1.8 The Thing That Can Explode (II)

The investigation, such that it was, turned out to be somewhat disappointing. The winbaric had walked down to an empty room, stayed for some time, and then left. As a room it was not different from any other room in the station; it was in the main trunk of the station, and was just a small box with the usual pastel walls. Very puzzling.

She then met up with Kubiri for lunch with the Taladac delegation. Their ship looked almost identical to the one in which she and Kubiri had arrived at the station, although the color scheme was slightly different. As on the charter, they were served by a robotic steward, a little machine with arms. Much of the food was very strangely spiced and not very palatable; Katja wondered whether Kubiri had perhaps tweaked the system aboard their own ship to make it render food more edible for Syylven. The conversation, which was, of course, in Simplified Samar, was also extraordinarily dull, in part because the Ylfae liked to give long speeches before every course, and extraordinarily irritating, in part because they continued to try to talk only to Kubiri. The two sides, dull and irritating, fused when they did so, because they continually sprinkled their conversation with elaborate compliments and perorations on the excellence of the Samar. It was so over the top that Katja wondered after a while what Kubiri might have said to them to make them so intent on flattery. Nonetheless, parts of the conversation were of some interest. According to the delegates, the entire Ylfae civilization was embarked on a massive set of construction projects in response to an Oracle of the Tanaver. The project consisted of vast ships capable of jumping from galaxy to galaxy without a Portal and of carrying tens of thousands of people and sustaining them indefinitely without outside supplies.

"A strange request, and it is a difficult problem to make such large ships Portal-independent," said one of the delegates in his slow, over-precise Simplified Samar, "but, adding to this, some of the specifications are unusually difficult. We have had to make several major scientific advances simply in order to approximate them. The Tanaver were quite specific and precise about what was required. These ships need to be able to endure extreme conditions, even to the point of being able to withstand massive explosions."

"We have speculated that they are supposed to be anti-piracy ships capable of withstanding any attack," said the second; "that is why they need to be Portal-independent and so strong."

"Piracy is difficult to root out, because space is so vast that pirates can easily hide. Thus it would make sense to have a fleet of ships capable of long searches and enduring attack."

"Have you thought of asking the Tanaver?" Katja asked.

They did not deign to look at her, but, addressing themselves to Kubiri, they answered the question nonetheless. "They would not respond to such questions. But at the same time, one does not refuse a Tanaver request; and in the course of fulfilling it we have learned much."

Every galaxy in the Ylfae Commonwealth was involved in the project. "Each one is trying to build a ship to the proper specifications before the others; there would be much prestige in being able to complete it to specification early. We were doing well, one of the best, despite not being a wholly Ylfae galaxy. And we are very close, we think. But we have recently stalled. We have begun to experience shortages, which have greatly increased the expense. We are in very short supply of many elements that are necessary to complete the systems; 31, 39, 41, 46, 79, 111, 118, and many others. Our systems are not very rich in many of these, some are necessarily synthetic, and everything has to be tested until we can get the proper specifications. In principle we could gather it all together, but the expense is already well in excess of what we hoped, and will only become more expensive."

"It is interesting you should say that," Katja replied. "This system happens to be very rich in at least some of these elements. Perhaps at some point you could help the Syylven to build up a mining system for them." For the first time they were actually looking at her. "If you would give us a list of the elements in which you are interested, I can send you copies of the reports from the original Winbaric surveys. And the Sylven Commissioners are still in negotiation with some of your tribes over various trade treaties; I have no doubt that they would be interested in adding the question to those discussions."

"We will certainly send you the list," said one of the delegates.

The conversation passed to some light chit-chat, but Katja noticed that while they still primarily directed their attention to Kubiri, they now included her in the conversation. Kubiri, who was magnificently adept at directing the conversation where he wanted it to go, brought it to the subject of the Winbaric behavior. The Taladac agreed that the Winbaric were acting strangely.

"But," said one of the Taladac, putting his fingers near his face in what was perhaps the Ylfae equivalent of a shrug, "they are Tura, and this is not unexpected with Tura. They are a selfish and self-centered tribe, always concerned more with their own feelings and opinions than with understanding the greater scheme of things. It is difficult to reason with them on the best of days."

"And their sense of symbolism is defective, too," said the other. "Inconsistent and simplistic. They are erratic dreamers. They do not have discipline, but act only on impulse and their unruly passions."

That was all they said about the Winbaric, because they immediately started branching off into all the faults of all the non-Taladac tribes of Ylfae (the excessive sensitivity of the Talvati, the practical uselessness of the Remoal, the arrogance of the Sima, and so forth) and the superiority of the Taladac to them all. This they attributed to the superiority of their progenitors, which then led immediately to an arcane discussion of the finer points of Ylfae sacred progonology and a vivacious argument between the two of them over whether it was better to trace the various relevant genealogies matrilineally or patrilineally. This was difficult to break into, but Kubiri managed to get himself and Katja out of the discussion and out of the ship before it had advanced too far.

As they walked back to command control, Kubiri looked at Katja appraisingly. "I take it," he said, "that when the Taladac receive the reports, they will find that the system is indeed rich in some of the elements they mentioned."

"Well," said Katja, somewhat embarrassed. "I had only seen the report for element 41, and it did say that there was an unusual quantity of it in the system. It seemed it was worth a try."

"It was a reasonable move. At the very least it will raise the question for them whether they want the system developed by the Syylven, who will give good prices for trade concessions, or if they want to give it to the Winbaric, who seem unwilling to commit much to the system and are often antagonistic to the Taladac majority in this galaxy."

"Half of diplomacy is showing that doing the right thing is more pleasant than it appears."

Kubiri thrust out his lips in a Samar smile. "Truly. And we have confirmation that the Winbaric are not approaching this negotiation normally."

Katja told him about the result of her investigation. "But I've been thinking," she said, "that perhaps there is more there than meets the eye. Perhaps there is a special compartment or--" she thought about the room a moment then said, "or the ventilation shaft."

The Samar stopped and hummed. Then he said, "There are only three obvious reasons to put something in a ventilation shaft: to hide something, to spy on someone, or to harm someone. Perhaps there are others, but we cannot assume any of them until we have ruled out mischief. I will go find 'Herri' and meet you there."

They split up and Katja returned to the small room. Sure enough, there was a ventilation shaft in the corner. The grate covering it seemed loose; she was easily able to remove it. It was low and broad, and since it was large enough for her to fit inside, she put her hand in and looked around. It was dark, but when she pushed in a bit, small lights lit along the edges, no doubt originally designed for maintenance. She wiggled even farther inside.

She had once gone spelunking, and this was much like it, but with a smoother path and more shoulder-room. Before long she had managed to get quite far. It was quite cool, like Sylvenian spring, and she found it pleasantly refreshing. The air was blowing, very lightly, from behind her: the shaft was not an outflowing shaft but an inflowing shaft, and seemed to be primarily for the purpose of keeping air circulating rather than for any vigorous form of climate control.

The Wenbaric have been attempting to leave the station, a calm, cool, powerful voice said right next to her, causing her to jump, or, at least, jump as much as one can in a ventilator shaft. It was a familiar voice and it was perhaps not quite accurate to say that it was beside her, rather than just inside her skull.

"Herri?" she said. "Can you hear me?"

I do not need to hear you, he replied with amusement. Then: Kubiri says that they have been working since this morning on circumventing the security protocols in place and are beginning to override his current attempts to keep them docked the station. He has instituted countermeasures, but they know the system better than he does, and he does not know how much longer he can keep them.
"I think I see something ahead," said Katja. It was just beyond a juncture in the ducts; three joined together and just beyond them the whole thing ended in a screen, slightly dusty by now. Beside this screen was something on wheels, with lots of wires. "It is some sort of device," she said, as she wriggled closer.


She stopped. "Can you see it somehow?"

Of course; I can see some of what you see. The optimal predator is the one who knows something of what it is like to be the prey.

"That is a bit disturbing," she replied. She moved closer to the device. "I have no idea what this is," she said. "Do you?"

Of course, Herri said, the voice in her head as cool and calm and sarcastically amused as ever. It is a bomb.