They found her up on the drift, on the edge of the steppe, curled on the dry grass like an animal sleeping. Her face was hidden in her matted hair, and it was only when they pulled her up that they saw the blood crusted on her skin and the front of her shirt. It wasn’t her blood. When they got her back to the village and examined her they found she wasn’t hurt at all, except for exhaustion and the blisters on her feet from long walking. They gave her to one of the women to look after, whose own daughter had died in the Russian flu the last winter.
They thought the girl looked about twelve, but she wouldn’t confirm it. She wouldn’t say where she came from either; she wouldn’t even tell them her name. They tried at first to trace her, but without any details it was hopeless. There were still farmsteads scattered over the steppe to the north of them, but the people came and went, and if one of the farms was attacked and destroyed, it might be that no one would ever know how or when. After a while, because she was dead to her past, they started calling her Alisa, the name of the dead daughter. Having nowhere to go, she stayed.
She lived in the village for three years, but they never warmed to her. Always quiet, she grew into a sullen girl, with tousled dark hair and a bold, considering eye. She seemed to recover from whatever had happened to her well enough, the only reminder was a slight limp where one of the blisters had grown into a scar. But she didn’t work as the other girls did, helping with the herding or the endless repairs to the irrigation system on which all their livings depended. She didn’t even cook or mind the younger children. Most of her time she seemed to spend leaning against a wall, staring into space or watching the men as they walked past. When the blue-skinned aliens set up the mission on the hill she started going up there, and everyone was relieved. It was not long after she had moved into the mission altogether that the villagers forgot that she had ever temporarily been theirs.
Yalla sat on the step outside the mission door, wishing it would rain. She had been prepared for Terran culture, Terran thought, even Terran food, but it had not occurred to her that what she would miss most about Chi!me was the weather. Back home on Chi!me the skies were purple with cloud and the air was soft and wet, not like here where the wind whipped it harsh into your lungs till you felt you were breathing sand. Back home, the lesser rain came once a season and the great rain every cycle, when all the streets were filled with water and painted boats nudged along them beneath festival lights and laughter.
It had not always been quite so dry here, she knew. The villagers said that to the south, where the reeds grew in the winter, there had been a sea long ago, but that it had dried up when the climate changed. Some Chi!me worlds had the same problem. Chi!me influence was spread so far throughout the galaxy that there was nothing they had not encountered, and even Yalla could see that the water reclamation and irrigation systems the villagers used were primitive and unreliable. It was a hard life for them, out here in the grass. That was why she was here.
She had first encountered the mission more than two cycles ago, when she and her small daughter Ceri had been part of a crowd gathered on a friend’s balcony to hear Xu’Enle talk about Terra. They all knew a little about Terra, but it wasn’t a fashionable cause, not like the poor natives on Herantive or all the oppressed inhabitants of the former Gargarin empire, who so much needed Chi!me help to be free. But Xu’Enle had actually been to Terra, and according to him they were even more deserving.
He had described the poverty and ignorance of the areas outside the cities, the fuel rationing which left villages with barely enough for food production, the epidemics and the endemic violence of a culture lost to the more civilising influence of the Chi!me. And he had spoken of their special responsibility to Terra, above and beyond their general burden of teaching all the races less advanced them themselves. Their moral duty to help alleviate what the Chi!me victory in their great war with the Gargarin had done unintentionally when it had caused the Terran Empire to collapse. Yalla had been so inspired that she had pledged herself to the mission the very next day.
She had learned a lot more about Terra in the days that followed. The Terran Empire, made up of colony planets spread all over their part of the galaxy, had been reliant on the Gargarin, the first people the Terrans had met, and the Gargarin defeat by the Chi!me had caused a depression so severe that the Imperial government ceased to function. The short war that followed had been won by a group of army officers and politicians who called themselves the Three Hundred, and they and their descendants had ruled Terra for the twenty cycles, 80 Terran years, since.
Their success had been based on an anti-alien stance so fundamentalist that it even extended to the Terran colonies, and initially it had been almost impossible for anyone to travel to Terra. In recent years, however, the Three Hundred had started to relax the rules on what they persisted in calling ‘alien contact’ and it was now possible to help their people. On his last visit to Terra, Xu’Enle had been able to persuade them to agree to a charitable mission, a network of small modules bringing supplies, medical aid and teaching to the most isolated rural communities. Yalla had been one of the first missionaries, and so for four Terran years she had been the alien in the village of Tenkum, in the province of Asia Central; helping, counselling, teaching the natives the Chi!me way.
She heard the shout resignedly, knowing it would be Pre’Gumana even before she saw him trotting up the path. Pre’Gumana was formally part of the mission, a political liaison to all the missionaries in the Asian provinces, sent out by the Office of Interplanetary Protocols, the eyes and hands of the United Planets organisation, to make sure they didn’t get into trouble. Yalla tried not to resent the slight to her political sense.
It was a good thing, after all, that IntPro were here. The Chi!me Council did not have to pay any attention to the missions; the fact that they had ensured IntPro involvement showed that they recognised their duty towards the Terrans. She’d said as much to Xu’Enle once, before she left home, and she remembered his satisfied look as he’d replied ‘It’s their burden too.’ She clung to that when Pre’Gumana’s loud tones grated on her, when even his silent presence seemed to dispel the harmony she was trying to build. As Alisa said, sardonic, you could always tell when Mani was around. Yalla told herself he was at least a link to home, and it was pleasant to have one person to call her by her name.
Because it was the policy of the mission that all the missionaries would only use Terran, even in private, she had worked out a Terran pronunciation, and when she had first arrived she had told her name to all the villagers as she had learnt theirs. She had kept on repeating it, but had gradually realised that they never would use it, as if the unfamiliar shape was too forcible a reminder that she was alien. To her eyes they called her Domna, ‘Madam’ in the old formal tongue of the Empire. Out of sight they called her ‘the blue woman’ and she pretended she didn’t know.
Pre’Gumana hurried up the last of the slope and stood before her, panting slightly. She suspected he was waiting for her to get up, but she stayed where she was, squinting up at him silhouetted against the sun.
‘I didn’t hear the flyer’ she remarked, in Terran.
‘I left it down on the flat. I had enough of clearing dust out of the filters the last time I brought it up here. Everything going well? You’re looking clear.’
It was a rather stilted translation but she knew the Chi!me idiom he meant. The aim for all Chi!me was to be calm and unshadowed; Yalla often thought that the Terrans would be better off if they had a word for it.
‘Yes, thank you. And you? I wasn’t expecting you for a while yet.’
‘No. Well, something’s come up.’ He looked around. ‘Where are the girls?’
‘Alisa took Ceri down to the village. Why? What’s the matter?’
Pre’Gumana looked round again, as if checking for listeners. ‘Not here.’
‘Why not here?’ Yalla got to her feet. ‘Mani, you’re worrying me now. Tell me what’s the matter.’
He shook his head. ‘Come inside.’
The module was a small building in the Chi!me style, with two storeys and a narrow turret above them at the front for sleeping. The main living area was on the first floor, where a deep screened balcony, running the width of the front wall, created an open space large enough for Yalla’s clinic and the school she ran three mornings out of seven for the village children. A diamond-shaped crystal hung from the ceiling, suffusing the room with blue light to promote harmony. Pre’Gumana closed the screens that separated the room from the balcony so they could not be overheard from outside.
‘I was in Tashkent yesterday’ he said.
Tashkent was the provincial capital. ‘You often are. So?’
‘So I heard some news.’ He paused, portentously. ‘They’ve sent an inspector.’
Yalla was unimpressed. ‘An inspector? Of what? I don’t see what the problem is. It can’t be anything to do with us.’
‘A provincial inspector.’ Pre’Gumana, balked of his effect, explained. ‘Sent out by the Three Hundred in Des Moines to check up on a provincial governor. By the stars, Yalla, do you view any of the political briefings I send you?’
‘Not usually. They don’t seem very relevant out here. And really, Mani, “who’s getting promoted”, “who’s going to be recalled”, it’s just waste chatter; even Ceri knows we don’t encourage that. We’re here to help these people, not to listen to things we would despise at home.’
She quoted a well-known phrase, ‘Neither useful nor kind, so silent’ and Pre’Gumana coughed.
‘Yes, well, of course. But it isn’t always just chatter. Even if you don’t pay any attention you must know that this province is easily the most rebellious on the planet, that there’s more feeling for independence here than anywhere else?’
‘Of course, even in Tenkum they talk about independence. But that’s all it is, it’s just talk. Nothing will ever come of it.’
‘Well, that’s the centre of it. Nothing will ever come of it anywhere else, because the Three Hundred control the power supply and without those government fuel cells and those government power lines, no province could survive on its own.’
‘They only barely survive with it’ Yalla broke in. ‘We should do something about that, we could give them so much more efficient fuel technology than they have now, they’ve barely changed the design since the beginning of the Empire, and it would make so much difference. Think what they could do if they had really reliable power! You should raise it back home.’
Pre’Gumana ignored this.
‘Yes, well, anyway, this province and Canada West are different. They still have that old stuff they burn, what’s it called? That’s it, oil. Cycles ago, when they nearly wrecked the planet, they used it all up, all except for a couple of deposits their primitive economy couldn’t make it worth extracting. Under Canada West, and under here.’
Involuntarily, they both looked down.
‘There’s old pipelines running from north of here down to Tashkent and Samarkand. They’ve been running the oil extraction for cycles in a small way, but Governor Smallwood stepped it up last year. He’s from Canada West, did you know that? They won’t let any governor serve in the place they come from, but I heard he worked very hard to get himself sent here. Because he knows about oil.’
‘So you think they will break away?’
‘I think the Three Hundred think they may try. That’s why they’ve sent the inspector.’
Yalla turned to the centre of the room.
‘Shall we sit down? It’s all very interesting, but I still don’t see what it has to do with us. We’re here to help these people, not to get involved in their politics.’
‘But don’t you think’ exclaimed Pre’Gumana, plumping himself down onto the cushions beside her, ‘that one of the best things that could happen to them would be to be free of the Three Hundred? You’re here to open up the galaxy to your poor villagers, well it’s the Three Hundred that have kept it closed from them. You must see’ he added, watching her narrowly, ‘that everything you do would be easier if this province were free.’
‘I suppose so.’ Yalla sighed. ‘I don’t see what we can do about it, though.’
She meant ‘we, the Chi!me’, not ‘we, the mission’ and in response, Pre’Gumana’s expression became pious.
‘We can help. We can do whatever we can to help. Governor Smallwood is not, shall we say, uninterested in help from us. But we can only help if we have all the information, separate from what the governor might tell us. In particular, we need to know what the inspector will report back to the Three Hundred. You know the old saying, ‘anticipate events in order to change them.’
‘Yes, I can see that would be useful. But’ she laughed, ‘I still don’t see why you’re telling me. The inspector is hardly going to tell me his plans just because I ask him!’
Pre’Gumana didn’t join in. ‘No’ he said, seriously. ‘But he might tell Alisa.’
Yalla stared at Pre’Gumana in amazement.
‘Alisa?’ she echoed. ‘What the stars do you mean?’
‘I would have thought it was obvious. I need a Terran. Someone who can…befriend the inspector, encourage him to talk. Alisa’s a good-looking girl, if you like Terrans, and she’s local but not so local anyone in Tashkent would know she lives here with you. I’d say she’s ideal.’
‘And I say it’s monstrous! She’s here for protection, you can’t just put her to work like she was born for you to use!’
‘That’s not what I meant at all. You misunderstand. It would be just-
‘Yes, it is. It’s exactly what you mean and I understand very well!’
She saw in his face how angry she sounded and went on in a more moderate tone. ‘I know you need this information and I can see that the inspector would talk to another Terran, but I just don’t think it’s a good idea to use Alisa. I don’t know if you know her story?’
Pre’Gumana made it his business to know all the village gossip about the missions, and had made his own assessment of Alisa, but he didn’t think it necessary to tell Yalla this. He held his hand palm down for ‘no’.
‘She hasn’t said very much to me, but she has lived here for nearly a cycle, so I know her a little. I know she escaped from some terrible tragedy when she was a child and she’s carrying all that Terran violence round inside her. I’ve done what I can, I do what I can, but even with all the work I’ve done with her she’s not the easiest of daughters. She only came here because the villagers wouldn’t have her any more, you must have seen how difficult she can be. I know she’s almost an adult, as Terrans reckon it, but she still needs our help. It’s people like her I came here to help. She’s not unusual, she’s what’s been happening to Terra for so many years. I know we need to help them all, but if we can’t help Terrans like Alisa, what good is it?’
‘You admit they need help, then?’ Pre’Gumana began. Yalla cut him off.
‘I’m sorry, Mani. I can’t allow you to use Alisa for this. It’s too dangerous.’
‘It’s not a question of danger. And really Yalla, as you say, she’s an adult and she has the right to come and go as she pleases. If she chooses to help me, you have no right to stop her.’ He paused. ‘You know that it’s a condition of the mission that all the missionaries abide by our political judgment. We need Alisa to meet the inspector, it’s as simple as that. I had hoped that you’d see that it’s the right thing to do, that if you want to help Terrans and people like her you should allow her to do this, but if you don’t I’ll take her without your help.’
His face shone pale in the dim room, lighter than Yalla’s, the delicate eggshell blue of leadership. His voice, unusually quiet, was more serious than she had ever heard it.
‘I like to have a good relationship with all the missionaries in my sector’ he said. ‘We’re best when we’re working together, all for the same purpose. You haven’t seen what it’s like if we don’t. So don’t cross me on this, Yalla. Believe me, it’s best.’
He slid off the cushions and stood up.
‘I promise I’ll bring her back to you safe and unharmed’ he said in his normal tone as he made his way to the stairs, ‘but I wouldn’t worry about her. She seems well able to take care of herself.’
Yalla glared, defeated, at his departing back.
‘That’s not what I’m afraid of.’
Tashkent had been the provincial capital since the beginning of the Empire and about two hundred years ago had been rebuilt in the imperial style. The curled pediments might be chipped now and the fluted columns grimy, but at a casual glance, with eyes half-closed, it still managed to recall the glories of New Rome. Pre’Gumana left the flyer on the outskirts, he said to avoid attracting attention, and walked Alisa into the centre with a hood pulled over his face to hide his skin colour. She tried not to limp beside him in the unfamiliar high shoes; town girl clothes of which the conservative villagers of Tenkum would not have approved.
Alisa had been to towns before but never to Tashkent. Yalla had told her over and over how dangerous it was, how Pre’Gumana had no right to take her, but she hadn’t hesitated. Yalla didn’t understand how boring Tenkum was when places like it were all you’d known; that it wasn’t alien and exotic to everyone just because it was to her. As they walked, Pre’Gumana kept up a muttered stream of instructions, repeating what he had already told her back at the mission and again in the flyer.
The clerk at the inspector’s hotel had been well bribed and would make sure the inspector chose the right club for his night’s entertainment. The barman at the club would tell her when the inspector arrived and would keep other girls away. All she had to do this time was make him like her. Pre’Gumana said with unpractised flattery that that shouldn’t be very hard. She would have to have sex with him, something neither of them had mentioned to Yalla, but she didn’t mind that. She could see it was necessary.
‘If you do well, I could have other jobs for you’ Pre’Gumana said. ‘I always need agents I can rely on. You’d be paid, of course, we always reward those who help us, and there’d be travel. Our best agents we even take off-planet, and I think you could be one of them. Get you away from Tenkum, anyway! Between ourselves, I think Ai’Yalla’s a little overprotective of you.’
Alisa thought of the soft haven of the mission, the blue light of Yalla’s world where everyone meant well. Where the strong helped the weak because they could and the weak were grateful.
‘You know’ Pre’Gumana went on, enlarging on his theme, ‘I’ve always admired you, Alisa. I’ve always thought you had the qualities an agent needs. We often find that with Terrans; Terrans make some of our best agents. You see, it’s not about trickery, being good with words, that’s the mistake new recruits always make. You don’t have to fool people into telling you what you want to know, more often than not they want to tell you! They just need a little encouragement. What an agent needs is the ability to listen, to let the other person talk, and just…guide them the right way. I think you can do that.
The good agent is the stranger, the one who doesn’t quite belong anywhere they go, and you have to be the one who’ll do what no one else will, because it needs to be done. You have not to mind a certain amount of danger, of course. We have a saying back home that you should fear death only as much as the dead do. And in the end you have to be the one sees clearly, the one who understands what’s really going on.’
He peered at her from beneath his hood.
‘And you do, don’t you?’
She thought again of Yalla, trying so hard to help.
‘Yes’ she said.
Alisa sat on a stool at the bar, sipping her drink with every appearance of insouciance. Her hair was twisted on top of her head with silver combs to match her dress and she let the heel of one shoe tap gently as she waited against the side of the stool. Underneath the dress was the knife Pre’Gumana had given her before he left her a few doors from the club. The metal was cold against her waist, but the thought of the hilt warmed her empty palm, smooth and comfortable as if it had always been there.
The barman glanced over as a man came in, and moving across the bar to serve him gave her the signal she was waiting for. The inspector was older than she had expected. She’d been imagining a young man, one of the sons of the Three Hundred perhaps, suave and good-looking, but this man was well into middle age, with the heavy tread of good dinners. He was staring at her already as he waited for his drink. Unobtrusively she pushed her skirt a little higher up her thighs then, looking up, she caught his eye and smiled.
It was the fourth time she went that she didn’t come back.
The first three times, Pre’Gumana had brought her back in the flyer by midday. She hadn’t said very much about it. Yalla found her subdued and less snappish with Ceri than usual, but couldn’t tell a reason. She only thought that she seemed clearer, as if with each journey she sloughed off a skin. The fourth time, Yalla waved her off in Pre’Gumana’s flyer as usual in the afternoon and went in to prepare for her evening clinic. After everyone had gone and Ceri had been put to bed, she took a cup of hot leaf infusion out onto the balcony and sat looking south-east over the reeds to where Tashkent lay far beyond the horizon. When it started to get light she went in to change her clothes and wash her face, as if she had slept.
She started worrying well before noon and spent the afternoon placing call after call to Pre’Gumana, none of which he returned. In the early evening she heard voices raised down in the village and she called Ceri inside, but she didn’t go down to see what had happened. She stayed, waiting. Late that night, she heard the flyer whirring gently up the slope and ran out onto the balcony to see Pre’Gumana getting out, alone.
She didn’t call out to him. She didn’t say anything. She felt as if she knew every detail already, right down through her bones. She stood still and waited for him to come in. He bounded up the stairs and as he reached the top, for a moment, before he corrected his expression, he was smiling.
‘Have you heard the news?’ he demanded.
‘What news?’ She would not ask him, she refused to ask him about Alisa. Let him tell her, she thought, with a venom that surprised her, let him tell her since it was his idea.
‘The inspector’s dead. They’re saying it was Smallwood arranged it, there’s been rioting in Tashkent all day, for and against. The Three Hundred are saying they may send in troops to arrest him. You really haven’t heard any of this?’
‘There was something going on in the village earlier. I didn’t go to see. I didn’t want to leave here, in case you called.’
She said it pointedly and he had the grace to look slightly embarrassed.
‘Yes, I’m sorry I couldn’t call you earlier. It’s been an interesting day.’
She would not ask, she would not. She pitched her voice light, conversational.
‘Did Smallwood kill the inspector?’
He gaped at her.
‘Of course not. Isn’t it obvious? It was Alisa.’
There wasn’t, he said, very much more he could tell her. He had left Alisa round the corner from the hotel bar as arranged, and knew nothing else except that she had failed to turn up at the usual place for him to take her back. When he’d heard that the inspector had been found stabbed in his hotel room he had surmised what must have happened, but he didn’t know. He had looked for Alisa, but he hadn’t found her.
‘She could be anywhere. On Terran among thousands, how would you ever pick her out? And really better for her that she stays hidden, because if the Terrans caught her she’d be executed for sure. Primitive punishments, Terrans have.’
His tone was so unconcerned that Yalla’s control broke.
‘I know! I know what they’d do to her! Stars above, that’s why I…we have to find her, I don’t believe we can’t if we just spend some more time looking for her, she can’t have gone so very far. She needs help. I told you that. She needs our help. We have to find her and get her back here, then we have to get her out!’
‘Get her out?’
‘Out. Off this planet. Back to Chi!me, maybe, or to one of the colony worlds if she’d rather. Wherever she wants to go where they can’t get her.’
Pre’Gumana stared at her.
‘Are you mad? You can’t just take her off planet!’
‘There’s laws against it, for one thing! You know the United Planets agreement, no sentient is ever to be removed from their planet without the consent of the government of that planet. That’s basic, Yalla, you know this. The Three Hundred would have to give their permission and since it’s their inspector she’s stabbed I hardly think they will!’
‘Well then, we take her off without their permission! I don’t see the problem. You told me, when I first came, that if we ever had any trouble we could call in a ship to take us off. Well, why can’t we do that? Pretend Ceri’s sick, or something. We call our ship and we all three of us get on it. What could be easier?’
‘You know as well as I do that the captain would have to have Council orders before he’d let a Terran on the ship.’
‘Then I’ll call the Council!’
‘They won’t allow it.’
‘Why not? Why wouldn’t they let me help her? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?’
Pre’Gumana raised his voice in exasperation.
‘By the Stars, Yalla, you really don’t view the political briefings, do you? The Council can’t allow you to take Alisa off planet in case the Three Hundred found out.’
‘Because then they’d know you were trying to spy on their inspector, you mean? But what does that matter, compared to a life? I can’t believe the Council would put a little diplomatic embarrassment above…’
‘Not just that.’ He took a fortifying breath. ‘Think about it. If the Three Hundred, or anyone else for that matter, found out that the girl who murdered the inspector was living at a Chi!me mission, that they’d actually taken her to meet the inspector and then afterwards taken her off to Chi!me, what would they think? They’d think we had the inspector killed, that’s what they’d think. We can’t allow that.’
‘But I don’t see why not!’ Yalla burst out. ‘I understand it would be embarrassing to have people believing lies about us, I can see it would make things difficult for all of us here, for a time, but it would pass. Not everyone would believe it, anyway, and we could explain. Even if we had to leave Terra altogether, there are other places that need our help, too, and we could come back. I’m not saying that what we’re doing here isn’t important, but it’s not so important that Alisa should die to preserve it!’
‘It’s a little more complicated than that. We can’t just walk away from Terra. It could be a wealthy planet, it could be very good for us, if we could open up trade, get some favourable agreements in. The Three Hundred are never going to agree to that, and that’s the centre of it. We can’t have the government here or anyone thinking that we had the inspector killed because…’
She saw it in his face before he said it, the guilty triumph mixed with shame.
‘Because we did. That’s it, isn’t it? You knew this would happen, or something like it. I told you Alisa was dangerous and I thought you didn’t listen, but you did, you listened too well. You sent her in there with a weapon and you waited for this to happen. What did you tell her, to bring her to it? Did you tell her she was striking a blow for Terra, for freedom?’
He held her gaze.
‘I told her she had to do what was necessary. She didn’t need very much encouragement.’
Outside, beyond the balcony, the sky was paling, the stars glimmering weakly against the cold blue. Somewhere out there were the Chi!me Council, the United Planets and IntPro, running the galaxy, making their plans, looking down from so far away that one Terran girl was too small to be seen. Yalla closed her eyes.
‘It doesn’t change anything’ she said. ‘I don’t care about your reasons, your justifications for the unjustifiable. She was my charge. My responsibility. I was supposed to be protecting her and whatever secrets you want kept, whoever is against me I’ll be shunned if I’ll leave her here for them to catch.’
He eyed her soberly.
‘You’ll be shunned if you don’t.’
He had to leave at dawn, in order to be back in Tashkent by morning. She walked down to the door with him and waited while he started the flyer.
‘If the Three Hundred send the army the local troops will resist them’ he told her. ‘I heard on my way here that Canada West has said they’ll send soldiers as well to help Smallwood if it comes to that. This could bring the Three Hundred down; if two provinces are actually in armed rebellion against them it’ll be civil war. I know you think it was wrong, but this could do more good for us than all your missions ever could.’
‘Good for us’ she echoed.
If he heard the bitterness he didn’t show it.
‘Of course. Why else are we here?’
The official start of the civil war was ten days later, but it was only five before Yalla heard that the missions were being pulled out. She had spent the five days contacting Xu’Enle, the Council, any of her friends who might have any influence, begging them to help her get Alisa out, and the answer was always the same. She could not take a Terran wanted by Terran law enforcement off the planet. It was against all interplanetary law; if she tried, it would be difficult to stop the Terrans from keeping her themselves for punishment. A diplomatic incident was more important than the life of one guilty Terran girl, who she couldn’t even find. Yalla tried to control her mounting despair and supervised Ceri with the packing.
It was the night before they were due to leave that Alisa came. Yalla heard the distinctive knock at the back door from upstairs in the sleeping turret and ran down to find her on the step. She looked tired but calm, and in much better shape than if she had walked from Tashkent. She was wearing a man’s dark shirt and trousers that Yalla had never seen before and looked oddly taller, as if already she was halfway to being a stranger.
‘Hi, Yalla’ she said. ‘Can I come in?’
‘I thought I should come and explain.’ Alisa said. They were seated opposite each other on the cushions in the living area, keeping their voices low so as not to wake Ceri upstairs.
‘I don’t know how much Mani…that is, how much you know.’
‘Not much. You only just caught us. We’re leaving tomorrow. This morning, now.’
‘I know. That’s why I…’ she tailed off. ‘I wanted to say goodbye.’
‘I’m glad you did.’
There was a silence, then Yalla burst out,
‘Did you do it, Alisa? Did you really kill him?’
She nodded, matter-of-fact. ‘I really did.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Because Mani told me to, or I knew that was what he wanted, at least; or because I tried to make him tell me what he was going to report and he wouldn’t; or because he was getting suspicious and was going to call for security; because he was a man, just another man and I could. Because I thought of what happened years ago. I could invent a thousand different reasons for you and I don’t know which one is right. But I did do it. I know that.’
It seemed to Yalla that there was so much to say that none of it could be said.
‘How did you get away?’ she asked. ‘Where have you been all this time?’
‘Here and there. I walked some of the way, some of the rest I got lifts. Mani…’
‘Did Mani help you? He told me he didn’t know where you were.’
‘It’s best you don’t know. You could say I’ve been recruited, except you mustn’t.’ She smiled. ‘I’m not supposed to be here. They didn’t think it would be helpful. But I wanted to see you. I suppose just to say thank you.’ Her lip curled a little. ‘They said…but I thought I should.’
She stood up. ‘And now I had better get going. I’m expected… I’m not allowed to tell you where. Will you say goodbye to Ceri for me?’
Yalla followed her down the stairs, watched her open the door. Said suddenly,
‘You could come with us. You could hide in the baggage, or something. We could work something out, I’m sure we could. It’s not safe for you here. Please come.’
‘You know I can’t. You’d only get in trouble and I’d just get sent back.’
‘I can’t go, Yalla.’
She said it quietly, but finally.
‘No. I know. I’m just not very good at accepting it yet. I don’t find obedience as admirable a skill as I used to think’ She studied the girl’s face. ‘All this time teaching our culture, telling these poor villagers there’s a better way, and I don’t know if I believe it any more. I know we do have a duty to help them, to give them whatever we have that they don’t, because we’re just more fortunate than them, not more worthy, but I don’t know any more if that’s really what we’re doing. Maybe it was pretence. Maybe it was all just pretence. Maybe we really are just as selfish as…’
‘As Terrans?’ There was a mocking glint in Alisa’s eye. ‘I wouldn’t know. All that time you spent teaching me political philosophy, you must have noticed I wasn’t listening.’
That wrung a snort from Yalla, half way between a laugh and a cry. She wiped her hand across her face.
‘What will you do, once we’re gone? Will you be all right?’
Alisa gave her a sideways look. ‘Oh, you’re not all going. And I’ll be fine. I’ve a shiny new name and a calling and a whole planet to work in. They won’t catch me. And as for the rest…’ She shrugged. ‘I died once before, when I was a child. If I’m dead again now, well, at least I’ve had the practice.’
Va’Caris, who had not been called Ceri for over ten years, began to lag behind the others as they started down the main street. It wasn’t for any particular reason; this village, after all, was just like what felt like a hundred others they had seen on this tour. It was just that she was tired and her feet hurt, and her friends were talking office politics until she wanted to scream at them that this was supposed to be a holiday. Now that the civil war was ending at last and the Terran Dictator had control of most of the northern hemisphere, Terra had become the fashionable place to travel for ambitious young Chi!me. Caris was as aware as anyone of value of being fashionable. Her friends knew that she had been on Terra before, and that she claimed not to remember it. They may or may not have believed her, but they understood enough about the rest of her past to be tactful.
Yalla had sent her first formal protest to the Council while they were still on the ship, and had followed it up with another, and then another. They all said the same thing, that the Council were criminally neglecting their responsibilities to all sentient life, pretending to care for their welfare while actually using them to further their own secret interests. When none of these received a response she took to performing staged protests outside the council building itself, an unheard of thing on Chi!me. Eventually she’d been restrained for her own protection. Caris had changed her name when she got into the Academy. She hadn’t seen her mother for years.
Whenever she was asked about what had happened to Yalla on Terra, she said she didn’t remember. No one had ever mentioned Alisa to her, no one ever asked about her. She thought perhaps that Pre’Gumana had never reported her, that no one knew now about the Terran girl. She didn’t enlighten them. Perversely, she kept her to herself.
She remembered the last morning, before she and Yalla had hiked out to the shuttle that would take them off planet to the ship for home. Something had woken her, she hadn’t known what. It had been far too early to get up. She’d looked out of the window in the sleeping turret and there she had been, Alisa, walking away from her through the grass. She’d wanted to call out but she hadn’t. She’d only watched as she left, limping slightly as she always had, with the dawn light shining before her like a path to another place.
She knew she was probably dead, executed for the murder of the inspector if not killed in the civil war like so many others, but she couldn’t help looking for her, studying each face she saw for signs of hers. She hadn’t liked her but she missed her, and her obsession with her lost Terran sister, untold, was the only rebellion in her otherwise dutiful life.
Her friends, noticing that she was far behind them, stopped on the bridge for her to catch up. Below on the waterfront was a tavern, proclaiming ‘traditional Terran refreshment’ on a glowing sign. Along the riverside there were tables set out to catch passing trade, and a Terran woman in a frilled white apron collecting empty glasses. She had long hair that would have been dark once, though now it was streaked with grey. Caris couldn’t see her face. As she reached for the last glass she tossed her hair back from her shoulder in a gesture that seemed momentarily familiar, but, just as Caris’ heart was beginning that familiar jump, the woman looked straight up at the blue tourists on the bridge. She glared at them as they came chattering down the steps with a ferocity that would have fitted, but, like all the others, it wasn’t her.
Published in Jupiter SF issue 18