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            Hestia Remick was not a woman accustomed to silence or solitude.

            Yet now, scant hours after the most important, most ruinous day of her life, the noise and the people were gone. For the first time she could recall, she had nothing planned, not for the next day, or the next week, or ever again. The totality of her future had been predicated on winning, but instead she had lost, and now there was nothing left but to stew on it, to second-guess herself for whatever years were left to her. Maybe write a memoir, one of those self-indulgent, narcissistic, masturbatory fantasies she so loathed. It turned her stomach that she might have to do this last fairly soon, with virtually all of her once-considerable fortune gone, expended in a quest that had, against every expectation of her being, turned out to be quixotic.

            In the dark, alone, her numbed mind traveled down that well-worn path again, haunted by the memory of the night before, of the numbers cascading in almost instantly from around the world, a lifetime of work and anticipation swiftly immolated by sudden, unapologetic reality. The idiot had beaten her, and not by a small margin. That was what hurt the most, that it hadn’t even been close. The global results had been tabulated within twenty minutes, and within twenty more she’d delivered her concession speech. Now Kuasa Menjabal would be President of Earth, and Hestia Remick would be a failure. A footnote.

            It isn’t fair, she lamented again. She’d done her honorable service in Planetary Defense, spent years representing the Northeast District in the American Senate, then years more as her country’s representative to the Global Assembly in Athens. The entire trajectory of her life had been toward the Presidency. She had done everything and said everything right, built all the correct alliances, courted the Big Four, the infocorps, the military leadership. Hell, she even looked like a President – tall, slender and angular, blue-eyed and grave, an orderly and impressive coif of silvery hair.

            In the end, according to the instapolling, they had simply “liked him better.” Kuasa Menjabal was a veteran of those infernally jocular African congresses, and he was warm, funny, backslapping. Hestia Remick did not slap backs, was more sarcastic than funny, and if she was warm, it was the warmth of the last flickering ember of a dying fire. Hestia Remick was expectation, competence, cold duty. You did not lie to her, or fail her. Nor, she was coming to realize far too late, did you love her.

            She sighed, unfolded her long frame from her chair and stood up straight, hands clasped behind her back, eyes gazing at some unseen horizon. It was such a characteristic pose, the essential Remick, an image that had been silhouetted on her campaign graphics, familiar to billions of voters from hourly holovid adverts. Though there was no audience now, Remick stood that way anyway, unconsciously, comfortable. She stared out the broad pressurized window of her chambers at the dark. Few people knew the luxury of darkness at night; it was a mark of her former status and former wealth that she was high enough up that the searing lights of Washington were a dull glow, far below. Too soon she would have to vacate her four hundredth floor penthouse, and return to earth, an Icarus with melted wings.

            The black glass afforded Remick a glimpse at herself, and it made her angry. At seventy-three she was no longer young, but certainly not yet ancient. There was no stoop to her shoulders, little creasing in that stern face. And yet she was no longer of any use. She held no office, controlled no policy agenda, and if she rose from bed or slept all day it made not a difference to the vast opera of Earth politics. She had never married, never had children. Ambition had been her sole spouse, and it had left her a widow. Again and again, the question gnawed – what now?

            “We can answer that question, Citizen Remick.”

            She had not seen the door open, had not seen or heard the man enter her apartments. One moment she was alone, the next he was there. He was strikingly unusual, with spikes of black hair radiating from his head like a starburst, smooth-cheeked, his short form clad in a velvety, shimmering indigo. When he spoke, his voice was high-pitched and fuzzy, indistinct, like two or three voices speaking not quite in unison. Ignoring the hammering in her chest, Remick swallowed her momentary surprise like the lifetime professional she was. She narrowed those icy eyes and stared at this intruder with a mix of indignation at the disturbance and relief at the interruption.

            “Pardon me, young man. I don’t believe we’ve met. Might I ask how you got in here? It’s quite late.”

            “We waste time with irrelevancies, Hestia Remick. What matters is our answer to your question.”

            “What question?”  Remick’s brow furrowed, her eyes becoming pinpricks beneath her sculpted steel-grey eyebrows. It was a well-honed glare. As recently as a week ago, it would have sent aides scurrying, or compelled concessions from a political foe. Now, this small stranger scarcely seemed to notice.

            “The question you were just asking yourself. What now?”

            “How - ?” Remick forced herself to bite off the question unasked, recalling one of her own myriad rules of power. Never yield control of the situation by betraying ignorance. Perhaps she was hallucinating, finally cracking under the stress of the campaign and utter defeat. Perhaps this stranger was reading her mind, using illegal telepathic technologies that had been banned for over a century. Perhaps it was simply a guess, and not even an especially astute one. Of course it was what she was thinking. Anyone in her situation would. She still harbored questions about who this was, how he had gotten here, and what he wanted, yet strangely, she felt no personal danger. The manner in which he had caught her unawares, if he had meant her harm it would already be done. Best to keep him talking, to discover his purpose. “And you presume to possess the answer to this question?” 

            “No,” he replied, the voice still oddly vague. “But we do offer an answer. A proposition, and one we suspect you will not, perhaps even cannot, refuse.”

            “We.” Remick spoke the word with all the authority she could muster, which was a lot. “There are more of you.”

            “No,” he replied. “And yes. I am us, and we are me. Irrelevancies again, Citizen Remick. We do not have the time now to ameliorate the depth of your ignorance about the universe. One last time, now. Will you hear our answer?”

            A chill ran through Remick at these words. She was unused to being spoken to in such a manner, but that wasn’t what unnerved her. It was how suddenly and oddly small she felt, in the presence of something unearthly and timeless, and a thousand times more powerful than her. And one last time was not a comforting phrase.

            “I’m listening,” she said, doing her utmost to swallow her hesitancy.

            “Come with us.” The small man extended his hand, palm up, toward Remick. She stared at it with distaste. She did not enjoy physical contact with others. It was unpleasant, far more intimate than she cared for, not even considering the variety of contact poisons and toxins readily available on the open market. Still, she had been able to overcome her revulsion at need, for the sake of her career.

            What career? she thought as she extended a bony, long-fingered hand toward that of her unexpected guest. As her flesh made contact with his, she felt a brief electrical surge, a nauseating wave of vertigo, the walls and windows of her suite melting into a blurred nothing, replaced a heartbeat later by triangular room. It was a perfect isosceles, the floor an unmarked gray, the ceiling a muted, uninterrupted glow, and the wall she was facing a series of black rectangles that she assumed were doors. Remick jerked her hand away, her breathing a bit fast.

            “Where are we?” she demanded. “Global point-to-point transport is regulated, you can’t simply…” her voice trailed off as she turned away from the row of doors. The other two walls were not, strictly speaking, there.

            “We are not on your globe,” the stranger replied. “And even if we were, we are not subject to your regulations.”

            Not on your…

            Remick stumbled, just a bit, just enough to be angry at herself. Though her campaign narratives always unfailingly mentioned her service in Planetary Defense, they were less than explicit about how she had spent her two years. In truth, she had never once left the ground, working an office job at Central Command in Pan Angeles. Now, she somehow knew that her weird visitor was telling the truth, that they had left the Earth behind.

            “Where are we?” She tried to invest the question with annoyance that she had to ask more than once, but it came out as a raspy whisper.

            “In terms you are capable of comprehending, we are approximately ten astronomical units distant from your home planet, and should shortly approach the heliosheath at the boundary of your system.”

            Somehow, Remick fought off the buckling of her knees. How far was that? She wasn’t an astronomer, had no real concept of unearthly distances, no context for digesting the information this being was telling her. To her surprise, a wellspring of irritation came percolating through her fear and she seized on it, drinking deeply of the familiar and welcome vintage.

            “You have abducted me,” she said.

            “With your consent,” came the reply.

            “Enough,” said a tree that entered the room through one of those gaping rectangular doors. Remick shook her head slightly, but her vision was clear. Something had joined them, something that was moving across the smooth floor, and it resembled nothing so much as an old Christmas tree, dry and browning. And this ridiculous-looking entity was talking. She could see no apparent mouth, and nothing seemed to move, but words emerged from that thicket of foliage, coherent words that sounded very like those spoken by this other humanoid, distinct and yet discordant. “We have no more time for this. Pémé, you may discontinue your camouflage.”

            The strange man Remick had first met in her chambers only moments before vanished, and in his place was another tree-thing, a bit taller and blue-green rather than brown, but otherwise very like the other.

            “Apologies, Master Ojama.”

            “It is no fault of yours, Pémé. You have done well to bring the Remick-person here. It is no fault of yours that it is slow to comprehend.”

            Slow to comprehend? Remick was virtually certain at this point that she was dreaming, drugged, dead, or some other option that would preserve her sanity, but she would be damned if she would sit back and let her own hallucination insult her.

            “Now see here,” she began, but the words died in her throat as the tree-creature the other had called Ojama burst into brilliant orange flames. She threw her arms up against the sudden wave of heat and light, but both subsided as quickly as they came.

            “We lack patience with your doubt,” it said, and when she opened her eyes, Remick saw that it was unchanged by the conflagration. A long, spindly branch slithered out from the central trunk of the brown tree, and encircled her wrist with a dry, warm touch. She shuddered, but found herself incapable of recoiling or breaking free. There was another tingling pulse, like the one that had brought her to this place, if it was indeed a place, and her consciousness broke free of its moorings, cast adrift into the endlessness of space. Images and sensations broke upon her like waves upon the shore, drowning her with a cascade of information. It was incandescently painful, but only for an instant, only until she heard that same wheedling, fuzzy voice, as if it were speaking directly into her brain. It spoke gently but commandingly, and at its insistence she struggled to regain control of her intellect. Gradually, the pain ebbed and she began to understand some of what she was seeing and feeling.

            It’s real, she knew. She saw glimpses of whole planets, alien and remote, peopled with this ancient race of creatures. She heard heartbreakingly brief chords of their music and felt the violent wrath of their wars and smelled the fragrant, innocent beauty of their young. In a fraction of a second, it was over, and the branch-finger had retreated from her arm, leaving no visible mark.

            “My God,” Remick murmured. These were creatures from a faraway star, alien in every sense of the world, capable of interstellar travel, of somehow rendering their communication mutually intelligible, of surely limitless other unimaginable wonders.

            “Turn to your faith if it is a source of strength to you, Remick-person. You may need it for your task ahead. I have shown you all I dare, for the sake of your primitive brain and to preserve your objectivity.”

            “Task?” she asked, her entire being still shivering from the enormity of what she had experienced.

            “We are Ojama, Elder Master of the Aranya. For longer than the memory of your species, our people have been locked in a conflict with the Beslaan. The military, economic, and technological balance between our empires is such that these hostilities could continue indefinitely, with decisive victory for either side unlikely, only ongoing loss of life and treasure. We are tired of war. For the first time in hundreds of millennia, both sides are prepared to negotiate an armistice.”

            “Congratulations,” Remick said guardedly.

            “Your sentiments are premature,” Ojama replied, his extremities quivering. “We are in the midst of a temporary cease-fire, one that will expire all too soon if we cannot satisfy the terms of the upcoming peace conference. Terms that, hard as it may be to believe, include you.”

            “Include…” Remick groped for a response but could not find one that even approached conveying her disorientation.

            “The Aranya and the Beslaan control almost all meaningful systems in this galaxy,” Ojama continued, “and significant portions of several others. Every advanced civilization in known space is either allied with or tributary to one side or the other. There are no qualified arbiters.” Here the tree-alien paused briefly, as if troubled or reluctant, and then plunged forward. “So we have turned to our only viable alternative. Your Earth occupies a unique niche in the universe, Remick-person. It alone occupies level nine of Kardo’s spectrum, possessing sentient beings who have advanced past tribalism but have not yet achieved planetary or racial harmony. Your technology includes recorded language and the rudiments of space travel, but as yet you lack the capacity for interstellar exploration. You are, put differently, on the cusp between the cave and the stars, sufficiently intellectual for this task, but insufficiently powerful to be a potential threat.”

            “You want me to mediate your peace talks,” Remick was seized by sudden understanding. She kept her face as still and serene as she could, but her usually nimble mind was scrabbling for a handhold. She disliked panic, disliked being on the defensive, and she could not recall a time in her life when she had been less in control. Express calm, she reminded himself, until the illusion is reality. “I’m sorry, but I’ve never been a diplomat or jurist.”

            “This is strictly true,” the tree replied. Not a tree, Remick forced herself to remember. A sentient being, a creature of intellect, with access to technology that dwarfed anything on Earth. “However, you have been a stateswoman. You comprehend competing interests, and possess, however rudimentary, the capacity to navigate complex problems.” A compliment? Remick decided to take it as such. She wished it (he? she? they?) had eyes. Her hard-earned expertise at reading intent in the eyes of another was useless in the absence of eyes to read. Even if it had eyes, she thought, it probably wouldn’t matter. The telltale squints and blinks she interpreted in a fellow human were likely to have vastly different connotations in an alien creature.  

            “You have never married, mothered no children. You have been rejected by your own people as a potential executive. We offer you this chance to usher in a new age of galactic peace.”

            “Until now, I hadn’t known the galaxy was at war! I hadn’t even known the galaxy was populated, outside of our own planet.”

            Ojama shook, a gesture that could mean anything from annoyance to sympathy. Remick was out of her depth, here!

            “You know now.” The voice had changed, growing slightly deeper, less melodic. Impatience? Remick sighed and spread her hands apart in a well-practiced display of benign helplessness.

            “Yes, but I know almost nothing else. The glimpse you provided a moment ago was no more than that. I am all but ignorant of your…people, your customs, your philosophies. The same is true in regard to your allies and adversaries. I am without knowledge or expertise in these galactic politics. I don’t see how I can…”  She trailed off. Ojama was shaking again, more violently than before, and the brownish hue at its edges was darkening to black. Remick quieted, not wanting it to erupt into flame again.

            “It is precisely this ignorance that is your greatest asset. You carry no preconceived ideas or biases about either of our empires. You come to the table as objectively as a being could possibly be. As for you, it is an opportunity to be of service, far greater than that which you sought on your own backwater planet. Be aware that your task is likely to take far more than what years would have remained in your natural span. Our science can readily enhance your health and extend your years, but you will never see your homeworld again. You are, Remick-person, a citizen of the universe now.”

             Hestia Remick looked away, and whether consciously or not, her back straightened as her hands found each other in a familiar clasp. Somewhere, beyond those dark windows, were her shattered ambitions, Kuasa Menjabal, and Earth. Let him have it, she thought.

            “When do we begin?”

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