibrate the automated defenses to accept us as ‘friendlies’ on their Friend-or-Foe targeting programs. That means a lot of quick responses to course changes, to prove we’re willing to go wherever they tell us.”

 

(I could wish your people weren’t at war, so such things wouldn’t be necessary,) Jackie sighed.

 

(You wish it?) he challenged dryly. Pulling himself through the hatchway, he reached out a hand to her. She touched it in brief physical reassurance, then caught his lightly shod foot and helped him angle his way into the cockpit. “Swimming” after him, she pulled herself into the foremost cabin, waited for him to strap himself into his seat, then followed suit.

 

The intercom activated again after three more minutes and two more course changes. “Lieutenant Buraq to Commander Graves; all cabins are secure. I repeat, all cabins are secure. I am the last thing Locked-and-Webbed.”

 

“Understood, Lieutenant. ETA to docking . . . roughly fifteen minutes at this rate,” Robert stated, checking his instrument overlays on the main viewscreen. “But better slow than sorry.”

 

“Better secured than sorry,” Jasmine returned. “Buraq out.”

 

Li’eth, peering through the viewports beyond the transparent piloting screens, pointed. He leaned in close to Jackie, gripping their shared console so that he didn’t twist the wrong way in his seat. “There it is! V’Dan, Motherworld of the Empire . . . if no longer the Motherworld of our race,” he allowed. “That’s the nightside, and . . . from the outlines of all the city glow . . . that’s Ashuul, the main continent of what we call the eastern hemisphere.

 

“The Autumn and Winter Temples are located there. The Winter Palace, too, which is where we’ll be headed after quarantine. Winter came early this year, so you’ll miss out on the autumn holy days, but by the time we get out of quarantine, it should be in time to see the winter festivals getting started.”

 

Ayinda, strapped into the navigator’s seat, pointed slightly to the right of dead ahead. “There it is, people. Dusk Army Station. Our home away from . . . embassy, I guess, since we’re already away from home.”

 

“It’s big,” Brad murmured, peering out the front window. “Very big.”

 

The only reason Brad Colvers was with them was that he had finally agreed to a telepathic language transfer. That the copilot could speak V’Dan was thanks to one of her fellow telepathic translators, Lieutenant First Class Darian Johnston, stepping up to do it for Jackie. Neither she nor the copilot had wanted to merge minds for two to five hours. To his credit, Brad had only taken three and a half hours to make the transfer, half an hour longer than average, and far less than the strenuously resisting five that the V’Dan woman Shi’ol had taken.

 

“Unfortunately, the actual quarantine quarters are going to be cramped,” Jackie reminded the others. She settled her headset over her ear and turned it on to the channel Robert was monitoring. She had already announced their presence in the system two hours ago, when they had been about fifteen light-minutes out from the planet, and had confirmed among themselves the safe arrival of all fifteen Embassy Class ships. Nothing but traffic-lane course corrections reached her ears.

 

The Terran version of quarantine had only needed to deal with just over a dozen people at most: five V’Dan guests, six original Terran crew members, and three additional guests, two pathologists and a psi trainer. Then again, they had primitive wheel-spun space stations that were rather small compared to the bulk of the station that lay almost directly ahead. The V’Dan had more than four hundred years of space exploration and colonization, plus artificial gravity.

 

Dusk Army looked like a hamburger to Jackie. A giant metal hamburger, nothing more than a cylinder ridged and ringed along the sides with sensors and shuttered observation ports in place of the bumps and ridges of meat patties and vegetables, with domes at either end representing the buns. Tiny oblongs of light were windows; even tinier pinpricks were external sources of light. “Anyone know where we’ll be parking?”

 

Her quip was taken seriously. Robert lifted his chin at their destination. “I had a bit of a chat with Docking Control while half of you were still waking up from your prejump nap and getting a meal. They’re not used to so many small ships needing to go into quarantine all at once. They have enough space for this ship and two more of our more normal-sized ships in the quarantine section’s hangar bay, but the rest will have to stack and rack on three docking gantries.”

 

(Stack and rack?) Li’eth asked, glancing at Jackie for enlightenment. (I didn’t even think to ask where all these ships will park, but what does he mean by that?)

 

(These ships have dorsal and ventral airlocks—the ones on the topside and the underbelly normally aren’t used save in an emergency, or for stack and rack parking,) she explained, dredging the details out of her memory. It was from her training days shortly before the Aloha 9 had encountered the Salik warship holding Li’eth and his crew. (In the event of an emergency, a line of ships can be linked up airlock to airlock, each one parking at a right angle to the one below it, belly to back. You can stack them left-right-left-right, or in a left-hand or right-hand spiral, or even nose-to-toes, alternating the opposite way. The tail fin just clears the wings.)

 

(Why do I get the feeling there’s a story behind that design?) Li’eth asked her.

 

(Because you’re getting better at reading subthoughts?) Jackie offered. Her eyes were on the station they were approaching, but her inner thoughts were on her training lectures. (There was a bad case of carbon-dioxide scrubbers on three of the earliest Aloha models. One of them went to the rescue of the other . . . and then their atmo-scrubber broke down, which required calling in a third ship. There was a lot of awkward maneuvering, of coupling and decoupling. None of the hulls were damaged, but all three sets of pilots and copilots complained so much to the design teams that they pulled production on the original models and immediately modified the next generation to include stackable airlocks.

 

(Don’t worry,) she added in reassurance, catching his own subthoughts. (All of those scrubber models were replaced and all of the replacement parts as well, with the new ones triple-checked before being installed. The last of the current Aloha Class came into use round about the time I was recalled to active duty; the rest have been coming off the production line with several other upgrades, too.)

 

(And your people put together fifteen new ships in just a couple of months?) Li’eth asked her, impressed.

 

(It didn’t take that much to redesign the hulls,) she countered. (The airlocks were already a long-proved design left over from modular supply-depot construction. The exact same type of depots we stopped at for resupply on the way here, in fact. Even the 1, here, was already under construction when the hatchways were added for modification. The body’s thicker, the wings a little broader, but it’s still modular construction. The hardest part was rerouting the conduits, and that wasn’t all that difficult.)

 

(Duly noted. I suppose I should remind myself that your ships are a fraction of the size of ours. Ours can take anywhere from half a year to two years to build,) Li’eth admitted. (But then again, they’re a lot bigger, and they don’t make you feel sick each time they travel from star system to star system.)

 

(Plus you get an actual private cabin, rather than a shared one,) she agreed. That in turn conjured up a strong subthought of his, of how cramped the quarters were no doubt going to be.

 

(One hundred ninety-five people are a lot of people to put into quarantine, even if some of them are going to be manning some of those docked ships,) he pointed out. Even he knew that much, that the Terrans were going to keep some of their ships fully crewed and prepared for departure at a moment’s notice during the quarantine period. As soon as they were cleared to depart quarantine and had ferried their personnel to the surface, several of those ships were going to deliver precious telecommunications gifts to other worlds in the known galaxy, while the embassy staff set up and got ready for a formal introduction to the Alliance.

 

(At least we convinced them to put all the psis into their own shared quarters,) Jackie said. Then wrinkled her nose. (At least, I think we got it through to them.)

 

Jackie had brought four other polyglot telepaths with her on this expedition. That had taken away almost half of her people’s most powerful psychic translators. It was deemed necessary, though. With their new potential allies embroiled in an interstellar war, the faster both sides could communicate with each other, the better it would be for everyone involved.

 

Two of them were even xenopaths. Unlike Darian Johnston, whose military commission—like Jackie’s—had been reinstated for this mission, Aixa Winkler had never actually touched a fully sentient alien mind before. Johnston had served for ten years, and had faced down the Greys five times. Winkler didn’t have that kind of experience; instead, she had served for decades as an animal-rights advocate, communing with a wide variety of subsentient minds.

 

Min Wang-Kurakawa was a newly minted junior-grade officer. She had expected to be sent on patrol ships to pay for her secondary career in engineering, being a technosentient psi as well as a polyglot telepath. Clees—Heracles Panaklion—had been included in the embassy not only because he was a polyglot psi, but a Psi League instructor. His official job would be to assess and offer training to any V’Dan psis, being certified for basic instruction in all known branches of abilities with two decades of practice at training and teaching.

 

He had also declared he would be the embassy’s chronicler, hauling along a variety of camera equipment, “. . . to capture the behind-the-scenes history in the making!” Jackie had a hard time imagining where the fifty-two-year-old got all his energy and enthusiasm. He hadn’t been one of her instructors—a case of her living all around the Pacific Ocean, while he had lived and taught around the Mediterranean Sea on the opposite side of the planet—but she had read the glowing recommendations from many of his students, appended to his personnel file.

 

The lowest-ranked telepaths were Johnston and Winkler, but low was comparative. At Rank 9 each, they were sensitive enough to pick up thoughts at a mere touch. Bunking with nonpsis could lead to tensions and troubles whenever roommates might bump into each other, as they invariably would. Fellow psis could shield their own thoughts, true, but even if the mental walls weren’t up, they would be far more understanding and forgiving of any accidental touches leading to accidental eavesdropping.

 

Robert spoke, though not to her. Still, it drew Jackie’s attention back to the actual docking as he chatted with the station’s traffic managers. Dead ahead, the Dusk Army now filled most of the view through the forward windows. Not just the station, but a large, rounded, rectangular set of doors that were sliding slowly open, revealing a well-lit interior.

 

Terran and V’Dan docking technology were not yet compatible, so Commander Graves was having to dock and land manually. Jackie suspected that the “course corrections” on approach were not only for the sake of the insystem defense grid, but to reassure the station’s traffic control center that he would heed verbal directions swiftly and accurately.

 

Her comm station pinged. As the chief pilot, Robert was in constant communication at this point with Dusk Army Traffic Control. That meant this was something else. Jackie noted that it was a video link, and opened the channel. The man who appeared on the screen had both mint- and forest-green stripes along each cheek and a stripe down the center of his scalp, tinting his brown hair. He wore a dark shade of green for his jacket, with grass-green lapels, cut vaguely along the lines of Li’eth’s Imperial Army uniform and decorated with gleaming silver buttons molded in a pattern of some sort of beast, but it was not an actual uniform.

 

She offered him a smile. “Greetings. You’ve reached the communications officer for the Embassy 1. How may we help you?”

 

Hazel eyes narrowing, he frowned at her. “. . . Aren’t you the Ambassador? You look like her.”

 

“That is correct, but until I have disembarked from this particular ship, I am also its comm officer. How may I help you?” she repeated. On her left, Li’eth shifted a little closer, peering at the screen.

 

He gave her a look somewhere between puzzled and dubious. “. . . May I speak with your protocol officer?”

 

“That would be me as well. How may I help you, meioa . . . ?” she asked, using the Alliance term for addressing someone politely. Without a suffix, it was gender neutral and thus considered very polite.

 

“That, Ambassador, is Imperial First Lord Mi-en Ksa’an,” Li’eth stated, leaning in even closer to Jackie. (I know him by sight,) he added quickly, telepathically, (but we rarely moved in the same social circles, for all that he’s a First Tier relative by four generations, if I remember correctly.) Out loud, he added,

 

“Greetings, Ksa’an. Are you still working for the Protocol Ministry?”

 

“Yes . . . Your Highness. It is good to see that you are well. We will need to speak with these Terrans about the proper protocols for welcoming them into the Dusk Army’s containment quarters,” the green-striped man stated.

 

Jackie eyed him. “I am confused as to the need for protocol, Imperial First Lord.”

 

He gave her a skeptical look in turn. “How so, Ambassador?”

 

A sudden shift of the nose of their ship made everything sway forward and down. Robert cursed under his breath and corrected, compensating for the transfer from weightlessness to artificial gravity. It felt like Mars, lighter than it should be. Jackie swayed and clutched at her console, then breathed deep to adjust to the sudden need for supporting her own weight after fourteen days in space.

 

“Please remember that I am not V’Dan and do not understand nor grasp your customs . . . but I would think at this point we are medical patients. Where we come from, all patients are treated equally, save that their needs are based on a triage of who is in need of the most immediate attention. Since we are all healthy as we enter quarantine confinement, the only protocol that should then be followed is a security matter.”

 

“. . . Security?” the V’Dan on the other end of the linked screens asked.

 

“Yes. My head of security wishes for one of our doctors and some of his troops to tour and assess the quarantine facilities before I disembark,” Jackie told him. “This was outlined in the notes we sent through the hyperrelay node at your system’s edge—speaking of which, we have a satellite node ready to deploy. Your people have not yet indicated where you want it.”

 

“That is not my department, meioa,” the protocol lord demurred.

 

“Well, it will give me something to discuss with someone else while we wait for the team to make its assessment sweep. You can arrange that, yes?” she asked him.

 

“. . . Yes.” He didn’t look entirely pleased about that.

 

Jackie chose to address that skepticism with a dose of pragmatism. “My people have a saying. ‘Trust is earned, respect is given, and loyalty is demonstrated. Betrayal of any one of those is to lose all three.’ I believe the speaker was a fellow named Abdelnour from around three hundred years ago . . . This is the ‘trust is earned’ stage, meioa,” she clarified, using the Alliance’s preferred form of address, since she was still a bit unclear on what an Imperial First this or that Lord meant. “My people would like to trust yours, that your facilities are adequate for containing pathogens, and safe for us to live in for the duration of our quarantine stay. However, as this is an incredibly important meeting, my people need direct reassurance that everything is indeed safe.

 

“We would have extended the same courtesy to our guests, save that there were so few of them that it was simply easier to view and demonstrate everything in person, with no security chiefs demanding that their checklists of procedures and requirements be met,” she finished lightly. “There are 195 of us Terrans, and Captain al-Fulan takes his responsibility as our chief guardian seriously.”

 

Indeed, Captain al-Fulan had literal checklists of everything security- and safety-wise that he intended to mark as acceptable or inadequate. She had rolled her eyes when he had first showed them to her, but the captain had explained patiently that he had twelve years of working high-profile security details, including in areas that were dangerous. The Terran United Planets worked hard at representing everyone they could, but there were still pockets of humanity who insisted on rioting, rebelling, and committing acts of violence against each other.

 

Dr. Du would be accompanying him. The pathologist was now familiar with space-station quarantine containment procedures, and intended to study the V’Dan version to make sure they were adequate for her checklists. Jackie had a few checklists of her own, but all of them were in languages other than Terranglo. It wouldn’t be diplomatic to let the V’Dan know what she really thought of the things she observed, right now.

 

As it was, she observed the Imperial First Lord sighing. “. . . Very well. What is the proper protocol among your people for welcoming aboard a military security team?”

 

That, she could handle easily. “As is our military custom, they will ask permission to come aboard, and when it is given, they will expect an introduction to the officer on deck, meaning the person in charge of the hangar bay. Captain al-Fulan will offer a salute in the Terran fashion, since he is a visiting officer. Your people may use the V’Dan version in return, as His Highness has agreed with me that both are meant as a similar symbol of respect. After that, he will introduce Dr. Jai Du, who will accompany his team as they investigate.

 

“They will then expect to be shown all over, have all the basic procedures for safety drills demonstrated, their questions answered, and when the captain says it is safe, the rest of us will begin disembarking and off-loading supplies. At that point, the only thing you need do is have whoever is in charge of the quarantine procedures welcome me aboard as an Ambassador—literally, just say ‘Welcome aboard, Ambassador,’ or however you wish to phrase it—and welcome the others aboard.

 

“At that point, we’ll just expect you to run our people through the safety drills and explanations, show us where to stow our equipment, that sort of thing. Simple and efficient. This is quarantine, after all,” she finished, “not a grand introduction to your Empress. That comes later, and can be conducted with full ceremony at that time.”

 

Ksa’an hesitated, then dipped his head to the side a little. “I will admit I have not done any formal greeting ceremonies under quarantine situations before. It has not been needed in decades. But if you will find no offense in such an . . . abbreviated greeting as you outline,” he allowed, “then that could be acceptable.”

 

“We Terrans will take no offense so long as we are all polite to each other,” she reassured him.

 

“Ambassador, if you are done speaking with their protocol officer,” Robert called out in the pause in their conversation, “we are now safely parked, and Embassy 2 is coming in for a landing behind us.”

 

“Thank you, Commander. Meioa, if we have satisfied the preliminary needs of protocol, I shall contact Captain al-Fulan to let him know he will be free to board the station upon his arrival.”

 

“Of course, meioa—welcome aboard, Grand High Ambassador Maq’Enzi,” he added politely, giving her name a V’Dan twist to its pronunciation . . . and not quite the same one Li’eth had used. The transmission ended.

 

Sighing, Jackie shook her head to clear it and typed in the link to the 2. “Time to let al-Fulan know he can start checking off the items on his lists.”

 

(It’s only going to get worse from here on out,) Li’eth comforted her, in a backwards jesting way. (Our military’s protocols aren’t that much different from your own because so many even of our officers are commoners by birth and etiquette . . . but the civilian sector . . .)

 

She reached over and squeezed his hand gently, letting their intertwined fingers rest on the edge of the console. The gravity was still less than Earth Standard by about two-thirds, but that was understandable, as it no doubt allowed the incoming ships to maneuver with less wasted fuel. On one of her tertiary screens at the bottom of the main trio, she could see an analysis of the molecules on board, more of the same sort of highly complex, potentially toxic petrochemicals the Salik had used. Not exactly an abundant fuel source when compared to clean, pure water, let alone a safe one. She knew that Maria, their chief doctor, was worried about their exposure to those long-abandoned chemicals. Petrochemicals on Earth were synthesized strictly for lubrication and hydraulic needs, not as a fuel source.

 

Aside from certain basic needs, everything was different here. Everything was going to be different in how those needs were met. Some of them were needs the V’Dan simply hadn’t considered but might be able to supply once they were addressed. Some were going to be things they hadn’t even dreamt of, yet . . . or might even balk at providing.

 

(We’ll try to be ready for it,) she reassured him. (And try to be understanding whenever a conflict comes up.)

 

 

“And this,” their contamination-suited guide stated, gesturing at a door painted a paler shade of gray in the shades-of-gray halls around them, “will be your quarters, Ambassador. Now, if Your Highness will come with me, I will show you to your own suite.”

 

Li’eth frowned at the man. “I was told in our communications that the Dusk Army’s quarantine sector only has twenty cabins, two bunks apiece. Between the V’Dan of my surviving crew and the numbers of the Terrans, we have two hundred people in need of places to sleep. I thought I made it clear that we were all willing to share to ensure the comfort of our guests.”

 

“. . . Yes, Your Highness,” the masked, enclosed figure stated after a brief but palpable hesitation. “We have arranged for the Grand High Ambassador to have a private room, and for you to have a private room, as is proper for your station. The rest will all share quarters in rotation, or sleep on their ships. As was indicated.”

 

“Then why are we wasting space with two of us having separate quarters from the rest?” he asked. It was hard to see the other man’s face through the silvered plate of his protective suit, but Li’eth could sense that the man’s aura was the sort of dull, muddy gray associated with a blank, uncomprehending stare. Jackie’s aura was mostly calm tinged with a touch of impatience, and the Terran soldier behind her had an air and aura of alert boredom. He returned his gaze to the quarantine worker. “At the very least, I should be sharing my quarters with Leftenants Superior Ba’oul Des’n-yi and V’kol Kos’q.”

 

“They . . . are Leftenants Superior, Your Highness. You are Imperial Tier, and they are Second Tier. It would not be appropriate,” the other man finally stated, his tone cautious, as if he was trying not to offend someone who had lost his wits.

 

“I am also a Second Tier officer,” Li’eth returned. “If it will ensure that two sleeping schedules are freed up on one bed so that two more Terrans do not have to sleep on a floor or in zero gravity, I will share my cabin with my fellow officers.”

 

(Wait, you picked the wrong people,) Jackie cautioned him, while the other man processed that suggestion. (If they’ve changed this, then they may have changed something else.) She addressed the quarantine aide aloud. “On a related note, I specifically requested that the telepaths who accompanied us—what you would call holy ones, with the ability to speak mind-to-mind—be given separate quarters from the rest. Did you set aside a cabin for them?”

 

Jst added 100 min to #ProjectReadathon w. @PenguinRandom by reading #TheVdan e 2 support @SavetheChildren #Readwell

 

“Ah . . .” That, too, was a question that seemed to faze him.

 

“If he is indeed willing to share with others, technically His Highness and I should share our cabins with the other holy ones. Two males and two females,” Jackie clarified. “It is a point of Terran protocol that psychics—what you call holy ones—be given quarters separate from those without such gifts whenever they will be confined in close quarters with many others for more than just a day or two.”

 

The quarantine worker eyed her, then turned to look at Li’eth, his flexible suit twisting slightly. Li’eth nodded. “I am willing to share with my fellow holy ones.”

 

“Your Highness, that would be highly—”

 

“—The Terrans’ understanding of holy ones and holy powers is vastly advanced compared to our own,” he stated, interrupting the inevitable, protocol-based protest. “In anything relating to holy powers, they are the authority. Arrange things as the Grand High Ambassador directs. I will share my quarters with the two male holy ones, and she with the two females. That will free up four sleeping shifts for four more Terrans.”

 

The man hesitated like he wanted to protest, but sighed and gestured for the prince to follow him. Li’eth sighed mentally. (I think I have been in the military too long . . .)

 

Pressing the button on the doorframe, Jackie stepped into a cabin only slightly larger than the previous ones she had seen her fellow Terrans being guided into, with two bunks built into one wall, a narrowish long couch along the other, a door at the back for the bathing facilities, and two square-and-beam arrangements on the wall behind the couch that could swing down as a pair of tables. More shades of gray were livened by beige bedding and beige cushions with the same sort of easily wiped surfaces as the Terrans used, though she had no clue what kind of material it was.

 

(Why do you think you’ve been in the military too long?) she asked.

 

(Because while the military does have a Tier system, it’s considerably more practical and pragmatic in how it handles various matters than V’Dan civilian life tends to be. I had forgotten how rigid and confining it could be, to be near the top of the Imperial Tier instead of near the bottom of the Second,) Li’eth explained, moving away from her cabin door. His guide hadn’t gone far, just around the corner and down a short distance.

 

At a gesture from the suited guide, he stepped inside his own quarters and shared the awareness that the only differences between his and hers were that his quarters had an actual desk with a workstation between the door and the bunk, the sofa had three individual tables that could be pulled down, and the cushions and bedding were light blue, which blended in more pleasantly than beige, given the dull pewter gray of the walls.

 

(So that’s the difference between our suites? An extra table and a desk?) Jackie asked, reading his subthoughts.

 

(And blue blankets and cushion covers.)

 

(I’ll be booted if I’ll ask permission of our hosts—mind if I move in with you, and relegate the other psis to this room?) she quipped. (I like orange, not beige, but blue will do in a pinch.)

 

(It . . . wouldn’t be diplomatic. We cannot appear to be living together. At least, not until my people grasp the fact that your people are indeed adults,) he reminded her.

 

(Yes, yes, the inherent visual prejudice of your people toward the jungenless,) she sighed. Finding a locker, she stowed her kit bag. (I’m going to contact the other four. Thank you for being willing to share your quarters with Darian and Clees. Just gently remind Clees he is not allowed to take any pictures whatsoever while you’re in your shared quarters. I’ll do it from my end, too.)

 

(You Terrans and your nearly compulsive need to record every moment of your lives,) Li’eth teased lightly. (Why do you do that, anyway?)

 

(You’ve mostly seen the government side of things; civilian life is a little bit more circumspect,) Jackie explained. (The government has to be transparent and open for everything but security secrets. We dealt with . . .)

 

(. . . Too much corruption in your past. Yes, I paid attention to the history overview lectures,) Li’eth returned. (You will be recorded here, but it will be like your quarantine, for medical and safety reasons. Those reviewing the footage will be reluctant to do so particularly in the privacy of your quarters because of the lack of jungen.)

 

(And again, we get back to this simple, singular difference. I’m hoping it won’t be that bad, Li’eth,) she told him. (But I’m not holding my breath.)

 

He found a similar cupboard for his own gear. (I wouldn’t advise it, no. We’re supposed to be able to overlook such things, but I’m not going to hold my breath, either. I suspect no one will know how good or bad our reactions will be until they are put to the test.)

 

An alarm blared, startling both of them. A voice came over the intercoms, belonging to Dr. Du, speaking in swift but crisp V’Dan, then again in Terranglo. “Emergency! Dr. Maria to the kitchen immediately, and bring your epi kit! Emergency! All Terrans report to the hangar bay immediately! All Terrans report to the hangar bay immediately! Code Blue! Dr. Maria to the kitchen with an epi kit, stat! All Terrans report to the hangar bay immediately!”

 

(?!?)

 

Dashing out of her quarters, Jackie cast out her mind as she ran. She sorted through the babble of confused, startled, and worried minds, and zeroed in on a desperate, panicked set of thoughts, strong enough that Jackie could feel the clogging of her lungs, making it seem like she had to struggle to breathe even as she sucked in full lungfuls of air. Behind her, she could hear another set of running boots and sensed Li’eth catching up.

 

They entered the large kitchen area and skidded to a stop, Jackie bumping into a counter and Li’eth grabbing onto her. The prince blinked down at the sight of a group of Terrans huddled around one of their members, a youngish woman with curly brown hair and almost V’Dan golden skin. Her face and throat were blotchy and swollen, her body contorting as she wheezed with wild-eyed desperation for air. Maria de la Santoya, the first Terran doctor he had ever met, skidded into the galley from a different doorway, a silver-sided case in her hand. She scrambled to the fallen girl—woman, Li’eth corrected himself—and quickly flicked open the latches. A babble of words spat from her mouth, words he didn’t understand.

 

Jackie did; it was Spanish. She quickly translated it into V’Dan, knowing that the doctor was too focused on her patient, checking pulse, eyelids, testing the puffiness swelling her face. “What did she eat? Does anyone know if she ate or drank anything?”

 

“The corporal said she was hungry, sir,” one of the men kneeling by the patient responded. Li’eth realized both were in very similar brown or mottled brown-and-beige uniforms, as were the other six in the room. “She tried one of the fruits. I tried it, too, and it tasted good, but kinda hot and peppery—that red one, like a red pear but with the three lobes at the bottom?”

 

Jackie eyed the bowl he pointed to, and shook her head. “That’s a V’Dan fruit. I’ve seen just about every kind there is on Earth, and that’s not one of ours.”

 

The soldier started to speak, then widened his eyes . . . or tried to. His own face was starting to swell. Li’eth felt his hands starting to heat up. (Jackie, I think my holy—my biokinesis is activating. It does that when it’s needed!)

 

She looked quickly between him, the soldier, and grabbed his hands, dragging him over to the soldier. Li’eth moved willingly. With her palms on top of his, she pressed his hands to the man’s face (Concentrate . . . breathe deep . . . imagine the swelling and the airway constriction reducing . . . imagine his blood pressure holding steady instead of dropping . . . there! I can feel it working . . . Thank goodness biokinesis doesn’t require a medical degree.)

 

Maria looked up from where she had injected epinephrine into the corporal’s outer thigh at the midpoint. Her hand continued rubbing the muscles to distribute the drug, but her gaze fell on the pair of psis. “What are you two doing?”

 

“He ate the fruit, too,” Jackie replied in Spanish, lifting her chin. She could feel a bit of heat in her own fingers. “Li’eth’s biokinesis triggered. We’re trying to clear the anaphylactic shock from their systems.”

 

“Mother of God! I thought the booster shoots we developed would have stopped this. Jackie . . . we only have twenty days’ worth of food for two hundred people,” the doctor stressed. She put the epi injector aside and pulled out a breather mask with a small ampoule of compressed oxygen. Fitting it together, she placed it over the wheezing woman’s mouth and nose, and pressed the button, forcing oxygen into her lungs. “Stupid primitive location—I don’t even know what sort of medical facilities these people have. They insisted on showing me to a cabin, first!”

 

“What is going on in here?” a silver-suited figure demanded. This voice was female, not male, but the V’Dan words were flavored with a touch of annoyance. “This isn’t a play-place! Get off the floor!”

 

Li’eth couldn’t move since his hands still felt hot; he had to stay crouched and continue to stave off whatever weird infection the other man had. But Jackie could. In quick mental consultation—almost faster than thought—she stood and faced the speaker.

 

“We are experiencing a medical emergency,” she stated clearly in V’Dan. After several months of speaking it, with Li’eth’s help in correcting her pronunciation, she knew she would be understood. “Please clear the area of all nonessential personnel. This includes you. If you wish to be useful, assist in guiding all the Terrans not in this chamber back to the hangar bay and politely ask them to wait for further instructions.”

 

For a moment, the quarantine-suited figure lingered, as if uncertain whether or not to argue, then the V’Dan woman left. Li’eth felt his hands fall cold and pulled them away, rubbing at them. A moment later, they started heating again. (What do I do now?) he asked Jackie, looking up at her. (I can feel the holy fire—nonpyrokinetic fire, I told you how it’s a different kind of heat—and I’m not very practiced at using it.)

 

(Ask Maria if you can touch her patient,) Jackie directed him. (Actually, I’ll do it.) “Maria, let Li’eth lay hands on the corporal. I’ll go tell . . .”

 

She broke off as a trio of silver-suited figures hurried into the kitchen. “Out of the way!” the lead figure ordered. All three of them carried cases that, while not exactly like Maria’s, undoubtedly carried a number of similar things. “Clear the area! What’s the emergency?”

 

Maria remembered her V’Dan vocabulary. “The emergency is for something your people do not even have the words to describe. Back off and let me do my work. Here, you hold this mask over her face. Keep her breathing.”

 

“Excuse me, child, but you do not—”

 

“Meioas!” Jackie snapped, halting the lead figure as the . . . man? . . . stooped to reach for Maria’s shoulder. The voice could have been contralto or tenor, and the frame was slender. “Allow me to introduce Doctor Maria de la Santoya, chief medical officer of the Terran embassy. Apologize, and move back.”

 

The crouching figure hesitated, then slowly rose and stepped back. Maria finished examining the male soldier, then reached for her epinephrine equipment. Swapping out the needle and adding a fresh ampoule, she injected the male in the thigh and began massaging the muscle, no doubt under the theory of better safe than sorry, though his face was no longer quite so blotchy even if it was still a little puffy. Jackie explained for her, since she was busy with her patients.

 

“Our doctor is medicating and monitoring two patients who are apparently suffering from medical conditions which your people have not suffered in over ninety-five centuries. At least, according to your holy texts,” Jackie added. That caused the trio to exchange awkward looks, thanks to the limited fields of view in their silvered quarantine suits.

 

(. . . The heat is gone. Either they’re going to die anyway, and there’s nothing more I can do for them,) Li’eth half joked grimly, removing his hands from the corporal’s knees, the closest part he had been able to touch, (or my holy gift isn’t needed anymore because they might actually recover. Saints certainly know, because I don’t.)

 

(A lot of biokinetics work that way,) she reassured him. (Nobody has to use their psychic gifts if they don’t want to, not even medical gifts—it falls under the heading of “bodily autonomy”—but ones like that often trigger anyway when needed.)

 

“. . . Is this condition contagious?” one of the silver-suited V’Dan asked.

 

Jackie shook her head. “It is caused by exposure to certain foods, insect bites, flower pollens, and so forth. It can also vary from person to person. In this case, they ate one of the local fruits. Their bodies went into shock, with itching, stinging, rashes, swelling, and loss of blood pressure. The medicine applied by Dr. de la Santoya is usually very effective at managing the symptoms, but the onset was rapid, and they will require careful monitoring over the next day or so. You will assist our doctor, but she is in charge of these cases, as this is something you are not trained to manage.”

 

“Under no account is anyone to be allowed into any places where plants are growing, nor are they to be allowed access to any V’Dan food supplies,” Maria added sternly, done with checking the soldier. She moved back to check on the corporal, and nodded. “You six, you are their squad mates?”

 

“Doctor, yes, sir,” one of the remaining Marines confirmed. “We were to report to the galley for K.P. as soon as our gear was stowed in our cabins. Are Corporal Chaluley and Private Thompson going to be alright?”

 

“Yes, they should be alright for now,” Maria confirmed. She lifted her gaze to Jackie’s and swapped languages back to her native tongue. “Twenty days of food, my friend. That is not good.”

 

“It’s worse. It’s space food,” Jackie said. “It’s going to taste overseasoned for everyone in a gravitied environment.”

 

Her attempt at humor earned her a wrinkled nose. “Laugh all you want, but we are in serious trouble. Do we turn around and head home, or stay here and order more food?”

 

“Ordering food is a temporary solution, but I don’t want to give up just yet. We have a few day’s leeway in that twenty. Let’s ask a few questions.” Switching to V’Dan, she lifted her chin at the trio. “You’re all doctors, yes?”

 

At their nods, she tipped her head at Maria.

 

“Your counterpart has several questions. Mostly to do with your jungen virus,” Jackie clarified. “Because of it, your people are naturally immune to what we call a histamine reaction—the immune system overreacts to a foreign substance and causes the symptoms I described. The amount of histamine triggers in your food must be overwhelming to have reacted so fast. Are any of you an expert in the jungen virus and its effects on your genetics?”

 

All three shook their heads. Jackie lifted her chin at the door. “Pick two of you to go prep the infirmary for two patients, then start figuring out whom to call. We need the foremost authorities on jungen, and preferably an expert on holistic genetic therapy. One of you remain behind to guide the patients and their handlers to the infirmary.”

 

“You know your medical terms well,” Maria muttered in Spanish, her tone lighter than usual with humor.

 

“I’m required by law to be up-to-date on a high percentage of science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, and even some general knowledge of first aid and current medical advances, remember?” she quipped back.

 

“What is that language you are speaking?” one of the suited doctors asked.

 

“Spanish. Try to remember to speak in V’Dan wherever possible,” Jackie added to her medical officer. “I’ll find someone who is knowledgeable and willing to sit down with you for a transfer of medical terminology and equipment understanding.”

 

“That would be deeply appreciated.” Switching to V’Dan, Maria pointed at the patients. “You three, lift the corporal; you three, lift the private. Keep their heads and necks straight, and do not compress their chests. Doctors, one of you lead the way to the infirmary. Jackie, I need you to go explain to the others and the incoming personnel—”

 

“—That we’re not to eat any of the local food. And then I’ll go get a direct line back to home to start discussing how to get enough food out here. Doctors,” she added firmly, realizing the trio still stood there. Jackie pointed at Maria. “She is the expert in this particular medical emergency. You will get the infirmary ready, and start contacting experts in the fields of jungen and genetic therapy.”

 

They moved. Jackie shifted out of the way of the soldiers, who had been quietly conferring on how to lift their companions. Being trained military personnel, they managed a credible lift and side-shuffle carry. Jackie could have lifted both easily enough, but she needed to go to the hangar bay.

 

(Li’eth, will you stay with them, and watch over them?) she asked. (Keep the doctors cooperating? I have to go handle the nonmedical side of this.)

 

(Of course,) he agreed promptly. Rising from the floor, he dusted off his knees and followed the shuffling, brown-clad warriors.

 

Jackie used the door behind her, trying to dredge up a mental map of the sector. Since there were a good seventy or eighty people all streaming toward or clustering in one zone, she let the weight of their mental presences guide her.

 

Her mind raced over what was needed as she moved. They hadn’t brought all that many provisions, thinking that they could rely on V’Dan food, since the V’Dan had eaten Terran food with little problems. They had discussed the need for antihistamine booster shots to counter whatever the world of V’Dan might throw their way, but it was clear those shots were inadequate for the local onslaught of histaminic triggers.

 

That meant they had to make some hard decisions. First, she would have to reassure everyone that everything was relatively okay, that the station wasn’t going to blow up or whatever. Second, she would have to explain what the emergency was—no V’Dan food could be trusted, and even the V’Dan version of Terran foods couldn’t be trusted because it had been evolving on the local planet for nearly ten thousand years. Third, she would have to direct that a single day’s rations be removed from the incoming ships, but no more; if they had to return home, it would be best to keep all the food on board so that it wouldn’t have to be repacked onto each vessel.

 

Dead end, Jackie realized, blinking at the supply closet on the other side of the door she had just opened. Okay, backtrack and go around . . .

 

Her fourth task would be a chat with the incoming crews on what they thought the best solution might be, either having more Terran ships bring food directly from Earth while everyone stayed put here in V’Dan home space, or to have some of their Embassy Class ships off-load their gear to make room, and head out to meet the Aloha Class vessels midway for cargo transfer. Both had their pluses and their minuses; waiting for ships from Earth to get to V’Dan meant waiting fourteen days out of twenty, but they’d have their own ships on hand in case they had to leave in a hurry.

 

If they sent out Embassy ships to meet the fleet halfway, that meant the Terran fleet—limited still in number—could have a faster turnaround time to head back, pick up more food, and come back with it for the next cargo run . . . but they couldn’t keep up cargo runs indefinitely, and fewer ships here at the station meant fewer available seats for getting the Terrans away should things go wrong. I’ll have to ask them what the maximum safe transport capacity is for each ship. It might be a rough ride in some of those jump seats, but I know we weren’t maxed out on capacity for personnel. Cargo, yes; personnel, no.

 

I was so hoping those booster shots would work, she thought ruefully, reaching an airlock with a thick-glazed window looking onto the hangar bay. I don’t know if these V’Dan even have genetic resequencing therapy. We do, but all the equipment’s back home, and it doesn’t always work, particularly on anyone who suffers from chimerism . . . We’ll give the V’Dan three days to ship up their experts and the necessary equipment, Jackie decided.

 

That gives us three further days to determine if anything can be done, before we have to decide if we can stay and try for some sort of gene-therapy solution, or if we have to say “Sorry—but feel free to come visit us!” and pack up to go home.

 

Unfortunately, there are a lot of variables that are beyond our control right now. As far as First Contact scenarios went, having two of her people nearly die from anaphylactic shock was not the sort of “first” she’d wanted anyone to experience. Definitely nowhere on my list of Things To Experience, here.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

APRIL 25, 2287 C.E.
DEMBER 19, 9507 V.D.S.

 

Doctors To-mi Kuna’mi and Mi’en Qua were not quite what Jackie had expected. The fact that they were able to come up to the station so quickly and had agreed to enter quarantine was a blessing, but for two V’Dan women from the same planet, they were not exactly ordinary.

 

Dr. Qua was tall and thin, with dark blond or perhaps light brown hair pulled back in a bun, and a smattering of roughly fingernail-sized lavender dots that outlined the edges of her face and striped the topside and underside of each arm. She wore clothes in shades of purple cut in the current V’Dan style, somewhat Napoleonic and somewhat modern, and her lavender eyes were a bit strange but not too disarming.

 

Jackie had seen several pictures of V’Dan citizens as part of the preliminary exchanges of information between the two nations, and spot patterns like that were not common. Nor was the way she held herself, taut with energy inside, seemingly calm on the outside. This moment was important to Mi’en Qua; Jackie wasn’t nearly as good at reading auras as Li’eth, but she could sense some grasp of the importance of this moment in the other woman’s energies. Like a babbling brook, she wasn’t a rushing tumble of emotions going through whitewater rapids, but she did have motion disturbing her otherwise clear depths.

 

The other woman, Dr. Kuna’mi, was a still, calm pool by comparison, the kind of pool on a clear day that mirrored the sky, the land—the space station, technically. To-mi Kuna’mi wore her hair loose, letting it fall over and around her shoulders in thick, dark waves. She actually kind of looked Asian, rather than a blend of indeterminate Terran-style ethnicities, and her skin had that golden-brown look to it that wasn’t too far off from Jackie’s own. The exception were her eyes, which were blue, not brown.

 

Like Jackie, her figure was a bit fuller than on the thin side, though not quite as plump as Jackie’s had been back at the beginning of all of this. The woman showcased it with a suit of strong contrasting navy blue, sapphire blue, and white, making the outturned lapels look almost Art Deco, not just Napoleonic. It took the Terran Ambassador several seconds past the rounds of greeting bows, and even past waiting for the two women to receive vaccination shots versus Terran diseases, before she realized the other unusual feature of Dr. Kuna’mi’s appearance. Mainly because Dr. Qua mentioned it.

 

“. . . And of course, my colleague is the authority on the jungen virus and all its effects,” the genome specialist stated. “Please don’t be fooled by her lack of marks; she’s been working in this field for well over fifteen years.”

 

Lack of . . . Jackie blinked and focused on the other woman’s face. Dr. Kuna’mi smiled slightly at the praise. Slightly, but wryly. On impulse, Jackie admitted, “To be honest, I hadn’t noticed. Terrans simply don’t notice those sorts of things. Please, come this way. You’ll be bunking together for a sleeping shift in the same cabin as myself and two of my own specialists—thank you, by the way, for being willing to endure the crowded conditions with us while your colleagues outside quarantine work on cross-checking our antigens and vaccines with V’Dan medicine for compatibility.”

 

“Your willingness to not only undergo such precautions, but to offer solutions to the potential health problems you bring is very admirable,” Qua told her, as a handful of Jackie’s soldiers hefted the bags and boxes the two women had brought into quarantine with them. “Very mature,” she added, moving to follow the Ambassador.

 

Jackie glanced over her shoulder at that, one brow arched. Was that another case of V’Dan bias against the unmarked, or just a comment on their foresight ability. “Of course it is. We tried to consider in advance your people’s good health and medical needs as well as our own. It takes a little more effort, but only a little, to ensure that the people of V’Dan stay healthy. If we make sure your people have a chance to stay healthy, then there’s a chance they will stay happy about meeting and making treaties with my people.”

 

“Yet you were unable to anticipate the impact of the breath-stealers inherent in our food,” Dr. Kuna’mi pointed out calmly, her tone matter-of-fact.

 

Maria, her injector tucked back into its case, her legs pacing the space between the two local doctors and the guards with their belongings, addressed that question. “Since we had no actual samples of your food on hand, señora, we went with what looked like the baseline histaminic response capability of our guests’ biologies. We miscalculated due to a lack of information, not a lack of mature foresight.”

 

“True,” Kuna’mi allowed, dipping her head.

 

“What does sen’yor-ah mean?” Dr. Qua asked as they entered the airlock between the hangar bay and the rest of the quarantined sector of the station.

 

“It’s in a language called Spanish, which shares some words with Terranglo, our main trade tongue,” Jackie explained for her, falling into the role of translator with ease, since it was her longest-running career. She tapped the controls on the airlock door—fairly simple to use—and helped fill the time as they waited for the air to cycle with a bit more information. “The closest equivalent would be calling you by your commonly used female-gendered honorific, meioa-e, which I am told is actually a Solarican word, not V’Dan.”

 

“That is correct,” Dr. Qua agreed. “Everyone but the K’Katta can pronounce it and understand its meaning.”

 

“In Spanish, señora is used to address an older woman, an honored or respected woman, a married woman, or, in its most archaic sense, a noblewoman. In this case, Dr. de la Santoya is using it as one highly educated colleague to another out of respect.”

 

“What she said,” Maria agreed, flicking a hand at Jackie.

 

Dr. Kuna’mi eyed Jackie with an ongoing hint of amusement. “You fill the role of a translator very smoothly, Grand High Ambassador. You must have had practice.”

 

“I’ve been a translator for longer than I have been an Ambassador, a politician, or even a soldier,” she replied. “I speak over eighty Terran languages, and now I speak V’Dan as well. With luck, I will find those among the other sentient races who will be willing to attempt language transfers, and add those to my list.”

 

“Over eighty languages!” Qua exclaimed softly, disbelief coloring her tone, and her aura when Jackie glanced her way. “You expect us to believe that?”

 

“I will admit that I do not speak all of them fluently at the moment,” Jackie said, correcting herself physically as she almost took the wrong corridor to her quarters. These V’Dan military-style quarantine quarters were very . . . alike. Very gray-painted. She wished they had artwork hung on the walls to make them more memorable. “But it only takes me a short while in the company of a native speaker to regain that fluency.

 

“The ‘trick’ to it is that I can learn a language very quickly via what you call holy powers, the ability to speak mind-to-mind without words. Ask any of our five guests, and they will tell you that I learned V’Dan in just three hours and could teach Terranglo to them within three to five, depending on how quickly they cooperated. I have since had ample cause to continue to use it, which further sets it in the mind.”

 

Something in the air shifted at her words. Jackie slowed, unsure what it was. No, not the air . . . the aether. She glanced behind her, at Dr. Qua’s ruffled brook of an aura, at the matching one of Dr. Kuna’mi . . . almost matching. Jackie still had the odd sense of a mirror-smooth surface, but it was now deep below the ruffled stream. An unnaturally mirror-smooth inner core, she realized, facing forward with a blink. With an aura-based illusion of a more normal mind on top.

 

It was an illusion of normalcy. How she knew that, she wasn’t sure; her ability to sense auras was still fairly new. But it was more than that. Her telepathy told her it was an illusion. The other woman, Dr. Kuna’mi, was mirroring the normal turbulence of a normal, nongifted mind, the mind of the woman next to her, and Jackie had rarely sensed two minds being so closely alike. Even when a group of people were focusing strongly on an identical group task, there were always subcurrents of differences.

 

In Dr. Qua, there were subcurrents that riffled the waters of her mind, like rocks at the bottom of the stream, save that the “rocks” of the mind came and went. In Dr. Kuna’mi . . . a smooth glass bottom lined the streambed, reflecting all above it but revealing nothing beneath that polished surface. It was the weirdest set of mental shields Jackie had ever sensed. Very strong, very practiced . . . very un-V’Dan, if what she had learned from Li’eth was the V’Dan measuring stick.

 

There was no way that Dr. Kuna’mi could be Terran, or Terran-trained. That left . . . exactly what, Jackie did not know. She had yet to encounter actual V’Dan psis other than His Highness, and until she did, she could not say for certain that Li’eth’s initial nearly nonexistent training was normal for these people. I’ll have to wait until I can meet with the priesthood of their Sh’nai faith before I can be sure. Which will have to wait until quarantine is over, when we can linger longer than our own food supplies can last, and when all the formal greetings and initial, important meetings are over.

 

So many things had to wait until then. For now, though, they had reached her assigned quarters. Mindful of the fact that Aixa and Jasmine were inside sleeping, she stopped in front of the door and faced the two ladies. “Since we will be sharing quarters with two others, Aixa Winkler,” she said, pronouncing the last name Vinkler in the proper German accent, “and Min Wang-Kurakawa, we have moved things so that the other two female psis—holy ones, in your culture—are on the same sleep schedule with each other, and that the two of you will be on your own sleep schedule.

 

“Terrans have certain rules of etiquette which we have developed for the comfort and safety of interactions with our holy ones,” Jackie continued. From a pocket, she pulled a sketch of the Radiant Eye, a simple circle-within-an-oval design with eight bars radiating from the pupil point. “This is the mark of what we call the ‘Radiant Eye’ in your language. It is the symbol of the largest school for training holy gifts, and though there are other major and minor schools for training such things, because of its popularity, our military has been granted permission to use a variation of this symbol.

 

“There are five of us among the Terrans, two males and three females including myself, plus, of course, His Highness, who is sharing his quarters with the other two men,” she continued. “Grouping us together has nothing to do with rank, but everything to do with courtesy. Touch, we Terrans learned long ago, increases psychic abilities. Telepathy, the ability to read others’ thoughts, is definitely one of those increased by touch . . . and the stronger a telepath is, the stronger that ability will be influenced by touch. In fact, if you accidentally touched me and I was not aware and thus guarded against such things, I would be able to hear whatever you are thinking. Not just the strongest thoughts, but even some of the subthoughts.

 

Most people with these abilities do not like reading others’ thoughts,” Jackie stated firmly, while the two doctors exchanged wary looks. “This includes myself and the four telepaths I have brought along to be assistant translators. We strongly believe that thoughts are meant to remain private, and we have a whole series of classes which each psychic must take in regards to ethics and ethical behavior in such matters. One of those things is a phrase, ‘What was yours is still yours,’ and it means that if we do accidentally pick up something, we are bound by laws of ethics not to reveal it to anyone else . . . barring only thoughts of having completed a major crime such as murder or grand theft.”

 

Kuna’mi twisted her mouth into a wry sort of smile on one side of her face. “That’s an interesting way of putting it, that of having completed a major crime.”

 

Jackie shrugged, lifting her hands. “We are all Humans. Our species is known to have fits of rage and thoughts of murder from time to time. The difference is whether or not we act upon those urges. The law cannot punish a man or a woman for a mere thought, however violent or awful. It can only punish a deed that has been committed, or been attempted.

 

“With that said, if you do accidentally brush up against me or one of the others, we may learn things about you,” Jackie stated. She lifted her chin at Maria, waiting patiently behind the other two. “And when I and others assist Maria in translating between her knowledge of medical terminology and yours, we will learn things about each of you because the translation process leans heavily upon context based on your memories. But we are pledged to keep personal information to ourselves, and to not make comment upon it without permission or absolute privacy with you alone.”

 

“Basically, the Ambassador’s five-minute lecture on ethics and etiquette boils down to ‘do not touch, poke, or annoy the psychics, and they will not touch, poke, or annoy you,’” Maria translated dryly. “Are we almost done? I should like to get to work. The sooner we can figure out things, the sooner we can eat food that is prepared, not packaged. What is crafted for the weightlessness of space, where smells are difficult to sense and thus enjoy, will taste overseasoned and odd in a gravitied environment.”

 

“Quite. Inside this room, ladies,” Jackie explained, “there are four cupboards to the immediate left of the door. You may use the two bottom drawers. Aixa and Min are using the top two, in deference to Aixa’s age—Aixa is also using the bottom bunk. The two of you can sort out who sleeps where when your sleep shift arrives. My own gear is stored under the sofa bench nearest the washing facilities. If you need more room, use the ones to the far right as you face the bench, not to the left.

 

“I requested that they leave a light on since there are privacy curtains that can be pulled across the bunk openings, but as they are asleep, please stow your gear quietly. I will stay out here because it is too crowded inside with three people moving around all at once.” Touching the door controls, she opened it up, showing the dimly lit cabin. The curtains were indeed pulled shut, and one of the women inside was snoring softly.

 

Since the door slid sideways into the wall, the two women were able to access the lockers easily. Each doctor paused to sort a few belongings, stuffed most into one of the two lower cupboards, and picked up the small bags and sturdy cases that no doubt contained personal versions of the tools of their trades.

 

Once the door was shut again, leaving the two women inside to sleep in peace, and the group was following Dr. de la Santoya, Dr. Qua eyed Jackie. “So what is the verdict on what you will do about the medical reaction your people are having to our food? You said you had less than twenty days of food.”

 

“We’ve already shifted cargos and dispatched six of our ships to head out to meet other vessels from the Terran fleet at the midpoint, which are being stocked and sent under way with extra packs of preprocessed foods,” Jackie revealed. “We’re still in negotiations on shipping fresh foods other than meats, eggs, and dairy, since we don’t want to contaminate the V’Dan agricultural system with plant matter that could potentially resprout before it finishes composting.”

 

Jst added 100 min to #ProjectReadathon w. @PenguinRandom by reading #TheVdan e 2 support @SavetheChildren #Readwell

 

“What about frozen or canned foods?” Kuna’mi asked.

 

“Those have been given clearance because they fall under preprocessed; it’s all been blanched or cooked so that it cannot germinate,” Jackie clarified. She rubbed at her brow briefly. “All these things are topics that I never really thought I’d have to consider. I’ve assigned staff members to track dietary needs versus what we can ship, versus what we cannot yet ship due to quarantine requirements . . . They’re doing a wonderful job of being both flexible and willing to take up whatever task needs managing, so I don’t have to do it all myself, but since I’m the person in charge, they want to run everything past me to make sure it’s a good idea.”

 

“Will you be running off to handle all of that, then?” the markless V’Dan asked. Her inner aura was still a mask, an illusion similar to Dr. Qua’s, but her expression hinted at a touch of hope, if not her tone.

 

Jackie shook her head. “Since it’s easier for two psis to share quarters at the same time—since if we bump into each other, we know it’s an accident if we sense anything and thus it’s more quickly forgiven and forgotten—it’s their current sleep cycle. That means if you want to get to work, I’m the telepath on duty. The two gentlemen, Darian and Clees, are on a different sleep cycle from each other, as well as from the two ladies, but I’m not sure yet which one of them picked to be on duty at this hour.”

 

They reached the infirmary. Maria led the way inside. Her two patients had been let go after extensive observation, so the interconnected cabins were empty of bodies though they were full of strange equipment . . . and a lot of signage in V’Dan explaining explicitly how to use each piece of equipment. The signs themselves were actually poster-thin monitors with displays that rotated slowly from manual to manual, alternating with lists of items found in cupboards and drawers behind each one. Jackie thought it was incredibly clever since there was never any guarantee that a medical professional would be caught in need of quarantine, or in a healthy enough shape to manage such things.

 

“I’d hate to bore you with highly technical matters,” Kuna’mi said, tipping her head a little. “We should be fine without you.”

 

“This is also the single largest stumbling block to us setting up an embassy on your homeworld,” Jackie pointed out. “It makes sense for me to be involved, or at least to be on hand to observe and thus be more likely to understand what’s going on, should any decisions need to be made right away.”

 

She hesitated, then deliberately reached out with a mental set of knuckles and “rapped” on the other woman’s illusions and inner shield. That got her a slight but swift narrowing of Kuna’mi’s blue eyes.

 

(I’m guessing that you’re capable of hearing this,) Jackie sent privately, meeting the other woman’s gaze with nothing more than a mild blink of her own eyes. (I meant it when I said that my people’s ethics insist that I not spill any mental secrets of those around me . . . including the fact that you are far better trained than anything I’ve heard to date on how V’Dan mental abilities should be. You’re not getting rid of me . . . and if it is determined that an additional translation session is necessary to impart the proper understanding of our disparate medical lexicons, I will perform that task . . . and whatever I may learn of you of a personal nature, I will refrain from sharing with Dr. de la Santoya, nor ever mention to anyone else that I have learned it.)

 

“. . . You seem to be quite dedicated,” Kuna’mi replied out loud, though from the unchanged mental placidity, she could have been replying to Jackie’s verbal words. “I hope you are equally trustworthy.”

 

Jackie did not take offense. “I am aware that trust only builds with time, through a measuring of how well one’s words and one’s deeds match. I look forward to the chance for both our peoples to build that trust, as well as extending respect to one another.”

 

That made the blue-eyed doctor snort. “I’ll wish you the best of luck in that. Markless adults have to be five times as good as anyone else just to get an equal amount of respect. I’ll presume you’ll want some sort of mark-free version of jungen though, given how you are not V’Dan.”

 

“That would be correct,” Maria stated, lifting her chin a little. “I am not going to inject any genetics-altering virus that will change the way they look into any of our people. We stopped judging each other based on the color of our skin well over a century ago. We will not go back to such an immature system.”

 

Jackie stepped in verbally. “. . . What the doctor means to say is that we are not V’Dan, and our cultural viewpoint on such matters is therefore different. It will be easier if the V’Dan people simply keep repeating that to themselves, that we Terrans are different, and that we should be judged as you would judge other non-V’Dan.”

 

“Well, it wouldn’t do you, personally, any good to get the virus with the marking ability intact,” Qua said. “You’re past the age of puberty, when the virus makes its changes. You’d only get marks out of children caught just before puberty or earlier, and it’ll still take a few generations before everyone has them.”

 

“Which we don’t want to do, as it would run contrary to Terran values,” Jackie said. She gestured at Maria. “Doctors, if you’ll give Dr. de la Santoya your full attention, I’m quite sure she’s impatient to start getting familiarized with your V’Dan version of genetic-sequencing machines. Once we’ve gotten everyone up to speed on Terran versus V’Dan machinery and terminology, you’ll be able to get to work right away.”

 

APRIL 26, 2287 C.E.
DEMBER 20, 9507 V.D.S.

 

His Imperial Highness, Kah’raman Li’eth Tal’u-ruq Ma’an-uq’en Q’uru-hash V’Daania, thirdborn child of Empress Hana’ka, stared into the mirror in his semiprivate cabin and acknowledged that he did not feel like himself anymore.

 

It was a strange thing to admit, but over the last five years, ever since shortly after joining the military at the age of twenty-seven, Li’eth had slowly grown used to not being an Imperial Prince. Yes, the officers of the Second Tier were considered technically equal with the lesser nobles, but when one was off in a ship for months on end, the social lines blurred. There was some distance, some formality . . . but the best crews in his experience were those whose officers weren’t rigidly strict on fraternizing only within their “own kind” as it were.

 

Captain Li’eth Ma’an-uq’en could mingle just fine with his bridge officers, his wardens, his sergeants, even the enlisted, though mingling with the lowest ranks was a rare thing. Imperial Prince Kah’raman . . . I don’t even think of myself as Kah’raman anymore, Li’eth admitted.

 

Li’eth, which meant Year of Joy, was a fairly common name actually, popular around the time of his birth. He’d encountered a good ten, twelve men during his years in the Imperial Army that shared the name. Most of those encounters had been good, leaving him feeling comfortable being a fellow “Li’eth.”

 

Kah’raman, which meant King of Starshine, was not a common name. It was literally a regal name, a name reserved for the Imperial Tier, a name with a royal title embedded in it right from birth. Thirdborn, but still royal, Imperial, distinct from all others.

 

I’m glad I had those years of getting used to being “just plain Li’eth” in the military before encountering Jackie’s people, he decided, reaching for the complimentary shaving stick tucked in the mirrored cabinet. They have very little in the way of a caste system. A much wider variety of cultural backgrounds—vastly wider, he acknowledged, activating the stick with a touch of the upper button. Carefully, he rubbed the glowing end over his right cheek, removing the hints of light brown and burgundy stubble that had grown there overnight. But fewer social strata.

 

Thinking on how loose and fluid social climbing or sinking can be in the Terran system . . . I think I can understand how adrift Shi’ol must have felt. No automatic deference once she pointed out her civilian title, and no automatic looking to her for leadership. No sense of “you’re allowed to do that because that is the way of your Tier” or the equally important “you’d never do that because it’s just not the way your Tier behaves.” Such as the cleaning they’d all had to do.

 

He’d gotten used to the more relaxed ways of the military . . . and the greatly lessened expectations laid on a youngish man presumed to have been born of Third Tier parents—highly educated but not ennobled. Captain Li’eth Ma’an-uq’en had been a commoner. One with a close resemblance to His Imperial Highness save for the bit of burgundy stripe he had concealed on his cheek.

 

But he wasn’t Captain Ma’an-uq’en anymore. He didn’t have the freedom to mingle with the lower Tiers with impunity, even just casually. An Imperial Prince was almost never casual. It went against the order of things.

 

So why am I thinking back to that looh-ow picnic we had on the beach of her home island, with her family and important locals and their friends? He eyed his image in the mirror, half-shaven, and sighed. I know why. I’m not used to being an Imperial Prince anymore. Even when I went home on Leave for celebrations . . .

 

The real reason? He hadn’t seen the Terran way of life back then. The way they flowed from formal to casual with graceful ease. How their welcoming warmth was the grease that made those transitions look so easy. They had social strata—in giving their V’Dan guests a sampling tour of their world and insystem colonies, the Terrans had not avoided showing them slums, poverty-stricken regions, the homes of the wealthy, or menial labor versus the work of the highly educated.

 

They weren’t apologetic in the sense of being embarrassed; on the trip around the Sol System, the V’Dan had been shown archived documentaries of a selection of worst and best moments in Terran history, including genocide on a scale seen only a few times in the Empire’s very long history. The Terrans had simply said, “These are some of the worst things in our history, things we have recordings for, whereas with others we do not have as much. We teach ourselves and remind ourselves of these things, of the evil in them, in the hopes that we will continue to avoid repeating these mistakes.”

 

Matter-of-fact. That was how they handled their mistakes. No stammering denials, no overly dramatic breast-beatings. Just a simple, straightforward message of, “We have bad things and good things in our history, we are aware of it, and we aren’t going to pretend they never happened.”

 

Like the Massacre of the Valley. Men, women, elders, children . . . even the infants. Cross-bound and gutted alive, among other horrors. Not my ancestor’s brightest nor most blessed hour. That Emperor had been slain by those who were horrified at what he had ordered done, along with the troops who had done the deeds alongside him. The War Crown had passed to a collateral line, a cousin of the First Tier . . . but though the civil war had been won by the right and just side, it could not erase the horrific crimes committed against a people whose only transgression was that they wanted no nobles set over them, that they wanted their people to be deemed equals with each other.

 

Eventually, the Valley of the Artisans had been repopulated with both survivors and newcomers and deemed a protectorate of the Empire. The lessons learned had gone into the history books and never been taken out. Sometimes softened, but never removed. Of course, he had no control over what the Terrans would be shown of V’Dan history, its highlights and its lowest points such as the Valley. He had no idea if those who were in charge would be quite so open. Not that it could be kept secret; eventually, they would get their hands on unexpurgated historical accounts. But would his own people be so . . . so comfortable with themselves?

 

Somehow, Li’eth doubted it. Finishing up his shaving with a touch of the wand to neaten his left sideburn, he checked his image, then shut it off and tucked it back into the cabinet. A splash or two of water washed off the little scraps of stubble, along with a swipe from a cloth to dry his face. He had already showered, then dried and braided his hair. It was time to don one of his uniforms.

 

These were true uniforms, properly tailored and properly styled, not the approximation the Terrans had managed. Properly armored against most handheld weapons, too. Not that he expected to be attacked, but without the plasflesh painting his cheek, hiding the distinctive length and hue of the jungen stripe extending beneath his right eye, he couldn’t hide who he was. Imperial Prince Kah’raman V’Daania and not merely Captain Li’eth Ma’an-uq’en. Someone always had a grudge against the Imperial Family. Sometimes, they tried to express that grudge physically.

 

For that matter, the Salik could strike at any time. There wasn’t a prophecy guaranteeing his survival if he became a Salik captive a second time. That meant staying out of their tentacles. He’d fight to the death if that happened again.

 

(I’m getting some grim, unhappy subthoughts from you,) Jackie’s mental voice interrupted. Her telepathic touch felt like a warm ray of sunshine slipping down between the clouds spreading gloom throughout his mind. (Is something wrong?)

 

(Just thinking,) he tried to dismiss, leaving the washroom. A prod from her, however, told him she wasn’t going to let the subject go until he aired it. Pulling out his clothes, Li’eth replied while unwinding the towel from his hips. (I had bad dreams again, this morning. About the Salik. On top of that, today is your semiformal introduction through the windows. I’ll be expected to be on hand as the highest-ranked anyone inside quarantine. There is always someone in any large crowd who has a grudge against the Imperial Family.

 

(Your people constrained themselves to just shouting an occasional, “Go back wherever you came from!” and “Earth for the Earthlings, not for the weirdlings!” but I didn’t feel physically threatened. Then again,) he allowed, threading a belt through his pant loops, (your people had no idea anyone else of our race was out here, away from your home system.

 

(I’m not sure how my own people will react, though. Knowledge that we came from another world is a major religious foundation stone. It’s sort of been expected that if anyone survived the cataclysm of the Before Time world, they’d have grown up to be wise and mature and . . . not what your people actually are, which is very V’Danic . . . ahh . . . what’s the word in Terranglo . . . Humanistic? Very Human, at any rate. Mortal and fallible and prone to the same lows and highs in every direction . . . which may be disappointing for many, and outright mind-shattering for some. Concerns for our safety are therefore making my thoughts grim.)

 

While she mulled that over, he pulled on undershorts and socks, then reached for the dark crimson trousers with their hard-to-puncture meshweave interfacing. Cream-colored shirt, bright red jacket with golden lapels and matching meshweave interfacing. Jacaranda did not press the point as he continued to dress but changed the subject somewhat.

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