Everyone in the nearly-empty senate tiers turned to watch me enter, but I was quite used to being stared at, and did not care.
"Exedore Formo," began the Tirolian Prime Minister, part of the new democratic government run by unaltered natural-borns. "Is it true that you have recently been in contact with Kazianna Hesh, warrior of the remaining Zentraedi forces?"
"That is correct, Eminence."
"And what do you know of Yaita Deparra?"
It was a name that I had not heard in a very long time. "Yaita Deparra was the aide to the female Zentraedi fleet, a non-combatant like myself. She left the ranks shortly before Azonia's post-Dolza defection, convinced that her commander was going mad from a form of culture shock.
"Yaita intended to report the possibility of betrayal to the Earth forces, but she was unable to do so before it occurred. After this, Yaita answered questions for the Humans, but I never spoke with her directly, and she never took any high place within the Human government. I consider her but a contemporary."
The Prime Minister acknowledged this with only a slight inclination of his head. "So you were unaware that she has recently been elected as co-leader of the remaining Zentraedi, and sent a recent transmission to inform us of that fact?"
I concealed my surprise. "Eminence, I was not aware; remember that I have just returned to Tirol. All signs seemed to suggest that Kazianna Hesh would be taking up the sole leadership role."
"Emissary Exedore, discounting your own investment in its success, what odds would you give the Zentraedi of evolving into a versatile civilian society?"
"I would rate their chances quite highly, Eminence. Once committed to a task, Zentraedi shall follow things through to the best of their ability."
"And so you do not believe there is any danger that the Zentraedi might try to conquer and assimilate Tirol?"
"You know that they have fought strongly for the Robotech Expeditionary Force, and if they intended to betray, they would have had many more opportunities before this."
"Can you guarantee this?"
Here it was, then. "I am not the one to ask. I am perpetually Micronized, have lived apart from other Zentraedi for over a decade. I encourage you to engage them yourself and discover that there is nothing to fear. There has been enough strife between Micronian clone and natural-born without adding my people into it."
He did not address this, instead saying, "Finally, Yaita has requested that you and your 'mate' make a journey to Fantoma as soon as possible. She would not specify the nature of the visit."
I straightened my back. "I shall undertake this, if Eminences would permit me." The Tirolians still technically owned Fantoma, after all.
"We grant it," replied the Prime Minister. "And we expect a report on your observations, especially on their children; some of us are very interested in knowing if the Humans' tales were true."
Was that mirth I detected, subtly rippling through them? "I understand."
I executed a small bow and walked back out of the formerly Royal Hall, not stopping until I returned to my residence.
Lantas and I had lived in the same room for several years: one of the highest ones in the largest intact building in Tiresia, an edifice which the clones had adopted as their own. They, and their allied natural-borns, had eventually become more dispersed, but many still called it home, and so did some of their children, whether hybrid or full-blood.
After our shuttle had landed, Cabell and several of our other friends had been at the port, telling me that the Prime Minister wished to see me promptly, but first I had carried my returned possessions to the apartments, boxes that had until recently been on the SDF-3: papers, books, clothing, and pictures. I had not elected to take all the items back to Tirol, leaving some at my house near Pike Base.
Lantas was still inside, surrounded by several books and pictures, which she'd obviously just been looking at, not putting away, knowing that both of us had specific ideas about where we wanted our things to be placed.
Though when on Earth she still enjoyed wearing odd mixtures of Human clothing, on Tirol she now dressed standardly, and favoured a short-sleeved magenta bodysuit with an orange cape and boots.
Perched atop Lantas' head was the great foam cap, covered in now-peeling rubber, representing one of the few times I had let myself give into desultory impulses, bedazzled by the strange re-imagining of myself in a film.
That was not the only reason I paused in the doorway, however, and I did not move even after she looked up, started, and gently took it off, placing on the covers behind her. "So, what is it that they want?"
I ventured in and sat down next to her, twining my hands in my lap. "They appear to be cautious about this entire affair. I have no doubt fear of the Zentraedi plays as much a role as the desire for reduced strife."
I also told her about Yaita, and the request that had been made. There were only a few seconds while Lantas digested this. "We'd better go soon, then."
I nodded. Secretly I wanted for a chance to settle longer, to inform my friends, perhaps over dinner or a visit, of what had transpired. But sending a message through the communications network, telling them that such things would have to wait, was to suffice. Things were not yet finished.
We met the Zentraedi aboard the reclaimed Valivarre, though not at the same place where I had last seen Breetai. Yet it was fairly similar: large and empty and equipped with a balcony.
I took a quick mental count, and confirmed that every living Zentraedi was present save for Miriya, and this included their offspring. All of them stood quietly, as if waiting for something.
The adults wore uniforms or off-duty jumpsuits, still the only clothing that they had. But that clothing had been modified: a few females had cut their uniforms to show the skirt-like remains of coattails, while others of both genders had made other cuts, reduced their sleeves, wore patches of different shades on their uniforms. Of the capes and cowls, some were slung or tied differently than before, as togas, headbands, or sashes, and sported by those whose former rank should not have allowed them.
Kazianna and indeed Yaita Deparra stood at their head. Both wore black and red uniforms, for the highest of female rank. Yaita's accompanying cape had been refolded to resemble a female non-combatant cowl, though with a Zentraedi badge pinned to its front.
Yaita's left sleeve swung empty, and she was using a piece of old piping as a cane. Her neck and face were laced with scars, though not enough to warrant an eyepatch or protective cybernetic mask. She wore her remaining hair in a tail over one shoulder, secured with a row of rings, bangs smoothed back but for a few stray strands.
"You didn't have to come so quickly," Yaita said, without honorific or preamble, but also without haste.
I bent to the side, in order to indicate I was looking to the small crowd behind her. "This situation could become very delicate, and if there is something important to tell me, you need wait no longer."
"Then I will not. Exedore Formo, we request that you take up emissary duties again, and become Fantoma's representative to Tirol and whatever planetary federation might arise."
My mouth fell open. Instantly I recognized this as unseemly and closed it, all before Yaita finished speaking. "And how could I possibly do that?"
She abruptly winced. Yaita's injuries must have been severe, a non-combatant (physically flawed, like all those of our classification were, although Yaita's flaws were only internal) going into battle against Invid; her survival was astonishing.
"You don't remember the Contact Satellite? It will be simple enough to get it running again."
"Ah. Yes. My apologies for not recalling."
"As well as your physical difficulties, we recognize the life you are now leading, and intend to give you as much time as you need to deal in it. Believe me that if there were anyone else here who was qualified, we would have selected them.
"We need the help of other species to overcome certain resource problems that Fantoma has, and we haven't yet exhausted the supply of knowledge that the other worlds have to offer. You have had the most direct experience in the emissary role, and are also still in fairly good standing with the Humans and the Tirolians, or so Kazianna tells me."
I only looked at her. Behind me, Lantas said, "And that is why you invited me, isn't it?"
Yaita only nodded, a tiny motion. "What is it that you want to say?"
Lantas stepped forward. "Only that you can guess what I want. But I've always been aware of what Exedore is. If he takes your offer, I won't weep and cling. I can see the importance."
Kazianna's face twisted into an annoyed, dubious expression, while Yaita grinned, not seeing Kazianna's look.
Abruptly I imagined Yaita rubbing at Lantas' head with her fingertip, saying something condescending, such as, Good girl. It was not a pleasant image.
"You aren't obligated to give us an answer right now, Exedore, but please give it serious consideration," was all Yaita said next.
"There is something else," I added. "Tirol's Prime Minister wished that I would bring back observations on our peoples' status here, and he emphasized your offspring. It is obvious what he means; the new government is far more conservative on matters of the extraordinary."
Yaita scowled. "This is why I refused to inform your 'Prime Minister' before you. I knew there might be difficulties even after all this time. But if he wants us to share things, then I will give you statements to take back."
"I've brought a portable recorder," Lantas told her. "You can speak directly."
Yaita grinned again, and I thought those same disparaging thoughts about how she looked at Lantas. Clever little thing, Exedore. Wherever did you find her? Why did such ideas occur to me?
Yaita explained how she had come to be co-commander: she had volunteered when serious discussion had begun about how to approach the construction of a new civilization, using her education as a non-combatant to justify her new prominence.
The overall plans remained the same as what Kazianna had spoken of, though now were described in more detail, with much more solidity and newer ambitions. Yaita re-introduced the children, emphasized that they had some mental enhancements but were very agreeable creatures. She left out the glowing eyes, which I had never even seen happen.
When Lantas and I were out of the hearing range of the others, she said, "If I gave the impression that I was indifferent about your accepting Yaita's offer, it was false. I don't want you to leave, but I cannot control your choice, and would not break down in public."
"Oh, it's...quite all right. I am feeling rather stunned."
"Who wouldn't be affected by this?" She rubbed at my shoulder. "They're your people."
"Yes, but it is more...complicated."
This would have been easier if we were of a different sort of temperament, one which would simply have said that our present relationship made Yaita's request impossible. But the memories of duty and loyalty still existed, and I...
"Not now. You can have time to consider this."
"Many factors do need to be considered, but it is already becoming too much to endure without comment."
She stopped and turned to me, as I continued speaking. "I would not ever doubt that you would understand and respect me if I chose some approximation of my previous life. But the fact would remain that I selected the old over the new, and you would eventually find another consort." It was that word which she preferred, rather than "mate", and I had fallen into the habit of using it. "Which you are always free to do, but do I wish to contribute?"
"I value your candour," she said, dryly. But Lantas' expression instantly softened. "And you're probably right." She cursed softly. "It would have been easier if we were the 'emotional' sort, wouldn't it? I could have just said, 'no'." She looked up at the enormous tunnel that led to the shuttle. "I was fine with your being needed on Earth for all that time, but with the SDF-3 returned, the future is clearer now."
The choice that was ambiguous just months ago had at last been made. "It is you that I wish for; it is Tirol." Though Tirol had hardly lived up to its refined, elegant image, it was still more technologically advanced and less damaged than Earth. "Yet...when I am asked to help my people, I cannot entirely shirk the responsibility."
This time, there was only Kazianna and Yaita to see me. I had announced by interplanetary communications that I had made my decision, but had wanted to articulate it to them directly.
Looking up at the two leaders, I wavered for a moment, almost swaying upon my feet. But, "I am suggesting a compromise."
"Compromise?" echoed Yaita, who drew back slightly.
"I have changed far too much to ever be able to settle on Fantoma. What I instead offer is to help teach you. How to make negotiations, how to understand a history that took place before you were created, how to plan for a civilization using all of our experiences. I do not know everything, but shall provide what I can.
"It will be you who put that knowledge into practice. I shall come every day for teaching but will not take up any kind of permanent residence."
Yaita leaned on her cane. "This is because of that Micronian clone you mated with, isn't it?"
Her tone was not accusing, in fact I could not read it. "It is for far more than that. I know that I would still be respected; Breetai once asked me to join him in the rebellion against General Edwards. Yet how far can respect go when I must be carried upon your shoulder? Especially when there will eventually be no more living Zentraedi who have experienced my original stature."
Yaita turned laboriously to face away from me. "You do know what you are, don't you?"
"I am the Domillan." The honorific, which I had loosely translated to the Humans as Minister of Affairs, in fact encompassed my age, enhanced lifespan, status as the first Zentraedi made, and all aspects of my education and occupation. "But it does not mean that I am so essential that I must remain here or risk chaos."
Yaita scoffed, still not facing me. Kazianna looked between us, perhaps confused.
Yaita said, "In an Earth culture, you would have been disdained and bullied for being more intelligent than the average soldier. Yet among us you were revered." Yaita turned suddenly, but stopped in mid-whirl and began coughing. Kazianna hurried over and tried to offer physical support, but Yaita shrugged it off.
She completed the movement and faced me again, scowling now. "But It's more than mere past reverence. All Zentraedi are non-combatants now, but you and I are the only cowl-wearers left. It has always been our duty to put everything of ourselves into our work, to compensate for being born both flawed and unique.
"We have the education to help shape this world, and it needs much of that. No other society has been asked to start when its members are sentient but have been deprived of culture."
"I am aware of this, and intend to do everything in my power to aid this development. But I can only go so far; I ask you to allow me this."
"You're demanding a great deal."
"I do not believe so. It is obvious that my physical nature and my experiences preclude a simple placement on one world. Even Tirol will never entirely accept me."
"What are you doing, Yaita?" Kazianna snapped. "You claimed that you intended to respect Exedore's other life, and but now you're berating him for choosing it. Didn't you realize this was a possibility right from the beginning? Or did you expect a ten-year development to become a side dish overnight?"
Kazianna gripped the other female's remaining arm, despite Yaita's grimace. "Don't throw away this opportunity when we still have much to learn from him. Exedore will not let us down."
"Then why are you coming back?" Yaita asked, calm again. "Why are you making any effort at all, if you are so convinced you no longer belong, and actually don't wish to?"
"For the same reason that I struggled with your request: new loyalties do not erase old ones, and the past can never be forgotten. I wish to remain close to my people, and help them prove that they are more than toys."
Yaita inhaled slowly. "Very well, Exedore, if that is what you want, we will further discuss your proposal, and you may wait here for our choice."
Even though that was not a standard protocol, I complied, and was left on the balcony while the two females departed to another section. I had no chronometer, and tried to occupy myself with contemplations, but was unable to focus on anything but their possible decision. From where I sat, I could hear nothing.
Kazianna and Yaita at last returned, and I made certain to turn and face them with dignity, concealing my eagerness to know their answer.
"We have decided to accept your offer," Yaita said. It sounded rather grudging, but of course I knew why.
Kazianna, however, only smiled. "Exedore...I had a feeling that you would choose something like this. There's no need to argue from pure logic anymore."
"Oh, but there always is," I replied to her, mildly. "My character has not been that radically changed, and I cannot expect others to accept my emotional perspective as a broader justification."
Kazianna only smiled wider.
"Another request has been made," I told them. "The Tirolians wish for a delegation of Zentraedi to make planetfall, so that you may make your intentions clear."
It was raining when I exited the small shuttle. Lantas was the only one there to greet me, capeless and carrying a Tiresian umbrella, a simple black hemisphere covered in veins of false gilt.
It shielded us as I went to pay the second part of the fee for using the shuttle. The woman at the booth thanked me, but I paid little attention to her.
On other days we preferred walking, but today we arranged for a city-transport, which resembled a trackless, hovering bullet train. No one in the seats noticed us, quite used to the sight of the two artificial beings together.
Lantas shut the umbrella, and put it across her knees. "What happened?"
After I had told her, she said, "And why would Yaita act like that? Didn't she see it was a possibility from the start?"
"I suspect that she wants to do everything in her power to build a future, and wishes to envelop everyone within that desire.
"The effects of Azonia's betrayal may also still linger; Yaita was quite concerned as to how that incident made the rest of the females look, even if Azonia was essentially fallen. Perhaps Yaita even feels there is a taint left from her own clone-sibling's actions." As strange as that latter would be, it was not impossible for a Zentraedi of this age to develop such a viewpoint, to suddenly feel a connection to their clone-siblings.
Lantas nodded. "But if Yaita can't even handle the complexity of your request, the civilization might be doomed."
I said nothing, only watched Fantoma's green sphere moving by outside the window. Lantas soon reached over to press the stop-request button on the window frame.
We stepped out into the rain again, and I looked up at the buildings, blurred by the greyness, though was far more concerned with not getting wet.
In the apartment, the images had been the first of the returned items to go up. They were the subjects one would expect: of the Friendly Five in various combinations, a long photograph of the main players in the Hayes-Hunter wedding, pictures of my Tirolian friends, of Lantas. There were also images taken during the exploratory tour.
I stared at them, but the heavy, chastised feeling would not leave, no matter how much I tried to banish it with rational understanding. None could truly anticipate pain; one only was able to move constantly ahead of it.
In time, reality would reassert itself. My choice had allowed me to fulfill all of my duties, and was more than I should have to hoped for.
Lantas made us tea. I felt the pleasant humming sensation in my chest and neck from the calming (but harmless) plants she had put into the liquid.
We sat in chairs, across from each other. After a few moments, she walked over to mine and kissed me lightly. What had once left me terrified now was very pleasant. It had taken a long time for us to reach the point of treating it so casually, Lantas also carrying burdens from her previous life.
"Thank you," she said.
I was feeling a trifle unfocused, and so needlessly asked, "For what?" Even knowing how it had been before, I gently tugged her into my lap; a bit absurd, when she was four inches taller than I was.
"Don't tell me that you don't understand." She slung one arm about my shoulders. "Part of your loyalty is always going to lie there. Yet you chose me."
"It is ever worth the effort," I replied, though there was still yet a twinge. "W-Were I forced to make a selection, it would have been this, and no other."
She would not have tolerated a placating lie, a statement that I had cased thinking of my Zentraedi loyalties when in actuality had not. It was fine to admit such a thing, instead of believing we should discard everything but ourselves.
I settled myself further into the chair and began to stroke her hip, while Lantas drank more of her tea.
Many would have laughed to see me in such a pose, but I had stopped worrying whether such emotions were characteristic of me, stopped fearing that sensation of being so soft and vulnerable, and the rushes of feeling that were so intense that they were almost frightening.
The Human ideal was apparently "opposites attract", but my new experiences enhanced my old inclinations instead of inhibiting them, as I became more interested in finding knowledge for my own wishes, especially now that I had someone to share it with so closely.
"We find passion in our own way," was a favourite expression of Lantas', a rebuttal to those who asked why we weren't interested in public displays of affection, and seemed to spend more time talking about science than anything. I could see it on her face again.
But sometimes, the standard expressions worked very well, once one had gotten used to them.
I clicked the belt shut, and then adjusted my collar a second time, before taking another full look. The sight was still somewhat strange, even comical, but it existed.
Instead of a cowl, the uniform had a standard striped collar, and its only badge was a Zentraedi emblem on the left side of the chest. In addition to being belted, the green piping was slightly different in layout, and there were other minor alterations to the colour scheme. Still, the nature of its representation could not be mistaken.
It was exactly what I had requested: a miniature, modified version of my Zentraedi uniform. I would wear it only on the Fantoma satellite or at official functions, and today would be its first test.
I left the bedroom, but instantly stopped walking when I saw Lantas. When I had gone in to change, she had been wearing some lower-class Tirolian clothes, a blue tunic and leggings. Now it was a sleeveless grey dress with an orange and red sash over the left shoulder, a black one at the waist. Elbow-length yellow gloves and leathery brown shoes completed it. The only thing different was the two white bracelets she had taken to wearing on her right wrist.
Lantas smiled, but spoke without teasing. "Think of it as a gesture of solidarity. It seemed to suit me more than a toga."
Her original clone garments, which she had not worn for years. "What of the memories?"
Lantas adjusted her shoulder-sash. "They still exist." She pointed at me, but smiled. "You haven't worn clothes like that in even longer, and arguably the connotations are worse." She tapped one shoe against the carpet. "These will have to be reinforced, now that they're meant for extended movement."
We took the city-transport to a nearby plaza. Already a small crowd had gathered, but my garb was enough to allow me through, though of course there were some Tirolians who glowered when they saw me. Again, it was something that had gone on for so long that it was trifling.
Lantas disappeared into the crowd and I continued to walk towards the platform, waiting. There were stairs pushed up to it, but I had to take another way to the top.
None of the crowd gasped or screamed when the faint thundering footsteps came from the direction of the spaceport. But many in the front did tense perceptibly, and tilt their heads back to take their first direct sight of natural-stature Zentraedi.
Yaita crouched down and let me step onto her palm. I was placed on the platform, sitting in a low, puffed chair opposite the Tirolian senators. The natural-sized Zentraedi all remained standing, and I sat within their shadows.
Yaita repeated the same plans that I had placed before the Senate: The Zentraedi wanted Fantoma to be considered theirs, but also to be Tirol's ally, and to have aid from it and the other worlds. The Zentraedi would pay for this aid through profits gained from future extended participation in mining and industry, though in some cases barter might also be employed.
Talks went on for quite a long time. I could give little input because of my position in the new order (the Revered Ancient Minister of History and Education), and it wasn't very often that Yaita leaned in to ask me for advice. She had obviously picked up some tricks of her own when around Humans, and this made me smile discreetly.