War, slavery, hope, and trust: Lavinia and the Western Shore

If you’ve spent any time at all talking to me about fiction then it won’t surprise you that Ursula K. Le Guin is far and away my favourite author. A Wizard of Earthsea was the first book of hers that I read – a tattered old paperback edition grabbed from my father’s bookshelf when I’d have been ten years old or so – and in the years since I’ve gone from story to story at an inconsistent but never unpleasant pace.

I could write glowing praise of almost any work of hers you’d care to name, but some particular favourites of mine are a loosely linked trilogy published quite late in her career: Gifts, Voices, and Powers. Like the first three Earthsea books, they’re ostensibly targeted at a younger audience: they at heart coming-of-age stories with young protagonists who must come to terms with their strengths and weaknesses and with the roles their societies expect them to fill.

I stumbled across Gifts in my first year of university while looking for textbooks – while the weight of the author’s name did have some weight with me, the real persuasion came from the fact that the particular edition I found (by Orion Books) was gorgeously presented, with wonderful art on a good solid hardcover.

While I had devoured the first three Earthsea books when quite young, I had never managed to find further purchase on her body of work; I struggled mightily to engage with The Dispossessed, I had chosen not to pick up Tehanu out of a misguided feeling that the Earthsea books were already “finished”, and I’d never thought to look at her short fiction or the other Hainish novels.

I enjoyed Gifts immensely, and it had a big impact on my future reading – not only did it ensure that I’d make a point of getting its two sequels the moment they came out, it opened me up to a new, proper look at The Dispossessed, and from there through much of her other work, including the modern Earthsea books and most of the Hainish novels.

Amongst the books I’d picked up in this frenzy of enthusiasm was Lavinia – but for one reason or another, I could never quite bring myself to open it, and it ended up in the bookshelf completely untouched. A long time passed, in which I’d often find myself revisiting this story or that, but it remained fast in the bookshelf until Le Guin’s passing in 2018 prompted me into an (almost) systematic re-read. This wasn’t quite enough to get me to open the book, but it did end up moving from the bookshelf to the coffee table in order to gather dust for a few more months.

In the end, the tipping point was an off-hand remark from a visiting friend who noticed the book lying around; with not much else to read at the time, I gave the blurb a fresh look and dove in.

As the title suggests, (at least, to those better versed in the classics than I am), Lavinia is a retelling of the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem about the journey of the exiled Trojan prince Aeneas to Italy. I’d been only vaguely conversant with the work at this point; my only real exposure had been through having to briefly study an opera I didn’t like much, and given its derivative nature I’d always put it in Gospel of Mark Fanfic territory – but well, it’s tremendously famous and highly regarded, and Le Guin couldn’t really be that far off the mark, right? I dove in.

After a half-dozen pages, I realised that I was in a very familiar place: while the clean, bare prose could be expected in any work of Le Guin’s, the setting was instantly familiar. Lavinia’s grounded, pre-industrial society, social tensions, and reverence for the mundane and domestic were almost enough to fool me into thinking I was reading Powers again.

Lavinia is the daughter and only living child of the ageing Italian king Latinus: she is promised in marriage to Aeneas to the displeasure of her Latin suitors. Despite her pivotal role as the casus belli in the war that spans the last six books of the Aeneid, Lavinia herself is only sparsely depicted and is never afforded the chance to speak. Amongst other ends, Le Guin’s novel seeks to give Lavinia a voice, telling the war and its aftermath from her perspective.

What does all this mean? I’m hoping to spend some time exploring the themes and craft involved in Lavinia and the three Western Shore novels – with some likely excursions into the Aeneid itself and some other works when I feel there’s a point to be made or something interesting to share. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey!

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Garnet (part 8)

I didn’t realise that I’d drifted off to sleep until I woke from that sticky dryness I’d come to remember as thirst. I tried to exercise some discipline by checking the time before sating myself, but the bulb was still empty before I knew it, with the unpleasant sensation in my mouth barely receding for all my rush. I must have been quite noisy, as Ellin turned from her seat and shook her head at me.

“Keep on swigging like that and you’ll need to purge a lot sooner.”

Her bluntness had me scowling before I realised it. I bit my lip and chose not to pick a third fight for the day.

“Honestly, I’m just happy that I don’t have to eat.”

She shrugged. “Fair enough. It’s never done much for me, either.”

As far as I could tell, Ellin was much like Peri – short, lean, and pale. Her face was at least distinct enough for me to parse, with a broad, blunt nose and hair kept short even by ship standards, a dense stubble that almost showed the skin beneath. She’d barely spoken to me while we were on our way down in the lander, but her reticence didn’t seem to be masking the sort of nervous tension I’d seen in Asteyan and Hu. I took a chance and beckoned her over.

“Ellin, did you know that Asteyan had been falsifying reports?”

“No, I didn’t. What was it, private collections?”

I shook my head. “No, he’s been covering up lapses in discipline and morale.”

“Oh, that’s all.” Ellin’s face pulled itself down while her shoulders bobbed. “Sooner than I expected. Being all the way out here, it’s not something they’re used to.”

“The researchers?”

She nodded. “And Asteyan. All they know is being crowded in with each other. Hab-folk, planet dwellers, whichever – either way you take having people around for granted. Most people need that, even if it’s just so there’s someone for them to bicker with. Take that away and most people end up fraying at the edges. The red outside doesn’t make things any nicer, either.”

“You seem to be managing all right.“

She squinted at me and made a face I couldn’t decipher. “We’re not most people, we’re crew. They take pains to make sure we’re not like that. Some of us are tough enough to handle it. Some of us just prefer being alone. I don’t think the managers care which it is as long as we’re reliable.”

I did my best to set my face into something formal, or at least neutral. “Thank you for your candour, Ellin. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting you to be so familiar.”

Her face broke out into a wide grin at that. “Hah, well. I know this is a bad situation, I know you’re an Arbiter, but It’s hard to be scared when you’re riding around in old Gus here.” She reached out and patted me on the cheek. “I promise you, Trinn, there’s nothing I haven’t already seen or heard from this shell. Carping from passengers, Peri bossing me around, ship-auto moving him like a puppet… all sorts of things. He’s like an old friend!”

I had no answer to that, and found myself giving in to the rising urge to turn from her touch, from her gaze, blank out the air pushing through my throat, the water settling too heavy inside me. Some time passed there before I felt Ellin’s hand again, on my shoulder this time.

“I’m sorry, Trinn. Peri did say you had a rough start, I didn’t realise it was still an issue. I should have known better.“

I shook my head. “No, it’s fine, Ellin. I can handle it.” I still didn’t look at her.

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Garnet (part 7)

I shook my head and slumped forward. Hu’s intransigence made my fatigue that much harder to deal with, and I realised that I’d need to rest sooner rather than later.

“Doctor, I really would like you to help me. It’s clear to me that the situation here had been deteriorating for some time before Lyell’s death, and that’s a serious administrative failure. Someone has been systematically lying to us about the state of the expedition, and I think it’s obvious that there might be connections between that and the murder.”

I stood up and made ready to leave the office. “You clearly have reservations about dealing with me, but I’m here for the murder. All of these lies are going to have consequences, but discipline isn’t my job.”

“It will be if they tell you to handle it.” Her head remained as it had been since her last statement, featureless and unmoving. I could almost feel my brain scrambling to put features, eyes, anything, on it for me to read.

I tilted my head, trying to parse her body language. “Yes, it will be. I’d still appreciate your perspective on the murder, though. Call me if you change your mind.”

It wasn’t until the door sealed behind me that I realised how light-headed I had become.

The common room was thankfully very close. I saw that Ellin had set up a table as a makeshift workspace, but the place was otherwise deserted. I fetched water and sat down in a corner, feeling shakier than the gravity or even the residual mapping sickness could explain. I wished I could regulate my thoughts, even find a mantle to link with, but this body had none of those options; I’d have to use old-fashioned remedies: rest, water.

The pilot raised her head as I fumbled with my pocket terminal, but once it was obvious I didn’t need her she was content to return to her own work. After Asteyan’s display and Hu’s open hostility, that sort of circumspection was a relief.

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Garnet (part 6)

Another year, another Blaugust! I have no idea how consistent or frequent my writing will be this time around, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Some other cool people are planning on putting stuff out there this time around, as usual, so I’ll do my best to match their efforts! For now, here’s a start to the month; backend updates have made paragraphs an interesting and weird thing for me to try and manage, so please forgive me if the spacing is a bit odd. I recruited a guest editor to try and help resolve the issue but the results have been inconclusive.

I couldn’t tell whether Hu had noticed me entering the office. Unlike Asteyan’s anachronistic muddle of creaking gears and glistening lightgrain, Hu’s frame was genuinely ancient. Her arms were savagely restricted in their articulation, and in place of Asteyan’s subtle mood fields she had simple illuminated panels flush with her bodywork. Her head was a simple rounded cylinder without ornamentation or any trace of biomimicry.

“How can I help you, Arbiter?” Hu tilted her head and kept her hands folded in a politely neutral position.

“I just wanted to have a word, doctor. I’ve a few questions that might benefit from your perspective as the expedition’s cyberneticist.”

“Arbiter, that is not my role here.” Hu’s panels pulsed with irritation. “I was included on this expedition because of my expertise as a historian. An amateur, but a respected one. Besides, professor Lyell was Peri’s responsibility. She consulted with me on the initial mapping into the ship-body, but I’ve no expertise with biological systems.”

“Naturally – please allow me to apologise, doctor – but I was actually asking out of concern for Mr Asteyan. He’s been very agitated while I’ve been with him; has he been seeing you for help, doctor?”

She stiffened at this, her hands closing into narrow, pointed fists. “Asteyan is a charlatan and an egotist. He wouldn’t approach me for help, and I’d need to think long and hard before running any diagnostics anyway, since he’d probably filter any advice I gave him through his own self-serving conceits.”

Hu’s expressionless head tracked me as I stepped back. “Even if he had, I would not tell you. We’re not all afraid of you. Central may call you Qualified to whatever degree it likes, but you’re still people and you still make mistakes. I’m not going to let you bully answers out of me, and I’m not going to help you do the same to Asteyan.”

I let her words ring from the walls for a few more seconds before making the closest I could to a conciliatory gesture with my sluggish arms. “As a rule, I don’t coerce. I’ve found it leads to unpredictable results. So I’m going to ask you a few questions, doctor, and if you don’t want to answer them, well.” I shrugged. “I’ll be disappointed but nothing more.”

Hu’s own shrug – a side-to-side rock of her shoulders – made it clear she didn’t see an Arbiter’s ‘disappointment’ as anything other than a threat.

“Ask away.”

“You told me that you’re here as a scientist and not a doctor.” I sat down in front of her desk and gestured at the scattered artefacts and reports. “Moreover, what medical expertise you have is with metal rather than flesh. So why was it you who autopsied Lyell? Peri is the medical officer, surely she would have been the first choice.”

“I was told the air had cycled back in shortly after Lyell’s death and threatened the preservation of the body. We didn’t know that you would be mapping over at that time, so it was important to get timely examination. Peri was still shipside and told me to handle it.”

“A very inconsistent airlock.”

Again, that rocking shrug. “Honestly, Arbiter, I don’t think anyone here would really know. It’s not relevant to me or to Asteyan, and the rest all made a point of suiting up when they left our prefabs, even in pressurised parts of the complex.”

“Lyell certainly hadn’t when he died.” I braced myself and leaned forward slowly in the faint gravity. “And I think you’re well aware of that.”

“That’s not relevant, is it? I’m not the Qualified one.” Her head shifted to one side. “You don’t seem to care to have me working outside my area of expertise, so you can be sure I’m not about to do your job for you.”

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Garnet (part 5)

The body’s condition matched the information I had been given: heavy bruising around the head and chest, decompression injuries, broken terminal. It was dressed in simple coveralls, useless for survival in vacuum. Both Peri and Hu Kielo, the groundside doctor, had examined Lyell’s body; my own specialist knowledge had been left in my mantle on Planting, so I had no real choice but to trust them and the teams back home who’d be sifting through the data and cross-checking the reports.

“I do hope that it is adequately preserved. We did our best to follow your instructions about the temperature, but none of us know how reliable the environmental controls are, given the earlier decompression.”

Asteyan had stuck a limb with an old-fashioned camera lens into the room. It moved from Lyell’s body to me.

“You must believe me, Arbiter, I had no idea that safety protocols had lapsed so much. We all believed that this wing was thoroughly airtight, but Doctors Lyell and Hutton were still under strict instructions to wear vacuum-capable suits.”

The protuberance moved in a back-and-forth sort of shrug to indicate contrition. I wasn’t sure whether Asteyan was trying to curry favour or if he genuinely thought that the expedition’s safety record was a pressing concern.

“I suspect that his attacker would have found other means to kill him if they hadn’t been able to vent the air.” Asteyan’s arm wobbled again, faster.

“But surely this was an accident, Arbiter. Obviously somebody assaulted Doctor Lyell, but the environmental controls are thoroughly tamper-proof. We’ve gone through all of the logs and found no trace of any commands, and I’m sure your own people have done so as well.”

I shook my head. “Even if there’s no evidence of tampering, I can’t view the timing of the decompression as anything but suspicious. Weeks of uneventful research, no previous safety incidents – and all of a sudden it fails just as one of your researchers is violently assaulted? I haven’t seen your security system, but I’d wager half your team know it well enough to falsify a few airlock logs. And a panicked accident seems unlikely given how stable the team’s relationships had been.”

“Ah.” Asteyan hesitated long enough that I allowed myself a smile. “I’m afraid that there had been some developments, Arbiter, after the most recent report had been logged.”

“Indeed, Mr Asteyan.” I smiled again and his arm became more agitated still. “I had been curious about that, given your routine crew evaluation was five days overdue at the time of the killing.”

My guide glowed crimson and purple with contrition. “A rift opened up between Lyell and Hutton, Arbiter, but it was all very sudden! I couldn’t quite understand it, so I thought that each having some time alone would be enough to resolve the situation.”

This lapse gave me far more ammunition than the lax safety protocols, but I decided to save it for later. I stepped back out into the corridor and put on what I hoped was a businesslike face. “What was the nature of their disagreement?”

“It was all very irrational – I, well, Arbiter, I know that this is unprofessional of me, but I could almost say it was biological.”

“Biological.”

Asteyan shifted from side to side and gave me a knowing look. “Doctor Lyell had been mapped for a very long time, you know? These ship bodies have a way of channeling thoughts down unproductive paths, Arbiter. And of course Doctor Hutton shipped with us and had always been a little sentimental.” I made a note to offer Peri a more comprehensive apology when I was back on ship.

“What was the nature of their disagreement, Mr Asteyan?”

“Hutton believed that he had found a promising avenue of investigation about the complex’s origin, and was convinced that its builders had come from Planting! Lyell was naturally sceptical – this structure is hundreds of years old! – but when Hutton persisted in spite of his objections, he became quite unreasonable in his demands for Hutton to stop.” Asteyan wrung his hands. “It all got very heated very quickly, and I’m ashamed to admit I had to make a physical intervention between the two.”

I let out my breath. “I’m sure your next report will be especially detailed.” Forestalling any reply, I turned around and made for the train. “I’ll see what Hutton has to say about it.”

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Garnet (part 4)

Walking came to me much easier than I had expected, and gravity seemed to push back the nauseous haze I had almost grown accustomed to. Even with a pull merely a tenth that of home’s, I felt grounded, felt solid; more confident than I had ever been aboard ship.

Ellin wasted no time in cycling the airlock, and I stepped out into the refurbished hangar. What I had taken for an abandoned piece of equipment jerked suddenly to life and heaved itself at me.

The massive figure, I realised, was one of my suspects and charges: Asteyan, the financier. Far larger than the petite ship crew or my own housing, he was all angles and planes. I craned my head back and found what was probably a face amongst the pistons and bizarre anachronistic lights and panels; mood fields blinked to life around the hulking, retro-tech frame and glowed with welcoming patterns.

“Arbiter! It’s wonderful to see that you are in good health. Please let me show you around!”

Almost doubling over, Asteyan extended two limbs as if to take my hand; meeting the gesture, I found that the hissing pistons and exposed tendon-wires were far more articulate than their size implied, and was pulled along the corridor by a grip gentler than I could have managed with my borrowed hands. Whatever their appearance, there was nothing ancient about their construction.

Asteyan fussed over my recovery but quickly moved on to the matter of the killing. “This has been a deeply distressing episode for everyone involved, of course. Poor Hutton is quite distracted from his work, and I do not think the doctor has come to terms with this awful crime – I hardly believe it myself! You can be assured of our cooperation, I promise!”

Every few moments brought a new gesture: a shake of the shoulders, a dampening in a mood field, a wringing of hands, punctuated by a lurch whenever Asteyan’s frame ducked down to pass through a doorway or avoid a piece of piping in the ceiling. He was keen to put on a show for me, put the expedition’s management and disposition in the best light, and his gaze kept returning to my face as he fussed over how he might coax the rest of the ground crew out of their quarters or away from their stations. I decided it was better to keep him off balance.

“Thank you for your concern, Mr Asteyan, but I think I would like to see the crime scene first. The reports I’ve read are missing a few details.”

Anything that had made it off the site would have been subject to his approval, but he didn’t skip a beat at my implicit challenge. “Of course, of course! It’s some distance away, but the transit should give the rest of us ample time for interviews: I promise you’ll find everyone ready to talk by the time you return to Operations.”

A rail-pod took us out to the chambers where Lyell had died. They had been recompressed, but not heated, so I made sure to seal my suit. Asteyan ushered me through the station and another series of corridors before stopping outside an entrance too small to admit his frame; the door had been ripped from its hinges and lay propped up against the corridor wall.

Even as I braced myself, I still shivered as I looked at the body. Its face was, of course, the same one that Peri had showed me in the mirror. Like me, Lyell had not boarded the ship but had been mapped onto one of its drone bodies; a tiny streak of yellow hair was all that differentiated it from my own.

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Garnet (part 3)

Just shy of three years later, another fragment. I’m tentatively back on the blogging thing, though at this point I’m not setting any hard guidelines for what gets published. It’s a hard follow-on from the previous fragment, so probably best to go back to the earlier bits before continuing.

For all that the architecture indicated a local origin for the complex, nobody had been able to find any evidence of it back home. The geoarchaeologists had put through several requests for deep archive searches that  came back blank after months of being shunted from one low-priority queue to another; my own investigations, though treated with far more urgency, had returned the same result: there was nothing to imply that anyone had ever come this way from Hearthfire before the current expedition. The whole situation was highly unusual, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the lead investigator had logged a request for expert help right before he’d been murdered.

As killings went, it hadn’t been spectacular. Doctor Lyell had been found by his research partner, trapped in a chamber near the edge of the complex they had been studying. Both of the examiners had reported that he’d died from lack of air – he was mapped to a ship bio-body identical to my own – but he was badly bruised and his communicator had been smashed to bits, which left little room for accident.

Working back through the witness statements on the terminal was excruciatingly slow: my hands fumbled every second or third gesture, and I still felt too dizzy to read, leaving real-time audio playback as the only option to absorb them. Still, I pressed on and listened, once again, to the recordings of the three surviving ground staff: Sial Hutton, the other scientist, Hu Kielo, the expedition’s cyberneticist and doctor, and Asteyan, its sponsor. I let their panic and concern and wheedling wash over me in turn, and felt no wiser for it once I was done.

Again, I went back to sleep.

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Garnet (part 2)

(just a fragment for now!)

In the end, I had drifted back to sleep. The thought of moving around was still intimidating, and my mind seemed unable to settle down and work properly on anything I set it to. When in doubt, rest. I felt much better on my second awakening, though I still hesitated to leave my cradle. My guts had settled a little, but I didn’t trust myself to move around unsupervised, and there was still much I could accomplish before putting my new body to the test; I had a lot of research to do, and I wanted to test my memory.

I started with the crew roster and the expedition’s finances before giving up out of boredom – the Merry Widow had established a routine that was numbingly uniform, especially given its crew were all biological, and the money was no more suspicious than it had been when I had reviewed it back on Planting. I moved on to the surrounds – the ship, the still unnamed planet it orbited, and the strange complex that had drawn the expedition in the first place.

None of the scientists had come up with a plausible reason for it to exist, though their preliminary reports had all indicated that it was likely to have been made by people from around Hearthfire, and it dated well after the old settlement. The data archives they had uncovered were all garbled beyond usefulness, though they had yet to rule out viable repairs. The planet itself was a lifeless ball of rock and ice, likely barren and sterile ever since it had formed, since Garnet, was far too cool to have ever given it the energy needed for liquid water.

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Garnet (part 1)

I woke up in the dark and I didn’t know where I was. I could hear voices but no words. My body complained to me in unfamiliar ways – dizziness, disorientation, and a strange feeling of being about to fall. It shouldn’t be doing that, I thought.

“Arbiter Trinn?”

The voice cut through my dizziness this time. I tried to reply but ended up with little more than a groan. My body felt all wrong – slow, imprecise, and strangely reluctant to act.

“Everything looks all right, Arbiter. Take your time, I know it can be tough waking up.”

I shifted myself forward but felt restraints almost immediately. I sagged back and made a second attempt at speech, no more successful than the first. It got through to the speaker, at least.

“Easy, easy. I’ll raise the lights a little, then get you some water.”

Light followed, and sight with it – a cramped and windowless room full of unfamiliar devices, and a figure in front of me. Androform, probably biological, possibly female, short with dark hair and pale skin. Dressed in a uniform of sorts, grey and black and strangely loose, holding a bottle of sorts, not properly attached to the floor. Floating. I still couldn’t think properly.

My attendant floated closer and brought the bottle to my lips; my mouth seemed to know what to do better than I did and I found myself drinking, sucking and swallowing without quite understanding how or why.

“There you go. Hang in there, you’ll be fine. The sedative should be wearing off pretty fast.” She smiled and pulled the bottle away – I coughed but felt much better. She pulled back a little and studied me. “My name is Peri, Arbiter. Explorer, crew management and communications.” I decided to gamble on speech a third time, but my attempt to tell her that I couldn’t think properly came out garbled. Peri gave me a smile.

“Just relax, Arbiter. Weightlessness is always tricky, but your body will get used to it; it’s designed for space work, after all. You’ve only been mapped for an hour, so it will probably take some time to get used to it.”

I did not feel reassured. The sharpening sensations throughout my body made my first successful sentence a statement, not a question.

“You put me in a meat body.” The timbre of my body’s voice made it even more obvious. Peri paused for a second before nodding and bringing a mirror in front of me. A stranger stared at me, breathed with me, froze with borrowed outrage and disgust. Brown skin, black hair with a strange slash of green, a prominent nose, a strong jaw. Broad, lean shoulders mostly covered by a uniform much like Peri’s. Breathing, sweating, almost crying.

There it was, then – the dizziness and the strangeness and the unbearable slowness all in one. Nausea because I had a stomach and intestines and blood and hormones to make me feel dizzy. This awful sluggishness because each thought had to crawl its way through a brain and then force its way through lungs and throat and lips and tongue to make itself heard. It had been so long that I had forgotten what it was like.

Why am I in a meat body? And a male one, at that?” I glared at Peri. She glared right back.

“Neuter, actually, though I’ll agree it’s a masculine frame. It’s the only one we have, Arbiter. Perfectly serviceable and well-adapted for the demands of ship work.” She turned aside to stow the bottle in a wall locker and busied herself at a terminal. “I’ve no doubt you’re finding it stressful, Arbiter, but I’d prefer you kept that language to yourself.”

I realised, then, what I had said – and then had to wonder just how badly my condition had confused my thinking. Meat was not a word you threw around, even when you were angry or confused. Billions of people were meat and were no less human for it. Most of me had been meat, even if it had been a long time ago.

Peri was meat.

The churning I felt from the weightlessness and the drugs had a new component, as shame worked its slow, chemical way into my mind. This was not going to be an easy assignment, especially if Peri decided to hold a grudge. My discomfort only grew as I tried to think of a reasonable response.

“I am sorry, Explorer. It has been a very long time since I have been organically embodied.”

Peri nodded and kept about her work. It was probably me she was working on, I realised – a few parts of my body were tellingly numb, so it was probably still connected to its housing in a few places. Was it just drugs, or was it fed intravenously? I would have to learn these things, I realised. Peri finished at her terminal and moved around out of my line of sight before coming back with another one. She removed the restraints around my arms matter-of-factly.

“You’ll probably need to rest for at least a day before you’ll be fit to move around. Doctor Hu assured me that the mapping went smoothly, but the weightlessness will make it much harder for you to adjust. Our visitor bodies have a good deal of helpful reflex built into them, but every mind needs time to adjust.” She placed the new terminal on a table in front of me. “Your body does have direct interface capability, but I’d strongly recommend against using it until you’re properly oriented, just to make sure the mapping holds. If you want to distract yourself then you can use this in the meantime.”

“As you say.” My head was feeling clearer now, but I was fairly sure it would be addled as soon as I tried to move. “You are the expert, Explorer. I’ll do my best to follow your advice.”

She paused a while and offered me a smile. “Peri is fine, Arbiter. You’ll be up and feeling better soon, trust me.”

I attempted a smile of my own. “You can call me Trinn, then. And once you’ve discharged me, you can tell me everything you know about this murder.”

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Meeting of Minds

I spent most of today’s writing time working on something that’s not quite ready yet – hopefully it will be up later this week. In the meantime, please have something inspired by Paul’s recent burst of AW hack activity!

Or you can just view the supporting feature again. It’s much funnier than me.

It had been too easy.

The Galacians had not surrendered yet, of course, but throughout the past month he had never seen a cyborg commander so willing to talk. Alexander still felt a nagging feeling that the parley was a ruse.

His joints ached. The morning air was cold, far too cold for anyone to be up and about. Civilised people had no business being out in the wilderness when it was this cold. It felt strange that this truth should strike him harder than any of  the other senseless things he’d done since crossing the border, but it had a solidity, a substance, that none of the orders and threats and borderline insubordination could quite gather. He could dissemble, he could evade, he could lie to his soldiers and his colleagues and his superiors and himself about how and why he was here – but he was an old man, and his bones complained when it was cold.

“Only one minute to the hour. Still nobody in sight, sir”. The lieutenant from HQ shifted from foot to foot, though Alexander couldn’t tell whether it was from nerves or cold. Slightly behind them both, Graffen stood still as a rock.

“They’ll come. The Galacians keep their promises.” He found himself speaking with more confidence than he thought he had. The younger man – Wyland? Weston? – didn’t reply, though his guarded expression made it obvious enough that he didn’t share Alexander’s opinion. The rest of the Littorand party hung back with the vehicles at the northern edge of the clearing, checking their weapons and scanning the edges of the forest. Nervous, far too nervous. Alexander quietly shook his head. He’d seen grunts get rattled by setbacks in the past, but this time it felt like his men had learned to fear this enemy far too quickly and too thoroughly. Defeat still dogged them, long after they’d turned the tables on the Galacians.

Klaus cleared his throat and Alexander turned his attention back to the south. A lone figure had cleared the trees – a slender young woman dressed in nondescript fatigues, walking slowly but confidently towards him. Dusky skin, short brown hair, shorter than him but not much. No obvious machine parts to give her away as a cyborg. As usual with the Galacians, she had no visible markings of rank on her uniform. Alexander checked his watch – it read 0800 hours precisely.

“That’s close enough.” The lieutenant – Welland, that was the boy’s name – stepped forward and quietly positioned himself between Alexander and the Galacian. “Identify yourself and state your business.” The woman made no reply, though she halted her advance. She ignored Welland and looked Alexander in the eye.

“You are Colonel Alexander of the Littorand National Army. You have led the pursuit of our forces for the last four weeks.” It was not a question. Alexander gently pushed his way past Welland and nodded.

“I am Colonel Alexander. We were told that your commander wished to negotiate. Please inform him that I have come as requested, and that I have no intention of betraying his trust. I am prepared to order my men back to their camp if he requires it.” He could feel Welland staring daggers into him for that last, but he knew it was the right thing to say. Sometimes you had to set your strength aside if you wanted your enemy to listen to you.

The woman paused for a few seconds before replying. “It will not be necessary for your soldiers to retreat, Colonel Alexander. I am willing to trust your word that this is not a trap.” She turned slightly and looked past him. “Lieutenant Simon Wellard, I am Captain Alesini, and I am the leader of this company of the Galacian Autonomous Defence forces. I have also taken provisional command of the Volunteer Army soldiers in our detachment. I am here to negotiate a ceasefire with Colonel Alexander. Please do not interrupt further.”

The lieutenant blanched – Graffen didn’t bat an eyelid. Alexander cursed himself for making foolish assumptions. Of course their commander would be a woman. They were half metal anyway, what difference did it make how they were born?

He nodded to her. “I am sure the lieutenant will restrain himself, Commander. Please allow me to apologise for my presumption.”

She shook her head. “An apology is not necessary. I have one request for you, Colonel. Please abandon your pursuit and allow my soldiers to retreat to the coast.” Alexander extended a hand in front of Welland as the younger man nearly exploded behind him. The woman – Alesini – continued as if she had never been interrupted.

“If you are unwilling or unable to do so, I am willing to offer a provisional surrender, contingent upon the safe treatment of all of my soldiers under the articles of Littorand military law.”

Alexander stood speechless. After months of feints, ambushes, feigned retreats and counterattacks, she was just going to surrender?

She took his silence as a cue to continue. “Our best predictions inform us that the most likely outcome of an extended pursuit is the annihilation of our army, followed by a Boscan ambush of your column. Our preferred outcome is a safe retreat and extraction, but your hierarchical command structure leads us to believe that you are unlikely to pursue this course of action. We would therefore be willing to be taken as prisoners of war and transported out of Boscan territory as rapidly as possible.”

He still couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He felt numb. She wanted to surrender. Just like that.

“If you are unable to guarantee the safety of my soldiers, then I will have no option remaining but to continue fighting in the hope that you make a mistake and give us the opportunity to escape.” She fished an army-issue radio out of a belt pouch and tossed it to him. Shock and cold kept him from grabbing it in time, but Graffen snatched it just before it hit the ground. She stared at him as if expecting an answer.

“I will wait for one day before I resume hostilities. I hope you will be willing to make the mutually beneficial choice.” And without any acknowledgement of his total loss of composure, she turned on her heel and marched back the way she came.

Alexander’s heart sank as the woman – the Galacian commander – slipped back through the trees. He knew already that headquarters would not allow him to honour her terms, not even the twenty-four hour ceasefire. Her proposal – calm, clear, logical, humanitarian – proved every accusation that the generals had levelled against her people.

The Galacians weren’t human. And he would have no choice but to kill them all.

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