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One Year Later

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Kuril isn't sure what he's doing here. Why he's sitting behind a watered-down fruit brandy in the back of the Hrabos Lounge in the middle of the day, not upstairs in his office, tending to the endless litany of urgent problems that await his attention. True, he doesn't know how he can possibly solve any of those problems, but he is supposed to be trying. That is, after all, his job.

He can remember a time when he cared about his work. When problems were opportunities to demonstrate his skill at overcoming obstacles, to dazzle his peers with his quick thinking and work ethic. A time when his decisions were sound, and his actions decisive. When what he craved, what he lived for, was the approval of his superiors: commendations, promotions. The prospect of a post, someday, with fleet logistics, or the colonialist liaison, or even in the Primarch's office! The possibilities were limitless for one such as he.

Until everything changed. Last winter, that presentation to the Transit Authority. His materials were immaculate, his speech well-rehearsed, he had anticipated questions and prepared answers. It should have been another easy triumph. He had started well. But then it began to rain outside. Winter is the season of storms. It was just a storm, only a storm. But with each slap of a heavy raindrop against the window, he had felt his strength draining away. And he'd ended by breaking down completely. In front of the board, the engineers, the Commissioner... All those people, staring at him. Watching him fall apart.

They'd made excuses for him, of course. Grief, they'd said. His loss is still recent. And then they'd quietly shipped him over here, to this backwater, so he could finish falling apart unnoticed, out of sight. They knew that he was coming unglued. And he agrees he is. But there's not a lot he can do about it. He is what he is--burned out, cracked up, a failure. A disgrace to his illustrious ancestors. Come to think of it, the quality of the family as a whole seems to have become sadly diluted, through the years. Watered-down. That's the way of things.

Perhaps it's just as well that Kuril is the last of his line. His only brother has been dead now for half a year. Half a year is a long time, in theory. Enough time for the shock to have faded into distant memory, and, one would think, the pain as well. But it hasn't. Not the pain. Not the sense of abandonment. Not the guilt, the pointless, rootless guilt that keeps him up at night, whispering: One brother is dead, the other alive. The ashes of the dead are cold and still: raked, collected, encased in stone. At peace, perhaps, for the first time. But the despair smolders on, consuming the living--a cold ember slowly burning from the inside, leaving a fragile, hollow shell of powdery gray dust to crumble in the wind.

He doesn't understand why he's still alive. Why he hasn't simply dissolved into the earth. Or, more practically, put his pistol to his head. Why drag himself to work every day, and spend the hours accomplishing nothing? He's not in his office now, but that dereliction of duty simply raises another question. Kuril stares at the stranger silhouetted in the doorway of the lounge. Why did he agree to meet this human to begin with? Did he think it would do him any good? Or is his life so perfectly dull that he needs some new drama to fill the void? Insanity. He doesn't know why he does anything, these days.

The human walks over, sits down at the table. He shakes his head at the advancing bartender, and greets Kuril with a string of meaningless formalities, which Kuril ignores.

Humans are not a frequent sight anywhere on Taetrus, and even less so here, so far away from the capital. The few that pass through these desolate halls are professional travelers, weary veterans of a dozen spaceports, perpetually buying, or selling, or trying. They are humans only by accident of birth; in every practical sense they are mere appendages of the corporations they represent, with no purpose of their own. This human represents no-one. He is young. Barely a man, by the standards of his own race.

This human's name is Kaidan Alenko, and he is here for absolution.

Kuril doesn't understand why he wants forgiveness, nor why he believes Kuril might be disposed to dispense it. Or what difference it would make if he did. Kuril has never asked anyone to forgive him. Well, he's said the words. But he hasn't meant it, quite the opposite. Forgiveness just doesn't seem like that much of a desirable thing to have, and he can't imagine traveling halfway across the galaxy for it. But perhaps that's because he's never done anything that mattered to anybody.

"If you'll permit me to inquire, Administrator--what exactly did they tell you?" the seeker-after-forgiveness asks. Deferentially. All this courtesy is wasted on Kuril. He who is losing his mind has little patience for the polite forms.

"They told me he was dead," Kuril says. It's not the only thing they told him, but it was the only thing he heard. Your brother is dead. Yes, really dead. Not pretending. No, not slain gloriously while defending the homeland against all enemies. Not at all. Were you hoping for that? That he died for a good cause?

"Did they tell you anything more, Administrator?"

Kuril doesn't answer. For reasons he--naturally--cannot understand, the imperial anthem is playing in his head. Not at its normal tempo. A dirge.

"Administrator, were you aware what your brother was doing on Jump-- on Gagarin Station?" The human tries again. "Sir, he was hired, by the Alliance--"

"Yes," Kuril says, curtly.

"Then you do know what happened. How he died." Not polite this time. He's learning.

Kuril looks into the other's face. "You killed him."

The eyes of his brother's killer flick uncertainly. "I meant, specifically. Did you get a copy of the investigator's report?"

Kuril looks away. The report. He's read the report a thousand times, looking for the words that weren't there. The words that would take the pain in his chest and turn it into something else. Anger, perhaps. That would have been welcome. Or relief--less welcome, but, in the circumstances, still an improvement. Anything, other than this sham of grieving. Anything real.

He recites, flatly, "There was a young female. She disobeyed his instructions. He broke her arm to punish her. You broke his neck to defend her."

The human weighs this answer, then nods and falls silent. He sighs, as if noticing for the first time the oppressive air of this empty, rundown lounge in a crumbling gray spaceport held together by apathy and inertia.

"I have work to do." Kuril swallows the lukewarm liquid in his glass and stands to leave.

"She wasn't the only reason," the other says, quietly.

Kuril's heart lurches. He sits back down, slowly, carefully. Any sudden jolt could cause this hollow shell of ash to disintegrate. Which is all right, but when he does fall apart it should at least be after the dramatic revelation, not before.

He stares at the human, not daring to speak. The human stares back at him. Kuril doesn't know enough about the species to comprehend what that expression means. But it seems like he's waiting for Kuril to say something.

"My brother," he croaks. "Did he--" He can't recognize his own voice.

He turns and gestures at the bartender, signals for another drink. The volus moves as fast as a volus can. Kuril shuts his eyes in resignation and waits. He gulps the drink down as soon as it arrives. Spirits be praised, it's not watered-down for the first time in living memory. An omen of approaching doom. He watches the bartender waddle back behind the bar.

The human is looking at him.

"Did he--" He attempts the question again, but his voice is still wrong. He slams the glass down on the dented tabletop. "Did he hurt you? Did he--" he bites it back, but the word batters its way out--"force you?"

Something changes in the other's expression. "Yes," he says softly.

One word. Just one word, as calm as a summer's day under Taetrus' supposed silver skies. It's summer now, the season of hot, still air, drought, and biting flies. But in Kuril's ears the storm is raging, and the drums play a march in time to the pounding of his heart.

He looks into the teeth of the gale, feeling the cold rain on his face. "How-- " he clutches at the edge of the table. The wind whips his words away, into the distance. "How old were you?"

"Old enough," the human says. His lower lip twitches. "Though that would probably be disputed, on a number of grounds." He looks down. "It's not important. I don't think I would have killed him if he hadn't drawn the knife. That knife-- But it doesn't matter. It's over now."

Kuril drops his head into his hands. The driving wind has died down, leaving only the sound of dripping water. And the senseless grief of long months is gone, as if it never existed, replaced by-- Nothing. Nothing. His brother is dead, and has left him nothing. Nothing that he wants. The flame burns out, the ashes are collected, clean and sterile. The rain washes away the traces, the sands are raked smooth, and nothing is left behind. No. Not true. He's still here. Still alive.

"How did you know?" the human asks. Idly, as if he doesn't care.

Why, by the words in the report that weren’t there, of course. "He was--" Kuril says, his voice low. My brother was. I am. "He was our father's son."

Understanding floods into his listener's eyes. Kuril hates him for it. No, not hate. He can't summon up hate. There's not even that. The best he can manage is tired annoyance.

The human says, slowly, "Did your brother hurt you too?"

Kuril shakes his head, though he doesn't know what he means by that gesture. It doesn't mean no, but it's a denial of something.

"He protected me. Sometimes. When he could. Sometimes he couldn't, of course." He takes a gulp of air. "I was glad when it wasn't me. I was afraid--" Forgive me. "I never protected him. Not once."

"Could you have?" Gentle skepticism. "How old were you?"

Kuril stares into the empty glass. "Not old enough," he whispers.

The human looks away.

Silence. Almost silence. There's a muted roar from outside, the reverse thrust of a mining ship on final approach. The rhythmic clang of metal from the repair crew on dock 17, yet again--the sound of summer if there ever was one. Close by, a faint, industrious squeaking, as the bartender polishes the tarnished mirror surface of the bar.

"You were right to kill him," Kuril says, dully. "Now go away."

The other snorts. "Is that what you think I came here for?"

Kuril says fiercely, "I forgive you. Isn't that what you said you wanted? Absolution?"

A nod. "Not from you."

Kuril hurls the glass to the floor. It shatters. The volus looks up and silently moves to the far end of the room, begins wiping tables there.

"There is no one else who cares ," Kuril says, savagely. "There is only me."

"And me," the human says.

Kuril stares.

"Are you your father's son?"

"No!" he screams. The sound echoes through the empty space. The bartender pauses momentarily, and doesn't look in their direction. Kuril digs his talons into the tabletop to anchor himself to the room, but it doesn't help. The cold. The storm, the sound of funeral drums--

The human's hand is on Kuril's, holding him down. "I wasn't accusing you," he says. "It's all right."

When the shaking starts to subside, the human says, quietly, "I apologize for the question. I didn't anticipate the... strength of your reaction." He glances at the bartender. "And I'm sorry for any damage this outburst may cause to your public reputation."

Kuril laughs bitterly. "Reputation? The administrator of a decrepit spaceport in the middle of nowhere? You won't see me on the news. They transferred me here precisely so my impending mental breakdown wouldn't affect anyone. Nobody would so much as blink if I ran through every decaying corridor of this place screaming my head off."

"What's wrong with this spaceport?" the human asks. He removes his hand and sits back. "Even if the, uh, design aesthetic isn't really to my taste, it seems well-constructed." His gaze goes to the emergency override terminal on the ceiling that controls the blast shutters for the lounge. "Not as secure as some others I've been in, but--"

Kuril interrupts. "It's built to survive orbital bombardment. Heavily fortified, too. They made sure of that, during the civil war. A few companies of good troops could hold it against an army. If that's what you're concerned about."

An appraising look. "What are you concerned about?"

"Nobody comes here." Kuril waves a hand, indicating the empty room. The words spill out of his mouth, one after the other. "What you so coyly refer to as the design aesthetic is what happens when the money runs out. Even cargo volumes are down. Revenue's been steadily declining for the past ten years, the previous administrator left in disgrace--"

He stops, disgusted with himself. "Just tell me what I have to do to make you leave."

"Let me help you," the human says.

*****

Kuril doesn't know, exactly, when he started calling the human by his name. Maybe it was the day he showed up at the weekly staff meeting with pastries from that bakery downtown that people are always talking about, the one that has the line out the door and all around the block as soon as it opens every day. He doesn't know how Alenko even got into the administration office to begin with, past the secure doors. He doesn't understand why he doesn't just have this trespasser, this criminal, thrown out of the office, off the planet, shot into the vacuum of deep space. And he certainly doesn't know what the human means when he tells people he's Kuril's intern.

Alenko gets along inexplicably well with the staff. He swallows their insults, is unfailingly polite, listens to their stories with rapt attention and laughs in all the right places. He brings them tea. He offers to run errands. When he's not picking up someone's laundry, he spends hours reading reports, financial statements, requisitions, anything he can get his hands on. Most of it is in the public record anyway, but Kuril would not be surprised to learn that Alenko has been looking over people's shoulders as they work. At lunch, he eats with whomever will let him tag along that day. He always eats the same thing, some disgusting levo rations from a box, and it's clear he's there for information, not nutrition. And the list of people who will tolerate his company has been growing. Even Lakus, the chief of security, a veteran of countless wars with no love for humans, permits Alenko to address him as "sir" and ask about the latest exploits of his favorite clawball team. Though of course he doesn't answer.

Kuril wonders how the human can afford a place to stay, food, or any of the other necessities of life, when he spends all his time insinuating himself into spaceport operations. He asks him about this, one day at lunch.

"I have some funds," comes the answer. "There was a settlement, some years ago."

Kuril knows nothing about Alenko's past. He goes back to the office and looks up what few sources he can find. The settlement must be something to do with the incident when Alenko's mother was exposed to Element Zero. The litigiousness of humans as a race is legendary; the court proceedings dragged on for years. There were eventually some monetary reparations paid out, but not large ones. And surely the largest would have gone to the families of those who died or suffered brain tumors, not the ones who gained useful new abilities that would advance the cause of humanity.

After a long period of thought, during which Kuril reminds himself that he doesn't know why he does anything, he puts Alenko on the staff as his personal assistant. The pay is a pittance, but it's better than a kick in the gizzard. And it stops the mockery of operational security that the human's continued presence in the office has become.

The next morning, when he hands the new personal assistant his staff ID card, he gets a triumphant grin in return.

"Does this mean you're going to let me rewrite the funding request for the new Class 8 transport dock?" Alenko asks.

Kuril stares at the human. "What's wrong with the way it's written now? It's the same template we've always used for funding requests."

Alenko says, "You didn't get the funding the last three times you used it."

Kuril sighs. "That's because no-one wants to throw credits away on this--" he lowers his voice. "This piece-of-shit spaceport with a piece-of-shit administrator who's losing his mind. And I doubt they'll believe we need a new dock, either. That's a lost cause."

"Then you won't mind if I rewrite it," Alenko says.

"Why not," Kuril says. "But first, go pick me up a suitable gift for the Primarch's granddaughter's dinner party tonight. I got an invitation this morning. I don't know why I was invited--well, nothing new there. But I guess I have to make an appearance."

Alenko wordlessly hands him a package tastefully wrapped in the colony's colors.

Disconcerted, Kuril takes it. "What is it?"

"Crystal liqueur glasses, set of twelve. Asari-made, very fashionable at the moment. Matches the wine glasses she bought last week. I'm sending you a copy of the receipt. Just transfer the funds to my account."

Kuril checks his messages on his omni-tool. "Eight thousand credits for liqueur glasses? Are you insane?" He's horrified. No, not horrified. Tiredly annoyed.

Alenko gives him a look. "If it makes you feel any better, consider it an investment. I've also sent you dossiers about the hostess and the other guests. I suggest memorizing them before you show up there."

Kuril blinks. "Any other instructions?" he inquires sarcastically.

"Yes. A new suit will be delivered here this afternoon. I’m sending you the receipt for that also. It should fit you, but try it on to be sure. Wear your medals with it."

Kuril's mandibles flatten. "And I suppose it was you who arranged my invitation to this party to start with? I don't know much, but what I do know is that I don't know the Primarch's granddaughter, or anyone who knows her, and I don't see how you could either."

"It's my job," Alenko says.

The dossiers are brief, but comprehensive. Detailed enough to give the appearance of familiarity with the subject's public life, to avoid inadvertently giving offense, and to hint at a deep intimacy with the social and political circles with which this lowly spaceport administrator is, of course, not in the least intimate. As he mingles with the other guests, Kuril listens in amazement to the dinner-party conversation flowing easily out of his own mouth, informed by a selection of recently-memorized facts and sprinkled with topical witticisms. His right hand cups an astoundingly beautiful wine glass, its crystal facets and precious inlays catching the light from the chandeliers. Two thousand credits apiece, and worth every one. The wine is the hostess' favorite: a three-year old vintage from her grandfather's own vineyards. Kuril's favorite as well, of course. Tonight.

Dressed in his new suit, made by an eminently respectable tailor in the old garment district whose name he even manages to drop sometime during the evening, Kuril looks the part, and feels it. The other guests don't seem to notice he doesn't belong there, and are civil, even congenial. For a few sparkling hours, Kuril feels like he can forget his own life, and pretend to be someone else. Someone he'd like to be. Someone the Primarch's granddaughter could admit to knowing. When the evening has drawn to a close, he looks her straight in the eye and smiles charmingly before taking her hand and bowing goodnight. His audacity is shocking. It all feels like a dream, but the small fortune he's spent today is real enough.

When he arrives at the office the next day, Alenko is already there waiting.

The human offers him a pastry. "Well?"

Kuril shakes his head. "Incredible." He bites into the sweet treat.

"What did she say about the gift?" Alenko asks, impatiently.

"Nothing," Kuril says. "I don't think she had time to open gifts last night."

A sigh. "Check your messages."

There's a message, all right. She thanks the Administrator for the pleasure of his company at dinner, thanks him for the beautiful liqueur glasses, compliments his exquisite taste, and says--

"She hopes to see me at the Primarch's Harvest Ball in Vallum," Kuril reads, disbelievingly. "And there's an invitation attached."

"Good," Alenko says. "That's what we want." He hands Kuril his tea.

Kuril stares at him over the rim of his mug. "Are you going to prepare dossiers on four thousand guests this time?"

"Only the ones that matter." The human turns to his desk. "I'm done with that funding request, by the way."

Kuril finishes his pastry, brushes the crumbs onto the floor, and begins reading said funding request. It's essentially the same analysis that was in the original--the same figures, the same projections--but Alenko's somehow made it all sound much more critical and interesting. And perhaps more importantly, he's managed to imply that the dock is essential to the planned construction of the new stadium and entertainment district along the waterfront, along with, naturally, the accompanying economic development and tax revenues that are sure to accrue. This is an approach that has never occurred to Kuril before. But he supposes it should have. He affixes his signature to the document and sends it off. And then sits there at his desk, thinking.

When everyone leaves for the day, he hangs back and watches. Alenko takes the elevator to the ground floor and joins the line for the shuttle that goes from the spaceport to the city's west side. Kuril hails a taxi and arrives at the shuttle's stop before it does. When the human disembarks and begins to thread his way through the streets on foot, Kuril pulls the hood of his cloak over his head and follows him, trying to recall if his army training included anything about trailing persons of interest in urban areas. He doesn't think so, but what does he know.

They walk for a long time, eventually entering a low-rent district mostly populated by the poor, and new immigrants. In the fragments of conversations that Kuril overhears, there's a mix of strange accents. Some voices he recognizes as being from rural Eluria, some others he can't place at all. There's a strong smell of vegetables cooking that's not exactly unpleasant, but definitely not pleasant, either.

Alenko walks quickly and purposefully through the district, sidestepping stray animals, harassed-looking families with children in tow, or insolently-loitering groups of individuals Kuril would classify as terrorists-in-training. The pedestrian traffic isn't so thick that Kuril can move without being seen, but it is thick enough to impede his progress. There are a great many distractions. A growl of anger from his left: a gang of teenagers, engaged in a shoving match with some other gang. In a few more seconds the knives will be out. A shout from somewhere behind him: a little boy with worn, dirty clothing, chasing a girl half his age in a game of catch. She has a good head start, but can't compete on strength, speed or reach. She squeals with laughter as he tackles her and they fall in the dust.

When Kuril looks back, Alenko is nowhere to be seen. He walks forward to the spot where he last saw the human, hoping to get a glimpse of him in some direction. Instead, he runs straight into him, waiting behind a street vendor's cart. Crispy louza on a stick, the sign says.

"Why are you following me?" the human demands.

Kuril twitches in embarrassment. "You know everything about me," he says. "I know nothing about you."

"You could have just asked," Alenko says. He starts to walk again.

Kuril walks beside him, looking around at the streets, buildings and denizens of the district. "Do you feel safe here?" he asks. "Seems like there are plenty of people around who might give you some trouble."

Alenko glances at him. "A few of them tried, a while back."

"What happened?"

In answer, the human raises a hand, glowing blue. A fist-sized rock, lying at the side of the street, smoothly levitates. It hangs in the air for several moments, then slams into the ground. The impact breaks it into tiny pieces. Alenko ignores the reactions of passers-by and walks on.

"I don't know how I could have forgotten about that," Kuril says.

A few more blocks, then the human stops by a building no worse than any of the others around it. He opens the front door and leads the way to the second floor. The apartment is painfully small and has been painted an unfortunate shade of yellow, but it's at least clean. There isn't room for much furniture. There's a desk, a single chair, and a bed.

"I'm afraid I wasn't expecting a visit, so I can't offer you any food," Alenko says. "But we could go back out and get you something on a stick if you're hungry. And I do have plenty of what seems to be pretty much a 70% pure ethanol solution, if you're in the mood for drinking. A gift from my neighbor downstairs. He has his own still, if you can believe that. He says it's called 'liquor of two seasons', because it takes that long to make. Or maybe because it takes that long to finish drinking the damn bottle. Would you like to try some? No? Don't blame you. Can I get you a glass of water then?"

"Thank you, " Kuril says. "I'm fine."

Alenko sits down on the bed and motions Kuril to the chair. "What can I do for you?"

Kuril doesn't know what to say. He had a half-formed intention that he should find out more about this human. It started with seeing where he lived. But now that he's accomplished that, he has no idea what to do next.

"What was my brother like?" The question falls out of his mouth before his brain can intervene.

Alenko frowns. "You knew him better than I did."

"No," Kuril says. "I didn't know him. Not as a person. He was always my older brother, to me."

"I’m not sure I knew him as a person either," Alenko says. "He was always that jerk Vyrnnus, to me." He smiles slightly. "No, I know what you mean." He thinks for a while. "He knew what he was talking about, when it came to biotics. In hindsight, I'd say he didn't spike that high, but he understood more about how to control it than any human did at the time." He sighs. "He taught us a lot. Those of us that survived it, anyway. He hated us, of course. Humans in general, and us kids in particular. And he was... cruel. I think he would have been cruel even if he didn't hate us."

Kuril nods. "Sounds about right."

A snort of pained laughter. "Really? That's it? You're not going to defend him?"

"No," Kuril says. "I could tell you that the civil war changed him. But the fact is, it didn't. He was always cruel, underneath. It was just that there were always certain things--people--that he cared about, that he would do anything to protect. The only thing the war did was to take all those people away from him. And then there was nothing left but the cruelty."

"Wait," Alenko says. "Weren't you one of those people? The people he would do anything to protect? The war didn't take you away from him."

"Yeah," Kuril says. "I was exaggerating for dramatic effect."

The human gets up. "I think I will have a drink, after all. You sure you don't want one?"

"Why not," Kuril says. "If we're going to be talking about my brother, I might need it."

"We really don't have to," Alenko says, returning with a huge bottle and two small glasses. The bottle is about three-quarters full. "I know it's the only thing we have in common, but we don't have to talk about him. Not on my account."

Kuril shakes his head tiredly. " I don't think I can talk about anything else, at least until we're done talking about him. Don't ask me why."

"Alright," Alenko says. He puts the glasses down on the desk and fills them.

Kuril takes a sip from his. The human's description is quite accurate--no flavor at all, and the burn is unbelievable. It's terrible. He gestures to the bottle. "I can't believe you drank that much of it by yourself," he says.

"I didn't," Alenko says. He sits back down.

"So what happened with you and him?" Kuril asks.

Alenko sighs. "At first, it was just general hostility, the same he showed with any of the other kids. But then he said he'd killed my father in the First Contact War. The Relay 314 Incident, I mean. I told him my father was never in the war. After that, it got personal."

Kuril laughs shortly. "He could never stand being shown up. I walked in on him practicing for public speaking class once. I told him he sounded like a pompous ass. He slapped me so hard I lost my hearing for a week. You know how brothers are. What did he do to you?"

"First of all," Alenko says, "What he did to me is between him and me. And that debt is settled." He tosses back the contents of his glass. "Second, you have to stop living in his shadow. Don't ask what he did to me. Get your own material."

Kuril sits back in his chair. "What?"

"You heard me," Alenko says.

Kuril can see his own glass shaking, spilling drops of colorless liquid on the floor, like rain. With some effort, he puts it down on the desk. The storm is back, raging. The drums.

"I'm not--" he says. He doesn't sound convincing, not to himself. "Not like--"

Alenko is standing in front of him. "You're not your father. Or your brother." He puts one hand on each arm of the chair, leans down and looks Kuril in the eye.

"I'm willing, Vyrnnus."

Kuril shuts his eyes, fighting the rising panic. He should leave. Now.

"Don't you want to control me?" Alenko murmurs. "Make me beg, or scream?"

"No," he whispers. Yes. "No."

"You're older than me, Vyrnnus. You're bigger than me. Stronger than me." His voice cuts through the sound of the rain. "You're in charge, I'm a nobody. I'm just a human, you could rip my throat out with one claw. No-one even knows I'm here. No-one cares. The power is all on your side."

Kuril still has the presence of mind to gasp, "Except the biotics. That you killed him with."

Alenko lets go of the chair, steps back. "I promise not to use them. Just don’t make me."

"What does that mean?"

Alenko's lip twitches. "We can work that out as we go along."

Kuril is dimly aware that the roaring in his ears has stopped. He looks down at his hands. They're... steady. His heart is pounding, but it's not the pounding of fear, or dread. The drums are silent.

"Please, Vyrnnus," Alenko says softly. "Please." He drops slowly to his knees.

*****

Afterwards, in his own bed at home, Kuril lies awake in the dark. What he did today--what was that? Not the same thing his brother did to Alenko. Or what their father did to them. Today, there was consent. More than that. There was a need in Alenko's eyes, a desperation so strong it tore Kuril from his charted course, like a ship spinning helplessly into the grip of a dead sun. And though Kuril isn't so hypocritical as to claim that he himself did not consent, or that he didn't take pleasure in being drawn into the well of the other's desires, he wonders if he should have indulged himself in his weaknesses. What if, once released, they will not submit to being once again confined? Was it the wrong thing to do?

He doesn't know the answer. All he knows is that there's a nagging doubt somewhere inside him. He doesn't know if it's a voice of reason or one of madness. He doesn't know whether it's the Kuril he hates being or the one he wants to be that is telling him this. And in the end, perhaps it doesn't even matter. Because he knows he'll do it again, if Alenko lets him. Spirits be merciful. He won't say no.

*****

Kuril isn't surprised when the funding for the new dock is approved. In fact, he's not at all sure what he would have done had the funding been denied. Would his world have collapsed, like that of the primitives when they realized their false gods had never existed? There's danger there. Believing nothing is easy. Believing something means there's something to lose. And it's not just the prospect of finally being able to accomplish what his rank and duty demand. He can feel again.

His terminal is displaying the proposal for the refurbishment of the passenger area on Level 2. It's a big project, and almost everyone in the office is working on it in one way or another. Every department seeing to its own purview, ministering to its own needs, then weaving its threads into the greater whole. Everything coming together in a glorious, harmonious, shining plan that will inject hundreds of millions of credits into the local economy and employ--oh, at least several hundred people for a few months. Not to mention the indirect benefits to tourism and commerce, of course, which Kuril's carefully quantifying now. Alenko doesn't have a department, and his purview is not listed in the table of functional requirements on pages nine through fifteen. Kuril has already noticed the human speaking quietly with several of the section heads, conversations punctuated with frequent glances in Kuril's direction.

It's taken him a while, but Kuril's finally admitted to himself that Alenko's methods would not be considered entirely above board. His ways of obtaining information are particularly suspect. Nothing legal can explain his extraordinary access to knowledge concerning the lives of major political figures scattered all around Taetrus, or, at the other end of the scale, his constant awareness of Kuril's doings. Not to mention his thorough penetration of the port's systems, which, Kuril is sure, extends to far more than the doors of the administration office. He, who has benefitted most from Alenko's crimes, is at the very least an accessory after the fact; he would likely be considered a co-conspirator. But it's far too late to do anything about it now. What, are you going to tell him no? When he's on his knees, begging?

Sometimes it's difficult to remember that Alenko is only eighteen, by Earth reckoning. Only sometimes. When his smooth young skin is exposed and his dark brown eyes are pleading wordlessly, when sobs of pain or pleasure are being torn from that fragile body, Kuril remembers it. Very well. And he reminds Alenko of it with every lash, every humiliation, every breath that they take together in that miserable apartment in the slums.

The wonder of it is that the biotic has kept his word. Not once has Kuril seen a hint of that faint blue glow that promises a violent death. And so, for now, he's alive. Alive enough to plan, to dream, to fear the consequences. Alive enough to wonder just how far Alenko will go, and how far he will let Kuril go. Alive enough to want to hold on to this, though he knows it can't last forever.

The Harvest Ball is four nights away. Kuril's read and memorized twenty of Alenko's dossiers, and there are many more to go. Some of them are CEOs of important companies. Construction, traffic control systems, security, logistics--all things a spaceport administrator might be interested in. But most are politicians, or officials who control purses of one kind or another. City councils. Merchants' consortiums. Tourism grants. Rural infrastructure grants. Inter-species cultural cooperation grants. And then there are a few who control nothing directly, but whose influence makes them a power in their own right. Kuril recognizes the name of the Primarch's granddaughter in that list.

Does she have her eye on a new set of dinner plates this week? Asari-made, very fashionable? Kuril opens the file. There's a list of recent charity events she's been seen at. A vid of her arriving for the opening night of a play at the Capital City Theater in Vallum, escorted by her grandfather. Assorted trivia, a selection of salacious and almost certainly apocryphal gossip. And at the very end, in bold font: Actively seeking a mate. Pay attention, Vyrnnus.

Kuril snorts to himself. If Alenko is planning on him winning the heart of that exalted female, he has his work cut out for him. The idea is ludicrous. She must have suitors buzzing all around her--generals, diplomats, successful businessmen--why would she even look at an undistinguished civil servant with a failing spaceport under his charge? But when Level 2 is complete, there'll be other projects. Projects that will put this place back on the map. And then-- No, ridiculous. He isn't even attracted to her. But she would make a fine mother to your children. And every child needs illustrious ancestors.

Kuril groans. A life in the sun, appearances in the society magazines, a beautiful female on his arm, a perfect family--and a secret shame in the dark of night? What is this human doing to him? He needs to get some fresh air and stop thinking for a while. He gets up and walks out of the office. Alenko glances at him as he passes, but goes back to talking with Lakus, something about improving the security protocols. Kuril lets his legs carry him wherever they will, across the atrium, down corridors, into elevators and out of them, random floors, in any direction, he doesn't care. But there's no escaping the flame of ambition, the flare of sudden hope. The hope of reclaiming that life he once had--the life of limitless possibility.

Eventually, he ends up on the observation deck. The highest point in the spaceport that's accessible to the public, its walls of windows offer a panoramic view of the sky, and in the distance, the city. Kuril slumps against the swiveling telescope provided for the viewing delight of non-existent tourists. He doubts anyone has been up here for months, perhaps years.

"Administrator Vyrnnus? That 'scope don't work, sir," someone says.

Kuril straightens up. The speaker is dressed in the brown uniform of Maintenance and is carrying a box of tools. He doesn't recognize the fellow, but that isn't surprising. His face shows the markings of some other colony, one Kuril isn't familiar with.

"Was just about goin' to fix it, sir. It's been broke for a while."

"What's your name?" Kuril asks.

"Irakus Harom, sir. Haven't been here in the city long, less than a year. And I'm grateful for you giving me this job, sir. It's a lot better than the one I had before."

Kuril smiles. "I didn't have anything to do with you getting this job."

Harom shrugs. "Well, your friend did, sir. I guess it's the same thing."

"What friend?" Kuril frowns.

"The human, sir, Alenko. The one you come visit every so often? I live downstairs of him. I know you're good friends, sir." Harom grins. "Walls ain't that thick, if you know what I mean, sir."

Kuril shuts his eyes.

"Aw, don't worry, sir," Harom says. "I wouldn't tell anyone. 'sides, Alenko's all right, for a human. And he speaks well of you, sir."

"Does he?" Kuril says, faintly.

"Says you're the rising star, he does. Says the Primarch's got his eye on you. Says you're goin' to turn this place around and really make somethin' of it. Says they was right to send you here, you're the type to get the job done. Now that you've gotten over your brother an' all, sir." Harom nods apologetically. "Sorry for your loss. I'm sure he was a good man."

Kuril sighs.

"Will you be sorry to see Alenko go, sir?" Harom asks. "I know I will. Ain't nobody else will hardly give me the time of day, much less drink with me after a day's work."

"Go?" Kuril asks sharply. "What do you mean?"

Harom looks uneasy. "I don't know, sir. But he talks like he won't be here much longer. Well, it is comin' up on winter, sir. Maybe humans don't like the cold?"

Kuril's heart feels like lead. He can't stop remembering the time he followed Alenko home, the first time they sat together in that apartment, talked together, lay together. It was summer, then.

"Back home, sir, round where I used to live, winter's an excuse for drinkin', sir. We drink to keep warm, see? Every family's got their own still, to keep the liquor flowin'. Well, you know we don't really have to drink, could just turn up the heat, but it's traditional. Maybe you'd like a bottle, sir? I've got plenty."

Kuril remembers. "How much is left in that bottle you gave him, do you know?" he asks.

"Yes, sir. Maybe an eighth or so, " Harom says. "I've been helpin' him with it. I asked him if he wanted another bottle, but he said one was quite enough."

"The liquor of two seasons," Kuril says, softly.

"Yes, sir. 's called that because it takes that long to make, sir. First there's the fermentation, which takes 'bout fifteen days. Then you have to distill it, twice. And then you have to age it, which needs wood barrels, and sometimes spices, but--"

Kuril lets him ramble on. Winter is coming, the season of storms. Just storms, only storms. A year ago, they brought madness and despair. This year, they'll bring absolution.

 

 

 

--END--