A big thanks to Andrew, the team at Phoenix Books, and everyone else involved in making the Vermont Science Fiction event happen. And many more thanks to everyone that came out to support me and the other authors. It was fantastic group on both sides of the lectern, and a lot of fun for all.
As I mentioned during the reading, I think that this quote from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities captures the science fiction spirit so well:
Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.
And now, that novel; shared again with you…
Their Blood, Like Ours, Red (excerpt)
Going strictly by their charter, the Ba’ahshri Constabulary was like any bureau of constables in any city in the Goliimanzhu Republic. Headed by an Inspector-General, and ultimately answerable to the office of the Consul-Delegate, the Constabulary served as a police force within the city limits–they enforced the laws of the Republic and those local to the city; they investigated transgressions against those laws; they mediated trivial disputes; they arrested suspected criminals and issued immediate chastisements to violators otherwise caught on-the-spot; they provided security for municipal buildings and protection for political officials; they warehoused evidence and later furnished it for court proceedings at the behest of the appointed magistrates; they educated the public about the city’s legal landscape. But the Ba’ahshri Constabulary had the added responsibility of coping with daily contact from the Terran Expeditionary Corps and its human personnel. Whereas other cities might have one or two “Terrana” visits each year–and mostly had none at all–Ba’ahshri was adjacent to the Havocward Quarantine and its accompanying decontamination infrastructure which included Clement Anchorage, the Expeditionary’s base of operations for all planetside activities. Consequently, Ba’ahshri constables dealt with the Terrana in some capacity every day; decontamination activities frequently required intervention outside of the quarantine, and Mitigation Division investigations often brought cadres of up to six agents into the city looking for artifacts. At first Minzhal, Ba’ahshri’s Inspector-General, had created an entire sub-agency to deal with the Terrana; he hired officers whose sole purpose would be to learn the Terrana language and customs, and to field the inevitable barrage of inquiries, complaints, paranoid delusions, protests, hostile claims, demands, assertions, petitions, and wild allegations that required investigation. But the city’s population adjusted to the presence of the Terrana remarkably quickly and after only two years, Minzhal found that he could disband the sub-agency, reassigning the capable investigators and dismissing the pure bureaucrats entirely. There were plenty of reports brought to the Constabulary’s attention that centrally featured the Terrana, but those cases almost never required a specialist, and the Terrana were always equipped with their translation machine–and nearly every member of the Mitigation Division and every member of Arbitration had at least a passable command of Trade Goliimanzhu.
And that was what Minzhal talked about as he guided Cole from the Constabluary headquarters to the gaol.
The gaol itself was a squat, square two-story building on the edge of the Western Quarter. It was just over the border from Senator’s Enclave–a straight shot from the Constabulary headquarters, but far enough away that it was technically outside the limits of that prestigious neighborhood. The walls of the gaol were coffee-brown blocks, each one as big as piichup torso, and flecked with bits of mica that sparkled faintly in the mid-day sun. Every ten meters there was a narrow barred window; even from a block away, hands could be seen thrusting out, grasping for whatever wisps of freedoms floated in the air. As they passed through the outer gate and approached the main entrance, the prisoners’ shouts rang in guttural sing-song tones, heavy in Cole’s ears.
Once inside, a burly guard greeted Inspector-General Minzhal with a practiced salute before brusquely shoving the heavy barred gate closed behind them. Sneering at Cole, the guard lumbered around, careful not to make physical contact. He gestured for them to stay put, then unlocked a small compartment in the wall of the vestibule, folding it down to reveal a logbook and a pen. “[Wait here. I’ll be back with the Inquest-Captain.]” Minzhal signed them in with a bold flourish.
Moments later, the inner door swung open again and the guard returned with a third golii immediately behind him. The Inquest-Captain wore a dark grey uniform with rigidly square lines to the creases and cuffs, and red piping along the seams of the arms and legs. The uniform bore no insignia except a single piece of red embroidery on one arm–two halves of a circle, one over and one under a nine-pointed star. Around his waist was a wide belt of black leather laden with various pouches and holsters; though the pouches all hung heavily, the holsters were empty.
“Lieutenant Cole,” Minzhal said flatly, “please to meet Pansha–our Inquest-Captain. [Pansha, this is Lieutenant Cole with the Terrana’s Mitigation Division.]”
Cole forgot himself for a moment and extended his hand. Pansha stared at Cole’s hand with a puzzled look. He withdrew his hand and moved it to a dozhi–the palm-up greeting gesture common among the golii–briefly touching his cheekbones.
Pansha returned the dozhi but did not touch his fingers to his cheekbones. “Greetings. [Apologies, but that is the extent of my Terrana.]”
“Quite alright,” Cole gestured to the meshpad clipped to his own belt, a little green LED glowing to indicate that the ambient translations were active.
“[To what does our city’s simple gaol owe the pleasure of your visit?]”
Cole opened his mouth to speak but Minzhal cleared his throat wetly and loudly. “[He desires to witness an interrogation.]”
“Participate in one, actually. Conduct one, if time permits. I have some of my own questions.”
Pansha looked curiously at Cole, waiting for the ambient translation to begin but before it could, Minzhal lunged forward and swiped at the meshpad to dismiss the audio, already talking over it:
“[I presume you already have a full stack of dossiers for my review? I would like to conduct a couple of these inquiries personally.]” Minzhal cast a sharp gaze at Cole, his eyes cold and accusing.
Pansha frowned and moved his eyes between Cole and Minzhal several times. He shifted his posture, angling his body toward the Inspector-General. “[The dossiers are arranged in my office. I’d be delighted to bring some down to the inquestory and review them with you.]”
Minzhal was already gesturing down the hall, practically shoving the Inquest-Captain. “[I am eager to get started. Perhaps we can review some of these dossiers afterward.]”
“[Certainly, sir. As you wish…]”
The path to the inquestory was a series of narrow and twisting corridors which led to the center of the gaol; Cole imagined the prisoners being led to the dimly lit room, black sackcloth pulled over their heads, completely disoriented after these circuitous routes. The room itself was dimly lit by eight gas lamps. In the middle of the room was a screened off compartment with a radius of about two meters. The screen rose almost to the ceiling and was louvered such that he could see into the circle. Positioned around the circle were small tables, stools, buckets, trunks, and canvas bags.
When they arrived, several other golii officers in the dark grey uniforms milled around, talking in hushed tones, but even the hushed tones ground to a halt when they glanced up to see Cole standing there with the Inspector-General and the Inquest-Captain.
“[What is he doing here?]” asked one of the grey-clad golii inquisitors.
“[We treat the Terrana as our guest,]” Minzhal replied tersely but mechanically.
“[Would you bring a guest to an inquestory?]” another of the golii inquisitors objected.
Minzhal snarled quietly and stiffened, taking a heavy step toward the group but saying nothing else.
Pansha cleared his throat and nodded to one of the other inquisitors. “[Get the next one,]” he grumbled before he bent over one of the trunks. He retrieved several instruments and stuck them into his belt. Cole tried to make out the instruments in the dim light–they looked like miscellaneous small mallets, pliers, hooks, razors… Pansha inspected each of the instruments carefully, carefully tapping and scraping at each before he replaced it in some assigned slot in his belt’s intricate holster system. Minzhal situated himself next to Pansha and the two conferred in quiet tones that neither Cole’s meshpad nor his earpiece could quite detect.
The inquisitor returned, escorting a golii whose hands were shackled. Oddly, this golii was not blindfolded and he stared right at Cole, his jaw fixed. The golii looked young to Cole, and his eyes were a subtly different shape–more elliptical–and his skin was a few shades darker than the uniformed golii in the room.
He was Cshlingmaki.
Cole knew only vague bits about the Cshlingmaki. They were an ethnic group among the golii; they were common in the southern parts of the Gäomaal continent, and were said to be so widespread in Ba’ahshri that they outnumbered the Goliimanzhu by two-to-one. But the Cshlingmaki were also marginalized by the ruling powers of the Republic–they had no voting rights, and only the most basic protections under the law. In Ba’ahshri, the Cshlingmaki were almost exclusively confined to the Western Quarter and a handful of neighborhoods in the Southern–but these were little more than ghettos. Just the same, the Cshlingmaki men could be seen in the streets, making daily pilgrimages from their homes to their menial jobs; they earned coin as servants in wealthy households, as stevedores and factory hands, as construction site laborers and janitors, as gardeners, as butlers and bouncers. Options were even fewer for the Cshlingmaki women, who competed fiercely for positions as scullery maids, seamstresses, and wet-nurses and nannies; a few became concubines. And that was when they were employed at all–it was an open secret that a black market existed for Cshlingmaki slaves, that the wealthiest Goliimanzhu burghers kept phony payroll ledgers, ready to produce them at a moment’s notice–that they were prepared for legal inquiries that never came–that they savagely beat those slaves at the slightest hint that they might be preparing for flight, or for breaking news of their captivity. And of course, knowing of this, it was no surprise that so many Cshlingmaki accepted the confinement to their own boroughs, pursuing other less than legal options to put food on their tables.
Stories like that always made Cole’s stomach twist; the Principal of Non-intervention demanded that they remain detached, that they trusted the Goliimanzhu Republic to police its own laws, and to mature into its own moral code along their own timeline.
The inquisitor leading the Cshlingmaki youth was met by another of his cohort. They guided him into a chair and tied his legs to the chair, re-shackling his arms behind the back of the chair. He looked up at them, his jaw still set; the dim light in the room revealed an angry-looking red welt on one side of his face, and another spot where the skin had cracked and bled. For a moment, he struggled against his restraints, trying to rock himself free but the chair was firmly bolted to the floor.
“[Step away,]” Pansha called to the inquisitors, his voice sounding satisfied. He turned to Minzhal, briefly examining Cole’s expressions. “[If it pleases the Inspector-General… he is all yours.]”
“[It does please me,]” Minzhal replied and removed his coat, the decorations clinking like loose coins in the otherwise quiet room. “[Circumstances of his arrest?]”
Pansha held out his hand and one of the junior inquisitors turned over a large brown folder with red ribbon. He untied the ribbon slowly, his eyes passing slowly from Cole to Minzhal to the prisoner and back again.
Minzhal rolled up one sleeve.
“[The prisoner was apprehended on the University campus yesterday afternoon. He had been observed in the company of other suspects that have known ties to separatist groups.]”
Minzhal rolled up the other sleeve. “Interesting,” he looked at Cole.
“[Given the timing and his obvious Cshlingmaki ethnicity, we felt that he was an excellent candidate for questioning. Upon being approached, he attempted to evade arrest. Our constables were forced to pursue him and make a forceful apprehension.]”
Minzhal nodded and stepped closer to Pansha. He held his hand out and reached for the folder. “[Any prior record?]”
Pansha held up the folder and the single sheet that it contained. “[It appears that this is the first time we meet.]”
“[And his name?]”
“[He has not been forthcoming.]”
The Inspector-General nodded vigorously. “[Very well.]” He turned to Cole. “Shall we? This is being your one opportunity.”
Cole straightened up. “Naturally.” He followed as Minzhal took a dramatic and purposeful stride toward the screened section.
“[Wait!]” Pansha yelled. “[Sir, your saber. You cannot take that in with you. We must respect Republic law on this matter.]”
“[Indeed,]” Minzhal conceded. He sounded amused. He took a step away from Cole and slowly drew the blade, letting the metal sing in the air before handing it to the Inquest-Captain. “[Satisfactory?]”
“[And the pistol, as well.]”
Minzhal flashed a thin smile. “[Of course.]”
“[What about the Terrana?]” the junior inquisitor asked. “[What kind of arms might he be carrying?]”
Pansha turned reluctantly to the Inspector-General, sure of the law but unsure of the protocol as it related to the Expeditionary.
Minzhal nodded and grasped Cole by the shoulder with his meaty hand. “He is being correct in the law. No killing weapons are permitted behind the screen.”
Cole nodded and produced his sidearm from its holster. “It is the only thing I carry,” he explained, letting the meshpad translate on his behalf. “But I cannot leave it unattended.”
“Then you cannot come behind the screen.”
“I’m sure we can reach a compromise…” Cole trailed off, letting his eyes roam the room. “Do any of these trunks lock?”
From his belt, Pansha produced a keyring. After several seconds, he removed one of the keys and handed it to Cole. Then he led Cole to a medium-sized trunk on the opposite side of the screen. “[I don’t suppose this arrangement is what you imagined?]”
“This will suffice.” Cole gently placed his sidearm into the trunk amongst the coils of rope and an unmarked burlap sack. He started to lower the lid and looked at each golii in turn, wondering which one of them was already contemplating how to get his hands on the weapon.
“Wait,” Minzhal said. He seized his own pistol out of Pansha’s hands and placed it into the trunk. “[Who else is carrying a pistol?]” Two of the inquisitors gave acknowledging nods. “[Put them in.]” The junior officers glanced at each other in disbelief and, after a long pause, complied. “You are feeling better?”
He could still think of a hundred reasons not to give them his full trust. He reminded himself that Captain Lane had dealt with these golii probably hundreds of times and never had an ill outcome until the Shaarii Market. You must trust them, he told himself, and pushed the trunk lid shut. He tested the lid to make sure that the lock held, then returned to Minzhal’s side. Cole could not help but stare petulantly at the quartet of junior golii inquisitors. He made a show of placing the key in his pocket. “I think everyone is satisfied now. Shall we begin?”
Minzhal grunted an affirmation and led Cole through the door in the louvered screen. The prisoner sat stiffly in the chair. At first Cole thought that this was because he was tied too tightly, that the inquisitors had fastened him such that he could not slump or slouch. When he looked closer, Cole could see that though the prisoner’s arms and legs were bound, that he could otherwise shift himself freely on the chair. The prisoner stared furiously at them, dagger eyes tracked their every footstep. He flexed his outer mouth in a rolling sneer but kept his teeth locked. The sleeve on one side of his loose green shirt had been ripped, showing scratches on the flesh of his shoulder. He bled, but not heavily.
Cole realized that he had never stopped to consider that the golii also had red blood.
Photo credit @natosongs.