The Salarian Desert Game
by J. A. McLachlan
Copyright © 2016 by J. A. McLachlan
Fortunately, I’m alone in my student room when my comp emits a low, despairing moan.
I freeze in my chair, staring at it. It’s silent now. The screen looks normal, nothing different. I’m convincing myself I imagined it when another, louder wretched groan begins.
They know about last night, I think. My hand lifts involuntarily to wave my comp off before I stop myself. The awful noise will just resume whenever I reactivate my comp, louder and even more agonized, and what if my roommate is in the room with me then? Besides, I need to access my creds, and until I deal with this, everything else on my comp is frozen.
“Okay, Flickis, I’m listening,” I mutter in Kandaran the code words I chose to open this message board. I don’t often swear, in any language, but I was ticked. I didn’t want the O.U.B. installing their unbreachable firewall on my comp, so they could message me in private. I don’t want any messages from the O.U.B. Not that they care what I want. I tried to disable it after they installed it, and I’m pretty good with code, but like they said, unbreachable.
The screen shatters. At least, that’s the image I get. And from this broken-glass image a calm, emotionless voice states: “Report to Number One Prophet’s Avenue on Seraffa, 05-14, Planet Year 108, at 1600 hours.”
Today. In one hour. They have to know about last night.
Now I really want to swear.
Nevertheless, at 1600 hours exactly I’m standing outside the door of Number One Prophet’s Avenue. I’m not as frightened as I was last time I was here, but I’m scared enough. No one shows up for a meeting with an Adept of the O.U.B. without their heart pounding and their palms sweating.
What will they do if they’ve found out I’m going to Salaria? That’s all I could think about as I walked all the way down the Avenue. There’s a Prophet’s Avenue in the capital city on every world, and Number One always houses the O.U.B.’s planetary administrative offices. The rest of Prophet’s Avenue is lined with residences for the Select stationed on the planet. The transit strip let me off at the end of the street. The whole way down the avenue to Number One I imagined a Select or an Adept at every window, watching me.
I haven’t done anything wrong! I wanted to shout. But I doubt if anyone can walk down Prophet’s Avenue without remembering every single thing they’ve ever done wrong, and I can remember a lot. I don’t think it would have the same effect if I added, recently!
It’s a religious order, I remind myself. The Order of Universal Benevolence. As in faith. As in religious services.
As in moral accountability.
That last one’s where the trouble lies. Because I’m going to Salaria whether they want me to or not, whether they’re paying my way at the University of Translators and Interpreters, and expect me to stay here and attend classes, or not.
I’m still trying desperately to remember the scene at the embassy when I told Jaro I was going to Salaria. Was there a Select within hearing distance? No matter how hard I try, I can’t recall. I take a deep breath and decide to assume they don’t know. Yet.
It’s impossible to keep anything from the O.U.B. They train from childhood, heightening their six senses to a nearly inhuman level. The smallest twitch of a muscle in my cheek or shift of my eye will tell her I’m lying as clearly as a full confession. For as long as I’m here, I’ll have to avoid the topic of travel entirely. I can’t even let myself think about it. Or about Salaria, or the Salarian Nightgames, or family, specifically sisters…
The door opens. I raise my chin, stand up straight, and desperately begin reciting the declensions of regular verbs in Oodan in my mind.
A middle-aged female porter dressed not in the blue and white habit of a member of the Order of Universal Benevolence, but in a simple blue and white jumpsuit, stares out at me. I stop conjugating verbs, for now.
“Come in, child.”
I hate that. I enter without answering, but I’m tempted to say, Sure, old woman. Since she’s exaggerated my age down, why shouldn’t I exaggerate hers up? But it’s possible she meant her words kindly, to put me at ease, and I wouldn’t be meaning mine kindly, so it wouldn’t be the same. Rude is when you’re nastier than they are. I try to keep things equal. Agatha would say we should try to be nicer than others are to us, not just equal. Since we were stuck together so long on Malem, I thought that was a great philosophy — for her, toward me. The other way around was a stretch on my good days.
I’m rambling. It’s good practice. Rambling thoughts create fewer expressions to read. It’s not as good as focusing on something else, like reciting verb declensions, but easier to maintain.
The porter leads me to a waiting room and asks if I’d like something to eat or drink. Her voice is pleasant but she doesn’t smile; in fact she shows as little expression as a Select. Well, any Select but Agatha, who’s my friend, even if she is a Select. Probably because she’s a little incompetent in the no-emotions department.
I’m about to accept a drink, just to show I’m not nervous. Then I remember I accepted one last time and my stomach was in such knots I couldn’t drink it and had to pour it into one of the plants. I sneak a glance at the nearest plant. The soil looks pretty damp already.
“No thanks,” I say.
The porter nods without speaking, and leaves the room.
I wait. There is nothing even to look at in this room. I should have brought my wristcomp. If I had known I’d have to wait this long, I would have. I wish I could afford the implant, then I’d always have access to it. I could be brushing up on my Salarian — it’s a tricky language and an even more prickly culture, and since I intend to leave on the first ship going there, I could use every spare minute to—
The door at the far end of the room slides open. It’s almost 1700 hours, I’d like to say to the house attendant standing there to escort me, a male this time. I stifle my annoyance at the wait and follow him down the hall to a smaller room with three chairs, one of them behind a desk. A woman in the blue and white robes of a Select is sitting in the nearest chair, with her back to me. The attendant waves me to the other chair in front of the desk. It all looks plain and unimposing — until the Select turns to look at me.
Agatha! Now I know I’m in serious trouble. My face doesn’t know it, though; it breaks into a grin before I can stop it. I haven’t seen Agatha in months, and I thought it might be a year or more before I did. She rises at once and comes to me.
The Select don’t hug. They don’t touch unless there is a clear need. They are reserved and calm at all times, not unkind, but not familiar.
Agatha throws her arms around me. “I didn’t hope to see you, Kia,” she murmurs.
I feel myself tear up, and blink hard. I wish she was more like a normal Select, because now it’s going to be really hard to say no when they ask me what I think they’re going to ask me.
Agatha drops her arms and steers me toward the seat beside hers. The calm expression of a Select slides over her face just before an Adept enters through a door in the wall behind the desk.
The Adept is also wearing the blue and white robes of the Order, but all I notice are his eyes. They settle on me with an intense, unwavering attention that makes me feel completely exposed. Meeting Agatha threw me off. I’m not prepared for the Adept’s gaze and I freeze, unable to move. I can’t even remember which Oodanian verb I was in the middle of conjugating when I walked in. I struggle against his cool appraisal. He doesn’t look angry or cruel or judgmental. Why should he? I’m not here to be judged. Am I? Is there something I’ve done I don’t know about?
Beside me, Agatha moves. “Should we take our seats?” She asks the Adept, all innocent-faced, as though she has not just interrupted his cool control. I look quickly down at the chair in front of me. To be, I think, and in Oodanian: ooma, ooba, oosam…
The Adept folds his hands on the desk. “Please do,” he says, still looking at me. Most people don’t resist the O.U.B. like I’m doing, I realize. We were a little less formal when I was on Malem with Agatha, but that was another Adept, not this one. I bite the inside of my lip. Oomar, oobar… Well, it’s too late to take it back now. Oosamar…
“Have you done something you do not want us to know about?” he asks.
My sister flashes through my mind — exactly what he wants me to do: think of whatever I want to keep from him. I force myself to think of another verb, any verb. Once you get the verbs, the rest of a language is easy. It’s the action that drives a thought, nouns are just added detail. Actions speak louder than words… I let my mind ramble. “No,” I say. Not yet, anyway.
It’s all a game. Why can’t they just stop, and have a normal conversation? My cultural training kicks in, answering that question. We notice what we are taught to notice. I couldn’t stop myself from noticing if someone frowned or smiled at me, and drawing conclusions about what their expression might mean. It’s cultural, and automatic. It’s just that the Select and Adept of the O.U.B. are trained to notice so much more, and to draw such accurate conclusions. If I had nothing to hide, I’d feel as though I was talking to the most understanding person I’ve ever met.
Who wants something from me. Agatha and I are not here together by chance.
And when I find out, it will not entirely be a request. The O.U.B. are paying my way, they know my past; a past I don’t want anyone else to find out. The longer we delay that talk, the more likely this Adept is to find out — from me — about my sister and Salaria. About last night.
“Why am I here?” I ask him.
“Kia Ugiagbe,” he says. His voice is calm, but it resonates in the meeting room, which suddenly seems too small to contain him. “There has been a vision.”
Beside me, Agatha sits in her chair still and expressionless, but I can feel a heightened alertness in her, an excitement, since I know her so well. Also because she’s not always as careful at hiding her emotions as most of the O.U.B. are.
I sit very still, too, holding my face as expressionless as I can, but inside I’m groaning. Not again. I don’t have time for a vision, I have to get to Salaria. No. I stop thinking of that at once.
“This is not something that can be ignored,” the Adept says, more or less accurately reading my response, even though I’m deliberately not looking at him.
I try to think of a polite way to ask if it could at least be postponed. The last time they had a vision about me, it happened shortly after I was born and they didn’t act on it till I was sixteen. Which I still am. Fulfilling two visions in the same year seems a bit much to ask. Couldn’t they envision someone else for a change? I can’t quite think of a suitably pious way to express that, either. And really, since knowing Agatha… well, I’m a little more open-minded to spiritual stuff than I was. It’s just really not convenient right now. For reasons I can’t let myself think about while the Adept is watching me.
“Do you not want to know who is in the vision?”
I look up, surprised. “I thought it was me.”
“Why would you assume that?”
I flush. Do I really think everything revolves around me? “Because… because you brought me here… Isn’t it?” I don’t even try to keep the relief out of my voice.
“Not entirely. It is about the Select you went to Malem with.” He looks at Agatha, who sits up even straighter in her chair, almost hopping off it, in fact.
What about A — her?” I almost say Agatha’s name before I catch myself. The Select don’t divulge their names outside their order. I shouldn’t even know Agatha’s, but she isn’t very good with formalities. The Adept is looking at me, and since I looked up, I’m trapped in his gaze. Knowing Agatha’s name isn’t a secret any more.
“Then why am I here?” I don’t know how I say it. My voice feels frozen under the Adept’s stare, but I have to know what he wants of me. I’d also like to know what he wants with Agatha. I thought she was safe on Malem, in the company of another Adept who could, I hoped, keep her out of trouble.
Agatha couldn’t conjugate the verb to be in Central Ang, the easiest language in the human universe, unless I wrote it down for her. She’s probably said something terrible, without meaning to, that’s why she’s been taken off Malem. But what can I do about it now? I am not, absolutely not for any reason, ever going back to Malem. If they need an interpreter for her…
“We do not explain our visions,” the Adept says.
Not to the subject of the vision, I remember. That would influence the person’s behavior. So it is about me, too. I can tell he knows the minute I realize this. Well, let him know, and know that I know he knows. Living all that time with Agatha on Malem taught me a bit about reading miniscule expressions, too.
“You have questions I cannot answer at this time, except to say that this Select needs an interpreter. One who speaks Salarian.”
“Salarian?” I can’t keep the surprise from my voice, let alone my face. Why does Agatha need to speak Salarian? She’s not… surely they wouldn’t send her to—
“Salaria?” Agatha says, her voice sounding strange.
The Adept turns to Agatha. “Yes. You are going to Salaria. Unfortunately, it is necessary.”
I don’t know whether to laugh or throw up. How could they send her there? Agatha can’t speak Salarian. She grew up on Seraffa, same as me, and speaks only Edoan, our official language.
“I will go where I am sent, Adept,” Agatha says the words of obedience calmly. Usually even I can read her expression, when she’s not deliberately hiding it, but this time I’m baffled.
“Don’t send her there!” I burst out before I can stop myself. “She doesn’t know Salarian! The Salarians are the most easily offended people in the human universe!” She won’t stand a chance of getting home alive, I want to add, but I don’t need to tell him Agatha’s foreign language skills are non-existent.
“Your concern for the success of our mission on Salaria is commendable,” the Adept says, as if he believes for a moment that that’s what I’m worried about. But he will not — and his cool eyes let me know that I should not — suggest for a moment that a Select of the O.U.B. is not capable of accomplishing the task they give her. “And you are correct. The Select will need an interpreter. We want you to go to Salaria with her.”
“I expect that was in the vision, too,” I mutter, ticked at how neatly he’s cornered me. “I’m not going. You can’t force me.”
Agatha looks at me. If the vision has us there together, and I don’t go with her, it can’t be fulfilled. Which means there’s no reason to send Agatha.
Except that I will be on Salaria. I have to find my sister.
“We do not force anyone to do anything.”
Technically correct, but not exactly accurate, I think. Before I can repeat my refusal, he completely throws me by turning to Agatha and saying: “An important woman, a Coralese lady of the lakes, played Salarian Die at the Salarian Nightgames last night. She lost. Her family has approached us to investigate and ascertain she is being well treated.”
I sit with my mouth half-open, staring at him. I remember the lady; she threw her die just before my sister’s turn. “You’re going to buy her back for them?” It’s all I can do not to scream the words. If they’re buying a lady back, they might agree to do the same for Oghogho. I remember hearing her voice in the crowd around the gaming table, swearing the oath to abide by the roll of the die. My sister’s voice. Why was she even at the Salarian Nightgames? I fought my way through the people, desperate to stop her, but I was too late…
The Adept turns his intense focus on me. I catch my breath. I want to look away, but I can’t, I’m trapped by his eyes. He can’t read my mind, but my expression is clear enough.
“You know we do not alter the choices people freely make. And the Salarians never, under any conditions, sell back indentured servants. They must work off their debts. The lady’s family has only asked that we ascertain she is being treated according to inter-planetary humanitarian laws.”
“But, if you can do it for her…”
Agatha touches my arm. “What is it, Kia? What’s wrong?”
“If we do it for the Coralese lady,” the Adept says smoothly over Agatha’s question, “the Salarians will know we are concerned about all of their indentured servants. We do not need to call attention to each one of them.”
“Kia, is someone you know in trouble?” Agatha persists, despite the clear redirection of her superior.
I shake my head. Do not call attention, the Adept said. If I want his help, he has laid out the rules. “It’s just that… I was at the Salarian Nightgames last night… interpreting.” I add quickly, before Agatha can imagine any other reason. “I saw them all, the ones who lost.”
Agatha nods, as if she believes a sudden fit of compassion is in my nature. It makes me feel worse than I am, that she so easily believes me to be better than I am.
“Why now?” I ask the Adept. “Why weren’t you concerned with their living conditions before?”
“We might ask you the same thing.”
I blush again. I knew, everyone knew, what happens to those who lose at Salarian Die. I remember the people around the game table, cheering for those who chose to play, booing those who backed away. As if someone else’s life was merely a game. I didn’t do that, but I didn’t object, either. I didn’t even sign that interplanetary petition to ban the use of Salarian crystals mined by slaves, last year. My brother Etin did. He converted the Homestar to a more expensive drive system to avoid using their navigation crystals. That’s probably why he and Oghogho are in debt. But I was busy studying languages, I didn’t really care. I’m only concerned now because now it’s my sister who lost at Salarian Die.
“We have always been concerned about those in need on every planet,” the Adept says. “But we do not enforce our faith on others. That has been done in the past, and always failed, as you know if you have studied history. You have been raised in the Order, you know our ways. We encourage, and when the time is right, we weigh in. Gently. On Salaria, the time has become right for us to weigh in, and because the time is right, an opportunity has presented itself through Lady Celeste of planet Coralee.”
“You want to increase the pressure on them to free their slaves?” I ask.
“Indentured servants. Human slavery is illegal across the human universe.”
“What do you call it when it’s a lifetime sentence?”
“A very bad choice.”
“I will be honored to accept this mission,” Agatha interrupts before I can say anything else. Her eyes are troubled, an expression I’ve never seen on her face. The Adept glances at her and the expression is gone. Distance and objectivity, benevolence to all, I can almost hear her reminding herself. Distance? Objectivity? Agatha would gladly walk into hell for someone in need. So what’s troubling her?
It isn’t that dealing with the Salarians requires someone with keen and subtle negotiation skills. At the very least, someone who knows the Salarian language. That little detail wouldn’t give Agatha a moment’s pause.
“I am honored to be of service,” Agatha repeats the words of obedience calmly, as calmly as my sister recited her vow to honor the roll of the Salarian die.
“What about the Select who are already there?” I stammer, gripped by a sudden fear. “Why can’t they do whatever this mission is?”
Agatha looks at me. She was concerned they wouldn’t give her another assignment after what happened on Malem, and now a vision!
A vision. An O.U.B. vision only occurs at times of great need, when something terrible is about to happen. This isn’t about the slaves at all. That’s just… how did he put it? Their “opportunity to weigh in.”
I look at the Adept, feeling my eyes narrow and not caring that he can see it.
“You are a perceptive young woman,” he says. “I assume that is why the vision included you.” Ignoring what I know, what he knows I know, he adds formally: “We would like you to travel to Salaria with the Select, and interpret for her when necessary.”
When necessary? They expect something significant to come of this, something an e- translator can’t handle. Only a human interpreter can get the nuances right, the colloquialisms and cultural connotations conveyed by word choice, gesture, and expression, all of which can change the meaning of a phrase completely. Detecting irony, appreciating humor, are crucial and no machine can do it.
“During the trip,” he adds, “you will help her to improve her Central Ang.”
Central Ang is the one language every human being knows. It’s based on an Old Earth language, but it’s been stripped of all complexity in order to make it accessible to everyone. There are no irregular verbs, no declensions, no masculine and feminine endings. It has clear, simple rules for plurals, possessives, and verb tense. There are no synonyms to choose between, no extra letters or alternate pronunciations. Its vocabulary is limited to the essentials, and that’s all it’s good for: a safety net tying the human worlds together at the most basic level of understanding. And it will be completely useless in negotiating with the proud and subtle Salarians for better treatment of their slaves.
“I already eat much Central Ang,” Agatha says, in Central Ang.
I look at the Adept. “Your services are needed,” he says.
It would get me to Salaria.
With Agatha, who will not survive there, let alone be able to help the slaves. Most likely she’ll get us both killed. I start to shake my head. But what choice do I have? I have to get to Salaria. Especially if something terrible is about to happen. I have to get my sister out.
“Come to Salaria with me, Kia,” Agatha says softly. “It will be all right. We can trust the vision.”