Cover art by Jeff Kuipers
Lost in Translation first appeared in the premiere issue of the new Canadian SF magazine TransVersions in the fall of 1994. Two empaths, one a human, one a bat-like S’sinn, must overcome their bitter pasts and learn to work together to prevent the second interstellar war between their species.
“…builds a more credible space opera universe in 18 pages than some 300-page novels have achieved.” - The Newsletter of the Council for the Literature of the Fantastic/University of Rhode Island
Lost in Translation
Katy held onto Mama with one hand and clutched a chocolate ice cream cone with the other. Mama and Daddy talked and laughed and Katy smiled, feeling their laughter tickling her inside, with none of the ache she felt when they were unhappy. And around the laughter-tickle was the warm glow of love–lots and lots of love. That she could always feel.
Behind her waddled a fat little synthibear, piping, “Wait for me, Katy!”, and Katy kept turning around and saying, “Hurry up, bear!”, and laughing as its chubby stuffed legs churned away, though it never got any closer. Katy had won it at the fair, in a shooting gallery. Even though she hadn’t hit a single hologram the woman had called her a winner and given it to her, and that had made the whole day perfect, because the one thing she had really, really wanted for her sixth birthday was a synthibear, and now she had it! And she had ridden all the rides and eaten cotton candy and popcorn and zipmud, and the stars were shining overhead and Hardluck IV’s three moons were bright and full, and Katy knew she was the happiest girl in the galaxy.
But just as they left the fairground, the sky went all ripply and was suddenly full of big silvery things. Katy’s father said a bad word and scooped her up and grabbed her mother’s hand and started running, and Katy felt that her parents were scared and that scared her, too, and she started to cry, and behind her the synthibear kept squeaking, “Come back, Katy, come back, Katy, come back…” until she couldn’t hear it any more, and that made her cry even harder.
All around people shouted and screamed and ran every which way, and a siren wailed from Government House, and Katy heard her father praying, almost sobbing, and she got so scared she couldn’t even cry any more.
They ran down their own street, toward their own house, but now other things filled the sky, black, with wings, and one came right over their heads, high up, except suddenly it wasn’t, it got really big really fast, and it had red glittering eyes and big white teeth and it carried something long and thin in its claws, and now they were on their porch and Katy’s father shoved her through the front door so hard she tumbled over and over and hit her head and started crying again, and she scrambled up to run back to her parents, only something flashed really bright just outside the door and her parents fell down funny and she couldn’t feel their love any more–
Kathryn jerked upright, gasping, and slapped on the lamp, and the winged shapes crowding around her vanished into the pale blue walls of her cabin on the Geneva. Still half caught in sleep, she staggered to her feet. How could she face a S’sinn? How could she Translate? Karak would have to see reason, find somebody else. She’d–
Halfway to her comp terminal, she remembered. She’d already made that call. She sank back onto the mattress. No other suitable Translator was close enough, Karak had said, and Commonwealth Central insisted negotiations must proceed now. He knew how she felt about the S’sinn, but this was an emergency. He was sorry, but nothing could be done.
Kathryn pulled her knees up to her chest. Of course, the Fairholm/Kisradik situation was critical. Several bloody incidents had left the humans, the S’sinn, and their respective allies angry and nervous. Commonwealth Central had worked a miracle just getting the two sides to talk. “You must do your best, for the Guild, and for the Commonwealth,” Karak had said, his beaked, tentacle-encircled face unreadable to her and the light years between them precluding the empathic link they would normally have shared. Then he had broken the connection.
There’s no choice, she thought bleakly. No choice but another war. Remember what the last one cost. Remember what it cost you.
Katy sat, every day, in exactly the same place in the big upstairs playroom of the orphanage. She ate, and went to the bathroom, and dressed herself; but she never spoke, never played, never cried, even after the bad dreams. She just stared out the window at Earth’s strange blue sky.
She saw the black van pull up to the curb and settle to the ground. She saw the alien emerge in its blue suit and shiny silver backpack and helmet. Any other child would have run to tell the others. But Katy didn’t move, even when the stairs to the playroom creaked and Mrs. Spencer said, “Katy? There’s some–someone here to see you.”
Katy looked back at the sky. Mrs. Spencer had said once she was waiting for her parents, but Katy knew they would never come back, because there was a hole in her heart where their love had been, a hole that could never be filled, a hole into which her mind kept swirling aimlessly, like water going down a black drain. She stared out the window because nothing mattered any more.
The floorboards groaned, and a heavy hand touched her head. “Mrs. Spencer,” said a thick, bubbly voice, “this child is suffering bondcut.”
“Nonsense! She’s perfectly healthy.”
“Bondcut is not a disease; it is the trauma empaths suffer when someone with whom they were closely linked dies abruptly.”
“Empaths? Katy’s not–”
“This child must come with me. You have seen my authorization.”
“But she’s not well! She needs–”
“What she needs, Mrs. Spencer, is the company of fellow empaths, in the Guild of Translators. The Commonwealth Treaty allows us to draft any–”
“You mean kidnap!”
“–any individual who shows possibility as a Translator. If you will be so good as to pack her things–”
As they left, Mrs. Spencer remarked loudly to Mr. Piwarski that if Katy hadn’t been happy in the orphanage with other children, she certainly wouldn’t be happy God-knew-where with only monsters for company…
But Katy went quietly with the alien. She wasn’t brave; she just didn’t care. About anything.
The Guild of Translators changed that. It healed the wound left by her parent’s death. It became her family. And it gave her a purpose: to serve the Commonwealth, a bizarre association of disparate races held together only a love of profitable trade. Those races had ended the Earth-S’sinn war when it began to disrupt commerce, and brought Earth into the Commonwealth; but in time-honored human fashion, one war had sown the seeds of another. The reptilian Hasshingu-Issk and the fiery, bird-like “elves” of Orris had themselves suffered at the claws of the S’sinn in ages past, and sided with Earth in the current dispute over who had first claim to newly discovered (and resource-rich) Fairholm/Kisradik. The Aza–or at least two of their principal Swarms– sided with the S’sinn, as did the water-breathers of Ithkar, Karak’s homeworld. Only the slow-moving, slug-like dwellers of the planet humans called Swampworld remained neutral; no doubt they were merely waiting to see how things fell out before choosing sides.
No outside force would end this war, if war came; the Commonwealth would die, and with dimspace leaps allowing surprise attacks on any planet at any time, all seven civilizations might die with it.
Fear of such an unwinnable war, historians held, was all that made the Commonwealth possible. Yet still the Seven Races drifted toward conflict–or maybe, in the case of humans and S’sinn, sought it. These negotiations would decide the future. Full Translation was essential.
If Kathryn could bring herself to provide it.
She went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. She might as well start what would be a very long day, the day she arrived at the place she least wanted to be in all the galaxy: the home of the race that had killed her parents.
The humans’ footsteps on the polished marble echoed back from walls so far away they could only be dimly guessed at. Spidery silver columns soared from the floor to the haze-hidden roof, and S’sinn were everywhere–hanging from struts, perched on platforms, gliding from balcony to balcony on black leathery wings. A thousand gleaming red eyes watched the humans approach the dais at the vast hall’s center. And it was cold. Kathryn, arms bare in her blue Translator’s uniform, shivered as goosebumps raced over her body. She clutched the small metal case in her right hand a little tighter, remembering the last time the S’sinn had darkened her sky.
“These negotiations were to be private!” Ambassador Matthews complained.
“They are,” Kathryn said. The vast weight of hostility she sensed from the gathered S’sinn made her head ache, and the dais seemed no closer. “A white-noise curtain will ensure no one overhears.”
“But all these–people–will be watching.” Matthews gestured distastefully at the hall. “I don’t call that private.”
“The S’sinn have no concept of visual privacy.” Kathryn had only met the Ambassador three hours before, when her shuttle landed, and she detested him already. Slim, fiftyish, with carefully combed steel-gray hair, he was the very model of a modern elder statesman–and apparently a complete fool. Hadn’t he done any homework? Surely the man sent by Earth to prevent a war could have spent a few hours QuickLearning!
Unless Earth wanted another war…and if Earth had chosen Matthews with that in mind, what if they’d also chosen her? Could they know about her fear and loathing of the S’sinn, know that that would be the first thing the S’sinn Translator would feel when they Linked? Did they hope that in itself might derail the negotiations?
She rubbed the back of her neck. Paranoia! The Guild didn’t work for Earth, it worked for the Commonwealth–for all Seven Races. Its reputation depended on its neutrality, its pledge–her pledge–that Translation would be objective, that every shade of meaning, every emotional nuance, would be perfectly and impartially reproduced. “I renounce all ties to my home planet and species,” the Oath ran. “I am no longer human, but Translator. I belong to no race, but am kin to all…”
“…and I serve the good of all, without bias or prejudice. I surrender my will freely, that others may speak through me. I make this Oath in the presence of Seven Races, by all the Races hold holy. May they judge me if I prove false.” Kathryn had never been religious, but that last phrase seemed to echo in her mind, underscoring the seriousness of her commitment–that and the lead-like blanket of solemnity pressing down on her mind from the Seven Witnesses surrounding her in the Guildhall.
Karak’s round, dead-black eyes peered at her through the heavy glass of his huge aquarium, his tentacles weaving a slow pattern. A Swampworlder pulsated dreamily in thicker, darker liquid in the tank next to him. Ten metres away, but still too close, a brown-furred S’sinn rested on a padded wooden rack. Beside him hovered a single Aza drone, wings humming, its four golden eyes sharing all with the Swarm. On her left stood three more winged figures, humanoid, but beaked and feathered, a mated trio of Orrisian elves. Behind her…but she didn’t want to look at Jim Ornawka just then. Instead she focused on the final two Witnesses, the Hasshingu-Issk. One wore the bright green armband of a Master, vivid against his black scales; the other wore Medic’s blue. While the Master watched with unblinking, slit-pupilled yellow eyes, the Medic wheeled forward a metal container. Opening it released a sharp, salty smell that mingled with his own sulphurous scent, stinging Kathryn’s nostrils.
She knew what she would see, but still she flinched: the slowly writhing ropy gray mass nestled in the pink nutrient fluid pushed ancient primate “snake!” buttons. But mere squeamishness wouldn’t keep her from this climax of ten years of training. At the Medic’s nod, she lowered her hand into the case.
At first nothing happened. But slowly tingling spread through her hand, which grew peculiarly heavy; and, as the minutes passed, the squirming tissue in the case diminished. The tingling moved up her arm, into her shoulder, like an internal itch she could not scratch, but she held perfectly still, though silent tears ran down her cheeks. The Witnesses watched impassively.
Just when she thought she couldn’t stand the horrible crawling under her skin one minute longer, it stopped.
The container was empty.
Sound rumbled around the room as each Witness confirmed that Kathryn had freely accepted what the humans called The Beast. Behind her, Jim said, “Amen.”
Kathryn felt vaguely disappointed. She had just allowed into her body a genetically engineered artificial life form, a universal nervous system interface designed to augment her own natural empathic powers by allowing her to connect directly with the nervous system of any of the Seven Races, and all she had felt was an unscratchable itch.
But now the Master came forward. He opened a small case of bluish metal, revealing two very different syringes and a coil of silvery cord. The Master took out the smaller syringe and proffered it to Kathryn, who took it from his claws, embarrassed by her trembling fingers. Then the Master took out the other syringe, and plunged its dagger-sized needle into his thigh, his eyes never wavering from Kathryn’s face. Kathryn, only too aware of the fear she was broadcasting to the Witnesses, put her own syringe against her bare upper arm and pulled the trigger.
The liquid hissed into her bloodstream. She felt only a slight sting and a faint warmth, but she knew that inside her chemicals were programming The Beast, preparing her for —
This. The Master uncoiled the silvery cord and touched one end to a matching patch behind his barely visible ear. It clung there as he held out the other end to her.
Kathryn knew some Guild trainees backed out even at this point. Many served faithfully in non-Translation duties. To withdraw would not shame her; it would simply prove she wasn’t suited to be a Translator. You needed utter confidence in yourself to survive First Translation unscathed. Doubt could be fatal…
Breathing a prayer to One she wasn’t even sure she believed in, Kathryn took the cord and touched it to the surgically implanted interface behind her own ear.
Humans talked of sex as the joining of two people. The night before…the young man behind her…but that union had been nothing compared to this!
She had never been to the Hasshingu-Issk homeworld, but in an instant, it surrounded her in all its sun-drenched beauty. She rolled on a baking-hot rock with her mate, fought in the Arena of God for the glory of the Toothed One, ripped out the throat of an issi’ki she had chased for kilometres across a lava plain. She knew the names of the Five Moons and the Cities of the Dead; she shed her skin and burrowed in ecstasy in the cooling mud; she understood why imperfect hatchlings had to be eaten and knew that she could explain that custom to the weakling Races that called it barbaric, if only she could…
…if only she could remember how! She panicked, her mind thrashing in the welter of overwhelming alien images. She was not Hasshingu-Issk, she was human, and she was lost, lost, lost…
…then she felt the Master lifting her dolphin-like out of the swirling depths, helping her shed him like he shed his skin, until they were linked, but separate; one, but two; a single organism with two minds, two mouths–two languages.
Kathryn opened her eyes and looked around at Jim for the first time. Those sweaty, exciting moments they had shared meant nothing now. This was what she had lived for, trained for, longed for.
The hole in her heart had been boarded over by a decade of empathic help; Jim had made her forget it for the briefest moment; but now, in this glorious union with her Hasshingu-Issk comrade/friend/lover, that hole was filled.
Kathryn strove to keep her walk steady, her face impassive. She had since Translated with Ava, Orrisian, Ithkarite and Swampworlder. Each time had been even better, even more soul-healing. But now…
…now she had to join with a S’sinn.
The Translation case wasn’t the only baggage she carried to the dais.
The round platform bore a table and chairs for the humans and a chest- high podium and resting racks for the S’sinn. Kathryn stepped up onto the platform and waited while Matthews and his two aides took their places at the table. One S’sinn, already in her rack, watched them in silence. Three others stood just behind her.
Each S’sinn wore only a broad metal collar, embossed with a sign. The female on the rack, with the spiral crossed by a lightning bolt, was the Flight Leader–Matthews’s opposite number. The other two, male and female, would be aides/bodyguards. Their collars bore spirals without the lightning bolt and they stood with their batlike wings outstretched to show the insignia repeated in gold leaf on the black, leathery membrane. The fourth S’sinn’s wings remained folded. His collar bore a triangle inside a circle inside a square–the same symbol Kathryn wore over her left breast.
Her head throbbed as she blocked the S’sinn Translator’s attempt to establish a preliminary empathic link. By Guild etiquette that was unforgivably rude, but he’d learn soon enough what was in her mind. She stepped to the center of the dais, set her case on the floor, opened it and took out the injector. Her hands trembled as much as they had at her First Translation.
The S’sinn Translator joined her with his own case. His scent, warm and musky, sent her mind flashing back to that horrible moment when the S’sinn warrior had stooped out of the sky above her parents. The warrior’s scent had been rank, stronger, but at base the same alien, predatory smell.
Silently reciting the Oath, “I belong to no race, but am kin to all,” she met the S’sinn’s ruby-red gaze. The syringe in his clawed hand was empty. His eyes slid down to the still-full injector she held, then back to her face. Mouth so dry she couldn’t even swallow, she pressed the injector to her shoulder.
Her hand still trembled as she returned the injector to its case. Behind her Matthews stirred and muttered something, but Kathryn kept her eyes on the S’sinn, her heart pounding painfully. The Programming meant nothing without the Link. She could still turn around, tell Matthews she couldn’t do it, tell him he’d have to delay the negotiations, wait for another Translator…
The S’sinn lifted the cord from his case. He proffered her one end, and she took it hesitantly. With his eyes locked on hers, he touched his end of the cord to the tiny silvery patch beneath his sharply pointed left ear. Then he waited.
If she accepted the Link, there’d be no more hiding how she felt…
Matthews cleared his throat. “Translator Bircher–”
“Quiet!” she snapped. The Guild had no need to suffer fools, even important fools. Impelled by irritation, she firmly touched the cord to the patch under her own ear, and —
Air lifted Jarrikk over the jagged peaks, twin hearts pounding. Behind him the humans rode the winds clumsily on black plastic wings, driven by raucous, smoking engines, graceless, ugly–but gaining, gaining all the time. He could hear their braying laughter. Desperately he sideslipped, then dove toward the thin white ribbon of river below him. Towering rock walls seemed to leap upward at him.
The humans’ laughter changed to angry shouts. A beam slashed by on his left, another on his right. He was almost safe, almost into the gorge where the clumsy humans could never hope to–
Agony lanced his left wing. The stench of burning hair and flesh filled his nostrils, then his wing collapsed, the membrane ripping. He flailed out of control, fluttering down and down until he hit the river in a geyser of spray and pain…
Kathryn twisted her mind, fighting for self, as the S’sinn’s deep-seated trauma threatened to overpower her. She could smell burning flesh and feel pain in body parts she didn’t even have.
Her control firmed at last, and so did Jarrikk’s. He had absorbed her nightmare, as she had absorbed his–and the Link had held. They opened their eyes, and after one look at each other, turned to their respective delegates.
“Begin,” they said in unison.
The S’sinn reeled off a long list of grievances dating back to the War. Their words, inflections and body language Kathryn heard, saw and understood through Jarrikk’s eyes, and Translated through her human flesh. She faced the humans with a sneer in her voice and a challenge in her stance, the closest human equivalents to the S’sinn’s haughty contempt.
The humans responded with their own list, from the original S’sinn attack which they claimed had triggered the War (they didn’t mention the half-dozen curious young S’sinn shot out of the sky before that by humans unaware they were sentient) to “this most recent outrage–landing colonists on a world already inhabited by humans” (they didn’t mention that the two colonization attempts occurred simultaneously).
Charge and counter-charge flew, perfectly communicated by Kathryn and Jarrikk, formed by the Link into a flesh-and-blood computer with no concern about the belligerent content of the translated messages. At the end of four bitter hours, in the middle of one of Matthews’s harangues, the timed-release antidote to the Programming severed the Link. Kathryn staggered as she lost contact with Jarrikk, feeling for a moment as if half of herself had suddenly died. She took a deep breath, pulled the Link cord free and stopped Matthews in mid-shout. “I’m sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but this session is ended.”
Matthews glared at her, glared at the S’sinn, then bowed stiffly, gathered his papers and led his aides off the platform and out of the hall, footsteps clattering. The S’sinn stalked off in the other direction, showing their contempt by staying on the ground, although Kathryn knew Matthews would never realize it unless she told him. She shivered, chilled through and bone weary, and rubbed her throbbing temples. “I love being a Translator,” she muttered.
Jarrikk cocked his head at her. Though the Link was gone, her inborn empathic ability remained, and she felt his own weariness and a concern that warmed her. “Sleep well, friend,” she signed to him in guildtalk. “Until tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” he signed back. “Fly safely in this night’s dreams.” He closed and locked his case and trudged after the other delegates– and Kathryn knew that he stayed on the ground not from contempt, but because of that tragic boyhood contact with humans.
She picked up her case and turned to go–and stopped, feeling the red gaze of the hundreds of watching S’sinn. Instinct urged her to run for the distant exit; but mindful of the Guild’s reputation, she walked slowly and deliberately across the marble floor.
In the human quarters, Matthews greeted her coldly. No surprise; Translators’ own species often could not separate them from the message they conveyed so perfectly. Matthews undoubtedly thought of her as a near-traitor; but then, she thought of him as an absolute idiot, so they were more than even. He didn’t even realize their windowless rooms were another deliberate insult; only the S’sinn’s most contemptible criminals were locked up without a view of the sky.
She gladly retired right after supper and settled into bed. But sleep eluded her; what she had seen in Jarrikk’s mind kept replaying in her head.
He had been a child on the planet where the War began. Linked, experiencing his memories, she had shared his horror at the humans’ brutal murder of his friends, his joy when the monsters were driven away and the Supreme Flight Leader called for war, his fierce pleasure at the news of each subsequent victory–including the destruction of the colony on the planet humans called Hardluck IV. With him, she had agonized as the humans struck back–and then shared his shame and anger when the Commonwealth stepped in, and his fury when the humans were allowed to return to his own planet, making it the only jointly inhabited world. In youthful defiance, he had sneaked across the heavily patrolled border–and suffered for it. The humans would have killed him if a S’sinn border patrol hadn’t seen the incident and demanded his return under the Commonwealth treaty.
If the Guild had not discovered his empathic talent and taken him for their own, he still would have died–at his own hand. The S’sinn expected no less of the flightless. He had as much reason to hate humans as Kathryn had to hate the S’sinn. Today, both had Linked, for the first time, with the creatures of their nightmares–and overcome those nightmares to work together, proof, if only those they were Translating for could see it, that humans and S’sinn need not be enemies.
But the blind fools couldn’t see it. To the S’sinn the humans were brutal child-killers and to the humans the S’sinn were hideous batlike monsters, and neither could wait to rid the galaxy of the other.
Kathryn’s nightmare that night was Jarrikk’s.
As she severed the Link at the end of the following day’s acrimonious session, Kathryn felt sick, knowing that the next morning there would be only one thing to Translate: the declaration of war–war, which had slain her parents and crippled Jarrikk. And they could do nothing; nothing but Translate–
Or could they? Kathryn’s mouth went dry. The idea that had just come to her, unbidden, would violate her Oath. It could mean expulsion from the Guild, the loss of a second family…
…but it just might stop a war. She touched Jarrikk’s wing before he could leave the dais. He turned his ruby eyes on her, and she sensed his puzzlement. “We need private talk,” she signed. “Where…?”
For a moment he regarded her, puzzlement growing; then he opened and closed his wings, a gesture equivalent to a human shrug, and signed, “Follow.”
As they crossed the floor the hostility of the gathered S’sinn increased tenfold. Kathryn felt like a mouse at an owl convention, but kept her even pace. Jarrikk could move no faster in any event.
He led her through a ten-metre-high arch into a long hall with smaller arches leading off at three levels. They passed through the third ground-floor portal on the right into a high-ceilinged, airy room with enormous, glassless windows opening onto the gardens outside the Hall of the Flock. Rough-woven tapestries hung from the other three walls above padded resting-racks of polished, multicolored woods, and fragrant bluish vapor rose from a censer over the comp terminal. “Your home?” Kathryn signed.
“Thank you.” Jarrikk hesitated, then signed, “You need not use guildtalk. Here, no one will overhear, and I understand your tongue.”
“You do? But how–” Kathryn stopped as Jarrikk’s boyhood memories welled up in her. He had learned the humans’ throat-hurting language to spy on them. He could not speak it, but he understood it very well indeed.
That would make her task simpler. Guildtalk was marvelously flexible, as it had to be to serve all four semi-humanoid Races, but it had never been intended to convey the idea ˆsheø had in mind.
Jarrikk watched her with the natural stillness of a waiting predator. What if he reported her to the Guild, had her removed?
Then war would come anyway, and she would have lost nothing. The Guild would die with the Commonwealth.
Hesitantly she began. “We work well together.”
“Agreed,” he signed.
“Our negotiators do not.”
She felt his grim amusement. “No.”
“They do not want peace.” That was her first dangerous statement; such speculation was against Guild rules. She waited for Jarrikk’s reaction.
“Agreed,” he signed after a moment. She sensed wariness.
“Both sides must want peace if we are to avoid war.”
Self-evident, but Jarrikk replied slowly. “Agreed.”
“So–we need new negotiators.”
No hesitation this time–complete denial. “We have no say. Governments choose.”
“Perhaps they chose badly.” Suddenly she could no longer read his emotion: he was blocking. She rushed on. “We serve the Guild. The Guild serves the Commonwealth. War will destroy Commonwealth and Guild. Our loyalty to the Guild demands we prevent that.”
A long pause. “We can do nothing.”
“We can!” she insisted. Then she hesitated, suddenly afraid to make the final statement. In guildtalk it would have been impossible; even saying it felt–wrong. “We can fake the Link.”
Jarrikk’s red eyes widened and he backed away from her, growling. “No!” He let her feel his denial full-force.
“We must!” She countered with determination. “We must negotiate for them. We must find the compromise they will not. We must–”
“Lie! Break Oath! Dishonor Guild! Dishonor selves! Ruin everything!”
“War will destroy the Guild, destroy honor, destroy everything!” Kathryn moved after him. “War killed my parents.” She pointed to his scarred, useless wing. “War made you walk!”
Backed into the corner, Jarrikk turned his head away, looked out through the window. A dozen S’sinn soared past. He watched them out of sight, then signed, very slowly, “Dangerous. You cannot know what will happen. Without Programming…”
“I know what will happen if war comes. And so do you.”
Jarrikk looked at his crippled left wing, then at her. She felt his bitter agreement. “Yes,” he signed. “Yes.”
Kathryn blocked him then, trying too late to hide her sudden surge of fear. She felt Jarrikk’s agreement waver. Hurriedly she said, “I’ll prepare a proposal and send it to you before the morning session,” and turned toward the door, barely catching his farewell message from the corner of her eye:
“May the Hunter of Worlds preserve us.”
Back in her own quarters, Kathryn sat at the computer, trying to compose her thoughts, to recall all she had learned of Commonwealth law and treaty and the current dispute. They would need a truly workable compromise to pull this off, and she had only a few hours…
Yet her mind kept going back to the discussion with Jarrikk, and to another argument very much like it she’d had with Jim Ornawka, just before she left on the mission that had been aborted to send her here. Jim had come into her room while she was packing. No surprise there; he had persistently pursued her since that night before First Translation. She’d told him that she wanted to concentrate on being a Translator, that sex was part of her old self. It hadn’t stopped him.
But the approach Jim had used that last time had been… different. “I just thought you might want something human to remember before spending six months alone with aliens,” he’d said, running his finger down her arm.
Kathryn pulled away. “The Oath says–”
“I know, I know. ‘I renounce all species ties…’ Don’t be too quick to take those words to heart, Katy. ‘Species ties’ are going to be pretty important if this Fairholm business blows up.”
Shocked, she could only stare at him.
“Oh, don’t get holier-than-thou.” He looked hard into her eyes. “If war comes, will you side with aliens against your own kin?”
“They’re our kin, too!”
She tried desperately to read his emotions, then, and failed; he was blocking. Somehow, though, she knew her own reaction was nakedly obvious.
“Thought so,” Jim had said, and left her, shaken and shamed. She’d slammed her suitcase shut and stalked out of the room that had been her home for half her life without even looking back. I’m better than that, she remembered thinking. I meant my Oath.
And now that same determination to treat aliens as her kin, as the Oath demanded, was leading her to break that Oath.
She wondered what Jim would have said.
She turned back to her computer, but she’d only been working for an hour when her terminal beeped, announcing a message. She punched “receive.”
Words scrolled by. “Researched matter. Found following: ‘Attempts to Link without Programming produce severe pain; one Orrisian volunteer suffered respiratory and circulatory arrest and narrowly escaped death. In all cases the Translator symbiote died, and volunteers required long periods of convalescence due to immune-system rejection of the symbiote dead tissue. All recovered, but were no longer able to function as Translators; their bodies rejected all attempts to introduce a new symbiote. Native empathic abilities survived, but augmentation became impossible.’ Jarrikk.”
Kathryn blanked the screen, then stared blindly at the windowless wall. Pain she could face–had faced, over and over–but the rest… “No longer able to function as Translators.” It would be like bondcut all over again. A part of her would die.
But millions of other would die–fully–if she didn’t take the risk. And Jarrikk didn’t say where he’d gotten the information. Maybe he was having second thoughts, and was just trying to frighten her out of her scheme.
Well, he’d frightened her, all right–but not enough to make her quit. To prove to herself she meant that, she got up, took an empty Programming vial, filled it with distilled water, then colored the liquid pale pink with a drop of blood from her finger. She placed it in her Translator’s case, but stared at it a long time before slowly closing and latching the case and returning to her terminal.
Near dawn, when sleep could no longer be denied, she felt she had barely begun–but she could do no better. She had the computer translate the proposal and transmit it to Jarrikk, then fell fully clothed into bed and instant sleep.
Only seconds later, it seemed, someone knocked. “Duty calls, Translator Bircher,” Matthews said through the door. “One hour. We’re all anxious to conclude this.”
I’ll bet you are, Kathryn thought savagely. She splashed cold water on her face, surveyed herself in the mirror, shuddered, then returned to the computer to review her creation. Jarrikk had sent it back with a few eminently sensible changes. We make a good team, she thought as she read them–but if the information Jarrikk had sent her were true, she’d never Link with him, or anyone, again.
She cleared the computer and picked up her case. If Matthews had done the work she had just attempted, she would have held to her Oath. But from his actions she could almost believe war had been intended from the moment Earth colonized Fairholm/Kisradik.
At the door, she paused. If that were true, she was about to throw away her career, maybe her life, uselessly. Why should Earth accept a compromise if it truly wanted war?
Because Earth depends on its allies, she told herself, and they’ll accept anything reasonable that preserves the Commonwealth. Even Matthews is enough of a diplomat to understand that.
The anger of the S’sinn packed into every recess of the Great Hall beat down on Kathryn like desert heat as she followed Matthews to the dais, but the air only felt colder. Jarrikk met her, and ritualistically they made their preparations. But when Kathryn pressed the injector to her arm, she felt nothing. The Beast inside her slumbered on. She took her end of the Link–and froze.
She could feel the ravenous attention of S’sinn and humans, could almost hear them saying, “Do it! Link! Give us war!”
She could. She could make some excuse, return to her quarters, inject the real Programming, and Translate perfectly, as her Oath demanded. War would come, but she would still be a Translator, still have that wonderful union with other races, the only thing that could fill the void left by her parents’ deaths.
Her parents…they’d left Earth for Hardluck IV, dreaming of building a new and better world, only to have their dreams snuffed out by war. What she was about to do would destroy her dream just as surely–but maybe, just maybe, it would ensure that millions of others could keep theirs.
She pictured her father standing in her place, and her hesitation vanished. She touched the cord to the patch behind her ear.
Agony ripped her open, screamed through every nerve, as The Beast woke to alien, untranslatable signals. Kathryn’s vision grayed and the world spun around her, roaring, but she clung grimly to consciousness, fighting for control, fighting to hide her suffering from Matthews, and gradually, oh-so-gradually, the pain subsided, leaving her nauseated but functioning–and, abruptly, terrified. She’d gone empathy-blind! She could sense nothing, not the hostility of the assembled S’sinn, not the worry of her Translation partner, not the impatience of Matthews. The symbiote inside her had died, and her own abilities with it!
Feeling blind, deaf and desperate, she nodded tersely to Jarrikk, and the S’sinn delegation began.
Kathryn heard only growling gibberish, but she began talking. “Upon consideration, the First Flight of S’sinndikk has realized that our mutual recriminations have been of little benefit to ourselves or to our allies. In the hope that these negotiations may yet produce a fruitful and lasting accommodation between us concerning the planet Fairholm/Kisradik, we propose the following compromise…
Matthews heard her out, expressionless. Her inability to perceive his emotions unnerved her. How did non-empaths communicate? She might as well be talking to herself.
The S’sinn stopped, and hastily she concluded, “Do you have a response at this time?”
Matthews whispered to one of his aides, then said, “We will study your remarks and make a counter-proposal at our next session. Tomorrow morning?”
Jarrikk began speaking, and Kathryn held her breath. If he Translated truly, as his Oath demanded, there would only be confusion on the part of the S’sinn–confusion and, very shortly, suspicion; suspicion that the human Translator had, unthinkably, lied. And the mere fact a Translator had lied could destroy the Guild and Commonwealth as thoroughly as any war…
Matthews frowned as the translation of his simple remark went on for an inordinate amount of time, but there had been similar differences before. Besides, Kathryn thought, what could he possibly suspect? Translators don’t lie. Everyone knows that.
Another thought struck her, and she groaned inwardly. What would happen at the “next session” if she couldn’t Translate?
One thing at a time. There might not even be another session. And if the S’sinn did agree to it, how was she to know, maimed as she was?
Jarrikk found a way. As the S’sinn finished speaking, he nodded–a human gesture meaningless to his own people. “Agreed,” she told Matthews.
The delegates departed, and the galleries buzzed as the news spread among the S’sinn that negotiations would continue. Kathryn’s knees buckled unexpectedly and she would have fallen if Jarrikk hadn’t caught her. He gently tugged the Link free and she leaned against his broad, furry chest for a moment. “Thanks,” she murmured, then, wary of how the crowd might react, straightened hurriedly. She knew Jarrikk wouldn’t take it amiss; after two full sessions of Translation, they knew each other as well as anyone ever could know another person, better than she had ever known another human–certainly better than she had known Jim, whose image came to her unbidden, standing in her room, suggesting she might break her Oath…
Which she had. She shook her head, confused. “I’m blind,” she told Jarrikk. He would know how she meant it.
“Very brave human,” he signed. “Tomorrow both sides will present modifications to proposal, but I expect success.”
“How?” Kathryn cried. “I can’t Translate.” A lump in her throat choked her; she swallowed angrily. She would not cry, not in self-pity; never!
“Please come to quarters?” Jarrikk cocked his head to one side, watching her.
Kathryn blinked. “Why?”
“Please. All will be explained.”
How? she thought, but, “All right,” she said.
In a way it was a relief not to feel the crowd’s hostility as she walked with Jarrikk back to his sunny room. But when he ushered her through the arch, she stopped so suddenly he ran into her.
Karak’s face looked out from the screen of Jarrikk’s comp terminal.
“Translator Bircher,” said Karak. “I can hear you, but you are not in the visual pickup field.”
She stayed put. “What’s going on?”
“Translator Bircher, Translator Annette Mathieu is en route to S’sinndikk and will take your place in the morning session.”
“Annette–” Kathryn stared at Karak, then suddenly turned furiously on Jarrikk. “You told him!”
He made no denial; simply stood, with inhuman stillness. She spun to face the terminal and strode into pickup range. “You said there were no other Translators near enough–”
“I said no suitable Translator was close enough. You were the ideal choice, therefore neither Translator Mathieu nor Translator Ornawka were suitable.” Karak ignored Kathryn’s glare. “The Council of Masters felt that if you and Jarrikk could overcome your mutual mistrust and successfully Link, it would demonstrate graphically the possibility–and need–of humans and S’sinn working together.” He circled one tentacle. “It worked.”
“It worked because I broke my Oath!”
“All unfolded as anticipated.”
“Anticipated!” Kathryn’s face flamed. “You expected me to break my Oath?”
“You did not break it,” Karak said. “You upheld it. Your Oath states that all races are your kin. You kept your kin from destroying each other.”
“But Translators can’t lie. If the Seven Races knew–”
“Please see they do not find out.”
“I need to sit down.” Kathryn’s stomach churned and a hot steel band seemed clamped around her forehead. She looked around, but of course there was no place to sit in Jarrikk’s chambers; she had to settle for leaning on one of the padded wooden racks. Jarrikk moved close beside her. “Why me? Why didn’t you send Jim?” Did Karak know what Jim had said to her before she left? she wondered, suddenly worried for him.
“Translator Ornawka was not suitable, but he was very helpful. He helped us ascertain the depth of your commitment to the Oath.”
Kathryn straightened. “That argument was staged?”
“Translator Ornawka was very helpful,” Karak repeated.
Kathryn shook her aching head and coughed. Jarrikk placed one clawed hand on her shoulder and she leaned gratefully back against his warm bulk. “Guess I misjudged Jim,” she said softly. “But I’m still going to kill him next time I see him.” She raised her voice. “There’s something else. I’m empathy-blind. I’m–I’m not a Translator any more.”
“True,” Karak said simply, and Kathryn closed her eyes. She’d hoped even yet that Jarrikk’s information had been wrong; a child’s hope. “However,” Karak continued, “your natural empathy will slowly recover.”
Kathryn’s eyes flew open. “Truth?”
“Translators do not lie.”
Kathryn grimaced. “So what happens now?”
“I see you are already feeling ill. This will provide the perfect excuse for you to withdraw. The ship delivering Translator Mathieu has an unusually well-equipped medical bay. Its personnel will take care of you.”
Jarrikk moved around in front of her, blocking her view. “Until then, I take care of you,” he signed.
She wished she could read him; at least he could read her. She let her gratitude flood her. He reached out his hand and patted her knee clumsily, and she laughed, knowing he had drawn the gesture from her memories. He moved around behind her again. Karak watched them with no visible change of expression. “So it all worked out the way you predicted,” she said to him, almost angrily. “But you couldn’t know that I’d–do what I did. I almost didn’t. I almost backed out. The thought of no longer being a Translator…” Her throat closed on the words.
“We didn’t know,” Karak said. “One can never know. Nor did we know what Jarrikk would do–until we registered his library search for information on the effects of Linking without Programming. Such information is normally restricted, but I personally informed him of the risk you were both about to take. The decision, however, was entirely yours–and his.”
“Both?” Kathryn twisted around to stare at Jarrikk.
“Both,” Jarrikk signed.
“Why? There was no need…”
“Was. S’sinn would be shamed if human took risk, S’sinn did not. Such shame could poison relations.”
“But they’ll never know!”
“I would know. Someday they may, too.” He touched her forehead gently. “Very brave human. Could not let you risk what I would not.”
“But if you didn’t Program…”
“As of today, two fewer Translators,” said Karak solemnly. “Two new names in Hall of Honor. And new hope of peace.”
Kathryn didn’t take her eyes off Jarrikk. Crippled by the humans, his only worth in S’sinn society was as a Translator–and he had thrown that away for the sake of her wild scheme, trusting her completely…she laid her hand on the soft fur of his chest. “Very brave S’sinn.” All this time she’d thought he could still read her, he’d really been as blind as she was. But he had still comforted her. “Very kind S’sinn,” she whispered.
Jarrikk touched her forehead again. “Very good friend,” he signed.
“Yes,” she said. “Oh, yes.” Without turning around, she asked Karak, “What use are we to the Guild now?”
“When your natural abilities return, you will still be able to seek out new human and S’sinn Translators. We will now need many more.”
Kathryn remembered the day Karak took her from the orphanage. “I’d like that. I’d like that very much.”
But Jarrikk signed sharply, “No. S’sinn will not accept such judgment from flightless one.”
“Then what…” Kathryn stopped, appalled, as the answer crashed in on her from Jarrikk’s memories. Flightless, no longer a Translator, Jarrikk would do what he would have done had he never become one–he would die, and S’sinndikk would honor his name. That part of her that had been S’sinn warmed with pride at the glory of his sacrifice–but the human part of her went as cold as the depths of space. She wanted to scream at him, to reason with him, but, at war within herself, all she could manage was a choked, “No!”
“It is our way.”
“Karak…” Kathryn turned pleadingly toward the terminal.
“It is the S’sinn way,” Karak said, and his image vanished.
Kathryn faced Jarrikk again. “But I don’t want you to die!” The words exploded out of her.
Jarrikk opened his scarred wing. “Only in Translation am I free of pain. I no longer have that freedom. Death is my friend.”
“I would not sentence you to a life of pain,” Kathryn whispered. “But I will not be free of pain. Not if you die.”
Jarrikk touched her cheek. “You will remember me. You will remember my memories. In you, I will live on.”
Kathryn had no more arguments to give him. She gazed mutely at his face, the face she had thought horrible only a few days before, but that now seemed sadly beautiful.
Jarrikk gestured out the open windows. “We have a few hours. Are you well enough to see the glories of our city? We are artists as well as warriors. There are many beautiful things I would show you.”
“You already have,” Kathryn said; but she took his hand and walked with him out under the open sky. The old pain, or something like it, was back in her heart; but this time, it was there to stay.
Copyright 1994 by Edward Willett