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.“You are the Conglomerate!”“No, we’re just humans from Earth.”She stared intently at me.“Explain.”“It’s simple enough,” I said.“Earth’s government cut a deal with the Conglomerate.”“What does that mean?”I explained the essentials of the situation.Earth needed what the Conglomerate had to offer, and as long as that remained true, the United Nations would keep the Expeditionary Force on S’ndar-khk.“We never knew any of this,” the priestess said.“You never asked,” I said.• • •The next day of incarceration passed with numbing sameness.As did the next.And the one after that.Then the priestess reappeared, only this time she had several other s’ndar with her.None of them were armed, though they hardly needed their weapons against a chained and defenseless prisoner.They all stood near the door, well out of the radius of the chain that kept me anchored to the cell floor.“You were right,” the priestess informed me.“News of the Senator’s abduction has caused human activity on S’ndar-khk to increase precipitously.”“That’s hardly a surprise,” I said.“They’ll be looking for Petersen, me, and my whole squad.The Army doesn’t leave its men and women behind.”“You are that valuable?”“Every soldier is valuable,” I said.“Even those who are inferior?”“Subordinate, not inferior,” I said.“There’s a big difference.”“We wish to know more of this deal humans have with the Conglomerate,” said one of the priestess’s companions.“At what point will it be satisfied?”“I don’t know,” I answered.“Until someone in the Conglomerate decides the job is done, I suppose.”The s’ndar began skittering and scratching excitedly, and my TAD muted due to overload.“If you really want humans gone,” I said, “you could do yourselves a favor by not acting like such a bunch of bloodthirsty animals.”“I do not expect you to understand the complexities of inter-hive politics,” she said, “nor do I expect you to grasp the richness and depth of my people.To us it is you who are the animals.You come without being invited or wanted, and enforce your version of ‘peace’.”“Agreed,” said a different s’ndar.“Like I said before,” I replied, “tell it to the Conglomerate.”The priestess circled me, her forelimbs folded thoughtfully.“Our history with the Conglomerate is complicated,” she said.“When the Conglomerate made its first contact with us, many hives spurned its overtures, declaring that we have the right to live without alien interference.When its overtures became demands, we destroyed their probe ship in orbit.An additional series of probe ships were sent, and we destroyed them too.Then, a few years later, your human armies arrived.”“But not by our own means,” I pointed out.“The Conglomerate brought us here to do a job.When they think it’s done, they’ll take us back home and you’ll never have to see another human again.If you weren’t so intent on slaughtering each other—and slaughtering humans in the process—we’d be gone by now.”The group chattered and clacked, and the priestess faced me squarely.“So strange,” she said.“You repulse and fascinate me at the same time.”“The feeling is mutual,” I said.She waited while we glared at one another, my human eyes and her multi-faceted insect’s eyes.Then she clacked her mandibles once, very sharply.Suddenly the entire lot of them fell silent, and began filing out of the cell.“Hey!” I said to the priestess as she was leaving.“You want to start proving how civilized you really are, give me something to clean up with.” I was over four days out of a shower.I stank.The priestess paused, then waved a forelimb at me and left.A minute later the guards brought me cold water in a ten-gallon-sized tub, with a brick of industrial soap.There was no towel.I scrubbed happily, ignoring the chill.• • •Repeated requests to see Senator Petersen, or anyone from my squad, were flatly denied.I began to wonder whether any of them had really made it? There was no reason to believe that the priestess, or any of the others, had been telling the truth, though why they’d keep me alive and kill the others just didn’t make any sense.Time dragged on.Week one became week two.Then three.Then a month.For the first time in my life, I had a full beard.I did bodyweight exercises in my cell to try and keep myself fit, and to keep from going insane with inactivity.At night, when the dark closed in and I had to curl up on the hard floor, I hummed all my favorite songs until slumber finally overtook me and gave me an illusory form of freedom.I dreamed of all the neat places I’d ever been as a kid, all the interesting people I’d ever met.I dreamed of all my favorite shows and movies, and especially of my favorite foods.Mashed potatoes, buttered green beans, crisp corn on the cob, fried chicken, broiled t-bone steak.Anything but the damned half-rotten vegfruit the s’ndar—being a herbivorous race—preferred.I also dreamed of home, and family.Of my sister Karen and me when we’d been kids, playing in our grandparents’ backyard.A few times those dreams seemed so real that when I woke up I had tears in my eyes.I grew to greatly resent the moments when I was awake.I also began to cinch my belt tighter and tighter.The lack of protein in my meager diet was costing me muscle as well as fat.My requests to see the priestess or any other authority figure were alternately denied or ignored.My TAD battery ran out of charge and wasn’t replaced, so I was reduced to yelling at my guards, who neither understood nor cared.• • •I’d lost count of the weeks, when the attack came.A concussion lifted me up off the floor.I’d been fast asleep.I screamed and rolled onto my back, observing rivulets of dust spewing from cracks in the ceiling—cracks I was positive hadn’t been there before, because I’d already memorized the existing cracks.THUD.More cracks shot across the ceiling, and a hunk broke loose and smacked into the ground near my head.I leaped up from where I’d been lying and crouched in the circle of sunlight, hoping to get out from under any additional debris.THUD-THUD-WHAM.I couldn’t tell if the explosions were coming from beyond the hole in the ceiling, or outside the iron door.I felt them as much as I heard them.The door to my cell burst open.A horde of s’ndar rushed in, snapped the collar off my neck, and shoved me outside at gunpoint.The corridor beyond was crawling with s’ndar and humans.There were faces I recognized, far gaunter than I remembered them.“Sergeant Colford!” said a desperate voice.I turned and found myself face-to-face with Senator Petersen.He looked like a shaggy ghost of his former self.His gleaming teeth had yellowed, and his breath smelled, and his face was a hollowed-out, gray-haired mask that barely resembled the confident politician who’d visited my intersection … who knew how long ago.“Move!” commanded a s’ndar, its TAD dialed up to shouting volume.The Senator and I were roughly shoved down the corridor with the other humans [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]