Harnessing the Sun

The Neren delegation, representatives of Leha’s own species, had been seated with their backs to the window that overlooked their ruined world, so they stared their hatred into Leha as they ate.  The desert behind them was an empty seafloor, scattered with leaning ships and the bones of the leviathans that had recently ruled the deep.  Some of the marooned craft were warships, but there were also trawlers and freighters and yachts and cruise ships, all of the latter newly outfitted with cannons and other weaponry, none of which had stopped the water from vanishing beneath their keels.
“We’ve prepared a true delicacy to honor this meeting,” Ki’ran, the Tru’an ambassador, announced from beside Leha as uniformed wait staff collected the appetizer dishes and replaced them with entrée plates.  On each plate was a coil of glistening flesh.  “Following Colonel River Runner’s recommendation”—he smiled toward Leha— “we rescued several kor before your oceans were removed.”
Leha winced at the mention of her name, one more reminder of her complicity.  Shirin, Traverser of Waters, head of the Neren delegation, snarled at the use of the passive voice.  Ki’ran beamed at the delegates.  “What is being set before you is the last kor meat in all the universe.  I hope this conveys to you the value we place on this conference.  Please enjoy your meal.”
The other Neren, like their Tru’an hosts, struggled with the thick, rope-like meat, while Leha deftly sliced through the rubbery membrane and dissected the sweet flesh inside.
“It takes a certain talent,” a Tru’an official observed.  He glanced at Leha’s dish, where her food was expertly carved but barely sampled.  “Is it properly prepared?”
“It is,” she said.  That was the truth, but she had never acquired the taste.  “If this is the last batch, I don’t want to finish it too quickly.”
Teheth Wave Catcher, another of the Neren, sneered at her.  “How did you get here?”
She stopped cutting.  “You mean, how did we get here.”
“We’re on different sides of the table.”
“Most of our people are gone—”  Many were dead, while others huddled underground.
“I was a fisherman.  We hunted kor out in the Far Deeps for aristocrats like you, but we couldn’t afford to eat it.  You’re not my people.”
“—Most of our civilization is gone, but we’re both still here in this room.  I did what you did.  Whatever I had to do to survive.”
Ki’ran set down his flatware.  His meat was ambitiously mauled, but he had not yet succeeded at extracting more than a few slivers from the membrane.  He looked at Leha significantly.  It was time.
Leha was more than happy to put down her own knives.  Her practiced skill with the kor set her apart from the mostly low-caste Neren in the room as effectively as it differentiated her from their conquerors.  “There are jobs for—”  She stopped herself.  She had almost said, “for us.”  She glanced at Teheth Wave Catcher.  They had been born beneath the same threatened sun, had rafted the same rivers and sailed the same seas, had the same purple, stippled skin.  She was at this parley because she and the people sitting across from her were the same.  But Teheth was right.  She was sitting on this side of the table, she was a colonel, because she had convinced Ki’ran she was special.  “There are jobs for you.  As long as the ceasefire lasts.  Call your people out of hiding.”
Ki’ran spread all four of his arms.  “We will hire anyone willing and able to work with our machines.  We have jobs down here and in orbit, jobs around the sun.  We will pay handsomely and treat them well.”
The Neren glared in silence.
Ki’ran lowered his voice: he was being thoughtful, rational, sympathetic to the needs of his guests.  “Please don’t let pride prevent you from helping your clans.  What are your fishermen going to do, your kor hunters, your sailors, your boat builders?  What about all the people starving now that the food is gone?”
“Food you took.”
The ambassador frowned, to let Shirin Traverser of Waters know that she was being rude, and that he was too polite to call her rudeness out.  After a pause appropriately timed to reinforce this point, he responded: “What’s happened has happened.  This is where we are now.  You may not want our food or jobs.  You may be too angry.  But don’t deny them to your people.
“You’ve already stolen our most precious resources.”  Shirin’s eyes flicked up, briefly.  Somewhere far above, past the ceiling, beyond the atmosphere, millions of cubic kilometers of ice orbited like heavily guarded moons.  Of all the Tru’an’s cruel technologies, the Freezer had struck Leha the hardest, had convinced her that war against the Tru’an couldn’t be won.  The vacuum channels that had sucked cyclones of water up into the sky, the ice seeds that could crystalize the liquid in an instant.  Leha had wondered what project required so much water—whether for consumption, cooling or propulsion.  “You’re obviously not planning on staying on our world.  Why do you need so many workers?”
“What matters is that we do need them,” Ki’ran said.  “We did not come here for the purpose of destroying your way of life.  Leha’s position proves that we wish no ill to your kind.”  Leha managed not to flinch this time, but her skin started to warm at being singled out again.  “We came to build.  Let’s not have war and loss be the final chapter of our story.  Let’s build together.”
Teheth raised a knife and pointed it at Leha.  One the Neren’s most vicious insults, even if it had been more than a generation since the gesture served as challenge to a duel.  “She shouldn’t be here.”
Ki’ran regarded the brandished utensil, then looked up at Teheth.  “She’s a Tru’an officer.”
“Her presence here is supposed to win us over?  Make us think that if we grovel enough, we can become your tame pets too?”
“She’s a traitor,” another Neren said.
Shirin looked at Teheth, and he reluctantly lowered the knife.  But the bunched muscles didn’t relax beneath his stiffened skin.
“Our oceans are gone,” he said.  “You vaporized the water and glaciers you couldn’t take, to force us to come out and deal with you.  Yet here she sits content as can be, in one of your chairs, in a copy of your clothes.”
Leha felt her own stipples rise and her skin harden, ready for battle.  Her sudden shame and anger were a heat that flashed across her face and arms.
“You can appreciate that we have a lot to adjust to,” Shirin interjected, looking at Ki’ran.  “We need time to decide.”
“Of course.  We will make every effort to ensure your stay is hospitable while you consider your options.”  Ki’ran pushed away from the table and rose.
Leha was silent as they walked back through the narrow halls of the ancient Neren fort the Tru’an had claimed as their base.  She had been a liability in the meeting, not an asset.  Was Ki’ran reconsidering her role?
Eventually, they left behind the limestone walls and entered the echoing metal tunnels of the Harvester, the Tru’an Seventh Fleet’s flagship expeditionary vessel.  “We need to drag out the negotiations as long as we can,” Ki’ran said.  “The longer it takes, the weaker they get, and as long as we’re not at war, we can look like the rescuers.”  He glanced at Leha.  “Will the workers come?”
“They have no choice.”
“There are still aquifers they can tap.”
“Yes, and some clans will continue to hold out.  But this is no longer the world they fought for.  We will get our workers.”
“The scaffolding is almost done.”
She nodded, a Tru’an sign of assent.  They were passing the observation deck, where if she wanted, she could view filtered, close-up images of the sun, which was already caged in ribs of metal.  They couldn’t be seen with Neren instruments, but every Neren still on-world would notice, half a year from now, when the vast, extraordinarily thin solar panels were finally completed and unfolded.
Most Neren might imagine the worst imaginable thing had already happened to their world, but Leha had learned never to make that assumption.  The sunlight reaching the salt plains and the abandoned cities would grow dimmer and dimmer until the final panel was positioned, and then the solar system would go dark.
The Tru’an were about to harness the energy of a star, and that power would make their expansion unstoppable.  If she were very crafty and especially lucky, Leha River Runner would still be with them, along with any other Neren who survived the next few months, and they would carry the memory of their people to every system the Tru’an seized.
Leha had stopped next to the galley.
“You’re not going back to your quarters?” Ki’ran asked.
“There’s something I wanted to check first.”
He shrugged and walked on.  She found the cook she had spoken to earlier, and received the pot he had promised.  She brought it back to her room, locked the door, and removed the cover.  The steam filled the chamber with the aroma of her childhood.
She devoured the soup greedily and eagerly, relishing every salty drop of broth, licking her lips as liquid dripped to her chin.  It was the best kor shell soup she had ever tasted, as rich and complexly flavored as if she drank the full ocean, as savory as the kor flesh was sweet, a delicacy that could only ever be known to the castes poor enough to have had to boil the discards that others left.  She knew it was the last kor shell soup she would ever be able to eat, and she didn’t know whether that was why she craved it.