Naturally there has been much rejoicing at the death of Khyron; it was the end of a major threat, and of a man whom history might prove to have been an anachronism. Yet Khyron also welcomed disgruntled Zentraedi females into his ranks for de-Micronization and is said to have combined more than his forces with Azonia, if the Lynns' report can be believed (and I do believe it). What am I to make of that?
And with them Khyron and Azonia took most of the Fortresses and their crews: Captain Gloval, Claudia Grant, and the three females that Rico, Bron, and Konda had grown so attached to.
I told the humans that I would prefer not to describe my feelings on the matter in detail, for nothing simple could come of them. I shared in their joy, but also felt lost again.
This latter sensation was doubled by the fact that I was not sure how to approach this custom of a funeral, the veneration of people who would no longer be of any practical use, whom you could never interact with again.
I listened respectfully, wanted to come out of perhaps more than duty, but was not truly sure what I felt for those in whose names this ceremony was being conducted. They had been my comrades for such a brief time, but were in their own way each instrumental in forming this new life.
I was only sure that I had grown to despise Khyron on an entirely new level. If you can love someone after they die, apparently you can also hate them.
Rico, Bron, and Konda had been allowed to attend. I had even less of a notion of how to react to Konda tugging on my sleeve and sobbing, "Your Excellency, Your Excellency", over and over again, until he was led to elsewhere in the room. Had he expected me to somehow solve his problems?
Miriya and Sterling were also there, and several times I noticed Miriya looking over her shoulder at me, an expression which I was sure was not what I thought it was. Concern? From a female? Surely it couldn't be so, I thought.
But when the ceremony was finished and they were all dispersing, she called after me, "Please, Sir, I'd just like to talk with you."
I stopped walking, turning as she caught up with me, refusing to run. Instead I only remarked, "Oh, er, well, this is highly irregular."
She stopped a decent distance from me and smiled. "A lot of things are these days, Sir." She paused, swallowed. "You once spoke of 'toys for destruction', Sir, and I've been made familiar with toys. You can turn them to any desired purpose, completely different from what their creators intended. If you could do that with an object, what about a living, thinking being?"
She talked fast, as if trying to make up for something. "Er, yes. The truth is, that I'm far from ready to give up on these events. I am simply feeling...disoriented."
"You're not responsible for what our people have done. Not even if you were a commander. They've been given the choice and couldn't have been forced to take it."
"...Why is this important to you?"
She walked closer, invading my personal space, and looked shocked. "Because, Sir...and I know it's foolish, and I know that we barely know each other, and we're of different genders, but I want there to be friendship among the Zentraedi who were so important to this revolution; you and me and Rico and Bron and Konda..." She trailed off, looking rather embarrassed.
"Well, er, clearly your life with the Micronians has changed you."
She smiled at me, which I found disquieting. "Maybe I just...want to live up to those female Micronian ideals. But I'm still the same person in many ways. And what about you, Sir? I heard you've found something about the Micronian culture to interest you."
There was no way she could not have known, with my deeds constantly reported in the media. Still, I felt flustered at her knowledge. "Oh, ah, well..."
"Don't be embarrassed. I'd imagined that you would be happier with a pile of books than a Minmei concert anyway."
Miriya then paused for a moment, not answering, looking as if she was considering something. "Of course you can say no, but I was wondering if you'd like to come to our house, tomorrow night, just for an hour or so."
Instead of blanching, my immediate reply was, "You, ah, aren't going to show your offspring again, are you? My apologies, but the sight still makes me nervous."
Instead of being affronted, Miriya's only response was to smile wider. "Dana will be in bed by the time you get there."
Now she walked away from me, over to the huddled Rico, Bron, and Konda, as if long years of conditioning were not in place to deter her.
And I had my reservations, but I came to the Sterlings', wearing civilian clothes instead of my uniform.
I had asked the people working with me to make sure I never took anything garish, and went to my visit went to my visit in a purple thing called a "turtleneck sweater", which replicated the familiar press of the cowl around my neck, along with black pants and brown shoes. The overall effect was not unlike my Zentraedi uniform; I did not know why I preferred such a homage, but it seemed to crop up often in my civilian clothing choices.
An escort came with me, two armed Micronians who drove me to the Sterlings' house, telling me to call them when I was finished.
Max Sterling was the one to answer the door. "Hi there. Sorry, we're a little behind here." He gestured to the cloth he was wearing, which had the names of the couple printed on it.
"Oh, it's perfectly fine. I do not require anything."
"Don't you, um, want something to drink? When they moved us, they gave us a fully stocked cabinet."
"No, thank you. Just water, if you must." I really did not want intoxicants; they are an unnecessary distraction.
"Okay, well, come on in."
Sterling went deeper into his dwelling and I followed.
"Here, have a seat." He pointed to a pair of small couches, a table between them. Miriya sat at one, and I took the opposite. My temperature shot up again as I remembered what I was doing, but I managed to keep my dignity and sit down.
Such feelings came and went, and, with sympathy to yours, I've begun to wonder how "natural" they truly are. Certainly, this Micronian world didn't break down with males and females interacting regularly, and I had not avoided coming to the Sterlings'.
Miriya said, "It feels awkward to me, but I can't bring myself to address you by your name, Sir."
"I don't think there should be anything problematic about not following Micronian protocol." I remembered to smile.
She returned the expression, though also tensed. "Yes, there is that."
I suddenly wondered if we Zentraedi rarely used our secondary names because it reminded us of biological reproduction, some dead memory that we'd learned to hate. Did Miriya still feel that same twinge at using the secondary name, though she was now familiar with reproduction? But I did not think it would have been pertinent to ask.
Sterling then walked in and passed me my water, apologizing for talking that amount of time, because he still had a lot to do.
I thanked him, but just as I was about to take a sip, the doorbell rang. I quickly guessed whom it might have been, and was proven correct.
Rico, Bron, and Konda filed into the room. They were all greeted by Sterling again, but refused to lift their heads when addressing him. None of the three saluted reflexively when they came into the main room, as they always had before when seeing me, even if it was at a distance.
They stood between the couches, unmoving, until Sterling, with a muffled curse, ran deeper into the house, and returned with several chairs. He set them between the couches before running back away with an apology.
Miriya chuckled. "I'm sorry, everyone, but I can't seem to live up to certain other Micronian female ideals. Max has to undertake all the cooking himself."
"Well, you do know," I said, "that such ideals are extremely complex, changeable, and often don't match up to reality. So it would be a minor problem for anyone."
The trio didn't respond at all. Miriya coughed. "Thank you, Sir," she added.
I was suddenly curious about where the three ex-spies were now, and inquired. I noticed that Rico had taken to wearing glasses, which were likely false.
He adjusted them now, and said, "We're, uh, trying to find civilian jobs. It's easier because we look like ordinary--uh, sorry, what I mean--"
"It's harder than we thought," added Konda, before blowing his nose.
"Well, you've a long time to prove yourselves." I wondered why I should care about their success, but the confusion was of no consequence.
"Oh, we hope so, Your Excellency!" Bron added, his reddened eyes widening. "It'd be great if we could just, you know, start over." He slumped back to the chair.
"Ah, very...nice." I was still confused. But I guessed Miriya thought it would be helpful to all of us, to focus on our differing lives. But I wouldn't volunteer mine unless asked, for that direction was already obvious.
I thought back to my earlier attempt to placate Miriya, another inexplicable action. Perhaps that entire history of issues Micronians have around their genders, for they do have many, some far more profound than ours, is proof that conditioning can be overcome.
Here the five of us were, at a stage unprecedented for any Zentraedi of whatever rank or gender, yet we were getting along far better than any of us might have thought. A small amount of squeamishness was nothing compared to the blistering disgust we were all supposed to be feeling.
Sterling joined us, sitting close to his mate and putting his arm around her shoulders. It did not pass unnoticed, but I coped.
"Maybe you need to learn to lighten up, Exedore?" asked Sterling, smiling.
Suddenly I was annoyed. "My personality is fine, thank you, Sterling."
"No, no, no." Sterling put down his glass. "It's just like what Miriya said; just because you're the emissary, you don't have to feel like you're responsible for your people's conduct. I mean, you're really not, are you? They did what they do, and we try our best to stop them."
"My feelings on this matter are...inexplicable. I have had the same thoughts you've just stated; there is no reason why I should be feeling...unbalanced by the fact of conflict between what we were created to be and what we are becoming. Such things are to be expected."
Sterling picked up his drink, swirled it. "The trick is to balance it. You can be worried about what your people are doing, but keep doing what you want, and know that you're doing everything you could.
"The truth is that even with all the freedom we have, there are days when nobody knows what's going on, so you might as well just do what you feel needs to be done and not worry too much about the rest."
"Yeah, it's just like when we thought we were going to be executed for bringing culture into the fleet," added Rico, facing Sterling and not me. "We did it anyway." He echoed the statement to himself in a lower voice.
Rico, Bron, and Konda then turned in unison and glanced apprehensively over at me. Bron suddenly started laughing but with clear nervousness, and the same falsity with which he'd before expressed enthusiasm.
It did not entirely make sense: believing one had no complete idea of how much or how little control they had over things, and so simply doing what made sense in that moment. Was this how we were to conduct ourselves on this? Strike when struck, avoid worrying about if our Micronian-friendly members would betray, even with Khyron gone? Even if there few of us one could call trusted, and even then not completely?
Yet what else? Did I feel embarrassed, even fearful, of a situation where my intellect couldn't cover all possibilities? I decided I would not discredit my lifeblood like that. My mind was not so delicate.
"Oh, and Exedore?"
I moved quickly out of my thoughts. "Yes?"
"You can call me Max, if you want."
I was no full convert, but as the evening wore on I found myself feeling much lighter. I ate little of the Sterlings' dinner, both from inclination, and a lingering aversion to "natural" food, though the trio seemed to enjoy it, as did Miriya. I heard more about the trio's attempts at finding civilian work, and the lives of their female companions, and was surprised at how determined they were, how much they wanted, even in their foreign grief, to continue with a civilian life.
They were not unquiet about their failures, either, and in response to them, Max said, "You know, the reason you guys keep losing your jobs might just be that you have to be a little bit more mature about them. Why don't you come by sometime and I'll help you out?"
The trio perked up instantly, offering their thanks.
The six of us ended up raising our glasses in the custom of a toast, to the people who had died. Mine was the last, raised up confusingly, but I did it nonetheless.
Miriya offered to walk me back to where I was being quartered, instead of my calling for the escort. I thanked both the Sterlings for their hospitality, and did not turn down her offer.
Conditioning; what a strange procedure. We had thought so many aspects of our culture were immutable, yet just a scant few years, they--I found a new life and had pursued it.
There didn't seem to be anything left for us to discuss, so it was surprising when Miriya said, "I should have told you before; I wasn't the perfect assimilator everyone thinks I am."
"Oh? And why are you telling me this?" I wasn't resentful, though I had expected to be left alone to contemplate these new experiences.
She smirked. "I'm feeling adventurous. But even after that wonderful spark of a moment, I was afraid. The world of Micronian women turned out to be especially alien. That I grew to accept and enjoy it doesn't change that.
"But I knew that I could not be fearful. I clung to that conviction that I wanted not only Max, but this whole world. You see, it's like this all over. For all of us."
We were close now to where I was quartered. A guard for the sector snorted and looked up from his post; he might have been dozing.
"Er, yes, good-bye. I would say, you are, ah, making excellent progress on this notion of friendship."
"I could say the same thing to you, Sir."
I stood there in confusion for a moment; I had done little in comparison to what she had, offering nothing but my presence. "The visit was not unpleasant, Miriya." The direct address hung in the air between us. "I did...enjoy it, and I...thank you."
I wasn't prepared for her reaching into our personal space and taking my hand, shaking it vigorously, and then drawing away as if it was coated in corrosives.
"Thank you too, Sir."
I was still unsure of what she meant. But I made myself smile at her, and we parted ways. I felt a bit shaken, but I did not regret the procedure. I truly did enjoy it, and believe there will be a future there.