A Christmas Carol


Pat Foley

Chapter 11

She sought Ning out at her consulate and discovered she was at the Federation Center. She literally ran her down there as she was just on the brink of leaving. The Helio being was just outside the building's wide shaded portico, her magnificent wings on the beginning of a downsweep that even in Vulcan's heavy gravity would launch and take her meters away in a moment.

"Ambassadress Ning!" Amanda drew up breathlessly, lightheaded in the heat and nearly fainting from her dangerous run. "Do you have a moment?"

Ning paused in the half crouched pose she used before launching flight and slowly straightened. "Well. I was just going for a mid-day feed."

Amanda pushed some strands of hair off her profusely perspiring forehead, thoughts of an ice-water from the Federation Commissary a tantalizing mental mirage, even though she knew the only safe place to have a discussion like this was outside in the Vulcan heat, away from prying ears and hidden microphones. She was sure the Federation Building was bugged up to its roof tiles by every possible faction. Except the Vulcans. Perhaps. "Might I buy you a stem of nectar?"

"That is kind of you, but as you know, I prefer my nectar fresh. And actually have a new heliotrope in my garden scheduled to open in bloom at mid-day today that I'm anxious to taste. Nothing fresher than a just opened bloom. And the heat of this planet is not conducive to maintaining that state long. So if you don't mind-"

"I won't keep you long, then, but please - I have to ask you something."

"Very well. Speak then."

"Not here," Amanda said, eying the building and its ornamental gardens, around whose statuary and plantings listening devices could be so easily concealed. Ning followed her away from the building's facade, those pretty and ornamental court plantings and oh so convenient benches, so welcoming in Vulcan's heavy gravity, to a bare bit of waste ground where nothing grew or lurked. Certainly not concealed listening devices.

"Maybe I don't have any right to bring this up," Amanda began.

"As a friend, you have claim to my attention." Ning straightened up to her considerable height, towering a good foot above Amanda's head, and pointed all her feelers towards the human in what Amanda had always taken to be a Helios posture of polite attentiveness. From a distance, Ning could look positively fairy-like. Close up, her visage could be truly terrifying.

Amanda looked at her in disbelief at that characterization, "A friend. Ning, I know I'm supposed to be politic. Normally I am. I can hold to it under anything – usually. And I know politics and friendship don't mix," she laughed shortly, "I know that better than anyone. Not even humans manage it very well when they do –"

"What are you saying, Amanda?" Ning asked impatiently, her anterior feelers and all her fine haired antenna waving. "I cannot discern your meaning at all from this web of conflicting impulses."

Amanda flared. "I'm saying even so, all friendship aside, you made a pact with the Alliance! How could you go against what you'd sworn! And especially considering that Sarek – well that we've always considered you a friend. That makes it all the worse. And now to speak to me of friendship!"

Swifter than human eyes could react, Amanda suddenly found herself raised up to Ning's height and pinned by oversize insect legs, with a cutting appendage, a six foot serrated sword, pressed up against her throat. Above her head, Ning's normal visage drew back to reveal a maw large enough to snap off her head in an instant, rimmed by a terrifying array of teeth. Thus do the females of Helios decapitate their male partners after mating - as well as dispatch any number of other prey.

"I think you have spoken enough," Ning said, her accent mangled by her configuration to whistling sibilants.

For a moment, Amanda thought she was done for. All her life, all her struggles, she and Sarek and Spock, lost in one insane altercation with a being whom she'd always considered a close friend and associate. She regretted the solitude she had sought for this confrontation, for it meant no one could see and come to her aide. But more than even Ning's serrated toothed visage looming above her, she thought of Sarek. His face took precedence in her mind even over the one her senses recorded. Poor Sarek. How he would grieve. He might never recover from their broken bond. And poor Spock. Distant as he was, she thought he needed her still. And without her to buffer between himself and Sarek, would he ever reconcile with his father? Would they find each other in grief, or would they remain forever separated?

Her breath was coming fast and shallow enough for hyperventilation, but she couldn't breathe too deep or the blade tight against her throat would sink those extra few centimeters. But then she felt the razor sharp sword tighten against her throat as she began to lose the battle of consciousness, becoming a dead weight. Dead, being the operative word.

And as if the deed were done, abruptly she was unpinned, released, falling hard in the heavy gravity to a heap in the sand below. Her mouth filled with blood; her head whirled.

She put her hand to her throat instinctively, as if to ineffectually staunch the slice to her carotid artery. Instead of the stickiness of blood, however, she found the slickness of sweat. As for her mouth, she discovered she had merely bitten her tongue hard in her heavy gravity fall. She peered up at Ning, tall as a tree planted in the desert. For a moment they stared at each other. Then, Ning's terrifying maw receded and her normal visage, terror and beauty combined, reappeared. The sight of that horror being reabsorbed was almost enough to send Amanda spiraling into the black depths of the faint that was attempting to claim her. But she fought against it.

"Careful, little human," Ning said, her sibilants greatly reduced now that she had concealed her hunting maw. "I am no Tinkerbelle."

With her hand still pressed against her throat, Amanda gasped, fighting for oxygen in the thin air as if she were any unacclimated human newly come to Vulcan.

"Thank you for not killing me," Amanda finally choked out, though she still felt no desire to get to her feet. "Sarek would have grieved."

"And I believe you have given him enough grief," Ning said. "You are too fierce." She took Amanda's hand in what passed for hers. "These are not claws," she said, holding up Amanda's hand with its short, neat fingernails. She tilted up her chin. "Nor have you teeth to serve as weapons. Or indeed, any natural weapons. You Terrans are defenseless as larvae, as grubs. You even look like a grub, Amanda."

"Thanks," Amanda said crossly.

"Once such as you should not attempt to take on those of Helios - or Vulcan for that matter. Save your Challenges for your own kind."

Amanda rubbed her temples. "Perhaps I should. I know that I've broken every rule in the book of politics. Just tell me why!"

"You are an interesting creature. But I don't understand why you seek to challenge me."

"You told Darby you'd support Terra!"

"Ah, that. Indeed, that I did." Ning said with satisfaction. She rustled the legs and wings Amanda had crushed and disturbed when she'd been pinned against them. Ning began to absently comb through the downy hairs with a special grooming claw on one of her appendages, veiling her eyes with a nictating membrane against the wing dust she stirred up. "A good morning's work, that. I am surprised. I thought you would be pleased to know he swallowed those words as happily as an amphibianoid gulps down a fly."

"I'm sure he did! But I don't count my allegiances with my birth planet. Not always. How could you promise Darby when you had already sworn to the Alliance?"

"But Amanda… " Ning paused in her grooming and unveiled her eyes. "I have no intention of going against the Alliance, or my sworn word to Sarek. How ridiculous of you to believe such. Terran though you are, I thought you more discerning."

Amanda's mouth dropped open in shock. "You weren't induced by some better deal Darby offered you?"

It was hard to imagine how Ning's immobile insectivoid face registered disgust, but somehow it did. "Certainly not."

"But then," Amanda struggled to understand. "You lied."

"To Darby? Of course. The wonder is, that he believed it." Ning shrugged out her wings, and then began to rake her grooming claw down on the other side. "Humans! One wonders how they could conquer what sectors of the galaxy they presently hold."

"But your professional reputation-" Amanda's jaw dropped open.

Ning paused again in her grooming and regarded Amanda intently, waving all her feelers. "Do you not understand my motivations? And, Amanda, if you wish to eat that insect, you must bring out your tongue, not just open your mouth. It has little wit, but you can't expect it to fly in, any more than Darby should expect colonies to fall into Terra's maw. But humans aren't natural insectivores, are you? And you need not feel inhibited on my account. My species doesn't consider itself threatened by a little cannibalism."

Realizing she was resembling a guppyfish, Amanda closed her mouth and tried to otherwise compose her stunned expression. "No. I don't understand."

Ning rubbed some of her many legs together in mild annoyance. "I think in some respects, Sarek is right. Humans are still very much children. At least, Amanda, you are speaking very much as a child. Surely, just because you are also Terran, you are not entirely like Darby, so gullible as to believe mere words, without conviction, without an emotive, and empathic background, not you, who I know have at least some little psi skills."

"You mean, you deliberately deceived him - to his face?"

"Indeed. I am rather proud of the cleverness of using such an alien device. And a Terran tactic, too, against one of their own. But it worked. My first time too." Ning preened herself. "I am an excellent Ambassadress."

"It's nothing to be proud of," Amanda said, simultaneously relieved and appalled. "How could you?"

"How could I not, given the circumstances? Darby lied to me, Amanda. In my Embassy, straight to my person! And in addition, the Terran position on this is a falsehood in itself, a violation of all their sworn principles. One falsehood I might consider an unavoidable mistake, in this confusing universe we inhabit. But two must be considered intentional deceit."

"Fool me twice, shame on me," Amanda said.

"Exactly. Such a doubly false creature does not deserve the respect that honestly entails. He was paid in kind."

"Hoist on his own petard," Amanda said, while she digested this more thoroughly. "I didn't know one could not lie to those of Helios."

"Since you have never sought to lie to me, why would you have discovered this? Nor would it be a tactic conceived by those of Helios, since we would discern the truth in any case."

"But to use such alien tactics yourself against another-"

"His tactics. Against himself. Now, they will go to the negotiating table thinking they have the support they need. They will not seek it elsewhere, believing the votes are in hand. So we need not deal further with their attempts to sway others. But in truth, they will lack the necessary support, and their proposal will fail."

"But how can you negotiate in good faith with others in the future, with them knowing that your word-"

Ning laughed like a tinkling of glass. "But that is the point. In good faith – which requires adhering to one's word on both sides. The Terrans have broken with their sworn principles in violating system autonomy. Perhaps with this object they will learn better in future. In that regard, my actions were justice themselves."

"By your deception, they are hoist by their own petard," Amanda said, beginning to understand. She shook her head. "But Ning what you're doing. It's just…not done."

"Nonsense." Ning shook out her other wing and regarded it critically. "It is done, all the time in Federation politics. Often by Terrans who wish to be taken at their 'good faith'."

Amanda cleared her throat, and not entirely due to the parching dryness of a Vulcan midsummer. She'd just inhaled a bit of Helio feather. "Maybe it's done, but it's not considered ethical. Is it worth that to you, to be considered, well, a breaker of promises?"

"I have never understand how Terrans can give lip service, as they say, to one set of negotiating practices that they hold others to, and yet break their own rules in every other conceivable way. And may I point out, Amanda, that it is Vulcans who hold such store by their honor. Those of Helios do not wear their supposed "honor" like a medal or in the Vulcan's case, a shield against their baser selves. We are flighted beings, who see things from afar, in less grounded perspective."

Amanda sighed and sat down in a heap. "I'm supposed to be an expert in interpreting alien behavior. And yet, only too often, I come to believe I don't understand anything."

"Good," said Ning.

She raised shocked eyes to the Helios being.

"You are Terran, in spite of all your years on Vulcan. So you make a good test case," Ning explained. "My deception thus should hold."

"I'm not sure I appreciate being cast as the human village idiot," Amanda said darkly. "However conveniently it serves. Though I suppose sometimes that's my role in Federation politics. And I guess I'm Vulcan enough to put up with quite a lot in the name of duty."

"Not just Vulcan. Amanda, do not think I believe that all humans are inestimable."

"Thanks. I think. But… doesn't it bother you – for you to win this way?" She stared at Ning, puzzled and distressed. "You don't feel that it, well, damages you? It would me."

"I am not Vulcan."

Amanda's look of inquiry deepened, "Come again?"

"Nor am I Human."

Amanda shook her head. "Again, please?"

"You hold the Human view that those with whom you are allied - and who hold your esteem - also share your intrinsic values." Ning's multifaceted eyes whirred and glittered. "To play fair. To be forthright."

"Well, yes. Honesty is usually best. And that's partially why I hold them in esteem."

"Even for those who forswear their own oaths, break faith without qualm?"

"Yes," Amanda said firmly. "Their ignoble behavior is no excuse to sully my own."

Ning veiled her multifaceted eyes briefly, as if momentarily shutting out an unpleasant sight. "But that is a peculiarly species dependent value system, Amanda. Something Vulcans espouse, and humans aspire to. Or at least outwardly profess, even if their actions speak otherwise. But in my species, those who break faith deserve to be paid in kind."

Amanda pursed her lips disapprovingly. "An eye for an eye is a dangerously slippery slope to try to descend."

"Perhaps for those who walk, human. We of Helios fly."

"Well, there you have me. But you know what I mean."

"Yes. And I understand your cultural expectations however imperfectly you Humans practice them. But despite my appearance, and however you and other humans have occasionally regarded me and others of my species, I am not the 'Tinkerbelle' you sometimes take me for."

Amanda bit her lip against a scapegrace grin. "I consider my nose duly rubbed in my own cultural expectations. And you're right. I do consider you a friend, mine and Sarek's. And right or wrong, I do expect you to share something of my own value system. My own criteria for honor being part of that." She shook her head, a bit amazed. "I suppose I should apologize, though I don't understand how in general, even beings who deal with other beings can operate too widely out of their inherent precepts. I still don't understand how this isn't a problem for you. I know that you're an honorable being. Usually."

"Indeed. To those, such as Sarek and yourself, who espouse honor in kind. To those that do not," Ning lifted a newly groomed wing, gossamer in appearance and beautiful, but also turned one of her many "arms" or forelegs to display on the dorsal side the serrated edging, a combination of teeth and files, useful in many purposes, to make calls in mating time, like a bow over a violin string, but also at mating time, when a Helio female left off her largely nectivarious diet, she used her swordlike forelegs to capture and kill prey.

Amanda eyed the razor sharp files, and nodded. "I shouldn't be surprised. In truth, the real Tinkerbelle was quite a hellion too."

"Should I be flattered?"

"I don't know." Amanda looked deep into Ning's multifaceted eyes. "I do know it's wrong of me to make a personal appeal, but ... I don't want to see Sarek hurt or thwarted, particularly when he's right - and he is in this. Forgive me for asking, but by my cultural standards, you've dissembled at least once, with cause, or not. Can I really trust you in this?"

"Humans always look for truth in another's eyes," Ning commented absently, studying the earnest blue ones piercing her. "Darby did as much to me."

"I'm sure he did."

"What do you see in mine?"

Amanda set her mouth against disappointment. "Myself."

"And that he failed to understand, as you do now. You are sincere, Amanda. So is Sarek. As you are, so I am. That is the difference between us. You will not see me in my eyes. You see yourself. Do you understand now?"

Amanda drew a breath half in relief, half in comprehension.

"That is the answer. You see," Ning put the slight emphasis on the word, "that you have now nothing to fear for Sarek from me. Or the Alliance that he heads."

"Thank you. For that. And for the education."

"No," Ning settled her wings with a business-like rustle. "It is I who must thank you. It is always more pleasant to deal with those who are sincere. It makes ones dealings much simpler. It is so tedious to deal with dissemblers. Though," Ning folded her wings to pre-flight stance, "I don't understand why humans even try to be duplicitous. What you don't reveal on your faces, bleeds over into your thoughts, even your auras. It is rather pointless of you even to attempt to deceive."

"Telepaths," Amanda said, shaking her head with a rueful smile. "Forgive me, Ning, if I tell you that at times, just at times, you understand, I do grow heartily sick of telepaths."

"Forgive me, Amanda, for not realizing that at times, even the humans we befriend can fail to understand our true meaning, lacking telepathy. Of course, I assumed Sarek would have assured you of these truths—

"Sarek!" Amanda's eyes widened and her jaw dropped as the implications of what Ning was saying sunk in. "Sarek knew – he knew that you were with him all the time?"

"Naturally. How could he fail to surmise it?"

"You're sure?"

"I have worked with Sarek for many years, have I not? In addition, we are both telepaths. I have not the slightest doubt."

"Ning." Amanda drew a very controlled breath. "I've often remarked to Sarek I'd like to be a Helio being, but no more so than now, when I wish I had your sword like arms. I'd lop his Vulcan head off."

"Then I don't wonder Sarek prefers you human." Ning said. "Even as limited as human perceptions seem to-"

"Don't say it!" Amanda warned.

"I remind you, my friend, that you have had a child by him," Ning said. "He has served his usefulness in that regard. And much as I value him as a colleague, and the Federation requires his services, as one female to another, I must point this out. Surely you are fond of him. As am I, as a colleague. But as a mate, you must know that it is well past time you dispatched him for another. You are a female, Amanda. You must be true to your sex." She waved her feelers in emphasis at that, and with one powerful downdraft that half staggered Amanda, took herself off.

To be continued…