Starborn

One

I should’ve known someone would die.

We were cooped up in an overheated conference room with our worst enemies, a group of men with less collective charm than the average warthog. The only real shock should’ve been that all I got was stabbed. At least I’d showered that morning. And for the first time in a month, too. Which also meant that for the first and last time in my life, I’d had excellent timing.

But I’m jumping right in at the middle.

Let me back up.

We meant the special delegation from Phoria Q3, the largest planet in our own solar system. We’d traveled on three different ships to get here, to this ship, a place that stank of disinfectant and was entirely a strange and impersonal beige. I felt like screaming, but I had since we’d come aboard.

The Endeavor was a constellation class starship, and the flagship of the Alliance. Which made me wonder how horrible the rest of the fleet was. We weren’t part of the Alliance and we didn’t want to be. To find yourself, our president was fond of saying, think for yourself. Too bad he wasn’t here. He’d never seen a ship like this. None of us had, until last night. None of us had ever left home.

We hadn’t wanted to.

I scanned the room, careful to keep my expression neutral. We needed medicine, and soon. In an abundance of generosity, the Alliance had offered to host us while we begged. Not them; their stockpile was for their own people. Which was how I’d ended up sitting there, mere footsteps from a man who wanted nothing more than to bomb our planet into oblivion and enslave whatever was left.

My father stood up and approached the podium.

He was our minister of finance. He began painting a picture of our economic collapse. He’d been drinking all morning. Sweat stood out on his brow. I could only hope that he remained upright and managed, at the same time, to convey something of our desperation. Without dissolving into tears, as he’d begun doing sometimes in the afternoon. I gritted my teeth and tried to keep the worry from my own eyes. I wanted to protect him; I wanted to push him away from the microphone.

My sister, next to me, wasn’t listening. She was fluttering her eyelashes at one of the officers. One of the Circassian Empire’s officers. They were an imposing group, and Rowan was the kind of person who confused imposing and sophisticated. Most of their delegation was in uniform. All of them seemed fit, impossibly so. Even the enormous one with an eruption of fire for hair looked like some sculptor’s fantasy. He pretended to listen politely, as his eyes scanned the room.

And next to him, lounging slightly, was the man who’d been staring at me for the last half an hour.

I refused to meet his gaze; I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

I knew who he was. Not that he’d introduced himself to me. I was beneath his notice. I was beneath his lowliest slave’s notice, too. If that slave was a man. The Circassian Empire viewed women as property and nothing else. Some women, I’d been told, grew up to be something like a wife. Most didn’t. Granted, our knowledge was little more than suppositions based on rumors. But the fact that not a single woman had joined them didn’t exactly disprove anything.

I was educated, too. Probably better educated than he was. What need could a dictator have for books? He’d earned his reputation with murder; I’d earned mine as a member of the diplomatic corps.

Rowan yawned.

I nudged her, silently begging her to at least cover her mouth.

Cassius Falco. Cassius the Cruel, Proconsul of Acra. I hated that he was seeing this. He’d conquered six planets so far and my father was in the middle of handing him the seventh. Whatever “help” we got would leave us longing for another plague. And he was so young. Given his reputation, I’d expected someone closer to my father’s age than mine. Even worse, he was—handsome.

He’d enslaved millions; his features should’ve been as twisted as his cold, dead heart.

Rowan yawned again.

I kept expecting her foundation to crack.

My sister wasn’t here in any official capacity; she was here to find a husband. Her antics—and my father’s insistence on indulging them—were why no one took me seriously. I’d heard the rumors: that I couldn’t possibly have landed such a junior and underpaid position on the strength hard work.

Clearly, I was sleeping with my boss.

No, not my father! Ben. Ben, who was sitting in front of me and looked about as pleased as I was. Ben didn’t normally work with my father, let alone for. This trip had been an adjustment for all of us. I wished I could talk to him. Alone. He intimidated me, but he was also the only one I trusted to make sense of this. He wrote a note on the pad in front of him. He was only thirty, I told myself. And I was twenty-one, hardly a child.

He’s the same age as that autocrat, an unwelcome voice whispered.

“And so,” my father finished, “we must lift this embargo.”

Silence fell.

He cleared his throat.

We waited.

The autocrat gestured with a single, elegant hand. He’d lost interest in me, so I could watch him. That soulless expression was fixed on my father, now. And then I heard his voice for the first time.

“Coria and Curia.” His tone was musing, almost…gentle.

I felt my throat constrict.

“Our moons.”

Cassius Falco nodded. “Ripe for mining, and yet….” He let himself trail off.

My father took the bait.

“Yes,” he agreed eagerly. “Our moons are rich in ore.”

Ben winced.

The autocrat gestured. His fingers were long, thin, and well-manicured. “Ore you need, but cannot mine.” His tone turned cold. “And so you come to us. Are we no longer the viper against your bosom, at all times poised to strike? The—to use your president’s words—greatest threat in the quadrant, to all who cherish freedom? Are you, after so much noise, pleading to join us?”

My father sputtered. “No!”

“Then I see no further need for discussion.”

“Morality—”

“Morality has no place in politics,” Cassius Falco snapped.

My father swallowed.

“You’re here, because you’re bankrupt.” Cassius Falco glared. “Meaning that the violently absurd disaster you call infrastructure cannot be fixed.” He paused again. “The moons cannot be mined. I understand your position! I don’t, however, understand why I should celebrate—let alone reward—your incompetence. Are we children, that we’ll be surrender under the weight of a few insults?”

“Our dream—”

“Your dream is to escape responsibility for poor choices.”

I glanced at my father, willing him to step down.

Cassius Falco crossed one leg over the other. “The facts,” he began, “are that—”

“The facts,” my father cried, “are stupid!”

Ben stood up.

“Corpses,” Cassius Falco said, “are more eloquent when the gas inside them shifts. Speaking of which, Minister, you look unwell.”

“Are you threatening him?”

Cassius Falco’s eyes snapped to Ben’s. “Observing him.”

“I’m fine.”

“He’s an old man and shouldn’t be traveling.”

“He’s—”

“I’m fine!”

My father doubled over in a fit of coughing. Ben took a step forward and instantly Cassius Falco was on his feet. The mood turned tense, like something was sucking the oxygen out of the room.

Cassius Falco stepped into the no man’s land between our opposing sides. “The minister of finance is, what, fifth in importance? I’m told I hold your lives in the palm of my hand and yet I don’t even merit your vice president?” He began circling my father. His tone was musing, and he reminded me of a snake. “Walked out on an unfortunate situation, did you?”

My father blinked at him.

“Where,” the autocrat demanded, “is your president?”

My father raised a hand to his brow, fingertips touching blue tinged skin, before crumpling into a heap.

I screamed.

Cassius Falco lunged forward like a striking snake. Ben, right behind my father, pulled out a gun and shot. But weapons aren’t allowed, I thought dumbly. Cassius Falco’s shoulder exploded in blood. Then a gun was in his hand. Scattered shouts formed into a low, pulsing din. Someone swung at me and I hit back, using the only move I knew. The acrid stench of laser smoke filled the air.

Someone was battering on the door.

I ducked as a chair flew over my head.

Through what’d been my desk until a few minutes ago, I saw my father motionless on the ground. I didn’t think he’d moved, since he’d fallen. Next to him, arm outstretched and eyes gazing, was Ben.

Two

“Ben,” my father said, “fought bravely.”

I squeezed his hand.

“Ben,” Ben said, from the next bed over, “is still here.”

“Yes,” my father agreed mildly. “I’m merely remarking that you fought bravely.”

Ben grumbled something. I was glad I couldn’t hear. I wanted to knock him back into unconsciousness as it was. Addlepated dunderhead, he’d almost gotten us killed! I realized I was rubbing my arm, and stopped. There were thirteen stitches under that bandage, and they hurt. I’d lost my cardigan, somehow, and had Ben’s sportcoat draped over my shoulders. It didn’t do much to help the chill.

Ben shifted, and winced.

I glared.

“Don’t rush to offer any sympathy.”

“You’re an idiot!”

“I thought—”

“You didn’t think, because your brain is a pillowcase stuffed with maggots!”

The doctor appeared.

“Dr. Suvok.” My father smiled wanly.

The doctor arched an eyebrow. To call him humorless would be to miss the point entirely; he was a black hole, into which everything remotely pleasant was instantly sucked. He checked his notes, then took readings on several different machines I couldn’t name. Sure, I’d left home what felt like ages ago, but I hadn’t really grasped what that meant. This sick bay was like some futurist’s wet dream. Only in the depths of novels did any of us dare to imagine such things.

And I’d certainly never imagined Dr. Suvok—or the existence of a planet governed entirely by logic. Kir’Shara was a planet where no one had sex for fun and everyone was a vegetarian. Dr. Suvok had a bowl cut like a monk and pointed ears that would’ve reminded me of an elf’s had he understood smiling.

I withdrew my hand, and sat back. It’d been a full twenty-four hours since the attack, most of which my father had spent sleep. He was lucky to be alive. Ben, though, was even luckier. He should’ve been dead, not glaring into his applesauce. I tried to tell myself, again, that I hadn’t seen what I’d seen.

“Mr. Fortescue,” the doctor began, “we must discuss your diet.”

My father ignored him. “Briar.” He smiled again, this time at me. “You should marry Ben.”

“Ben, again, is still here!”

“You appear to be eating nothing but fried—”

“He’s committed and, as we can see, quite durable.”

Dr. Suvok rested his clipboard on his knees and looked pained.

A nurse stopped in to check on Ben. He, in turn, treated her with the same charm usually reserved for foreign dignitaries. That he couldn’t sit up unaided didn’t seem to limit him at all. Which only increased my desire to give him a concussion. He was too perfect, hardly boyfriend material let alone husband material, and my face was not burning like bacon on a stove.

And he wasn’t handsome. Blond hair and blue eyes were stupid. Especially on people who caused intergalactic incidents with their stupidity.

Besides, no one believed me but I’d sworn off boyfriends—and husbands—forever.

My sister, Rowan, appeared. “Dad,” she began, “you shouldn’t be—”

“Dad,” I interjected quickly, “is on a lot of medication.”

Dr. Suvok raised an eyebrow.

Rowan moved a chair and sat on it, somehow shoving me aside in the process. “Dad,” she repeated, “you shouldn’t be entertaining all these visitors.” She sounded more like a doctor than Dr. Suvok. You’d never have pegged her for a high school dropout. She just had that certainty about her, that each new word was a pearl of wisdom more beautiful than the last.

“Where have you been?”

Turning, Rowan pretended to be surprised. “Freshening up.” She leaned in toward me and wrinkled her nose. “Unlike you.”

I couldn’t leave, you twat. I was about to explain the concept of personal responsibility when my words died on my tongue. I heard a step, as a shadow fell over me. I recognized that step, as well as that faint hint of cologne. Something exotic, almost like sandalwood.

Rowan’s eyes widened.

“Good afternoon.”

Cassius Falco had joined us.

The fact that his arm was in a sling made him no less threatening. He’d changed his uniform for one not shredded into pieces. “Minister.” He acknowledged my father with a slight nod. “I am pleased at your…survival. Although I might wish the circumstances of our introduction were, ah. Otherwise.”

He spoke perfectly, but this was not his first tongue.

“His survival,” Ben said, “in spite of you.”

Cassius Falco probably just had noticed that someone else was present. He surveyed Ben with cool distaste. I was reminded of a child, with a magnifying glass, who’d just discovered a bug.

“You tormented him until—”

“Let me fight my own battles.” My father accepted a sip of water.

“You have a loyal son.” Cassius Falco’s tone wasn’t entirely disapproving.

“He’s not my son, unfortunately.” My father looked at me. “But he could be.”

Please, no.

Cassius Falco, mercifully, ignored him. “Your father was—and is—unwell. I was trying to help him.”

Clearly, he’d sorted the relationship in his own mind. He honestly wasn’t wrong, either. I wondered, again, what family life was like on Cassius Falco’s home planet.

“Sure, you were.” Ben snorted.

“You let him fall flat on his face.”

“For a man who’s just denied an entire planet lifesaving medical intervention, you’re quite the humanitarian.”

“Boys, boys.”

“I—”

“And you shot me!”

“And my aim,” Cassius Falco said coldly, “is better than yours. I suggest being grateful for that. You are still alive, and obviously in no great danger of being otherwise. No one,” he added, “as close to death’s door as you claim to be, could whine so long and so loudly.”

My father sighed.

“Thank you, then, for blasting a hole in my stomach!”

“I’m well within my rights to have you hanged.”

“How wonderful, then,” Ben retorted, “that I’m a free citizen of Durian and not one of your miserable stooges.”

Durian was our home district.

“Alliance law holds here,” my father said. A bit unhelpfully, I thought.

“If I’d been trying to kill you, you’d be dead.”

“You might be a bloviating fool, but you don’t suffer from low self-esteem!”

“People,” Rowan shouted, “are dead!”

At that, Ben deflated. “I didn’t…want this.”

“Strange,” Dr. Suvok remarked, “how often your people manage to obtain that which you do not want.”

Cassius Falco said nothing.

“How many?”

Captain Arcand answered. Because somehow he’d appeared, too. “One of my men, one of yours, and one from the Xenophon.” The Xenophon was Cassius Falco’s ship and, like the Endeavor, a flagship in her fleet. Both boasted compliments of well over a thousand; on Phoria Q3 they’d be cities.

My father closed his eyes.

“The only person I shot,” Ben said, pointing, “was him!”

“What do you want,” Cassius Falco snapped back, “compassion?”

“Enough!”

Everyone turned to Captain Arcand.

Who, I thought, looked eager to shoot us all.

“If you cannot conduct yourselves in a civil manner, gentlemen, I’ll have you confined to quarters! You,” he thundered, pointing to Ben, “are fortunate indeed that the prince isn’t filing charges. And you!” He turned to Cassius Falco. “As we speak, your men are destroying the recreation deck.”

Wait—prince?

“You’re both here for a conference, not a war.” He glared at each of us in turn. “I understand the situation and understand, too, that no one in this room has reason to trust anyone else.” He crossed his arms. “However, the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is much shorter than we think. I cannot and will not tolerate this ship turning into some sort of Munziri fighting pit!”

Rowan turned an appraising eye on Cassius Falco. “So you’re really a prince?”

Three

There’s no such thing as the perfect joke. There’s also no such thing as the perfect funeral. I was fairly certain though, even then, that the last thing anyone wanted to witness was some maniac yodeling while he chiseled his own finger off. He’d placed the instrument, which looked pretty…used, just in front of the first joint. With every new line in what was obviously some kind of song, at least where he was from, he pressed down harder.

Blood sprayed.

Ben, I thought, would’ve loved this. He’d wanted to come, too. Dr. Suvok, who was sitting in the first row with the rest of the ship’s senior officers, had promised that leaving sickbay would result in losing something worse than fingers. I smiled slightly, then winced as the fingertip flew across the table.

Its former owner held it aloft, triumphantly.

Then he swallowed it.

Crewman First Class Stez’un had died without any family and while serving canapes. His friend, another man from the same culture, had volunteered to step in. They’d served together, but hadn’t been particularly close friends. Master Chief Petty Officer Um’oi began a new chant, as he started dancing around the table. Within seconds, his blood went from on the table to everywhere.

I concentrated on not vomiting.

There was a third chant, which involved binding the wound.

Then, finally, we were done.

Even “fun” outings were awful for me. My own prom had been a nightmare. I wanted to check on Ben, and then maybe take a nap in the chair next to my father. I still had Ben’s jacket. Instead I had to stand there, feeling awkward, as someone handed me a drink.

Captain Arcand approached me as hors d’oeuvres were passed. A little on the nose, I thought. He paused and then nodded, as though he didn’t quite know what to do with a civilian. I forced myself to smile, wanting him to feel better. “Hello,” I said. “I….” Lovely funeral?

A third person joined us, a man who looked like an elephant. “Our funerals,” he said, “are much more exciting.” He coughed and resettled his bulk. Then he helped himself to what was clearly not his first drink. “Having a woman dance without her clothes on boosts attendance, you know. The larger the crowd the greater the honor.” He leered at Captain Arcand. “And if there are two women—”

“How,” Captain Arcand cut in, speaking directly to me, “is your father?”

“He’s got a new heart, right?” Our companion threw his drink back.

“Ambassador Aphelion—”

“Captain Arcand—”

I’d decided to sneak off when a third voice spoke.

My heart sank.

There was some blood on most of us. Captain Arcand managed to make you ignore it, just like he did. On Cassius Falco, it looked natural. He was wearing what appeared to be some sort of dress uniform. I wondered if he knew about any colors other than black. I wished, for the thousandth time, that he could be hideous. Ben was studious and stolid, the human equivalent of a barn raising. Cassius Falco was a night blooming rose, alluring and full of secrets.

“Proconsul.”

Cassius Falco inclined his head in the slightest nod. “Captain. Ambassador.” He paused, as he studied me. Again. “Ms. Fortescue.”

I felt an icy fingertip touch my spine.

“What happens to this Um’oi person,” the ambassador asked, “if someone else dies?”

“He loses another joint from that finger.”

The ambassador paled. “How many fingers…can he lose?”

Cassius Falco seemed surprised by the other man’s distaste. “All of them.”

“All of them? And—and then what?”

Cassius Falco’s shrug was a barely perceptible movement. He sipped his drink. With one arm in a sling and the other raised to his lips, he looked no less dangerous than he had the other morning. “The three chants,” he explained, “assure admission to the afterlife and the…sacrifice assures that he’ll remain there. At least, until such time as the master chief forgets who cost him that particular joint.”

I wondered how Cassius Falco knew so much about this.

“So he’s only in heaven so long as he’s remembered?” Ambassador Aphelion popped another puff of something into his anus of a mouth. “He’s lucky he died alone, then. When I go, my wives will be delighted.” He flashed me a nauseating leer. “They’ve been trying to help me along for some time.”

I frowned, not sure I’d heard correctly. “Wives?”

“Three of them.” He sighed.

“The pleasure of his company,” Cassius Falco explained, “is such that it must be divided into thirds.”

I choked.

“Married men,” the ambassador chided, “live longer than their counterparts.”

Cassius Falco regarded him flatly. “Married men are more willing to die.”

Captain Arcand cut in. “Proconsul, perhaps you could teach us something about Circassian burial customs. We—”

“He could tell you more about the insides of the ladies at court.”

“Ambassador Aphelion, I hardly think that—”

“I don’t sleep with happily married women.”

The ambassador laughed. “Neither do I!” He waved over another drink. “Something about him thrills them. At least, that’s the rumor. I know this, of course, because this fine specimen is one of our overlords. Miemmo,” he continued, referring to his home planet, “is part of the empire. And has been for the last decade, since we were welcomed into its expansive bosom at the point of a sword.”

I wondered why he wasn’t worried, then, that Cassius Falco would kill him.

I wanted to kill him.

The ambassador burped. “What do you think of that?”

“I think,” I said archly, “that the women of the empire must be desperate.”

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