The Vastalimi Gambit
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Amidst the machineries of the illroom, with their muted bioelectric drones and beeps, there were but three of them: the patient, the assistant, and Drocmasc himself.
The air was cool, piped in and filtered coming and going, just in case, and sterile, lacking any real smell of its own.
“I am dying,” the patient said. He had only just come out of the induced coma minutes ago. It was not a question. A Vastalimi in touch with his or her physical self would know.
“Yes,” Droc said. One did not lie to patients.
“If the course goes as it has for most, another day. Two. With life-support systems, somewhat longer.”
“Can anything be done to stop it?”
“Not that we have been able to determine. We had thought hypothermetic coma might help. It does not seem to have improved your readings.”
“I see. My claws are bound.”
“There is a phase to the illness that becomes somewhat manic. During this, you would be a danger to others.”
“Unbind them. I will not become a danger to others.”
Droc understood. He nodded to the assistant, who quickly unlocked the bluntclaw gloves, freeing the patient’s hands.
“Thank you, Healer.”
“I wish that I could do more.”
“One does the best one can, nothing else matters.”
That was true.
“I will allow your family to visit you now.”
“I am not contagious?”
“We don’t know. We don’t think so.”
“Family, then. That would be good.”
“Hunt well on the Other Side.”
“I will endeavor to do so.”
Droc nodded and turned away. The patient’s family would visit, probably even if they knew the patient was contagious. They would leave, and the patient would ready himself, then commit izvaditi utrobu, using his own claws to disembowel himself. Even in spokaj, the trance that focused one’s mind to the nth degree, it was not a painless death by any measure; but it was honorable and for most, much preferable to the thrashing, foaming, incontinent, mindless end to the disease, whatever it was.
The patient could have requested a soporific that would numb him, or a poison that would kill him quickly and without any pain, but he was a soldier, a highly ranked pukovnik, and he would not do so. That was the Way, and while Droc was a Healer, he understood it well enough. Vastalimi did not opt for the easy path simply because it was there. If one was leaving, the manner one elected when possible mattered to those left behind. And if you were a religious Vastalimi, it would matter to whichever god was waiting for you when you reached the Hunting Lands on the Other Side.
Droc was not particularly religious himself. If the gods responded to entreaties, they had never demonstrated it to him. Better his time was spent doing something that might work.
As he had said, the patient would not be a danger to others; he would be dead before the disease progressed that far, and honorably so.
Droc hoped that his sister would arrive soon and bring with her some answers. He was tired of watching his patients die. Death came for all, and some sooner than others, but even if He was the ultimate predator, when Droc fought, he hated to lose.
Vast. The homeworld.
It had been several years since Kay had left, self-exiled for reasons that were still valid. Nor would she be here now, save that her elder brother had reached out to her, and it was a call she could not refuse. Given her history, for him to ask her to return meant that the situation was dire enough to offset her past.
Dire enough, yes. It had killed her parents and several siblings. Coming home would not affect that, it was too late.
The grief swirled, but there was nothing to be done for them now. She had known when she left she might never see any of her family again, and there had been no help for that, either.
Lock it away in a room and shut the door.
It would be interesting to see how The People reacted to her return.
As the dropship fell from orbit, the planet looked more brown than blue; Vast had oceans, of course, but slightly more land than water, from large stretches of grassland along the equator, shading into woodlands as you looked north or south. Cities, of course, and visible now as the orbit crossed into nightside, albeit not so brightly lit as human cities. Vastalimi did not need as much light as humans did, and the darkness was muted anyway by the blaze of stars and the Twin Moons. When both satellites were full, you could read by their light though that was an infrequent occurrence; the balance of planet and moons and sun did tricks with shadow, though both moons were never completely dark at the same time. Made for interesting tides, the two moons, which orbited each other at an angle as they circled the planet. During Slosh, scientists came from all over to study and wonder.
Next to her, Wink Doctor said, “I’ve always wanted to visit this place.”
He did not mention how difficult that was for anyone not Vastalimi; they did not encourage tourism on the homeworld, and the local laws were generally considered harsh by ausvelters come to call. Prey-species stayed away unless they were suicidal, and even armed and adept humans quickly learned that a visit to Vast could be fraught with deadly danger. As a Healer and a human, Wink would be much less imperiled than most, and Kay had made certain his clothing was embossed and holographically decaled so as to identify him as such.
Vastalimi Healers had a reserved status that allowed them to avoid most formal kinds of combat, and there was a grudging legal recognition for offworlders in general, and more specifically medical personnel. Perhaps it would be enough. Wink was adept with hands and weapons, but there were warriors on Vast who could claw him dead without raising a heartbeat.
With luck, she could keep Wink Doctor alive while they were here. She hoped the time on-planet would be short . . .
They had read all the available material on the illness that had manifested, and its effects were known if the causes were not. Medical science here had hit a wall and been stopped. The answer lay past that wall, and she had come to see if she could help breach it. No doubt others had reached out for similar help, despite Vastalimi reluctance to ask for such.
The People did not like outsiders involving themselves in their business.
She looked at the projection floating holographically where a window might have been in the dropship. “You have read the material I gave you?”
“Forgive me for the repetition, but I wish to be clear. Remember that eye contact is permissible, if kept fleeting, and if you laugh or smile, try not to overtly show your teeth.”
Wink nodded. “Yes. I recall.”
Kay said, “The Manual for Offworlders is under constant revision, but there are bound to be omissions. I have been away for years, and during that time, no doubt new cults and fads have come and gone, so even my knowledge must be updated to avoid giving offense.”
Wink said, “You worry about that?”
“I do not worry about it. I prefer to know, so as to have a choice.”
His look indicated a certain amount of skepticism.
“There are warriors here who could defeat me without great effort,” she continued. “Though my employment with CFI has given me a wider range of weapons and experiences than most who have never ventured away from Vast, duels here are usually constrained— traditional fights have traditional limits. My status as a Healer allows me to decline most Challenges, should I choose; however, there are some that cannot be refused if I have offered certain offenses. While I might elect to offend deliberately, I would rather not do so inadvertently.
“As a human and a doctor, you are exempt from most Challenges. And no self-respecting Vastalimi would offer such—there is little honor in defeating an obviously inferior opponent.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“A statement of fact. We are faster, stronger, more martially inclined, and we begin to learn the ways of killing before we can walk. I can recall no instance of an unaugmented human defeating a Vastalimi in one-on-one to-the-death combat armed only with biological weapons.
“Augmentation will allow a skilled human to do so—Jo Captain has become a decent opponent in mock fighting, but even though she is an expert and augmented to approach our speed and strength, if the claws came out, her chances would be slim against a good Vastalimi fighter. Against a true master, she would have no chance.
“There are unprincipled Vastalimi, and some of them are willing to challenge offworlders simply because they want to see how it feels to kill one. I would prefer that you survive this visit.
“To this end, there is a phrase I wish you to learn: ‘Ace ja stajanje.’”
Wink repeated it. “What does it mean?”
“‘As I stand.’ There are some rare circumstances under which you can be legally Challenged. You do not have the background to know when this could apply, but under some esoteric conditions, it could arise, and a determined assassin might figure out a way to manage it.”
“So, what does ‘As I stand’ do me?”
“It means that if they acknowledge your response, you can, if you are fast enough, produce a weapon and use it. A gun is preferable, but you have some skill with a knife, and that might work though it is unlikely. If somebody challenges you, you respond with ‘Ace ja stajanje.’ The instant they nod or say they accept, you draw and shoot them. Head shots are better than center of mass, but in either case, shoot and move away, quickly.”
“This is legal?”
“It is. Vastalimi are intrinsically armed with teeth and claws and seldom anything else here, save for criminals and Sena. And the military, but they don’t carry guns unless they are on duty. The response is thus a formality; however, it allows for the possibility of external weapons among those such as humans. It is my hope you will not need this but better to have it than not.”
Ace ja stajanje. He got it—tigers didn’t carry knives. “I understand. What are ‘Sena’?”
“Shadows. They are a kind of police though they have more responsibilities than those in human cultures. Their shoulder fur is dyed purple; no one else is allowed that. If any of the Sena speak to you, heed their commands immediately. To do otherwise risks instant death. They are empowered as—what is the phrase?—judge, jury, and executioner, should the need arise.”
“Just so. It takes five years of training to become a probationary Shadow, another five for full certification. They are held in the highest regard. Their field decisions are seldom overturned.” She did not mention that she had a sister and a male cousin who were Shadows.
“If you have a question, ask it. If we can avoid trouble, that would be best.”
The convoy was six vans, each the size of a ten-family dwelling, lumbering along on forty-four massive wheels, loaded to the brims with what looked like purple carrots. Difrui, the locals called the root vegetables. They were sweet, full of healthy vitamins and minerals and shit, and apparently tasty enough to have become one of the hottest- selling produce items TotalMart offered around the galaxy. Spendy little roots for foodies who like to go alien.
Jo had tasted one after they found out they were coming here. It was okay, but she didn’t understand what the big deal was.
It was hot, dry, dusty, and aside from the engine noises, fairly quiet. The smell of the roots permeated the vehicles, and it was a not-unpleasant odor somewhat like stir- fried ginger.
“Here they come,” Gunny said. “All twenty of them, cannon-foddering right on out of the fucking woods like they got the sense of tree stumps. Ah can’t believe it.” The mock amazement was heavy in her voice.
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