Previously in Only Slightly
Trapped on Arelon by the Karema invasion, Elizabeth was told that the Karema believed Anneka and The Geraldine had been the victim of misinformation, and that the Karema were not their enemy at all.
Entering Yarek's laboratory complex on Mars, Bidet, Fridgara and their companions found a Karema who made similar claims. In the fight that ensued, everyone present became joined into a gestalt entity of immense power. Convinced that Yarek was in fact the enemy of both the Karema and humankind, they left to find him.
After her remarkable audience with the Karema apparently in charge of the occupation force on Arelon, Elizabeth was shown to a nondescript room in a hotel near the spaceport, and left alone with the advice that she should stay there until she was required again. Almost as soon as the door closed behind the Karema who had escorted her from the spaceport, there was a shimmering in the air and Anneka appeared, looking rather the worse for wear.
'Are you okay?' she asked, almost before her feet had finished materialising. 'I couldn't get to you when the Karema were watching.'
'You've been watching?' Anneka nodded. 'Then you heard that speech?'
'Yes.' That came out flat.
'Isn't it obvious? The Karema want us dead, and the easiest way for them to get us dead is for you to deliver us to them.'
'What if they're telling the truth?'
'What makes you think they might be?'
'What makes you think Yarek is?' Elizabeth countered. 'All you have is his word for it.'
'It's more than just his word...'
'A conviction that it's right? Hasn't it occurred to you that perhaps he planted that conviction into your mind? He is certainly a powerful wizard, surely that is within his capabilities. You should at least listen to the Karema. They are... persuasive.'
'And if they're putting that conviction into your mind?'
'I don't think they are.'
'And how would you tell?'
There was silence.
'Maybe I can find out what they want with you and The Geraldine,' Elizabeth said eventually.
'You could find out what they say they want...'
'It would be better than what we know now, surely.'
Anneka hesitated, then nodded. 'It would,' she said. 'I'll go and tell The Geraldine. Don't worry - I'll be back in time to keep an eye on you before the Karema want you again.'
She grinned, then dissolved into the air and was gone. Elizabeth went into the bathroom and made use of its facilities while she could still be sure of privacy, then stretched out on the bed and waited.
A knock on the door awakened her from a light, uneasy doze.
'Yes?' she called. The door opened, and a Karema - the same one who'd made the speech at the spaceport, she thought - paused on the threshold.
MAY I ENTER?
'Certainly,' Elizabeth stammered, taken aback by the unexpected politeness. The Karema stepped into the room, and the door swung shut behind it. 'Wh- what can I do for you?'
YOU ARE NERVOUS. YOU SHOULD NOT BE. WE MEAN YOU NO HARM. The tone of that implied very well to Elizabeth that the Karema definitely meant someone else some harm. Probably a lot of it. WE KNOW THAT YOU ARE IN CONTACT WITH ANNEKA AND THE GERALDINE WHOM WE SEEK. NO DOUBT THEY HAVE TOLD YOU OF THE HUMAN WIZARD YAREK, AND HIS IKHSHIID MASTERS.
'Some, yes. They told me of a war in which you exterminated the Ikhshiid. Yarek claims you intend the same fate for humanity.'
YAREK MAY BELIEVE IT, BUT YAREK IS MISTAKEN. HE REPEATS WHAT HE WAS TOLD BY HIS MASTERS, BUT EVEN A RACE LIKE THE IKHSHIID MAY BE THE VICTIM OF DELUSION.
'Delusion? Are you trying to say they were wrong?'
EXACTLY THAT. THE IKHSHIID ARE AN HONOUR-BOUND RACE. IT SHAMES THEM DEEPLY TO ADMIT MISTAKES, AND DURING THE CENTURIES OUR PEOPLE WARRED WITH THEIRS THEY CONVINCED THEMSELVES THAT WE WERE THE AGGRESSORS; THAT WE WERE THE ONES ENTIRELY AT FAULT WHEN IN FACT BOTH SIDES MUST SHARE THE BLAME. THEY WERE BLINDED BY HONOUR; WE WERE BLINDED BY REVENGE.
Elizabeth frowned. 'I thought the Ikhshiid were extinct.'
THEY ARE NOT. TOWARDS THE END OF THE WAR, THEIR SCIENTISTS DEVELOPED THE TECHNOLOGY TO CONSTRUCT ARTIFICIAL WORMHOLES. THROUGH MEANS NOT ENTIRELY UNDERSTOOD TO US, THEY WERE ABLE TO PROPEL FOUR OF THEIR COLONY WORLDS THROUGH WORMHOLES TO THE EDGE OF THE GALAXY, WHERE THEY SETTLED THE PLANETS IN ORBIT OF A SUITABLE STAR. UPON THOSE FOUR WORLDS, AND SEVERAL NEARBY PLANETS, THE IKHSHIID NOW THRIVE.
'Does Yarek know this?'
WE DO NOT BELIEVE SO. The Karema raised its head as if sniffing the air. I NOTICE THAT ANNEKA HAS RETURNED. I WILL LEAVE, IF YOU WISH TO CONVERSE WITH HER.
The air in the corner of the room shimmered, and Anneka appeared, a nasty-looking gun in one hand pointing unwaveringly at the Karema.
'What makes you think we'll believe what you say?' she demanded.
IT IS THE TRUTH.
'How do we know that? You might be lying.'
I AM NOT.
They stared at each other for several long moments during which time Elizabeth was convinced her heart was going to burst out of her chest with the force of its beating. Then, slowly, Anneka lowered the gun.
'I will listen to what you have to say.'
GOOD. AND THE GERALDINE?
'She can hear us.'
The Karema glanced briefly towards the open door of the bathroom.
'Now why don't you tell us your version of the story.'
OUR VERSION IS THE TRUTH.
'So you say. I would like to judge that for myself.'
'And is that the only way you can speak? It's quite grating after a while.'
To Elizabeth's astonishment, the Karema's featureless face suddenly looked amused. It wasn't a smile, but the emotion was plain to see despite being quite definitely non-human.
'I can speak as you do, if it is more comfortable for you to listen.' The sound didn't really come from the Karema's mouth; Elizabeth assumed it was the product of a spell. A good spell; the Karema had given itself a rich baritone voice, although it had an unusual accent.
'Much better,' Anneka confirmed.
'Then I shall tell you the truth. We first encountered the Ikhshiid as we were expanding our knowledge of the galaxy, some seven thousand of your years ago. They were at the time a primitive race, confined to their home world and utterly without magic. We had never seen such a species before, and became even more interested when our studies of their genetic material showed that they had no potential to ever use magic. We had previously encountered five other sentient species, all significantly behind us in their development, but all had at least some magical abilities.
'We found the part of the galaxy around the Ikhshiid home world to be unsuitable for us to colonise, so the space was left empty apart from regular observances of the Ikhshiid's development. Over thousands of their years, we watched as they built rockets to launch themselves into orbit of their planet. We watched as they built larger rockets to visit their planet's moons, and built small habitations upon them. They sent out automated probes to explore their solar system and the surrounding space. These devices were fascinating to us, and we intercepted several in order to study them, for despite hundreds of years of observation, we had been unable to understand how their electronic devices were able to operate.
'It was inevitable that the Ikhshiid noticed some of their probes going missing, but we were always careful to make it look like the probes simply stopped working. We continued to watch as they sent out more probes, then watched with great fascination as they constructed a space ship capable of travelling faster than light. We had never believed such a thing possible, since our own vessels have always used magic to move themselves between star systems.
'Over the next hundred years or so, the Ikhshiid expanded to colonise their local space, settling on many planets and developing far more quickly than we ever thought they could. Some aired the notion that perhaps, with magic, the Ikhshiid would be even more impressive than they already were. The council ruled unanimously that any interference with the Ikhshiid would not be condoned, and such questions were relegated to speculation only, except in the minds of one small group. They travelled to the newest Ikhshiid colony and performed a great spell which altered the genetic structure of numerous unborn Ikhshiid children. In any other circumstances, that spell would be legendary in its scope and accomplishment.'
'It worked?' Anneka sounded surprised. 'What did it do?'
'It gave those unborn children the ability to learn to use magic. The spell, of course, was noticed, and those who cast it were brought before the council, tried and executed. All except one, who repented and was spared in exchange for assisting to reverse the effects of the spell.
'Most of the affected children had by that time been born and, as we researched how to undo what had been done, they grew up and grew into their powers. The Ikhshiid became terrified of them, and cast them out of their society. Several were killed. Thinking our problem had solved itself, for none had passed their genetic material on to a new generation, we approached the cast-out Ikhshiid and offered them a place in our civilisation.'
'Something tells me they didn't accept,' Elizabeth said.
'They did not. They called upon their magic and killed those who had approached them. One of them worked a spell which transmitted the knowledge of what had been done to them to the other Ikhshiid and, as quickly as that, the war was born. Enraged by the murders of our people, we met the Ikhshiid attack in great force, driving them back and obliterating them utterly, but none of our victories came without price and our advance slowed over the years as we grew tired and the Ikhshiid developed weapons of greater and greater potency. Eventually, they realised they could not win without magic, but they had none of their own, for we had hunted down and killed all those Ikhshiid who had been given it. So, as Yarek told you, they went to Earth and accelerated your development. But their plans did not come to fruition in time, and they were forced to flee ahead of us.
'Tired of war by that time, we did not pursue them when they went through the wormholes, and left them be. We decided to keep an eye on humanity, but since interference had caused the entire war with the Ikhshiid, we elected not to get involved until you came across us of your own accord.'
Elizabeth frowned. 'But we didn't. You came to us. The plague-'
'The plague was not our doing.'
'Then who did it? The Ikhshiid?' Anneka's tone of voice left little doubt that she didn't believe that idea.
'We believe so. They would wish to foment a war between us, as humanity has the potential to win such a conflict.'
'The plague was magical. It was your magic.'
'The Ikhshiid were engineered by us once to have magic; they could, in the intervening time, have determined how to do it to themselves. And an accomplished wizard is quite capable of creating spells in the style of another species.'
'And Yarek's spell?'
'Yarek's spell would destroy any Karema magic it encountered, and spread like a virus through the galaxy. Our spaceships would collapse, our buildings fall down, and ultimately, every Karema would die. We cannot survive without our magic.'
A splashing sound came from the bathroom.
'Well then,' said The Geraldine as she stepped into the main room, 'we should probably see what we can do about that.'
They were purpose, they were hunger, they were vengeance.
Where is he?
We cannot find him.
He has hidden himself well. We have been there before.
Only by his magic. We did not go there ourselves.
We can find him again. We will find him again.
Yes, we will find him. And then we will kill him.
They were death.