“Captain Appet, it’s about time you got here.” General Hunter’s glare seemed to pierce through Jane’s heart, but she kept her chin up as she surveyed the room. It consisted mostly of video monitors on the walls and inlaid into the long desks that lined the room, and at the moment it was full of people.
Jane hadn’t learned all of the Pivot chiefs’ names yet, but a quick headcount told her that they were all there, as well as several of the higher-level Pivot staff and workers, with some security forces as well. The room had been buzzing with chatter as she entered, but now everyone was eerily silent. A part of Jane wanted to believe it was mere self consciousness that told her the conversation had been about her, but every eye in the entire room was on her, and all activity had paused.
“I’m sorry for the delay sir.” Jane strode into the room and up to General Hunter, ignoring the attention and pretending she had some confidence. “I thought our meeting was at 1300. And in private.” Her facade of confidence shook a little as she threw a glance to one side, confirming again that she was the center of attention.
“What?” General Hunter had been pacing in front of the largest video screen, and he shot her a look of mingled annoyance and confusion. “Oh, that. Sod the meeting, it doesn’t matter. Blue play her the current feed outside the shield.” Jane’s gaze moved to the screen, which was clearly from a single camera just outside the silver wall.
Her gaze was at first arrested by Tess, sitting on the edge of the camera’s vision. The girl had a dark circle under her single eye, but she was otherwise quite relaxed, leaning back against the huge side of a full grown Drake. The Drake itself seemed perfectly content to let her rest against it, its intelligent eyes roving the surroundings with the easy confidence that only a predator could exude. As usual, Tess’ short hair hung in front of her face and obscured her eyepatch, but her good eye was flitting back and forth between the camera and the others in the room.
Jane dragged her eyes away from her erstwhile rookie to size up the other Terrans that stood just outside the shield. None of them were speaking, or showing any sign of aggression, but there were a lot of them; far more than Jane thought had made it onto the Orbital. There were about fifteen hanging back around the edges of the forest, half hidden behind trees or bushes. Among them were the miniature Drakes, unleashed and uncontrolled as far as she could tell.
Standing in the middle of the room, their arms crossed and looking resolute, three Terrans and one of the small Drakes were clearly waiting for something. The middle two, a man and a woman, waited completely impassively. He had short-cropped green hair, and she had long braids of vivid purple that fell to her waist, but they both wore the same blank expression of steel. It was as if they had taken their emotions and wiped them away, replacing them with the determined stare held steadfastly on the silver shielding in front of them.
The small Drakeling stood on the far left, motionless but for its head which swung around every now and then to take in the surroundings. Its long forked tongue flicked out once in a while, as if tasting the scents of the air. It too wore no leash or restraint of any kind, and Jane marvelled at how well behaved it was. On the very right of the group was a young Terran with a green ponytail and a pierced ear. He wasn’t even close to hiding how nervous he was, and he kept glancing back at Tess. Whenever she saw him do so, Tess would give him a smile and a reassuring nod.
Got yourself a Terran boyfriend? Jane furrowed her brow, trying to work out what was going on just outside the shield.
“Are they working on some sort of spell or something? Something to take down the wall? It doesn’t look like they’re doing much at all.” Jane finally asked.
“Show her the clip, Blue.” General Hunter’s voice was quiet, and Jane almost prefered him growling. The tension in the room was starting to grow unbearable; not a single person had uttered a word since she’d entered, and she could feel the prickle of the entire room’s stares against the back of her neck.
The video feed in front of her flickered as Blue rewound, and Jane watched the group slowly approach the silver shielding, Tess and the four talking quietly among themselves. The timestamp showed that it had been about fifteen minutes ago.
They group came to some agreement, and the four had adopted their mostly-impassive stances as Tess turned to the camera. Her voice was prim and formal when she spoke.
“You see before you the great master and commander Prince Gre, who represents the Blue Tribe of the great Terra Forma. You see before you the powerful and just Prince Aye, whose mouth carries the words of the Green Tribe of the great Terra Forma. You see before you the exacting yet merciful Duchess Pry, who allows you a glimpse of the glory of the Purple Tribe of the great Terra Forma.”
Tess made a sweeping gesture with her arm towards the four who stood there before she continued. “You see before you, below them, my low self, Tes Ro Hsa, whose humble tongue they shall use, lest they dirty their own with the Exiles’ low speech. You see before you, below them, my low brother, Krin Te Hsa, whose noble magic shall protect the great nobles who deign appear before you.”
She glanced behind her again, as if for confirmation. Jane caught the woman giving the tiniest of nods, and Tess relaxed a little, turning back to the camera.
“Formality and ‘doing things right’ are very important to our people.” She explained, slipping out of the formal speech. “Now that that part’s out of the way I’m allowed to speak a little more clearly. I’ve had some long talks with my people, over the past few days. They’re willing to meet peacefully, to discuss a truce.”
The General made a motion, and Blue paused the video. Jane was still reeling with shock. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Hunter watching her carefully, but she had no idea why. A truce with the Terrans? How would that even work? Orbitans and Terrans had fought each other since the beginning of time, and now for the first time in history they had gotten a foothold in the stars. They were the strongest they had ever been, why would they be working towards peace now?
“Well? What are your thoughts?” Hunter asked gruffly.
“It’s a trap.” Jane said with certainty. “It has to be. Don’t go out there General, it’s a ploy to get rid of our leadership, and not a very clever ploy at that.”
“Hm.” Hunter stroked his chin. “So you had no idea your rookie was going to do that? That she was going to convince them to sue for peace?”
“I still don’t!” Jane said. “Sir, you can’t possibly be thinking about actually meeting with them. You’re too important to Orbital Pivot, and it seems to me like all they’re trying to do is get the big decision-makers in the same spot so they can tear them limb from limb. No offense meant General, but you’d have to be an idiot to go out there.”
General Hunter searched her face for several long moments, and then motioned for Blue to continue the feed. Tess’ voice cut in again.
“We promise your safety until at least a day after the discussion has ended, and as you can see we’re keeping all of their warriors well back away from the meeting place. They’re even willing to let me translate, so that Exiles won’t suffer any discomfort from their way of speaking. But…” Tess’ good eye narrowed “…I had them add an additional stipulation.”
The girl seemed to struggle for words, even though she lifted her chin defiantly as she spoke. “I…I wasn’t in there long enough to learn much. But I learned a lot about the girl you knew, the one you lost. Tess. I had a hint…a taste of what that life was like. I don’t want…don’t want to lose my Terran life. But the friends I have in there…the ones who love me, even though I’m a Terran…” She trailed off, looking so lost that Jane wished she could give her old rookie a hug.
Krin, the Terran Tess had called her ‘brother’, said something too quiet to be heard, and Tess shook herself on the recording, seeming to gather her strength again.
“The tribes of Terra Forma have agreed that I am the best choice of intermediary between my people and….my people.” She said the last two words carefully, deliberately. “That means they’ll defer to me on who to trust. There’s only one person with authority I trust in Orbital Pivot, which means there’s only one person with authority that they trust. The Terrans wish to strike this treaty with Captain Jane Appet.”
The recorded portion ended and flicked back to real-time, where the Terrans waited in front of the silver shield. Jane would expect every eye to turn to look at her, but of course every eye already was locked onto her. She opened her mouth, then closed it again, unsure of anything she could say. It was suddenly very hard to put thoughts together, and General Hunter’s gruff voice interrupted her attempts.
“So, Captain Appet. Are you ready to be idiotic?”
“Aren’t you going to need this to shoot people in the face?” Pivot’s Chief of Security held up the weapon belt that Jane had discarded, her sidearm still dangling in the holster. She already missed the weight of it on her hip, but she shook her head.
“They’re peace talks ma’am.” She said. “I don’t think I’ll be shooting anyone in the face.”
“They’re Terrans, Captain.” Chief Kathryn held the gun out to her, butt first. Jane glanced over her shoulder at the silver shielding that separated her and the group of Terrans. There were enough security forces on this side of the shielding to lay waste to the forest, but right now they were only serving to make her nervous and self-conscious.
“I appreciate the concern, Chief, but I’m going to be face to face with a bunch of Terrans, a Drake and a mini-Drake. If things get bad enough to start shooting, it’s going to be too late for me anyways.” Chief Kathryn nodded once and turned to the assembled security troops.
“The shielding is coming down for approximately three seconds, then snapping back up. There shouldn’t be enough time for anything nasty to go down, but if it does you need to be ready for it. If the shielding does not go back up in ten seconds, open fire. If the shielding goes back down without Blue giving the ‘all okay’ warning, open fire.” She turned to Jane, giving her a once-over. “You ready for this?” She asked.
“I’ve got my earpiece.” Jane nodded, trying to ignore the knots in her stomach, so tight it was sending little shoots of pain through her. “I’ll be fine.”
Chief Kathryn opened her mouth as if to say something, but instead she shook her head and stepped back through the door behind them.
“We’re all clear Blue.” She said into her earpiece.
“Hello Captain Jane.” Hunter’s voice sounded quiet and subdued in her ear. “We know you probably don’t want a lot of chatter in your ear, so I’m going to be right here with you. The Chiefs and Blue will be communicating with me, but you only need to worry about my voice. You nervous?”
“A little bit General.” Jane stepped forward, until she was so close to the silver shield that she could see nothing but the reflection of the security forces behind her, and her own face. She was surprised at how calm she felt, even with the anxious knot. “It’s kind of a historic event, after all.”
“Only historic if you actually establish a truce.” Hunter growled. “Nothing historic about Terrans springing a trap.” Jane’s stomach did a backflip, and she wished for a moment it was Blue’s calm voice in her ear instead of the General’s. “Shield dropping in three. Two. One.”
Jane barely had time to mentally prepare before the shielding dropped. She was close enough that she didn’t even see it move; one moment she was staring at the silver reflections, the next there were Terrans and a forest in front of her, and the crash of the wall filled her ears. She didn’t give herself the time to lose her nerve, taking a quick step forward and across the silver line. Another crash made her wince as the shielding snapped back into place, and Jane stared across a gap of a handful of meters at the assembled Terrans.
Now that she was in front of them, ridiculously trivial things seemed to take up all of her attention. It was pleasantly cool on this side of the wall, and Jane marvelled at how much heat must’ve accumulated in the Orbital core in just a few days for her to notice the difference. The Drake in the far background didn’t even look real when it swung its head towards her, but the little Drakeling that was sizing her up looked deadly.
Jane realized that she had stopped breathing, and she struggled to start again without gasping like a fish. The Terrans were watching her impassively, somehow managing to pack condescension into faces that held no expression, and she was going to be damned if she made the Orbitans look bad by comparison.
That small flash of anger helped clarify her mind a bit, and Jane lifted her chin and matched the gaze of the green-haired Terran who stood in the middle. Tess’ new hair color was green, she reasoned, so this would be the leader of Tess’ new tribe. It was odd how easily she thought of them as “Tess’ people”. That thought was driven from her head when Tess approached, moving with an easy and comfortable gait, a large smile on her face.
“Captain Appet. I’m glad they let you come.” Tess said, stopping a few feet from her.
“Let her know that you’re here on official capacity.” Hunter advised. “Let them know that if anything happens to you, they’ll pay for it.”
Jane flashed Tess a quick smile, then directed her attention to the Terrans.
“The most, um, noble and wrathful Hunter, General of the Pivot Orbitans, king of the um…king of the ten Chieftains, does consent to a discussion of peace, using me as his mouthpiece.”
“Good. Formal, they’ll like that.” Tess whispered with a nod. Behind her the Terrans made no move, but Jane felt a little better at her reassurance.
“You think I’m wrathful?” Hunter chuckled in her ear. “Chief of Security Kathryn would like to have a word with you after negotiations about exactly who is ‘king’ over her.” Both the joking tone and the mention of a time after these negotiations helped Jane to relax a little bit. The Terrans were still, and Tess was waiting patiently, head bowed, arms clasped in front of her.
“Um…hello Captain.” Jane almost reeled back in shock as the thoughts ran through her head, in Tess’ voice.
Hello? The Terrans can talk through minds? How the hell did we not know that? Jane thought to herself. She felt vaguely foolish thinking thoughts to communicate, but if she was wrong at least no one would be privy to her embarrassment.
“It’s hard to do, and it only works if we really focus at it, so it’s not something we can do in combat.” Tess explained calmly, again in Jane’s head. “And only the royals are actually allowed to do it.”
Breaking their rules? So you aren’t as devoted to the Terrans as one might think. Jane thought, smiling.
“Don’t smile at me!” Tess’ internal voice was fierce. “I AM still a Terran, Captain. I’m as devoted to them as I ever was, and just because I don’t want you Exiles to die it doesn’t mean I’m any less of who I am.”
Jane watched the Terran leaders, trying to look as impassive as they did. She wondered just how convincing Tess had had to be for this meeting to even be happening.
“I can’t hear you unless you’re actually sending me a thought Captain.”
I’m just surprised that we’re even here. You must be very persuasive, to get them here, to this point. Even if we can’t establish a peace, that’s something to be proud of.
“I’d like to take credit, but mostly they’re worried about what I’ve told them about the Exiles.”
You shared information with the enemy?
”I shared information about the enemy with my family.” Tess had been looking down demurely, but her eyes flashed for a moment as she glanced upward. ”So that neither they nor my Exile friends would get hurt or killed. I told them about your magics, and how they could be far, far more powerful than ours, as long as you have the correct implements and are within the sphere of your own domain. They wouldn’t have believed me if they hadn’t seen the sky go dark at your command a few days ago. The fact that my squaddies and the warriors on the other side still hurled spells accurately worried them. No one here had ever seen Exiles beat Terrans like that before.”
Jane considered this for a moment. Among the Orbitans there had been some debate over whether the Terrans truly used magic, or just had technology they didn’t understand. It had never occurred to her how it must look to the Terrans. If they stayed in the confines of the Orbital it must look to them like there was enough power to completely change the environment. To a magically-inclined mind, something as simply as turning the lights off seemed grandios.
So for the first time, the Terrans are scared of us.
“They’re almost ready. Pay careful attention to wording.”
Tess was tilting her head to one side, as if listening to a whisper she could only barely hear, and Jane waited for the first offer from the Terrans.
“The merciful royals of Terra Forma make this offer: the Exiles may continue to live, provided they lower the silver wall, submit themselves as slaves, and succomb to Terran rule in all things.”
Jane raised a single eyebrow. She didn’t think she had to wait for Hunter to speak, but she wanted to keep the talk consistent. No point in answering some questions quickly and others slow.
“Tell them they can shove a Drake up their ass.” Hunter snarled.
“The great General Hunter is displeased.” Jane said wryly. “He thinks this matter is too important to tarnish with jokes.”
“If you don’t make a counteroffer that’s just as outlandish, they’ll think this is a good baseline.”
Jane hesitated for a moment. There was no way to communicate with the General, but there was no denying the need was desperate.
“General Hunter makes an offer to you,” Jane began.
“What? No I don’t. Let’s just see how they take-” The General snapped in her ear, but Jane continued on.
“The General is willing to forgive the Terrans and spare their lives, and in gratitude the Terrans must return to their lands. Every year, they will pay a tribute to the Orbitans, that they never forget the General’s mercy.”
“What are you doing Appet?” Hunter roared. Jane tried not to wince at the volume, moving her left hand behind her back, and she desperately signed in morse: I-N-S-I-D-E-K-N-O-W-L-E-D-G-E. “Well why can’t we see it on the cameras then? What’ve you got Captain? Damnit I can’t give you orders if I don’t know what information you have!”
”That was really good. Terran royalty doesn’t respect anyone if they don’t push back a little.”
“The royals of Terra Forma appreciate your General’s generosity in this, but worry that their own people may rebel against such harsh measures, turning back to attack the Exiles against the royals’ wishes. It would be a shame for our great peace to be broken so suddenly.” Tess said. Jane’s head spun trying to keep Hunter’s voice, Tess’ mental speech, and her physical speech straight in her head as the former rookie continued. “Instead, the royals wish to know what they may offer to ease the burden of remaining on the Exiles’ moon.”
“I will not pass this message on to my great General while it contains your insults. There are no Exiles here, only Orbitans.” Jane folded her arms across her chest.
“I said push back a LITTLE, Captain.” Tess was looking at the floor again, but the smallest hint of a smile played around her lips.
What is it with that whole ‘exiles’ thing, anyways?
“Is it different in your mythology?” Tess’ mental voice sounded surprised. “We’re taught that the Exi- that the Orbitans lived on the surface, long ago, until they were exiled into the stars. It was meant as a death sentence, but you somehow survived and thrived. They say that is why you fight us, to get revenge on us for taking the planet from you.”
Jane processed this new information. It was interesting, but not exactly relevant, and Tess was tilting her head again, indicating she was getting instructions.
“The royal Terrans did not mean to offend. They meant the word as a compliment,” Tess’ back was to the Terrans, so they didn’t see her roll her eyes and grin, “and are grieved that you interpreted it as an insult.”
“Alright Jane,” General Hunter’s voice was more subdued now, “after some discussion up here, we’ve decided we’re going to give you free reign on this. We want a locked-down treaty, we want to be able to keep the walls down so we can run our generators, and more importantly we want access to the outside world so we can get supplies and communication. Do what you think you need to do to make that happen.”
“Both of our great peoples wish for peace.” Jane began, trying to ignore the weight of responsibility that had just been placed on her shoulders. “Whatever our agreement entails, I think we can agree that ‘no violence between our peoples’ should be included.”
“A King can promise a flock, but the shepherd must deliver it.” Tess replied after a small pause. “Is the truce to be broken and the royals shamed if some lowly Terran or Orbitan decides to throw a cantrip?”
“That’s a low-level spell, about the impact of a punch in the face.” Tess mentally clarified. Jane was grateful for the information, but her mind was racing. Of course it was true that the whole species shouldn’t be held responsible for one person’s actions, but she had the sneaking suspicion that if they left that loophole, the Terrans would take advantage of it.
“Only a Terran knows how a Terran suffers, and only an Orbitan can know an Orbitan’s pain.” Jane tried to adopt the Terrans’ lyrical form of speech. “If an Orbitan gives harm to a Terran, then they should be given to Terran judges for punishment. If a Terran raises a fist to an Orbitan, then Orbitans will punish them.” Jane didn’t know anything about Terran justice, but she was pretty sure the threat of it would be enough to keep angry Orbitans from attacking Terrans. Who knew, maybe the Terrans had enough scary bedtime stories about Orbitans to keep them in check as well.
“Chief Kathryn is grumbling over here; we might have trouble in cases of violence where there’s no proof of who started things. Still, it’s a good start.” Hunter said in her ear.
“The royals of Terra Forma wish to keep their trees and the land they have taken through conquest.” Tess said.
“We expected that.” Hunter said. “They have a foothold here for the first time, they’re hardly going to be giving it up. Give it to them.”
“The Orbitans wouldn’t dream of harming the lands of the Terrans,” Jane said carefully, “just as I’m sure the Terrans would not think of extending the forest to impugn upon the Orbital’s land.” Tess nodded minutely, and Jane noticed that behind her the woman with purple hair frowned. So she had guessed that plan right; if it hadn’t been a part of the treaty the Terrans would’ve seen no problem with extending the cover of their trees into the core itself. Even after the treaty was decided, Jane realized, they would have to keep a close eye on the Terrans’ activities.
“Of course,” she added, “that’s not to say that this harsh separation is necessary, now. When our people are at peace, the Terrans can naturally come and go as they please in the halls of the Orbitans.”
“Ehm, I’m not too sure about that-” General Hunter began in her ear, but she continued as if she didn’t hear him.
“Just as Orbitans should be allowed to travel into the forest that you have built.”
“Ah. Hmm. I suppose that helps us more than it does them then. We can keep an eye on them with the cameras when they’re in the core, but they can’t watch us if we want to do some espionage. That’s acceptable.” Hunter said, almost approvingly.
While General Hunter might’ve found it acceptable, the Terrans clearly did not. There were frowns on all of their faces now, even the small Drake’s eyes were narrowed in reptilian disapproval. Jane frowned in return. If this was the only area that displeased them, chances were there were loopholes in the other parts of the deal, but she couldn’t spot them.
“The great leaders of Terra Forma accept these terms.” Tess said formally. “Are there any others?” Jane furrowed her brow trying to think of what she’d missed. It was all too sudden, too simple, too anticlimactic to be really happening. A peace between Terrans and Orbitans was far too monumental to be solved so easily.
Of course, Jane realized, it hadn’t been solved, not really. As soon as General Hunter felt they were strong enough, they would attack the Terrans with everything they had, especially if they could get ships in and out and thus had the support of the other Orbitals. It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that the Terrans were planning something similar.
This isn’t a peace-treaty truce, it’s a temporary ceasefire isn’t it? Jane thought, realizing only in the last instant that by phrasing it as a question in her mind she had probably given Tess access to it.
“But it’s better than war.” Tess nodded.
“No violence towards each other, no advancing territory. We get our heat dispersal, and they get to sleep free of our terrible lightswitch powers.” General Hunter seemed to be thinking aloud in her ear. “I don’t like the idea of letting Terrans inside the core, but I’m sure they don’t like the thought of us tramping through their forests either, and believe me, tramp we will. I can stomach this a lot more now that they’re just as scared of us as we are of them.” Glancing from face to stony face, Jane wasn’t quite sure of that, but it wasn’t her call to make.
“This truce is agreeable to General Hunter.” She declared. It felt as if there should be some fanfare, or perhaps a horrible ambush or trap sprung, but that was simply that. The two Terrans and the Drakeling inclined their heads, and Tess and her “brother” bowed much deeper.
So that’s it? We’re at peace now?
“One last warning, Captain. We’re bringing more and more of ours up here. Jia, the girl who is in the Drake, is escorting them from the surface, and I think your other Exi- Orbitan Moons have written you off as dead, because they aren’t stopping them. We’ve got twice the Terrans here than the original boarding party, from all three tribes. In the interest of being both a Terran and an Exile, I thought you should know.” Tess’ thoughts were hesitant, but Jane blinked.
They hadn’t known the Drakes had people inside them, although a Drakeling acting as ambassador for the Blue tribe suddenly made a lot more sense. More importantly, General Hunter would want to know about the steadily increasing number of his enemies.
Jane wasn’t expecting for the shields to drop behind her, but the Terrans apparently were. She braced herself for the sound of gunfire, to be shredded by the crossfire as the soldiers followed Kathryn’s orders and responded to the trap, but the seconds ticked by without violence. Jane glanced behind her, taking in the state of the soldiers; tense, wary, in some cases frightened, but none of them surprised. Blue must’ve given them the all clear. The Orbitans and Terrans were at peace.
Jane didn’t feel very safe or peaceful. She turned her back on the Terrans and walked towards the door that would lead into the Orbitans’ core, expecting the scorching heat of a spell to slam into her back at any moment. This wasn’t over, there was no way it had been so simple. The door was only a room’s length away from her, but it felt like an eternity to walk it.
This isn’t over, there’s something we missed, this isn’t real peace. The words spun through her head, but she reached the door unharmed. When she looked back, most of the Terrans had already slipped away into the forest. Tess was standing a few feet away from the edge, and when she saw the Captain looking she gave a small wave before she followed them, the giant Drake lumbering along at her side.