Chapter Two

The convoy arrived in the late afternoon, a trail of high semitrailers more than a dozen long. They came into the bay nose to tail, although not on auto-link. Within city limits they had to be individually driven.

Aleisha watched each vehicle park in a compact line, ready to hand over to the warehouse droids. “How many are there?”

“Rigs?” Charlie asked from behind his desk. “Fifteen in this drive. They’d have dropped off the transcoach, surplus crew and some of their bikes at their compound on the way through. You’ll get a lift with one of these riders or travel in the supply van.”

* * *

Tanya punched a knob above the windscreen as she exited her cab. Her shoulder length chestnut hair was tied back tightly in a short plait, but was coming loose and fraying. She was grimy, dusty and stinking, and her mood matched perfectly. The day had been long and hateful, and it wasn’t over yet.

She was impatient to be done when she walked down the length of the long vehicle and climbed up onto the skirting ramp near the rear of the semitrailer. Angry and frowning, she began unbuckling the straps that held her motorbike in place.

The bikes were big rugged machines, these ones old and battered. They operated as personal transport while in the cities and as essential backup when out in the wilderness. Nature had no reason to be lenient to a convoy in trouble.

Tanya held her bike steady and away from the trailer’s side. She had done this so many times, she could almost do it in her sleep. The button she had hit inside the cab released the lock on the pinning bolts for the skirting ramps, allowing the actual drop to be controlled from outside. Tanya now kicked the long vertical touch-strip to complete the procedure, and heard the audible clangs as the bolts drew back into the floor of the trailer.

Ruthless joined her as the skirting ramp slowly tilted down at the end and gravity began to draw the weight of the bike. Tanya had the brake lever held so it wouldn’t get away from her, but help was appreciated. Men and women both teamed up to make the task easier. The two walked the bike off the ramp, Tanya easing off the brake, while Ruthless guided and took some of the weight from ground level. Once the machine was down, Tanya lowered the center stand, and with proficient ease, rolled the bike up onto it.

Ruthless looked as tired and worn as Tanya. This morning her hair had been a checkerboard of black and white squares, tufts twisted into messy spikes. Now the white squares were ochre with road dust. Knowing it, she ran her hand briskly through her tufts and let the cloud of dust fall away from her. “Christ, this stuff gets everywhere.”

“Down my throat for starters,” Tanya said. “C’mon, let’s go and get yours and then get out of here. I want a long hot shower and a long cold beer.”

They headed to the next rig. On the way, Ruthless glanced with interest towards Charlie’s office. “Do you think she’s in there?”

“Who?”

“The newbie, the seer.”

Tanya snorted. “Don’t think about her. She won’t last.”

“Who’s collecting her, then?”

Tanya looked grim. “Who do you fucking think?”

* * *

Aleisha had been tuning in on individuals as they paired in teams to lower their bikes and make their getaways. There were aches and pains out there, exhaustion, frustration and even anger, but overall she sensed relief after a long run, a universal desire for hot water, alcohol, food and sleep, roughly in that order.

Charlie watched her with feigned detachment. “Picking up anything? What’s the term you use? Emissions?” he asked.

“They seem ordinary.”

“Good.” Charlie was pleased.

One of the women broke away from the activity around the semitrailers and headed in. She was tall and well-toned, dressed like a soldier, wearing the baggy khaki trousers and matching singlet top associated with the military pretty much everywhere. While the outfit and corresponding boots might point to someone playing the part, the belt loaded with equipment denoted something altogether more serious. Aleisha felt her first moment of apprehension.

Her hair was regulation short, almost shaved, but what was there was dark and sleek. It suited her, she had the bone structure and striking facial features to carry it well. Deadly good looks, Aleisha thought, the emphasis perhaps on deadly. The woman looked severe.

Aleisha tuned in to sense what she could, letting her energy expand outwards to gently connect with the stranger. She still hoped the outer image was some kind of display, a pseudo-persona, a toughness to show the world, but it wasn’t softness within that she met, it was a solid wall of vibrant, ruthless energy that blasted outwards with unexpected force.

The presentation was accurate.

No. The presentation was a hint.

Take the soldier, the training, the severity, and multiply that a hundredfold, that’s what was walking towards the office. This woman was all about combat.

Jesus,” Aleisha whispered, drawing back from the window. “Is this one with the team, or is there a military presence in Cenoth?”

Charlie’s smile sounded in his voice. “That will be Sevi.”

“Sevi,” Aleisha repeated, somehow stunned that Charlie knew about such a team member and had said nothing.

Closer to the building now, the woman glanced into the window and gave Aleisha another unexpected shock. Her eyes were brown, and in shadow would look brown, but out there in the sunshine the tell-tale fleck of Khekarian highlighting shone like polished copper.

New realization landed like a blow to the solar plexus. Aleisha didn’t make a sound, but her breathing altered, becoming shallow and rapid. Her heart pounded with adrenalin.

Except for the distinctive flecks of coloration added to their eyes, ranging from pale yellow to a striking gold-orange, a Khekarian could pass for Terran. In fact, the two could procreate, so there existed a genetic link of some kind. Theorists speculated that Earth had been seeded with life by the Khekarians. Another theory had it all the other way around, with Terra colonizing the Khekarian Core, the knowledge then lost in the Phaeton Catastrophe of 9,500 BC.

Khekarians were a warring civilization. They had a long history of raids and assaults against the Chiddran. In the last hundred years, their aggression had intensified and the gloves were off for real.

Not only were the Khekarians the instigators of a full-blown galactic war against the Chiddran Empire, they also claimed galactic dominance.

They already had most of it, now they wanted it all.

Terrans were the new kids on the block, their whole Sector a poor cousin to the affluent Chiddran Reach. The fear they felt was simple. When the Khekarian Empire finished with the Chiddran one, how long would it be before their attention turned to the young and still pitifully weak Terran expansion?

“She’s Khekarian,” Aleisha stated. Charlie didn’t see the problem.

“Yes, there are two of them,” he answered easily.

Soldiers?” Aleisha queried, swinging her head to look at him. She was invaded by deeper anxiety. “Didn’t you think I should know? Didn’t you think it was relevant?”

“To what? They’re nice enough, and she’s ex, as far as I know.”

Aleisha gazed again at the woman now reaching for the door handle. “You think so? Does she know?”

There was no time for him to answer. The door opened to the Khekarian’s hand and her awesome presence was within the room. Filling it immediately. Owning it outright. An assertive and predatory gaze homed in on Aleisha, leaving her feeling suddenly caged in with a ferocious animal, no escape and no chance of any.

On the job, Aleisha realized. A shudder rippled through her flesh.

The Khekarian’s scrutiny raked her form as Sevi made her own assessment. She frowned. “Another fucking kid on another fucking mission. Terrific.”

“Sevi!” Charlie mocked censure. The woman ignored him.

“Just what are you accredited in, apart from the ‘psychic’ skill you exaggerated on your application? Tying your shoelaces, maybe?”

Aleisha gave a frown of her own. “I didn’t exaggerate. The form asked what additional skills I had, I was being honest.”

“Let’s hope so. Is that our van near the gate, Charlie?”

“It is,” he replied,  impossibly at ease. “Ignition card is on the dash. Are you handling the sign off?” He reached for his clipboard of papers.

“No.” Sevi never even looked at him. Her hostile stare on Aleisha settled into bland disapproval as the predator within slipped quietly beneath the surface. “Grab your things. Let’s go.”

With that crisp address, Aleisha found herself wanting to snap to attention like a raw recruit. Fortunately, Sevi didn’t wait for it, or Aleisha might have embarrassed herself with an attempt. Instead, the woman turned and walked out, leaving Aleisha to gather her things unaided and trundle after her.

The whole encounter left her feeling inadequate, as though Aleisha was somehow the lesser of the two. This was unexpected.

“Hurry, don’t keep her waiting,” Charlie encouraged as Aleisha struggled through the doorway.

“Why not? She’ll have me drop and give her twenty? For the record, I don’t like this at all!”

“Go on,” he chuckled, propelling her forward. “You’ll do fine.”

Sevi didn’t wait and didn’t look back. She kept ahead of Aleisha the entire walk, her spine straight as a pole, her stride purposeful.

Aleisha successfully fought down the urge to run to keep up, but by the time they reached the van, she was privately seething.

The cab of the van was high. Sevi didn’t open the door for her.

“Don’t help or anything,” Aleisha said through gritted teeth, dumping her bags and doing it herself.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”  Sevi headed around the vehicle.

Aleisha pushed one bag ahead onto the passenger seat and stepped back, feeling briefly a swirl of energy pass like a breeze. She would have wondered at it, except she was busy and annoyed. She snatched up her second bag and clambered aboard, kneeling on the seat to push both bags into the back.

By the time she shut the door, Sevi already had the van in motion, backing up and then swinging forward out of the bay.

The few blocks to the city boundary disappeared behind them very quickly, then they were into the countryside. There was no suburbia out this way, not yet. Cenoth was surrounded by its farming community.

Road teams could be housed in the city itself or isolate themselves in distant compounds out beyond the plantations and farmsteads. Most preferred isolation. Aleisha had liked the concept, now she had different thoughts.

Sevi was silent for a long time. “I hope you’re good,” she said at last.

“Sure,” Aleisha responded.

Sevi looked at her. “I don’t believe you. You haven’t the experience to be worth shit. When I walked in there, I terrified you, you looked like a frightened mouse.”

“I wasn’t expecting you, that’s all.”

“And that goes against you. From here on in, Aleisha, the rules are simple. Don’t lie. Ever. Don’t exaggerate your skills, don’t fake anything, or you’ll fucking answer to me.”

* * *

Compound Twelve was situated fifteen miles from the center of Cenoth, out where a forest of ancient trees gave cover and isolation. It contained two domes in an area that was considered very pretty by local standards and breathtakingly beautiful by someone who had really only known the barren splendor of Mars. While Earth had vast spectacular forests, Aleisha had joined SEAS for the promise of alien wilderness.

The domes were not visible from the highway. The path leading down to them was a narrow dirt track a mile long, dipping and curving around heavy trees and gentle hills. Radiant in their different colors, birds flitted from branch to branch, swooping low before the vehicle from the canopy overhanging the lane.

The big dome was off-white and four stories high. The smaller one had been an addition at some point, its brightness still stark, bringing in three more floors of accommodation for the larger teams.

“The women will have commandeered the small one,” Sevi said, pulling up outside the larger dome, leaving the vehicle where the supplies would be needed. “You will reside with them.” She exited the cab, not waiting for a reply.

Aleisha opened her door, then twisted around, kneeling on the seat to reach her bags. She tossed the first out onto the ground and a moment later the second one followed. Sevi came around to her side of the vehicle and stood watching, hands deep in her pockets.

“Can you move any slower?” she asked as the newcomer backed out awkwardly from the unfamiliar cab.

“Shall I try?” Aleisha replied, facing her. “I’m barely in the door. You don’t know anything about me and already you’re using threats. That wasn’t necessary and it’s not appreciated.”

Sevi looked her over, a spark of genuine pleasure showing in her eyes. “A bit of backbone. Well done and well stated.”

Aleisha was thrown off balance again as Sevi reached out her right hand in greeting. Not thinking, she stepped forward to shake hands with the Khekarian, neatly surrendering to perhaps thousands of years of Terran tradition, just as Sevi knew she would.

The moment Sevi had her hand grasped in her right, her left came up out of her pocket and smacked a teleporter around her wrist, clicking it shut.

“Arbalest, command, lockdown new teleporter designated Aleisha Tieler.” The arrogant shine was still in her gaze. “That’s right, isn’t it? Speak, the ship needs to recognize your voice.”

Aleisha jerked her hand away, realizing that she only got free because the woman allowed it. “Hey!”

“Wearing a teleporter is a standard requirement.”

“What makes you think I will stay?” Aleisha was incensed.

Another flash of that smile, eyes large now and faking surprise. “Well, you will now, won’t you? Arbalest, Aleisha and myself aboard, Sturn’s quarters, bedroom.”

* * *

Sturn was fresh from the shower. He was semi naked, wearing a pair of jeans, his fly undone. He unlatched a drawer and opened it, looking for a t-shirt.

A quiet bell chimed for the second time, reminding him of the imminent arrival automatically held to safeguard his privacy.

He didn’t mind any ground location, but the ship gave him the seclusion he would not otherwise enjoy and he used his privileges freely. Today he was on Arbalest specifically for the assessment of the new girl. He hoped she was better than the last one. The chime told him that Sevi had collected her and was bringing her aboard.

“Proceed,” he said quietly, choosing a top.

The two women arrived as he dressed, facing each other, the unfamiliar one drawing breath in sharp alarm. “You have no reason.”

Sevi ignored the girl, turning to Sturn, her gaze flashing over his body. “Damn. Thought I disabled that holding function,” she teased.

“Guess you forgot.” There was a lazy smile in the tone of his response, but Aleisha pivoted in shock at the sound of Sturn’s voice.

She was not expecting this, not expecting him so suddenly there.

He was tall and strong and, yes, the other Khekarian. She hadn’t seen that in her experience, she had thought then the killer was Terran, but this was the same man clearly enough. Same strong physique, same height, same face – goddamn –  same impact of his energy, too. Too forceful, too vital, too much. Aleisha threw what psychic shielding she could around herself in the form of visualized white light, but it didn’t much deaden the contact. He was too close.

His hair was damp from the shower, blond, thick and collar length. He was still dressing, lazily tucking the t-shirt into his jeans. That he wasn’t troubled by their intrusion just added another layer of menace.

Energy drained from Aleisha and she stumbled back a pace, looking away, but his glance had dismissed her at once, settling once more on Sevi with cool appraisal.

“Must get around to it,” Sevi promised him, carrying suppressed humor around with her as a natural trait, as though this whole thing was nothing but a game, a challenge, a fun sport. Perhaps it was.

They sparred constantly, Aleisha knew without wanting to. It was sport, it was power, it was sex, relentlessly demanding. Both were driven to win, yet neither would tolerate the other losing.

“Your new acquisition,” Sevi said. “Accredited in tying her own shoelaces. I’m not brimming with optimism over this one, Sturn, I came as a total surprise.”

“Thank you. Go.”

“Enjoy. Arbalest, take me back to location.”

Aleisha saw Sevi teleport away and then, with the woman’s influence gone, quickly looked to the threat still in the room.

Sturn turned his leisurely attention to her, this time taking a full account. Aleisha saw what he saw, heard his thoughts and tried to close herself down.

Small, cute, scared. He liked the combination, but wanted more.

“What did Sevi tell you?” He still spoke quietly, but Aleisha could sense him sucking in the fear that rolled off her in great waves, relishing her anguish.

He terrified her. She’d been given no time to prepare, no room to evade, no chance to think. Her answer betrayed her panic as she fought to come to terms with this sudden situation.

“Nothing, she just… ambushed me!”

Sturn studied her, silently watching her tremble, watching her turn and lean a hand against the wall to steady herself.

“Kristi, then,” he said. “Someone made you scared of me.”

“No one. I’ve only met her. Sevi. I thought you were some kind of monster in the city. I saw, but I didn’t know you were Khekarian.”

Aleisha breathed deeply, trying to steady herself as Sturn analyzed her answer. “Saw what?”

“What you did.”

“Whatever that was, I’ll assume you have some talent then, that’s a start. Go through there.”

She was desperate to put any distance between herself and him. She felt she couldn’t breathe this close to him. The living area beyond the door beckoned like a spacious field and she rushed through the doorway as it opened for her.

The room was lined with luxury. Lounges curved with one wall, supplying seating capacity alone for ten or twelve people. Double sofas and single chairs formed close circles around fixed round low tables. An entire team could fit in here. A large one. The colors were light, making the room seem larger. Off to one side a small kitchen bay gleamed.

It all looked so opulent, but then that’s what a Bastion was about. Aleisha didn’t care what a Bastion was about. She wanted off this ship. Even here, in this huge generous room, he was too close.

“Sit down.”

She dropped into one of nests.

Sturn chose a place opposite her, making Aleisha want to run again.

“You’re frightened of Khekarians?” he asked.

“Only ones that kill.”

Listen,” he was suddenly harsh. “Until I want your fear it’s useless to me. Ditch it.”

“I will not stay here,” she declared. “Not in this team. Not with you.” She scraped her nails along the bracelet, feeling for the clasp that would open it, then looked down at it and saw there was not even a trace of a latch. The very lines had blended into the metal and disappeared. Locked in place. It was all the latest technology and bound her to the team more thoroughly than manacles. “Get this off me.”

Sturn gazed at her for a still moment, then calmly focused on her earlier words. “How do you know I kill?”

She settled her breathing, trying to calm herself. He clearly wasn’t about to leap at her. “I told you.”

“What else do you know about me?”

She frowned at him. “I know that you are a complete bastard if you don’t take this teleporter off me the moment we get back.”

Sturn gave her another featureless stare.

“Where’s Stephen?” Aleisha asked. “Have you killed him, too?”

“No,” he replied, unfazed. “Stephen hasn’t pissed me off.”

Aleisha went on the attack. “Did you tell that horrible woman to bring me aboard? You had no right.”

“You will show Sevi complete respect at all times.”

I will decide who I respect,” she bristled in reply. “You will take me back there and take this off, and I’m going to walk out of here before any of this goes any further.”

Some threat. They both realized the weakness of her stand.

“And what advantage does that have for me?” he asked.

She couldn’t answer him, highlighting the problem.

He held up his right wrist, showing her his own teleporter. “I don’t know why it upsets you, I’ve got one, too. We all have.”

“And I bet you can take yours off at will.”

“True. What else do you know about me?”

“Nothing! I don’t even know who you are. I don’t know what position you hold here, I don’t know anything about you. Only what I saw, and I didn’t want to see that.”

“I’m not about to slaughter you and my rape quota has been filled for the day, you can relax.” Sturn rose and walked away from her, heading for the kitchen. “Want a drink? A beer? Something stronger?”

“No.”

He looked back. “A glass of milk?”

“I said no.”

He moved on, giving her space to think, then came back to the table with a sheath of beer, a can covered in a special cortex that chilled on opening, keeping the drink cold for a further half hour.

“My name is Sturn.” He leaned back in his chair, resting bare feet comfortably on the coffee table. “Here in this team, Stephen has me as his second-in-command. For him and his work here, I am that. For me and for all I’m going to do, I’m not. Simple.”

He popped open the beer, waited to feel the chill in his hand, and took a deep swig.

“You think I’ll work for you and not for Stephen, is that it?”

“That’s exactly it. I was the one who sent for you. I chose you for a reason. While you are on this planet, you will fit in with Stephen’s work plans and perform the duties assigned to you. When I leave here, if you’re any good, you will come with me. Your time here is a test period.”

Aleisha looked him over with as much disdain as she could muster. “Well that will see me certain not to cooperate.”

He smiled, expecting that. “You will,” he promised.

Her eyelids flickered. She detected honesty in the reply.

“What exactly did you perceive of me?” he asked.

Not knowing what else to do, she gave him the truth. “That you kill. Women. That you like it. You’ve done it before.”

“How do you know that?”

“There was no fear in you. No shock, no regret.”

“Of course not.”

How could he be so at ease about it? Her face was a grimace when she asked, “Do you kill regularly?”

Yes,” he shot back, abruptly angry. “Weakness annoys me.”

Aleisha matched him. “I didn’t see you picking on anyone your own size. Is it a sex thing?”

Sturn blinked, then laughed, surprised by the question. The laugh was unexpected and Aleisha was thrown again. “Sometimes.”

“Then get help!”

“Why? I like it. Do you believe in fate?”

“What?” Her frown deepened.

“Fate. You know?”

“In that all-embracing everything-is-planned version, no, I don’t believe in fate. That negates freewill and responsibility. Are you trying to dodge retribution?”

Fresh amusement. “No. Do you see into the future?”

“Obviously not. I’m a driver. I came here to join a Terran team and to be a driver.”

“I know. You’re accredited in three categories of rig, one of motorbike, and have provisional points for your flyer’s certificate. Oh, and you can tie your own shoelaces. None of that is of value to me. What are your psychic talents? Precognition, healing or communicating with the dead?”

She didn’t answer. He would want her talent, she knew it.

“Character reading?” he asked.

There it was. The slight rise of her chin gave it away.

“You recognize people? Know their inner being? That’s a useful skill to have. Is that like mind-reading?”

“No. It’s just knowing the truth of people and has nothing to do with what they say.”

“Like our truthseers, good. What else do you do?”

“If you must know, I pick up trauma. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s full on.”

“Don’t most psychics have a smattering of the whole range? A touch of everything?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me, Aleisha, I have some small skill myself. What do you know about the Khekarian Empire?”

“Nothing.”

“What about the ruling families?”

“Nothing.”

“Politics?”

“Nothing.”

Sturn gave a meaningful pause, hoping she’d fill the gap with something. She didn’t.

“You know what we look like, so I suppose that’s a start. Okay, basics: The Khekarian Expanse is crisscrossed and ringed by powerful families.”

Aleisha shook her head. “I don’t want to know anything about them. Or you.”

“You’re going to learn. The whole Expanse is structured like a grid. Across the grid and around the limits of our reach, there are ruling families. Thousands of them on the lower level. At the top level there are eighteen leaders of these families, with a substructure of a further hundred and eight.”

“Would they be the middle bracket?” She tried a sneer.

“Actually, there are three middle brackets. Above all of it, though, is not a king but an emperor. I am from one of those ruling families. The top layer, one of the top eighteen. I was forced from my position, cast away to an outpost of the Khekarian assault into the Chiddran Reach. Being outcast does not mean I am without influence. I have access to unlimited funds. I have the strength and the fury of assured Khekarian vengeance behind me should I need it. I get what I want. Always. It is a good idea to understand and accept that from the start.”

Aleisha was silent, listening fearfully to him. She could feel it, waves of absolute truth bombarding her.

“I am unbeatable, unstoppable.”

“No,” she told him. “I won’t believe that. Not seeing what you did. That wouldn’t be right.”

“Gail was a diversion. That’s all.”

Gail. Aleisha felt fresh anguish, just knowing her name.

“They’re going to find out. The authorities. Right here.”

“Here?” Sturn gave a snort of derision. “In this insignificant segmented Terran Sector? Do you think any of your authorities would go up against Khekarian might? Do you think I care about your puny Terran laws? Your justice? This planet is a joke. Your whole colonizing strand is a joke. That’s all it is, a string, a mere tendril. Where is its strength? Where’s its power? You believe in the spirit of the law, but back it with what? Thin air? There is none to touch me, Aleisha. Not here, not ever.”

Again she could feel the truth of that, his belief in that. It was a horrible thing.

“I am here because your Sector is marginally better than where I was. Your outer reach is incredibly dull and primitive, but I tolerate it for the freedom it offers me. As for team life, it suits me well enough. I have not stationed myself in one of your cities because I don’t particularly like Terrans. Arbalest is my fortress should I require one. Stephen’s enterprise sees us travel the continent. It’s his way of earning a living and proves useful on occasion. I go along purely for what enjoyment it offers. But there are other needs more pressing. I shall soon leave this planet to return home to issues and challenges at the Khekarian Core. I’m after a psychic bodyguard. How far do you see?”

“Clearly not far enough. If I’m contracted to Stephen, won’t he object?”

“Shouldn’t think so, I own him, didn’t I make that clear?”

Another shock. Another slap of truth as he saw it. Why should he be so powerful? Stephen had status. He had a reputation, experience. As far as Aleisha knew, Terrans did not bow to Khekarians.

“If you dislike Terrans so much, why choose me? Why not choose a Khekarian or a Chiddran?”

“We have truthseers. While they are excellent in knowing a lie when they hear one, they rarely offer the scope of a good Terran psychic. As we are at war with the Chiddran, I would hardly trust a Chiddran. Most of all, I want someone who is not sophisticated in the art of duplicity. Someone who has no other agenda, no contact, nor want of any, with the manipulators of court intrigue. There are factions out there, some deadly in their dealings, some not. I need people around me I can trust. You will help me with that.”

“No,” Aleisha ventured. “There are better psychics out there, I didn’t come here for you.”

Sturn offered a chilling smile. “Yes, you did.”

* * *

Stephen was in his mid-thirties. He had a good physique, rugged good looks, although at the moment he was road-scruffy and more cynical in his manner than normal. He was angrily searching Charlie’s junk pile of a desk for his clipboard of papers.

“What is wrong with you?” Charlie asked him, confused by his manner.

“I’m tired, it was a rotten trip.”

“Rest up awhile, Stephen, you work too hard.”

“I need another form, here, Charlie. Had an accident out on the highway, got a death to report.”

There’ll be a body.

Charlie fumbled with his glasses, knocking them off his face.

* * *

Away from the lounge room nest and now sitting at the dining room table, Sturn reached over and slapped a writing pad down on top of all the other papers and things he had Aleisha working on. Then he went back to fishing through the papers in front of him.

“Do any of those names mean anything to you?” It was all too nonchalant.

The names he’d written were Khekarian, three names in total. “I can’t even pronounce them,” she said miserably.

“Are you any closer to telling me which of the eighteen families I belong to?”

None of them.”

Ignoring her bad temper, he pointed at the names presented to her. “Study those.”

“They don’t mean anything. Normally I’d know if they were going to mean anything. I’d get something straight away. This is a waste of time.”

“So, what do they tell you?”

Aleisha shrugged and gave a guess. “They’re affluent.”

“They’re bound to be, aren’t they?” he responded sarcastically. “What gave it away?”

“The names are hyphenated, that’s all.”

It was rather dismissive, Aleisha’s unwillingness already clearly stated. Nevertheless, Sturn froze in a manner that indicated she had severely blundered.

His gaze rose from his notes and focused on nothing for a moment. Then, looking perplexed, he faced her. She met his stare, not knowing what the problem was.

“The Khekarian Empire is the largest ruling force in the galaxy,” he enunciated with deliberate patience, “Do you mean to tell me you really know nothing about our society? Our ways?”

Aleisha forced a brave answer. “It didn’t seem important.”

“It’s extremely important. Our ancestry is bi-linear. Our names. Both maternal and paternal surnames are employed. A hyphenated name gives the gender-specific family name of both parents. Everyone’s name is hyphenated.”

It could have been left at that, but Aleisha showed quick intelligence by grasping what she thought was the fundamentals of the system, and disagreeing with it, homing in on the seemingly obvious flaw. She did it because she wanted to argue, which was another mistake.

“Names would just get longer, it’s a stupid system.”

Sturn looked  blank. “Pardon me?”

“You can’t hang on to both names, you would end up with all names. The whole inverted pyramid of ancestors. Girl A-B marries boy C-D, you’re going to end up with an A-B-C-D surname, right? That’s crazy. The next generation would be twice as long, and so on.”

He was staring at her, eyes frowning.

“Gender-specific,” he repeated. “Females retain their maternal name, relinquishing their paternal suffix to adopt their husband’s. It’s easy. Your women do that now, they surrender everything, your line disappearing. Our way is balanced, both males and females able to follow their gender-specific family names right back. Just as our females adopt their husband’s paternal name, so males adopt their wife’s maternal name, surrendering their own maternal prefix. Girls give up their fathers for their husbands, and boys give up their mothers for their wives. The way it should be. Our name structure is a linguistic representation of that shift in dynamics. A-B girl marrying C-D boy would produce a new family called A-D, bearing A-D children until it was time for them to split away and form new families.”

“That’s too complicated to work, you’d lose track of everybody.”

“Not at all. It’s no more complicated than your system, and fairer. Personalize it. If you and I were to marry, our union would form a unique link between your mother-line and my father-line. That’s a piece of history. Our daughters would carry on your mother-name, passing it to their daughters. Our sons would carry on my father-name, passing it to their sons. See? It’s very simple.”

Aleisha pulled a wry face. She didn’t like that Khekarians should be better at anything, but explained like that, the system made sense.

“Will you please tell me what you get with those names?”

“A headache,” she muttered, gazing at them again.

*

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