I entered the storage deck of the other Obin ship.
"So this is the human who has an entire race to do her bidding," said the Consu waiting there for me. It was the only place on the Obin ship where he would fit, I guessed.
I smiled in spite of myself.
"You laugh at me," the Consu said. It spoke perfect English, and in a light, gentle voice, which was weird considering how much it looked like a large and savagely angry insect.
"I'm sorry," I said. "It's just that it's the second time in a day that someone's said that to me."
"Well," the Consu said. It unfolded itself in a way that made me want to run screaming in the other direction, and from somewhere inside its body a creepily humanlike arm and hand beckoned to me. "Come and let me get a look at you."
I took one step forward and then had a very difficult time with the next step.
"You asked for me, human," the Consu said.
I developed a spine and walked over to the Consu. It touched and prodded me with its smaller arms, while its giant slashing arms, the ones the Consu used to decapitate enemies in combat, hovered on either side of me, at just about head level. I managed not to completely lose it.
"Yes, well," the Consu said, and I heard something like disappointment in its voice. "There's nothing particularly special about you, is there? Physically. Is there something special about you mentally?"
"No," I said. "I'm just me."
"We're all just ourselves," the Consu said, and folded itself back into its self, much to my relief. "That is axiomatic. What is it about you that makes hundreds of Obin allow themselves to die to get to me, is what I am asking."
I felt sick again. "You said that hundreds of Obin died to bring you to me?"
"Oh, yes," the Consu said. "Your pets surrounded my ship with their own and tried to board it. The ship killed everyone that tried. They remained persistent and finally I became curious. I allowed one to board the ship and it told me that you had demanded the Obin convince the Consu to help you. I wanted to see for myself what sort of creature could so casually demand this, and could cause the Obin to fulfill it at such a cost to themselves."
It looked at me again curiously. "You appear upset," it said.
"I'm thinking about the Obin who died," I said.
"They did what you asked of them," the Consu said, with a bored tone.
"You didn't have to kill so many of them," I said.
"Your pets didn't have to offer up so many to sacrifice," said the Consu. "And yet they did. You seem stupid so I will explain this to you. Your pets, to the extent that they can think, did this intelligently. The Consu will not speak to the Obin for their own behalf. We answered their questions long ago and it does not interest us to speak further on the subject."
"But you spoke to the Obin," I said.
"I am dying," the Consu said. "I am on" - and here the Consu made a noise that sounded like a tractor falling down a hill - "the death journey that Consu prepared to move forward are permitted if in this life they have proven worthy. Consu on this journey may do as they please, including speaking to proscribed creatures, and may if asked appropriately grant a final boon. Your pets have spied on the Consu for decades - we were aware of this but did nothing about it - and knew the route of the death journey and knew the ceremonial ships those on the journey travel in. Your pets understood this was the only way they could talk to us. And your pets knew what it would require to interest me or any Consu enough to hear them. You should have known this when you made your demand."
"I didn't," I said.
"Then you are foolish, human," the Consu said. "If I were inclined to feel sorry for the Obin, I would do so because they had wasted their effort and diverted me from my journey on the behalf of someone so ignorant of the cost. But I do not feel sorry for them. They at least knew the cost, and willingly paid it. Now. You will either tell me how you demand I help you, or I will go and your pets' deaths will have truly been for nothing."
"I need help to save my colony," I said, and forced myself to focus. "My friends and family are there and are under threat of attack. It is a small colony and not able to defend itself. The Colonial Union will not help us. The Obin are not allowed to help us. The Consu have technology that could help us. I ask for your help."
"You said 'ask,'" the Consu said. "Your pets said 'demand.'"
"I demanded help from the Obin because I knew I could," I said. "I am asking you."
"I do not care about your colony or you," the Consu said.
"You just said that as part of your death journey you can grant a boon," I said. "This could be it."
"It may be that my boon was to the Obin, in speaking to you," the Consu said.
I blinked at this. "How would it be a boon to them just to speak to me if you won't at least think of helping me?" I said. "Then it would be you who wasted their sacrifice and effort."
"That is my choice," the Consu said. "The Obin understood that in making the sacrifice the answer might be 'no.' This is another thing they understand that you don't."
"I know there is a lot I don't understand here," I said. "I can see that. I'm sorry. But I still need help for my family and friends."
"How many family and friends?" the Consu said.
"My colony has twenty-five hundred people," I said.
"A similar number of Obin died in order to bring me here," the Consu said.
"I didn't know that would happen," I said. "I wouldn't have asked for that."
"Is that so?" the Consu said. It shifted its bulk and drew in toward me. I didn't back away. "I don't believe you, human. You are foolish and you are ignorant, that much is clear. Yet I cannot believe that even you did not understand what you were asking the Obin for when you asked them to come to us for your sake. You demanded help from the Obin because you could. And because you could you did not ask the cost. But you had to have known the cost would be high."
I didn't know what to say to that.
The Consu drew back and seemed to regard me, like it might an amusing insect. "Your capriciousness and callousness with the Obin interests me," it said. "And so does the fact that the Obin are willing to give of themselves for your whims despite your lack of care for them."
I said something I knew I was going to regret, but I couldn't help myself. The Consu was doing a really excellent job of pushing my buttons. "That's a funny thing coming from someone from the race that gave the Obin intelligence but no consciousness," I said. "As long as we're talking about capriciousness and callousness."
"Ah. Yes, that's right," the Consu said. "The Obin told me this. You're the child of the human who made the machines that let the Obin play at consciousness."
"They don't play at it," I said. "They have it."
"And it is a terrible thing that they do," the Consu said. "Consciousness is a tragedy. It leads the whole race away from perfection, causes it to fritter its efforts on individual and wasteful effort. Our lives as Consu are spent learning to free our race from the tyranny of self, to move beyond ourselves and in doing so move our race forward. It is why we help you lesser races along, so you may also free yourselves in time."
I bit my cheek at this bit. The Consu would sometimes come down to a human colony, wipe it and everyone in it off the face of their planet, and then wait for the Colonial Defense Forces to come and fight them. It was a game to the Consu, as far as any of us could see. To say that they were doing it for our benefit was perverse, to say the least.
But I was here to ask for help, not debate morals. I had already been baited once. I didn't dare let it happen again.
The Consu continued, oblivious to my personal struggles. "What you humans have done to the Obin makes a mockery of their potential," it said. "We created the Obin to be the best among us all, the one race without consciousness, the one race free to pursue its destiny as a race from its first steps. The Obin were meant to be what we aspired to. To see them aspire to consciousness is to see a creature that can fly aspire to wallow in mud. Your father did the Obin no favors, human, in hobbling them with consciousness."
I stood there for a minute, amazed that this Consu would tell me, in seemingly casual conversation, things that the Obin had sacrificed half their number for so many years ago but were never allowed to hear. The Consu waited patiently for my response. "The Obin would disagree," I said. "And so would I."
"Of course you would," the Consu said. "Their love of their consciousness is what makes them willing to do the ridiculous for you. That and the fact that they choose to honor you for something that your father did, even though you had no hand in it. This blindness and honor is convenient to you. It is what you use to get them to do what you want. You don't prize their consciousness for what it gives them. You prize it for what it allows you to do to them."
"That's not true," I said.
"Indeed," said the Consu, and I could hear the mocking tone in its voice. It shifted its weight again. "Very well, human. You have asked me to help you. Perhaps I will. I can provide you with a boon, one the Consu may not refuse. But this boon is not free. It comes with a cost attached."
"What cost?" I said.
"I want to be entertained first," the Consu said. "So I offer you this bargain. You have among you several hundred Obin. Select one hundred of them in any way you choose. I will ask the Consu to send one hundred of our own - convicts, sinners, and others who have strayed from the path and would be willing to attempt redemption. We will set them at each other, to the death.
"In the end, one side will have a victory. If it is yours, then I will help you. If it is mine, I will not. And then, having been sufficiently amused, I will be on my way, to continue my death journey. I will call to the Consu now. Let us say that in eight of your hours we will start this entertainment. I trust that will be enough time for you to prepare your pets."
"We will have no problem finding a hundred volunteers among the Obin," Dock said to me. It and I were in the conference room General Gau had lent me. Hickory and Dickory stood outside the door to make sure we weren't disturbed. "I will have the volunteers ready for you within the hour."
"Why didn't you tell me how the Obin planned to get the Consu to me?" I asked. "The Consu here told me that hundreds of Obin died to get him here. Why didn't you warn me that would happen?"
"I did not know how we would choose to try to get the Consu's attention," Dock said. "I sent along your requirement, along with my own assent. I was not a participant in making the choice."
"But you knew this could happen," I said.
"As a member of the Council I know that we have had the Consu under observation, and that there had been plans to find ways to talk to them again," Dock said. "I knew this was one of them."
"Why didn't you tell me?" I said.
"I told you that attempting to speak to the Consu would come at a high cost," Dock said. "This was the cost. At the time, the cost did not seem too high for you."
"I didn't know that it would mean that hundreds of Obin would die," I said. "Or that they would just keep throwing themselves into a Consu firing line until the Consu got curious enough to stop. If I had known I would have asked you to try something else."
"Given what you required us to do and the time in which we had to do it, there was nothing else," Dock said. It came to me and opened up its hands, like it was trying to make me see something important. "Please understand, Zoe. We had been planning to petition a Consu on its death journey for a long time now, and for our own reasons. It was one of the reasons we were able to fulfill your requirement at all. Everything was already in place."
"But it was my order that killed them," I said.
"It is not your fault that the Consu required their deaths," Dock said. "The Obin who were part of the mission had already known what was required to get the attention of the Consu. They were already committed to this task. Your request changed only the timing and the purpose of their mission. But those who participated did so willingly, and understood the reason for doing it. It was their choice."
"They still did it because I didn't think about what I was asking," I said.
"They did it because you required our help," Dock said. "They would have thought it an honor to do this for you. Just as those who will fight for you now will consider it an honor."
I looked at my hands, ashamed to look at Dock. "You said that you had already been planning to petition a Consu on its death journey," I said. "What were you going to ask?"
"For understanding," Dock said. "To know why the Consu kept consciousness away from us. To know why they chose to punish us with its lack."
I looked up at that. "I know the answer," I said, and told Dock what the Consu had told me about consciousness and why they chose not to give it to the Obin. "I don't know if that was the answer you were looking for," I said. "But that's what this Consu told me."
Dock didn't say anything. I looked more closely at it, and I could see it was trembling. "Hey," I said, and got up from my chair. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"I am not upset," Dock said. "I am happy. You have given us answers to questions we have been asking since as long as our race has existed. Answers the Consu would not have given us themselves. Answers many of us would have given our lives for."
"Many of you did give your lives for them," I said.
"No," Dock said. "They gave their lives to help you. There was no expectation of any compensation for the sacrifice. They did it because you required it. You did not have to give us anything in return. But you have given us this."
"You're welcome," I said. I was getting embarrassed. "It's not a big thing. The Consu just told me. I just thought you should know."
"Consider, Zoe, that this thing that you just thought we should know was something that others would have seen as something to hold over us," Dock said. "That they would have sold to us, or denied to us. You gave it freely."
"After I told you that I required your help and sent hundreds of Obin out to die," I said, and sat back down. "Don't make me out to be a hero, Dock. It's not the way I feel right now."
"I am sorry, Zoe," Dock said. "But if you will not be a hero, at least know that you are not a villain. You are our friend."
"Thank you, Dock," I said. "That helps a little."
Dock nodded. "Now I must go to find the hundred volunteers you seek," it said, "and to tell the Council what you have shared with me. Do not worry, Zoe. We will not disappoint you."
"This is what I have for you on short notice," General Gau said. He swept an arm through the space station's immense cargo bay. "This part of the station is just newly constructed. We haven't actually used it for cargo yet. I think it'll suit your purposes."
I stared at the immensity of the space. "I think so," I said. "Thank you, General."
"It's the least I could do," General Gau said. "Considering how you've helped me just recently."
"Thank you for not holding the Consu invasion against me," I said.
"On the contrary, it's been a benefit," Gau said. "It stopped the battle around the space station before it could get truly horrific. The traitor crews assumed I had called those ships for assistance. They surrendered before I could correct the impression. You helped me quash the rebellion before it could get started."
"You're welcome," I said.
"Thank you," said Gau. "Now, of course, I would like them to go away. But it's my understanding that they're here to make sure we don't do anything foolish with our Consu guest while he's here. The ships are fighter drones, not even manned, but this is Consu technology. I don't imagine if they opened fire on us we'd stand much of a chance. So we have an enforced peace here at the moment. Since it works for me, not against me, I shouldn't complain."
"Have you found out any more about Nerbros Eser and what his plans are?" I asked. I didn't feel like thinking about the Consu anymore.
"Yes," Gau said. "Lernin has been quite forthcoming now that he's trying to avoid being executed for treason. It's been a wonderful motivator. He tells me that Eser plans to take Roanoke with a small force of soldiers. The idea there is to show that he can take with a hundred soldiers what I couldn't take with four hundred battle cruisers. But 'take' is the wrong word for it, I'm afraid. Eser plans to destroy the colony and everyone in it."
"That was your plan too," I reminded the general.
He bobbed his head in what I assumed was an acknowledgment. "You know by now, I hope, that I would have much preferred not to have killed the colonists," he said. "Eser does not intend to offer that option."
I skipped over that piece of data in my head. "When will he attack?" I asked.
"Soon, I think," Gau said. "Lernin doesn't think Eser has assembled his troops yet, but this failed assassination attempt is going to force him to move sooner than later."
"Great," I said.
"There's still time," Gau said. "Don't give up hope yet, Zoe."
"I haven't," I said. "But I've still got a lot on my mind."
"Have you found enough volunteers?" Gau asked.
"We have," I said, and my face tightened up as I said it.
"What's wrong?" Gau said.
"One of the volunteers," I said, and stopped. I tried again. "One of the volunteers is an Obin named Dickory," I said. "My friend and my bodyguard. When it volunteered I told it no. Demanded that it take back its offer. But it refused."
"Having it volunteer could be a powerful thing," Gau said. "It probably encouraged others to step forward."
I nodded. "But Dickory is still my friend," I said. "Still my family. Maybe it shouldn't make a difference but it does."
"Of course it makes a difference," Gau said. "The reason you're here is to try to keep the people you love from being hurt."
"I'm asking people I don't know to sacrifice themselves for people I do," I said.
"That's why you're asking them to volunteer," Gau said. "But it seems to me the reason they're volunteering is for you."
I nodded and looked out at the bay, and imagined the fight that was coming.
"I have a proposition for you," the Consu said to me.
The two of us sat in the operations room of the cargo bay, ten meters above the floor of the bay. On the floor were two groups of beings. In the first group were the one hundred Obin who had volunteered to fight for me. In the other group were the one hundred Consu criminals, who would be forced to fight the Obin for a chance to regain their honor. The Consu looked scary big next to the Obin. The contest would be modified hand-to-hand combat: The Obin were allowed a combat knife, while the Consu, with their slashing arms, would fight bare-handed, if you called being able to wield two razor-sharp limbs attached to your own body "bare-handed."
I was getting very nervous about the Obin's chances.
"A proposition," the Consu repeated.
I glanced over at the Consu, who in himself nearly filled the operations room. He'd been there when I had come up; I wasn't entirely sure how he'd gotten himself through the door. The two of us were there with Hickory and Dock and General Gau, who had taken it upon himself to act as the official arbiter for the contest.
Dickory was on the floor. Getting ready to fight.
"Are you interested in hearing it?" the Consu asked.
"We're about to start," I said.
"It's about the contest," the Consu said. "I have a way that you can get what you want without having the contest at all."
I closed my eyes. "Tell me," I said.
"I will help you keep your colony safe by providing you a piece of our technology," the Consu said. "A machine that produces an energy field that robs projectiles of their momentum. A sapper field. It makes your bullets fall out of the air and sucks the power from missiles before they strike their targets. If you are clever your colony can use it to defeat those who attack it. This is what I am allowed and prepared to give to you."
"And what do you want in return?" I asked.
"A simple demonstration," the Consu said. It unfolded and pointed toward the Obin on the floor. "A demand from you was enough to cause hundreds of Obin to willingly sacrifice themselves for the mere purpose of getting my attention. This power you have interests me. I want to see it. Tell this one hundred to sacrifice themselves here and now, and I will give you what you need in order to save your colony."
"I can't do that," I said.
"It is not an issue of whether it is possible," the Consu said. It leaned its bulk over and then addressed Dock. "Would the Obin here kill themselves if this human asked it?"
"Without doubt," Dock said.
"They would not hesitate," the Consu said.
"No," Dock said.
The Consu turned back to me. "Then all you need to do is give the order."
"No," I said.
"Don't be stupid, human," the Consu said. "You have been assured by me that I will assist you. You have been assured by this Obin that your pets here will gladly sacrifice themselves for your benefit, without delay or complaint. You will be assured of helping your family and friends survive imminent attack. And you have done it before. You thought nothing of sending hundred to their death to speak to me. It should not be a difficult decision now."
He waved again toward the floor. "Tell me honestly, human. Look at your pets, and then look at the Consu. Do you think your pets will be the ones left standing when this is over? Do you want to risk the safety of your friends and family on them?
"I offer you an alternative. It carries no risk. It costs you nothing but your assent. Your pets will not object. They will be happy to do this for you. Simply say that you require this of them. That you demand it of them. And if it makes you feel any better, you can tell them to turn off their consciousness before they kill themselves. Then they will not fear their sacrifice. They will simply do it. They will do it for you. They will do it for what you are to them."
I considered what the Consu had said.
I turned to Dock. "You have no doubt that those Obin would do this for me," I said.
"There is no doubt," Dock said. "They are there to fight at your request, Zoe. They know they may die. They have already accepted that possibility, just as the Obin who sacrificed themselves to bring you this Consu knew what was required of them."
"And what about you," I said to Hickory. "Your friend and partner is down there, Hickory. For ten years, at least, you've spent your life with Dickory. What do you say?"
Hickory's trembling was so slight that I almost doubted that I saw it. "Dickory will do as you ask, Zoe," Hickory said. "You should know this already." It turned away after that.
I looked at General Gau. "I have no advice to offer you," he said. "But I am very interested to find out what you choose."
I closed my eyes and I thought of my family. Of John and Jane. Of Savitri, who traveled to a new world with us. I thought of Gretchen and Magdy and the future they could have together. I thought of Enzo and his family and everything that was taken from them. I thought of Roanoke, my home.
And I knew what I had to do.
I opened my eyes.
"The choice is obvious," the Consu said.
I looked at the Consu and nodded. "I think you're right," I said. "And I think I need to go down and tell them."
I walked to the door of the operations room. As I did, General Gau lightly took my arm.
"Think about what you're doing, Zoe," Gau said. "Your choice here matters."
I looked up at the general. "I know it does," I said. "And it's my choice to make."
The general let go of my arm. "Do what you have to do," he said.
"Thank you," I said. "I think I will."
I left the room and for the next minute tried very hard not to fall down the stairs as I walked down them. I'm happy to say I succeeded. But it was a close thing.
I walked toward the group of Obin, who were milling about, some doing exercises, some talking quietly to another or to a small group. As I got closer I tried to locate Dickory and could not. There were too many Obin, and Dickory wasn't somewhere I could easily see him.
Eventually the Obin noticed I was walking to them. They quieted and equally quietly formed ranks.
I stood there in front of them for a few seconds, trying to see each of the Obin for itself, and not just one of a hundred. I opened my mouth to speak. Nothing would come. My mouth was so dry I could not make words. I closed my mouth, swallowed a couple of times, and tried again.
"You know who I am," I said. "I'm pretty sure about that. I only know one of you personally, and I'm sorry about that. I wish I could have known each of you, before you were asked...before I asked..."
I stopped. I was saying stupid things. It wasn't what I wanted to do. Not now.
"Look," I said. "I'm going to tell you some things, and I can't promise it's going to make any kind of sense. But I need to say them to you before..." I gestured at the cargo bay. "Before all of this."
The Obin all looked at me, whether politely or patiently, I can't say.
"You know why you're here," I said. "You're here to fight those Consu over there because I want to try to protect my family and friends on Roanoke. You were told that if you could beat the Consu, I would get the help I needed. But something's changed."
I pointed up to the operations room. "There's a Consu up there," I said, "who tells me that he'll give me what I need to save Roanoke without having to have you fight, and risk losing. All I have to do is tell you to take those knives you were going to use on those Consu, and use them on yourselves. All I have to do is to tell you to kill yourselves. Everyone tells me you'll do it, because of what I am to you.
"And they're right. I'm pretty sure about that, too. I'm certain that if I asked all of you to kill yourselves, you would do it. Because I am your Zoe. Because you've seen me all your lives in the recordings that Hickory and Dickory have made. Because I'm standing here in front of you now, asking you to do it.
"I know you would do this for me. You would."
I stopped for a minute, tried to focus.
And then I faced something I'd spent a long time avoiding.
My own past.
I raised my head again and looked directly at the Obin.
"When I was five, I lived on a space station. Covell. I lived there with my father. One day while he was away from the station for a few days on business, the station was attacked. First by the Rraey. They attacked, and they came in and they rounded up all the people who lived on the station, and they began to kill us. I remember..."
I closed my eyes again.
"I remember husbands being taken from their wives and then shot in the halls where everyone could hear," I said. "I remember parents begging the Rraey to spare their children. I remember being pushed behind a stranger when the woman who was watching me, the mother of a friend, was taken away. She tried to push away her daughter, too, but she held on to her mother and they were both taken away. If the Rraey had continued much longer, eventually they would have found me and killed me too."
I opened my eyes. "But then the Obin attacked the station, to take it from the Rraey, who weren't prepared for another fight. And when they cleared the station of the Rraey, they took those of us humans who were left and put us in a common area. I remember being there, with no one looking after me. My father was gone. My friend and her mother were dead. I was alone.
"The space station was a science station, so the Obin looked through the research and they found my father's work. His work on consciousness. And they wanted him to work for them. So they came back to us in the common area and they called out my father's name. But he wasn't on the station. They called his name again and I answered. I said I was his daughter and that he would come for me soon.
"I remember the Obin talking among themselves then, and then telling me to come away. And I remember saying no, because I didn't want to leave the other humans. And I remember what one of the Obin said to me then. It said, 'You must come with us. You have been chosen, and you will be safe.'
"And I remembered everything that had just happened. And I think even at five years old some part of me knew what would happen to the rest of the people at Covell. And here was the Obin, telling me I would be safe. Because I had been chosen. And I remember taking the Obin's hand, being led away and looking back at the humans who were left. And then they were gone. I never saw them again.
"But I lived," I said. "Not because of who I was; I was just this little girl. But because of what I was: the daughter of the man who could give you consciousness. It was the first time that what I was mattered more than who I was. But it wasn't the last."
I looked up at the operations room, trying to see if those in there were listening to me, and wondering what they were thinking. Wondering what Hickory was thinking. And General Gau. I turned back to the Obin.
"What I am still matters more than who I am," I said. "It matters more right now. Right this minute. Because of what I am, hundreds of you died to bring just one Consu to see me. Because of what I am, if I ask you to take those knives and plunge them into your bodies, you will do it. Because of what I am. Because of what I have been to you."
I shook my head and looked down at the ground. "All my life I have accepted that what I am matters," I said. "That I had to work with it. Make accommodations for it. Sometimes I thought I could manipulate it, although I just found out the price for that belief. Sometimes I would even fight against it. But never once did I think that I could leave what I was behind. Because I remembered what it got me. How it saved me. I never even thought of giving it up."
I pointed up at the operations room. "There is a Consu in that operations room who wants me to kill you all, just to show him that I can. He wants me to do it to make a point to me, too - that when it comes down to it, I'm willing to sacrifice all of you to get what I want. Because when it comes down to it, you don't matter. You're just something I can use, a means to an end, a tool for another purpose. He wants me to kill you to rub my face in the fact I don't care.
"And he's right."
I looked into the faces of the Obin. "I don't know any of you, except for one," I said. "I won't remember what any of you look like in a few days, no matter what happens here. On the other hand all the people I love and care for I can see as soon as I close my eyes. Their faces are so clear to me. Like they are here with me. Because they are. I carry them inside me. Like you carry those you care for inside of you.
"The Consu is right that it would be easy to ask you to sacrifice yourselves for me. To tell you to do it so I can save my family and my friends. He's right because I know you would do it without a second thought. You would be happy to do it because it would make me happy - because what I am matters to you. He knows that knowing this will make me feel less guilty for asking you.
"And he's right again. He's right about me. I admit it. And I'm sorry."
I stopped again, and took another moment to pull myself together. I wiped my face.
This was going to be the hard part.
"The Consu is right," I said. "But he doesn't know the one thing about me that matters right now. And that it is that I am tired of being what I am. I am tired of having been chosen. I don't want to be the one you sacrifice yourself for, because of whose daughter I am or because you accept that I can make demands of you. I don't want that from you. And I don't want you to die for me.
"So forget it. Forget all of this. I release you of your obligation to me. Of any obligation to me. Thank you for volunteering, but you shouldn't have to fight for me. I shouldn't have asked.
"You have already done so much for me. You have brought me here so I could deliver a message to General Gau. He's told me about the plans against Roanoke. It should be enough for us to defend ourselves. I can't ask you for anything else. I certainly can't ask you to fight these Consu and possibly die. I want you to live instead.
"I am done being what I am. From now on I'm just who I am. And who I am is Zoe. Just Zoe. Someone who has no claim on you. Who doesn't require or demand anything from you. And who wants you to be able to make your own choices, not have them made for you. Especially not by me.
"And that's all I have to say."
The Obin stood in front of me, silently, and after a minute I realized that I didn't really know why I was expecting a response. And then for a crazy moment I wondered if they actually even understood me. Hickory and Dickory spoke my language, and I just assumed all the other Obin would, too. That was a pretty arrogant assumption, I realized.
So I sort of nodded and turned to go, back up to the operations room, where God only knew what I was going to say to that Consu.
And then I heard singing.
A single voice, from somewhere in the middle of the pack of Obin. It took up the first words of "Delhi Morning." And though that was the part I always sang, I had no trouble recognizing the voice.
It was Dickory.
I turned and faced the Obin just as a second voice took up the counterpoint, and then another voice came in, and another and another, and soon all one hundred of the Obin were singing, creating a version of the song that was so unlike any I had heard before, so magnificent, that all I could do was stand there and soak in it, let it wash around me, and let it move through me.
It was one of those moments that you just can't describe. So I won't try anymore.
But I can say I was impressed. These Obin would have known of "Delhi Morning" for only a few weeks. For them to not only know the song but to perform it flawlessly was nothing short of amazing.
I had to get these guys for the next hootenanny.
When it was done, all I could do was put my hands to my face and say "Thank you" to the Obin. And then Dickory came through the ranks to stand in front of me.
"Hey, you," I said to Dickory.
"Zoe Boutin-Perry," said Dickory. "I am Dickory."
I almost said, I know that, but Dickory kept speaking.
"I have known you since you were a child," it said. "I have watched you grow and learn and experience life, and through you have learned to experience life myself. I have always known what you are. I tell you truthfully that it is who you are that has mattered to me, and always has.
"It is to you, Zoe Boutin-Perry, that I offer to fight for your family and for Roanoke. I do this not because you have demanded it or required it but because I care for you, and always have. You would honor me if you would accept my assistance." Dickory bowed, which was a very interesting thing on an Obin.
Here was irony: This was the most I had heard Dickory say, ever, and I couldn't think of anything to say in return.
So I just said, "Thank you, Dickory. I accept." Dickory bowed again and returned to ranks.
Another Obin stepped forward and stood before me. "I am Strike," it said. "We have not met before. I have watched you grow through all that Hickory and Dickory have shared with all Obin. I too have always known what you are. What I have learned from you, however, comes from who you are. It is an honor to have met you. It will be an honor to fight for you, your family, and for Roanoke. I offer my assistance to you, Zoe Boutin-Perry, freely and without reservation." Strike bowed.
"Thank you, Strike," I said. "I accept." And then I impulsively hugged Strike. It actually squeaked in surprise. We unhugged, Strike bowed again, and then returned to ranks just as another Obin came forward.
And another. And another.
It took a long time to hear each greeting and offer of assistance, and to accept each offer. I can honestly say there was never time better spent. When it was done I stood in front of one hundred Obin again - this time, each a friend. And I bowed my head to them and wished them well, and told them I would see them after.
Then I headed back toward the operations room. General Gau was at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for me.
"I have a position for you on my staff, Zoe, if you ever want it," he said.
I laughed. "I just want to go home, General. Thank you all the same."
"Some other time, then," Gau said. "Now I'm going to preside over this contest. I will be impartial when I'm observing it. But you should know that inside I'm rooting for the Obin. And that's something I never thought I would say."
"I do appreciate it," I said, and headed up the stairs.
Hickory met me at the door. "You did what I hoped you would do," Hickory said. "I regret not volunteering myself."
"I don't," I said, and hugged Hickory. Dock bowed to me; I nodded back. And then I approached the Consu.
"You have my answer," I said.
"So I have," the Consu said. "And it surprises me, human."
"Good," I said. "And the name is Zoe. Zoe Boutin-Perry."
"Indeed," the Consu said. He sounded amused at my cheekiness. "I will remember the name. And have others remember it as well. Although if your Obin do not win this contest, I do not imagine we will have to remember your name for long."
"You'll remember it for a long time," I said. "Because my friends down there are about to clean your clock."
And they did.
It wasn't even close.