THE PLACE GLEAMED LIKE a surgical theater, which I supposed it was. The interview chambers beneath the Terran Chantry’s bastille—a surprisingly unassuming brutalist structure at the base of the ziggurat atop which Castle Borosevo perched—were all built to the same model, like stainless steel balloons inflated inside cubes. The walls and floor and ceiling of the room we occupied all blurred, melting into one another, and glow panels were fixed to the ceiling, colder than space. There were no shadows in that awful place.
Uvanari’s back was toward me as I entered, led by a white-robed Inquisitor and two black-robed cathars, bald and blindfolded. It recalled for me an icon of the pagan god Andreas, its legs and arms spread in an X. Though it was turned away from me, I saw the white blur of its reflection in the brushed metal wall of the cell, so I knew that it was naked. Per the inquisitor’s instructions, I stayed out of sight, waiting in a corner beside a rolling cart laden with surgical implements and glistening pale tubing. My breath frosted the air, and frost crunched beneath my feet. I felt the weight of eyes: the human watchers, the same ashen-hearted little men who had ordered this inquest. Ligeia would be there, and Ogir. And Smythe.
Smythe. I had thought better of the one-time plebeian officer.
The cathars busied themselves attaching sensor tape to the xenobite’s body in different places, and then one came for the cart beside me, wheeled it around the cross Uvanari clung to so the creature could see it. A thin, high wail escaped the Cielcin, bringing a smile to the inquisitor’s flat, native face. She thought them signs of pain and fear, those expressions which
colored my own face.
Uvanari was laughing. “Qisaba!” it swore, stopping the piercing sound, the words of its language a guttural contrast to the grating height of that inhuman laughter. “Why did you bother healing me?” It grew quiet, tried to crane its neck to look round, but it couldn’t see me. But it must have known someone was there from the blur of color reflected on the metal wall, if nothing else. What it said next cut through me: “Raka Marlowe saem ne?” Where is Marlowe? “I was promised sanctuary.”
The inquisitor looked at me to translate. She had not picked my name out of the string of alien words. I realized I was holding my breath, “It
asked why you healed it just to hurt it again.” I did not bother with the part about sanctuary. What was the point?
“Marlowe!” Uvanari turned its head, trying to see me. “Bakkute! You
said! You promised!” Its earlier amusement with the situation was gone. It had an enemy: me.
To the inquisitor I said, “It asks for me.” Then in Cielcin I added,
“Asvatatayu koarin o-variidu, Uvanari-se.” I wasn’t given a choice.
“You will not speak to the prisoner unless translating!” the inquisitor
snapped, stepping backward off the grating in the floor that waited, hungry, beneath the cross. She slipped a recording nodule from her wrist terminal
and held it to thick lips. “Sixteen one seventy-two zero two thirteen. Inquisitor K. F. Agari presiding. Subject is the Cielcin xenobite named
Uvanari in the Calagah report. Brothers Rhom and Udan assisting with lay translator.” Her black eyes narrowed, face turning down as she made a note on a holograph image that sprouted from her wrist. “You are the captain of the ship shot down on this world?”
The interview began in this vein: cool, detached, clinical almost as the room itself. I was only an interface, a substitute for the translator devices it is said the Tavrosi, the Normans, and the Extras take for granted. Indeed I tried to be less than myself, to put myself away from that terrible place. Just go away inside, I told myself. Not a scholiast’s aphorism, only the
scrambling thought of a young man in too deep and far from home.
“I am Itana Uvanari Ayatomn, Ichakta of the ship Yad Ga Higatte.”
From the flat tone of the creature’s voice, I knew this was the Cielcin
equivalent of confining itself to name, rank, and serial number. My heart grew leaden in expectation of the blood that was to come.
Inquisitor Agari accepted this translation with a nod. “Why have you come to Emesh?”
I translated this, swapping Emesh for this world, knowing the proper place name was meaningless to the Cielcin. To my horror, Uvanari only repeated, “I am Itana Uvanari Ayatomn, Ichakta of the ship Yad Ga
Whatever the inquisitor might have been, she was not so stupid that she failed to recognize the repetition. At a gesture, one of the two cathars
approached, circled round behind the Cielcin, and worked a mechanism on the back of the cross that swiveled one arm down within easier reach of the humans. The arm still restrained, the cathar—without speaking, entirely
without hesitation—removed one glassy claw from the end of Uvanari’s first finger. It made a dry cracking sound as it snapped, thicker than human nails. And yet the principle was the same, and the xenobite bit back a cry as blood welled up, blacker than the cathars’ robes, and dripped onto the grate below the cross.
“Tell him he has eleven more.”
Instead I said, “I’m so sorry. I tried to stop this, but . . .” What more
could I say? I stopped, tried to find somewhere else to look, found only our dull reflections in the brushed metal walls. I imagined doing this over and over, with each of our prisoners, until each creature collapsed into fury, then madness, then death, bled and cut away until nothing remained. The
ancients used to believe there was no science in torture, nothing to be gained. I will not say they were wrong, and yet the Chantry’s power in torture was never that it found the truth, even when it did. Rather it was that it taught the great to fear, even the Emperor. It was teaching the Cielcin then.
Just go away inside. I prayed to no one and to nothing. But then I froze, stalled a moment, realizing I had not translated Agari’s last statement. I had not threatened Uvanari but apologized, and no one had noticed. No one had noticed. I could say whatever I wanted, could take my own path—such as it was—to answers. I only had to be careful.
“Why have you come to Emesh?”
“I am Itana Uvanari Ayatomn, Ichakta of the ship Yad Ga Higatte.” “Why have you come to Emesh?”
“I am Itana Uvanari Ayatomn, Ichakta . . .” “Why have you come to Emesh?”
“Why have you come . . . ?” “Why have you come . . . ?”
They took seven of Uvanari’s claws from its hands before it answered, before it gave a single word. “Balatiri! Civaqatto balatiri!” We came to pray.
I swore, eliciting raised eyebrows from Inquisitor Agari, and said, “It
said they came to pray.” The torn-off talons sat in a steel bucket on the cart. Beneath the frosty chill of the room I could smell the fetid metallic stink of blood.
Her follow-up question drowned under more words from the ichakta.
Uvanari’s deep voice cracked with pain, but it was lucid. “Your people were not supposed to be on this world. We jumped in blind. We did not know.”
“Did not know?” the inquisitor repeated when I finished translating, and at a gesture from her, one of the cathars prodded Uvanari with a shock-
stick. The current ran through the creature, and its flesh strained against the leather restraints as it bucked. “How could you not know?” She made a
slashing gesture when I automatically began to repeat her. I fell silent, watched the inquisitor as she brooded on this, tapping her way through
prompts on her wrist terminal. A flow chart. She had her questions on an Earth-blasting flow chart. The awful mundanity of that fact took me like a physical blow. This wasn’t even religion. This was business.
The inquisitor took a moment, then asked me in Galstani, “The Cielcin have religion?”
“I don’t know much about it,” I said, wishing there were a god and that he might crush this little bubble of a room with me still inside it. “Their
word for ‘god’ means . . . watcher? Teacher? That’s all I know. I’m sorry.”
She waved me into silence. I could see the connections forming in her hunter’s mind. The Cielcin. The ruins. The Quiet—did she know about the Quiet hypothesis? She saw xenobites coming to a world with other xenobites. Coloni. She would make the connection, rightly or not. The
Umandh would burn for this, doubtless seen by Chantry zeal and human supremacists as somehow complicit in the Cielcin war against mankind. Another pogrom, another march of the faithful.
“Are there more of you coming?”
Blood dripped from seven of twelve fingers, black as oil. Uvanari rolled its head counterclockwise. “No.”
Unable to speak, I shook my head, and the inquisitor raised a hand.
Instead of peeling the eighth claw from its fingertip, the cathars removed one mutilated fingertip, severed it at the joint. The second cathar placed the
amputated little stump in the steel bucket on a bench against the back wall of the room alongside a deep-bellied washbasin. They did it without malice, without pomp or melodrama, just broke the fingertip off with a push knife
and a light tap. I almost expected the glassy bones in the hand to crunch, for Uvanari to shatter like a sculpture. It only screamed. “What did you do that for?” I shrieked, “It answered you!”
“Too easily,” the inquisitor replied. She looked up at one of the cameras as if she were a prophet and it her god, as if answers would come pouring from it. In that pose she waited out Uvanari’s screams.
When Uvanari’s wailing had quietened, I said to it, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
It glared at me, glassy teeth biting down on one lip, cheeks heaving, four nostrils flared. But it did not speak, would not.
“No speaking to the prisoner, translator!” the inquisitor snapped. I glared her down; in my present state, I was too far past caring to concern myself
with the fact that this was a Chantry inquisitor, that even though I was palatine I ought to fear her. The facts of the moment had crushed all caring out of me. But for a quirk of fate, but for my mother, it might be me in inquisitorial white, head shaven, asking these questions. I confess it was this thought and not compassion for the bleeding xenobite that consumed me. I experienced a moment of curious double vision, seeing myself in the inquisitor and again in the tunnel at Calagah, a stunner pressed to the head of that other Cielcin.
Inquisitor Agari rephrased her question. “When does the next invasion fleet arrive?”
I translated it as fast as I could and added, “I believe you, but you have to give them something.” One day the recording of this exchange would be reviewed by Legion military analysts, perhaps, or by anagnosts of the
Chantry, or by the logothetes of the Emperor’s own court. A translation
would be made, and my addition would be discovered. But for the moment I could get away with it.
Uvanari was still breathing hard, and it leaned forward, sagging against its restraints, its ruined arms akimbo. “Asvatoyu de ti-okarin, hih siajeu leiude.”
“It says it can’t tell us what it doesn’t know,” I translated, then half turned away. Away from the inquisitor, away from Uvanari and the cross, away from all of it. The woman twitched in the corner of my eye, but I
stepped toward her. “A moment, please! Give it a moment! Let me try.” I waited, and when the inquisitor nodded her consent I turned to Uvanari and spoke in hoarse tones. “You weren’t an invasion fleet, then. You said you
came here to pray? What do you mean, here to pray? In the ruins?” I could feel the inquisitor’s eyes boring into the back of my head and waited for her to change her mind, to object, but this time she held her peace.
At last Uvanari managed to say, “You have seen the ruins.” Its chest rose and fell, sweat beading on its forehead beneath the bony fringe, runneling down the fine, scale-like lumps of skin where horn transitioned to white
smoothness. I nodded, then realized my mistake and instead rolled my head in imitation of the creature’s own affirmative gesture. Seeing this, the
creature bared its glass-scalpel teeth in the snarl I was starting to realize was a smile.
“You worship the . . . the ones who made that place?” I didn’t know the word for “builders” and so had to improvise. Funny how that of all things should stick in my memory, that little failing. When the inquisitor made a noise, I turned to her and in Galstani said, “Inquisitor, please.” Uvanari
tipped its head to the right, a curt Cielcin affirmative. It winced, then sagged back against its restraints. There was no headrest, so its crown sagged between the spars that held its arms akimbo. “Ichakta, please,” I said.
“There’s nothing they’ve done so far that cannot be reversed. Tell me, is this planet threatened?”
“Veih!” the captain spat. “No, it is not! We were here because they were here, not you. The gods. They built those caves, same as the ones they built on Se Vattayu.” On the Earth.
It took me a second to work that little bit out—the word vattayu meant earth, ground, dirt. For a moment I imagined our Earth—the Homeworld-goddess of the Chantry—and had to shake off the idea.
“On your homeworld?” Se Vattayu. That was new information, at least to me. They called their homeworld the Earth too. I hadn’t known that. The implications clicked into place a moment later. “You had such ruins on your homeworld?” Scholastic consensus was that the Cielcin were a subterranean people, a theory reinforced by the cavernous, unlit nature of their ships and by the trick I’d pulled with the suit lights in the tunnels of Calagah.
“What is he saying?” the inquisitor pressed.
I didn’t want to tell her, for I felt certain that to do so was to threaten Elomas, to threaten all who worked on the Calagah dig site. To threaten
Valka. I imagined those unlighted tunnels melted to slag, atomic charges transforming the delicate arches and non-Euclidean parallels to cinders. “There won’t be another attack, Inquisitor.”
“That’s it,” I lied.
“You can’t be serious,” she sneered, broad nose wrinkling. She stepped forward, seized the shock-stick from one of the silent cathars, and jammed it into Uvanari’s ribs. She held it there, an animal glee in her eyes that
sickened me. What had they done to her on Komadd, or wherever she’d been indoctrinated? How had they made such a woman? Or had she always been broken? “What are you planning, inmane? Another invasion?” She pulled back, then slapped the heavy stick across Uvanari’s face. It grunted but held itself still. “Is it the people you want?” One of the cathars hurried forward, gloved hands on the creature’s face, checking for unplanned injuries. This intervention of her subordinates got through to Agari, and she staggered back. I hadn’t translated anything, and she hadn’t noticed.
I glanced up at the ceiling, wishing that some voice—Olorin’s or the
chancellor’s, maybe—would sound from the speakers and call an end to the horrible experience. Yet the horizons of reality were bounded by the steel bubble of that cell, and it was hard to imagine that anyone was out there to interfere.
The cathar checked for concussion, for broken bones in the face, for shattered teeth. Then he screamed and fell backward into the arms of his brother, cradling one of his hands. For a moment I did not see the blood against the darker-than-black of their robes, but the wet glint was unmistakable, and the red that dribbled down Uvanari’s chin was not the black of Pale blood. For a horrible instant I saw the stubs of two human fingers poking out from between the captain’s lips. Then they vanished, crunched between Uvanari’s teeth, and were gone. Oh, Crispin’s voice
sounded in my memory, so they aren’t all cannibals? Suddenly the technical distinction between what was and was not cannibalism did not matter. I staggered back, unable to master the thrashing horror in my gut.
The second cathar stopped the inquisitor from exacting retribution with an upraised hand—they were forbidden to speak during the rite of inquest by ancient custom. Horrified as I was, I could not help but admire the
Cielcin’s spirit, its refusal to be cowed. I liked to imagine that I might show
such spirit, were our positions reversed. I would have spit out the fingers, but I wasn’t Cielcin.
While the inquisitor busied herself helping the wounded cathar, I said,
“Biqathebe ti-okarin qu ti-oyumn.” They will hurt you for that.
“Let them.” Uvanari could not wipe the blood from its chin, and it dripped carmine onto its chest. Its blue-black tongue slithered out, smeared the blood on its lips. “You humans are all the same, always the same.”
At the time it did not strike me how curious a pronouncement this was, and I said, “I’m sorry.” I could not look Uvanari in the eye. The muscles beneath the waxen flesh pulled it into shapes and feelings strange to me. In a way they were stranger than the Umandh, though they walked and talked like men; the minds behind those eyes were the minds of persons incomprehensible. What I interpreted as bravery or stubbornness may have been no such thing. Seeing that—seeing them—I reasoned that perhaps the Chantry was onto something.
Perhaps all we shared was pain.
The creature spat at my feet. There was no malice in the gesture, as if it were no particular insult amongst the Cielcin. There was blood, though, blue-black in the sputum. I stepped back, rattled into the cart, and froze.
“What are you doing?” the inquisitor demanded, rounding back on me as the steel door sealed with a pneumatic whir. “What did it say?”
“Brave talk,” I said, cocking my head to one side. “I told it that it shouldn’t have done that.”
The inquisitor straightened, dots and streaks of red marring her otherwise immaculate robes. “He shouldn’t have.”
“I think it’s telling the truth, though,” I said, taking a fractional step to place myself between the cross and the inquisitor, hoping that might quiet her rage. “I don’t think there’s another fleet coming. Question the others.” The gravity of what I was saying hit me, and I backpedaled. “Just question them. They’re not . . . They’ll tell you. Isolate them. Get them to talk. Either they tell you different things and they’re lying, or they all say the same and you know we have the truth. That’s standard procedure, is it not?”
The inquisitor took the shock-stick from the cart, hefted it, ready to resume her work, and echoed the horrible words Ligeia Vas had once said to me. “You would make a good priest.” The blood in me thickened to poison at the words, and I turned away, hiding my eyes. Uvanari howled as the current ran through its body. The sound collapsed into a high-pitched,
nasal whine as it forced air through the slits that passed for a nose. She hadn’t even asked a question. She did it again, and only after she had made the creature scream a fourth time did she say, “Ask it who it serves. Ask it where its people are right now.”