by Sara King
A friendship broken, a people betrayed.
Koliinaat, Thirty-First Turn, Fourteenth Age of Huouyt
Rothren was drafting an essay concerning the poor state of Jreet reproductive capacities when the Watcher’s presence solidified in the room like a dense mental fog.
“Xutra requests another audience, Representative.”
Rothren put down his heat-proof pen and uncoiled, allowing his scales a moment to drink in the fine red fire of his chamber. He hated visiting the dank dungeon that was his friend's lair. Despite the fact that Xutra adjusted the temperature of his quarters for his guests’ comfort, the ever-present dampness that a Geuji required to survive made a Jreet’s stay uncomfortable and short-lived at best.
Rothren, however, had no other choice. Xutra could not come to him.
“Take me to him.”
The Watcher transported Rothren to Xutra's lair and the warmth of his chamber shifted to a cold, miserable damp that seeped under his scales and threatened to suck the very life from him. Rothren coiled his body once more to conserve heat and eyed the glistening black creature that covered every surface of the room with a certain measure of bitterness.
“How can you live under these wretched conditions, Xutra? Not even a primordial fungus can survive in a frigid, inhospitable wasteland such as this.”
The Geuji's artificial voice replied, “I could ask the same of you, Rothren. What fool makes his nest in a bed of coals? A primitive who happened upon you in your slumber might mistake you for dinner.”
“Then the world would be short one fool,” Rothren said. Compared to the blubbering and backstabbing of the Regency, Xutra’s teasing was refreshing. Though he was not a member of the Grand Six, the Geuji spoke to him as an equal.
Yet, looking at the creature draped upon the walls like a thick coat of slimy black paint, Rothren knew they were not.
The Geuji had no equal.
Not even Rothren, one of only two thousand thirty-four total Representatives acting for a universe of almost a hundred thousand fully colonized planets and the sixty trillion citizens contained therein, could claim himself a peer to the deceptively humble creature in front of him.
“If your sub-orbital facial scales dimpled much further, Rothren, I would think you were feeling insecure. Don’t. When you go back to your room, continuing your life, eating and talking and battling bureaucracy inside the Regency, I will still be here, on my ship, staring at the walls and floor around me, pondering what it would be like to have legs.”
Rothren laughed. “The things we take for granted. What brings you here this time, Xutra?”
For the first time since Rothren had known him, the Geuji hesitated. When his artificial voice spoke again, it held a different tone. “We’ve known each other for three hundred and fifty-two turns, Rothren. You are as close to a friend as I believe I have.”
The coldness of the place suddenly sank into Rothren’s body like a Dhasha’s talons. Rothren’s flesh crawled. “What’s happened?”
“I come to make you a bargain, Rothren.”
“Ask me for something—anything—and I will give it to you. Any new technology, any secret, anything that I can deduce. It will be yours. Just promise me a favor in return.”
Rothren sobered, “That sounds too close to a bribe for my liking, Xutra.”
“And what if it is?”
“I had been under the assumption our relationship was not political.”
“Perhaps I mislead you.”
Hot anger began to warm Rothren against the cold. His killing instincts forged from ten turns of Sentinel training returned full-force, leaving his entire body on alert, his skin tingling with the urge to cloak. He said nothing, waiting.
“I will give you anything you want, Rothren. The world is about to change, and the Geuji must have an agent in Congress when it happens.”
Fury flattened Rothren's belly scales to his torso and tightened the tendons in his tek. It was all he could do to keep the poisoned tip from slipping out from its casing in his chest, showing his displeasure.
“Why do you insult me like this, Geuji?”
The Geuji’s artificial voice lacked emotion. “You had to know it would happen, Rothren. You are one of the most powerful Representatives in Congress and I belong to a species without a Representative of their own. Not even you are that naive.”
Rothren’s body ached like he’d been stabbed with an enemy tek. All their years of friendship… Xutra had been cultivating him.
“I could have you executed, Xutra.”
“The Grand Six are not new to bribery.”
"Have you lost your mind, Xutra? You cannot bribe a Jreet. You'd be a fool to try."
“Everyone can be bought, Rothren.”
“Then you are not as intelligent as I thought,” Rothren said coolly. “Watcher, transport—”
“Stop,” Xutra said.
Rothren watched him in cold silence, the agony of Xutra's betrayal tearing through him like a Dhasha's razor black teeth.
“Of course I knew you would not accept. Thus, I just authorized my courier to mail a package to your enemies in the Huouyt. In it, I have described all of your familial lines and which would have to be eliminated for your Regency seat to come under challenge from other Jreet. Help me, or a second package will depart, one that tells how I helped you gain your seat in the first place.”
"You didn't help me gain my seat," Rothren whispered, stunned.
"Can you prove it, my friend? If you don't help me, you will never gain the Tribunal seat you seek. I will make sure of it."
Rage coursed through Rothren as Xutra waited for his response, secure in his knowledge that he would buckle and agree. It was political suicide not to. If it didn't get Rothren killed by his own kind, it would still be exactly as Xutra predicted--the chances of Rothren ever acquiring a seat on the Tribunal for the Jreet was infinitesmally small.
Rothren calmly uncoiled.
“Watcher, take me back to my room and leave this fool to mail his packages.”
Koliinaat, Second Turn, Seventy-Eighth Age of Jreet
“Congress made a mistake in giving them locomotion. We’d simply be returning them to their natural state.”
Rothren realized he was tapping his claw against the table and stopped. He made a frustrated sweep of his tail, then curled it under his body so he could arch his neck and stare down at his visitor. “I did not fight my way to the Tribunal so I could approve the capture of helpless innocents.”
Zeri made a disgusting, fleshy snort and said, “Neither did I. The Geuji are neither helpless nor innocent. You know that from experience.”
“They are a boon. They’ve given Congress sciences we had never dreamed of.”
“Exactly,” Zeri said. The Ooreiki’s big, ovular brown eyes watched Rothren with sticky intensity. “What if they turned their minds against us?”
“They number in the thousands. Congress would slaughter them.”
“Geuji are puppet masters. They will simply hide behind the scenes and tumble our nations while we search for them in vain.”
Rothren’s claw had begun tapping again, gouging the delicate black stone of his desk. He tore his hand away and glared at the Ooreiki. “You will not have the Jreet vote in this. The Geuji have given us no cause to attack them.”
Immediately, Rothren realized he had said exactly what Zeri had been waiting for. The Ooreiki’s four-fingered tentacle dipped inside his robes and withdrew a folded paper, which he handed to Rothren. As he did so, the sudah in the young Ooreiki’s neck betrayed his excitement with a slight flutter. The lack of discipline amused Rothren, since he had spent three hundred and fifty turns mastering his own body, putting a tight rein on any reactions that might betray his motives to his fellows. It was how he had finally come to claim the Tribunal seat and launch the empire into the latest Age of the Jreet, instead an unholy Age of the Dhasha, as it would have been had he lost.
“Read it,” Zeri insisted. “It’s a report from the Sanctuary. Peacemakers sent it to Aliphei, who gave it to me.”
Rothren was slightly irritated that the First Citizen had shown favor to the Ooreiki, but he smothered his disappointment and opened the report.
“The Geuji seek independence from Congress,” Zeri told him as he read it. “They are all gathering in a month to establish their own government—in a star system we have not yet explored.”
Rothren felt his scales depress against his skin as he scanned the Peacemaker report. When he looked up, the muscles in his tek had fully tightened. He had to exert extreme control to keep the poisoned tip from emerging from his chest and allowing the Ooreiki to see his agitation.
“It’s a ruse,” Rothren said. “The Geuji would not allow our spies to overhear anything this useful. They are feeding us falsehoods to make us dance to their will.”
The Ooreiki sat back, his haktah trembling at the sides of his head like sticky brown worms seeking exit from his skull. “We didn’t use spies, Rothren. We used the Trith.”
Every muscle along the length of Rothren’s body suddenly tightened, leaving him as rigid as a coiled stone. “You are playing a dangerous game, Zeri.”
“The Trith offered us the information.”
“Are they not satisfied with being the only species untouched by Congress? They must destroy another species’s chances, too?”
Zeri’s glistening brown eyes grew dangerous. “You would support Geuji independence?”
“I want to know why the Trith are involved. You cannot pretend they are trying to help Congress. They invented the Fourfold Prophecy to destroy us.”
“The Geuji unnerve them,” Zeri said. “They’re too smart. Too unpredictable. They do things the Trith cannot foresee. The Trith hate them more than they hate us.”
“All the more reason to welcome the Geuji independence with open arms. We must have something to balance out the power of the Trith.”
The Ooreiki’s haktah stopped wriggling and his sticky brown eyes clouded with irritation. “Another species claiming independence would be devastating. How many Dhasha princes will see it and decide to try for themselves?”
“Let the Jreet worry about the Dhasha.”
“The Jreet are few. Despite your many talents, the Dhasha outnumber you.”
“A Jreet warrior is worth a thousand Dhasha.”
Zeri’s eyes did not believe him. “The Geuji have been planning this since we found them. Why do you think they never applied for citizenship? Why did they never send a Representative to Koliinaat?”
Coldness pooled in Rothren’s core.
Xutra’s betrayal came back to him on a wave of buried emotions. The eighty turns of struggles that had followed Xutra’s packages had almost cost Rothren his Regency seat and his life. With blood and perseverance, he had overcome. He now held the highest rank in the empire—a seat on the Tribunal. Had he folded to Xutra’s demands, he would still be dancing to the Geuji’s whims like a fool and Zeri would be arresting him as a traitor on this day, instead of soliciting his vote.
Still, something about the Ooreiki’s arrogance overshadowed Xutra’s betrayal. As much as he hated his old friend, it was his duty on the Tribunal to be fair. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t allow his experiences with one Geuji decide the fate of an entire species.
Softly, Rothren said, “Zeri, everything I see here shows a peaceful withdrawal. They were never members, so we cannot detain them for breaking the law.”
“Congress made the Geuji who they are,” Zeri said. “Without us, they would have remained stuck to the rocks of their home planet, dreaming of the stars.”
“Analyzing their constitution, you mean.”
“We are returning them to their original nature. Before, they had no voices to speak for them, no robotics or machinery. We will simply take back what we gave them.”
“It would be more charitable to kill them.”
“Congress cannot eliminate a species. It is unlawful.”
“What you suggest is cruel, Zeri.”
The Ooreiki’s sudah were fluttering with open irritation, now. “It would be easier with your cooperation, but we can launch the attack without the Jreet.”
“Until you show me fair cause that they are a danger to Congress, you’ll have to.”
“Oh? Then perhaps you should have read the Peacemaker report more thoroughly. The Trith predict Geuji ships will slaughter half our armada before they are taken.”
“And how many will they slaughter if we give them their independence? Did the Trith include that in their report?”
The Ooreiki stood abruptly, returning the puddle of his lower body to rigidity. “I had never taken the Jreet to be soft.”
Rothren lashed out, grabbing the Ooreiki by the robes and lifting him until his sticky brown feet wriggled eight feet off the ground. Into Zeri’s startled face, Rothren said, “Say that again, coward, and Congress shall see another Age before the night is through.”
At that, his fellow Tribunal member activated the Watcher and disappeared from Rothren’s grasp, taking the report with him.
Rothren glanced at the ornate stone table, which had overturned and shattered in his assault on the Ooreiki. He called for his aide.
Kiryi was immature, only twenty-five feet in length--a symbol of how, with the Jreet’s constant warring and petty squabbles, the youngest generation was constantly growing younger. Survivors of Rothren's age were few and far between. If it continued, the Jreet would soon be joining the Geuji as the rarest species in Congress. As it was, they were already almost there.
“They’re capturing the Geuji?” Kiryi’s voice was hard with disbelief. "Is that wise?"
“They have the Trith to help them.”
His aide’s reflective golden eyes narrowed, the pupils contracting to pinpoints in the red firelight. “The Trith make it no secret they want to see Congress fall. We’ve been battling Dhasha princes for thousands of turns now because of the Fourfold Prophecy. Has Aliphei considered the Trith are using him? If a Geuji escapes—even one, Congress will begin its descent into the ninety bloody hells by our own hand.”
“That’s why I’m sending you to warn them.”
Kiryi hesitated. “You would act against Aliphei?”
“Aliphei is not a god, as much as he would like to be. In the eyes of the law, I am his equal. I will not snivel to his whims like that coward Zeri.”
“And the Geuji? If Aliphei is already determined to detain them, what choice do they have but to fight?”
“Offer them asylum on one of our planets.”
“What if they refuse?”
“The Geuji are philosophers, not warriors. They’ll accept.”
Kiryi shifted, his cream-white belly scales gleaming pink in the red light of the fires lining the edges of Rothren’s chamber. He was young, but not unmarked. Battle wounds scarred the scarlet scales of his back and sides. Before agreeing to tutor under Rothren, he had been the top Sentinel in his class and had been hailed as the greatest warrior the Jreet had seen for six hundred turns.
Just like Rothren, six hundred turns before.
Kiryi’s diamond shaped head turned to stare at the flames, betraying his anxiety. He knew the dangers of Rothren’s plan. If his mentor was wrong, it could mean the end of Congress...or the end of the Jreet.
“Could the Geuji be the ones of the prophecy?” Kiryi’s voice was quiet, his eyes fixed on the dancing fires.
“I believe the Fourfold Prophecy is just a fabrication, something the Trith created to make us instigate our own demise.”
Kiryi turned from the fire and bowed low, coiling his head under his neck in submission. “I will give the Geuji your offer.”
“Thank you, Kiryi.”
His assistant nodded and flickered out of existence.
A week later, Rothren found the remains of a Jreet on the floor of his room.
In his bedchamber, he found the rest of it, along with a note.
Someone had cut the unfortunate soul’s tek from his body and morbidly jammed the poisoned tip through the note to pin it to the heated rock of Rothren's bedchamber, a blatant offense to the gods. Like a Dhasha’s scales and an Ooreiki’s oorei, the tek was holy—no rival would risk descent into the ninety hells to deliver a death threat.
Rothren’s fingers trembled as he retrieved the note and read it.
He was loyal until the end, like every good Sentinel. Your servant saved you from the firing squad, Rothren, but the Regency watches you. You will not be warned again.
“Watcher,” Rothren whispered, crumpling the note in his hand. “Who wrote this?”
Rothren was stunned. He could have believed it from Zeri or any other of the Grand Six. For the First Citizen to do so, however, left him in shock.
He took a deep, stabilizing breath and lowered Kiryi’s tek to the layer of coals that served as his bed. “Are there currently any Geuji on Koliinaat?”
“Yes, Representative Rothren. There is one Geuji in residence.”
“Erase my request and take me to him, confidential.”
An instant of nothingness preceded Rothren’s sudden appearance in a lightless box barely big enough to contain his bulk. He could not raise his neck to a natural height, straining the muscles in his back and abdomen. Out of necessity, he sank down into a coil, blinking at the darkness of the place.
“Tell me, Representative, how long ago did the Trith betray us?”
Rothren blinked. The Geuji’s soft, artificial voice was familiar. “Xutra?”
“How long?” the Geuji repeated, harsher now.
Rothren felt the cold, dampness of the place begin to suck the heat from his body. It was a Geuji lair, the climate unmodified to accommodate him, the air well below the freezing point of water. Rothren wrapped his body tightly around itself to conserve as much warmth as possible.
“If you know about the Trith, Xutra, why are you still here?”
“Did the Trith betray us before or after we gave you all the technologies you wanted?”
“Who told you of the Trith?”
The Geuji’s artificial voice gave a bitter snort. “Who would tell me, Jreet? You? Aliphei? No, you were too busy using me.”
Rothren felt the cold in his core, now. His body was numbing with uncomfortable speed. “Can you adjust the heat?”
“Suffer, coward. You’ll get no sympathy from me.”
“Do not call me a coward!” Rothren snarled. “I’m here to warn you, though the Ayhi know I'd like nothing more than to kill you for what you did to me." He took a breath to calm himself, then said, "Congress knows of your upcoming meeting place. The Trith betrayed your intentions to Aliphei. You must tell the other Geuji.”
Xutra was silent a long time. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft. “I’m sorry, Rothren. I did not realize.”
“I receive worse insults on the Regency floor, Xutra.”
“No,” the Geuji said. “We’re both going to die in this cell.”
Rothren stiffened. Cold, damp air flushed over his body at the motion, burrowing under his scales, cooling his skin more rapidly. “Watcher, take me back to my room.”
The Watcher ignored him.
“Watcher!” Rothren snapped. “Take me back to my room!”
“Conserve your warmth, Jreet. The Geuji designed Koliinaat. Aliphei didn’t want to take the chance that we had left ourselves a back door in its programming, so he had me installed in a dead zone to the Watcher. The only way you can leave here is if someone on the outside orders it. Knowing your objectives upon entering my prison, however, we both know Aliphei would never allow it.”
Rothren wrapped himself tightly into a ball and stared into the blackness of the room. Somewhere, spread across the walls like a moldy curtain, a Geuji stared back at him.
“I was manipulated like a fool.”
“The Jreet are not known for their talents of deception,” the Geuji said. “I should have realized that sooner. Instead, I let you waste your heat arguing with me. Pettily, I was hoping you would kill yourself before one of your co-conspirators could summon you back. I'm sorry, Rothren.”
“How long have you been trapped here, Xutra?”
“Since the last time we spoke.”
“That’s more than eighty turns!”
“And I have many more to look forward to. Aliphei’s given me a perfect environment—he didn’t have the decency to leave even a slight irritation that would give me the courage to kill myself. I envy you your fate, Rothren. At least you have no choice.”
Rothren’s outer coils were completely numb, now. The truth of the Geuji’s statement weighed like cold lead in his chest. “Why did you betray me, Geuji? Why did you try to ruin me?”
Xutra laughed. “I saved you, Jreet. As soon as I docked at Koliinaat, I realized the Trith had betrayed the Geuji plans. I knew Aliphei wasn’t going to let me leave. I did what I had to to distance you from me in his eyes.”
Rothren was both relieved and pained. “How long can you live like this, once I'm gone?”
“Aliphei will visit in a few turns to see whether I am more malleable to his whims.”
The way the Geuji avoided the answer was answer enough—he wasn’t going to die.
“I can help you, Xutra.”
He could feel the Geuji’s attention sharpen. “Do it.”
Rothren uncoiled one last time, allowing his tek to emerge into the freezing air. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I have the satisfaction of knowing that my people will free themselves, eventually, and when they do, our revenge will be glorious.” Xutra laughed. “But, given the option, I would rather not be one of the stalwart souls who endures to see it happen. Now hurry, Jreet, before a Peacemaker realizes what you’re doing.”
Rothren slid forward until he could feel the Geuji’s soft, slimy mass under him. “I pray one of my descendents can help your people see that day.” He released the tension in his tek and the poisoned fang sank tenderly into Xutra’s body.
If the Geuji made a sound as he died, Rothren did not hear it. The Jreet slid to the floor of the cell and let the cold claim him.