The shaft, previously just cool, suddenly seemed terribly cold.
Katja drew in a shaky breath. "Do you know what to do with it?"
There was a pause, a cruel and awful pause, then: I cannot see it very clearly, but it is not a sophisticated device. They would need something to trigger it, and a timer is unlikely. Kubiri suggests looking for an antenna.
She looked it over carefully, trying to recall anything she could from old classes on electronics. Some features she could identify, but it was not quite like any circuit she had ever seen. "I suppose that this S-shaped bar could be the antenna."
"It seems to be attached by two wires to the rest of it. I think that having two may be a redundancy. Do you think we can remove it without setting it off?"
From what I can see, that seems probable; it is crude and they do not have seem to have anticipated that it would be discovered.
She took a deep breath and reached out her hand. It was shaking violently. She drew it back and, taking a deep breath, put it out again as she began the sanalassa of Flame:
Flame I know; before it was darkness,
cold and empty, fluid and swirling.
Then spark was struck, burst out from the cloud.
All things have within a subtle flame.
Flame joins with flame, threads interweaving
until it leaps out with whitest heat....
She carefully undid the wires and found that she was still holding her breath. When nothing happened, she said, "Do you think it is disarmed?"
No. But we may have bought time. Bring it out.
Katja took a deep breath again and continued the sanalassa of Fire as she carefully grabbed the device and began pulling it with her as she backed down the shaft. It had been easy enough moving forward, but she worried that she would be too slow backward. And progress certainly was slower, although she made good time.
Red fierceness, spark from Ohu, bright flame,
what cause have you to wreak havoc here?
They who wander dream of their own homes.
Why journey here? Where is your hearthstone?
You must hurry.
She increased her pace, and soon her legs were sticking out; she felt herself pulled out by powerful arms. Then Herri grabbed the device and, glancing at it astutely for a brief moment, turned and sped out of the room. Katja slid down to the floor and had to take another deep breath. Kubiri touched her shoulder and sat down beside her. He was looking at his tablet.
"The Winbaric are away," he said, "and Herri should be disarming the bomb as we speak. I have gone over all the motion sensor logs, and it seems very likely that it was the only one. I have notified the Taladac delegation of the problem. I have also uploaded a report for the Samar High Council to the Portal."
"How can you be so calm?"
He adjusted the angle on his fedora. "I have a different physiology. And while I have never actually dealt with a real-life situation like this, training for the field involves extensive simulations of various piratical situations. Since piratical actions are a defined crime in the Alliance Charter, it sometimes falls to us to investigate issues relevant to them."
She looked up at the ceiling. Like the walls it was pastel, but it was lightly speckled, like the shell of an egg.
"What will happen to the Winbaric?" she asked after a moment.
"The ones here will be hunted down by Herri. They cannot leave the system, because the Portal has now been set for limited communication only. By doing this they have committed a piratical action, and the Chaktai have full authority to enforce laws against piratical actions, both of the Charter itself and any local laws. Assuming they do not resist violently, they will be captured and turned over to the relevant authorities. Since they were an official delgation of the Winbaric, the Samar High Council will initiate a full inquiry to determine whether they were acting alone."
"Would you be doing the investigation?"
"No. It would be a conflict of interest. But such an investigation would in any case be merely a Samar Consultation; and I am currently involved in a Tanaver Consultation. Tanaver Consultations always take precedence."
Katja nodded, but then stopped, considering. "I am your Tanaver Consultation, though. Surely you are nearly done with me? The negotiations are over. I can hardly imagine that the Taladac will give the station over to the Winbaric after this incident."
"Nonetheless, it is never good to plan for the end of a Tanaver Consultation until it has actually ended."
They sat quietly for a moment. Then Herri returned.
It is disarmed. It was not difficult. He seemed disappointed at the lack of difficulty.
"It was intended to disperse a chemical poison slowly through the ventilation system."
Yes, Herri said indifferently. Poorly chosen. It would not have killed me.
"I would guess that they did not expect the Tanaver representative to be a Chaka."
Poor foresight. And it would likely not have killed any Samar, either; any artificially supplemented immune system should be able to handle it.
Kubiri considered this, humming. "I wonder if they knew that," he said finally. "Most people would not. It would be foolish to live a Samar alive as a witness; but it is foolish to kill a Samar as well. In either case it would be guaranteed that the crime would be discovered and punished. The Samar High Council would make it certain either way. It is baffling. I take it that you will be heading out now to hunt?"
They are insignificant prey; they will not be difficult. Herri looked down at her, his sly predatorial face sizing her up.
How are you doing? he asked.
"Recovering," she said. "I am really not used to this kind of excitement."
He looked at her with his usual expression of cool sarcastic amusement, then turned to look at Kubiri. They gazed at each other a long moment, then Kubiri said, "We are in agreement."
Herri bowed his head, then turned to Katja. I wish you well, little one, he said. And if all goes well, you and I will meet again beyond the Gates of Death.
Katja's blood ran cold at the phrase. Right roads may lead through the gates of death. But Herri simply turned and sped out.
Kubiri rose and looked down at her. "Are you ready for some news?"
"You are being replaced," he said. "The Tanaver have had the Samar designate a successor to you, and whoever it is should be arriving shortly."
Katja sighed. "I am not surprised," she said. "This has been largely a disaster. Just a few days and practically everything has happened but the station exploding."
"That it has," said Kubiri cheerfully. "But if you mean that it was a disaster because of you, then, if I may give some advice, you should not be so harsh with yourself. You were put into a difficult and baffling situation. Even I do not quite understand what has happened, and I certainly do not understand all of why it has happened. You are not being removed for any failure on your part. The Tanaver are instead giving you a choice. The one alternative is to return to Sylvenia, and take up your life again."
"And what is the other?"
"I have been empowered by the Tanaver, the Samar High Council, and the Council of Threefold Mothers to offer you a more challenging task, the completion of which would be of immeasurable benefit to the Alliance."
Katja stared at him. "I don't understand."
"Unfortunately, the task in question is of a kind whose nature is best not broadcast abroad. I do not even fully know it myself. The Tanaver apparently chose you to test you for precisely this task, without telling anyone."
"It was a test."
"Yes. I was not aware myself. I did begin to guess, however, when we discovered that the Tanaver negotiator would be a Chaka. They are not like samaroids; they are not a negotiating civilization at all. Males like Herri live to protect the Mothers at any cost, to obey the Mothers without hesitation, and to defend the Alliance against active enemies without and within. Negotiation is not a skill they ever have need to learn; their culture is not set up for it. And yet, here the Tanaver, who knew this better than any, had specifically chosen one for their negotiator. And this with all the other anomalies of the situation suggested that it was an artificial scenario."
"And the bomb?" asked Katja, somewhat more loudly than she intended.
"I don't think the Tanaver intended it," said the Samar. "I don't think they can anticipate to that degree of precision. And I honestly do not believe that they would put you in a situation you could not survive. But, again to be honest, who knows what the Tanaver know, or what purposes they might have? We can only speculate."
Katja considered. "I have to tell you, Kubiri, I am not thrilled at the idea of 'more challenging than pulling bombs from ventilator shafts'."
"What would you advise me to do?"
Kubiri looked more grave than usual and hummed for a moment. "It is clear that the easier path would be simpy to return home. You have performed your task here to the satisfaction of both Tanaver and Samar, and would receive an official expression of thanks from the Samar High Council. You have improved the situation of your people in their trade negotiations with the Ylfae. It is a good ending to a story."
"But I would never know what the other path would have been."
Kubiri spread his hands. "But that is the lot of all of us throughout our lives. Nonetheless, we can know this as well: however inscrutable they may be, neither the Tanaver nor the Samar High Council ever do anything without good reason. If you were approved for this task it is because you are the right person for it. Given the test, it would no doubt be difficult and dangerous; you may not even survive it. But you were selected for a reason."
"Right roads may lead through the gates of death," murmured Katja.
"Truly. But it is important that it be the right road, and it can only be so if you choose it for the right reason. It is not your task to go here and there as the Samar or the Tanaver dictate; you have your own destiny, and that is to live a beautiful life, fit for a Sylven. That is the only thing that matters."
"Do I have to decide now?"
"Not at all. We have minor business to finish with the Ylfae, and we must prepare the station to hand over to your successor. Only then will we definitely need to know your decision."