Download the original attachment

Part Two - Encounter 

      After an indiscernible period of time, the brain of Jason Floyd resumed the process of thought.  There was at first the vague notion of the existence of a self, followed by ideas about the universe in which that self existed.  Jason’s surroundings seemed to collapse in on him all at once, and what had just been chaos and darkness was now a recognisable—though completely unfamiliar—environment.

      Jason found himself in a small room sandwiched between a floor and ceiling that could not have been more than four metres apart.  The room was circular in shape, with a diameter of about ten or twelve meters, with one solid metallic wall stretching all the way around.  It was lit with a dim blue light that protruded from the exact centre of the ceiling.  Other than this light, there was not a single piece of equipment in the room.  It could have no other purpose, Jason realised, than to serve as a holding cell for prisoners.

      He scanned the room several times to confirm that Jessi was not there.  She was probably in a similar room, he thought, scared out of her wits and crying hysterically.  She might be in a room right next to him, or perhaps directly above or below.  He shouted her name and was nearly deafened by the sound of his echo.  It took many seconds for the reverberations to finally fade to an inaudible level, and Jason realised that none of the sound of his holler had escaped the room.  He listened hard but found that he could hear absolutely no sound other than his own breathing and heart-beat.  Even the blue light in the ceiling did not give off as much as a faint hum.

      There was absolutely nothing he could do now but wait.  Only moments ago he’d had the freedom to go anywhere in the universe. Now he could do absolutely nothing but sit and think.  The sense of relief that he had felt when he gave in to the demands of the extra-terrestrial species was now augmented by the total lack of any possible activity to engage in other than silent thought.  This was undeniably a pleasant—though highly unusual—feeling, which Jason recognised in spite of his deep anxiety over what Jessi might currently be going through.  But he realised that if she was in the same situation as him, it was probably not so bad.  She had been sitting silently and doing nothing for many months already.  She was still in forced captivity—only her captors had changed.

      Jason had no idea how long he sat there.  It felt like several hours, but it might only have been a few minutes.  Only Jason’s stream of consciousness could give any indication as to how much time had elapsed, and the speed of his thought was in constant flux so it could not serve as a good indicator.  But at last he heard a sound that was not coming from his own body, and turned to see a section of the wall disappear, revealing a small corridor beyond it.  Then, for the first time ever, Jason Floyd laid his eyes on a member of another intelligent species.

      The thing that entered the room was undeniably frightening.  It walked on two legs and had two arms protruding from the torso, but the body itself and each of the appendages were so thin that it almost resembled a stick-figure.  Its torso and legs were covered in a black garment which bore no markings other than three gold circles arranged in a triangle at the chest.  The skin itself resembled human skin, only it was much paler and completely hairless.  The most striking feature other than the head was that it did not have hands or feet but merely fingers and toes—six on each appendage—and all of them about ten centimetres long with perhaps half as many joints.  The head was the strangest part of the body, as it was not round and the sensory organs were in unfamiliar positions.  The eyes protruded outward and laterally from the top of the skull, resembling the nose of a hammer-head shark.  The mouth was in the centre of the face with a nostril on each side of the lips.  The ears must have been the small holes lining the large eye sockets protruding from the head.  This creature was stranger than anything on the planet Jason had been studying.

      “I greet you, Jason Floyd,” it spoke.  Because there was now an opening in the wall, its voice did not echo loudly.

      Jason remained seated against the wall.  “Are you the same one I spoke with on my ship?” he asked, ignoring the pleasantries but resisting his impulse to hostility.

      “Yes,” it replied.  “I am the Zhyenvyentluk, Ambassador to the Human.  You may call me Zhyen if you find it easier.”

      “Much easier, thank you,” Jason replied.  “Where’s Jessi?  Where’s the girl?”

      “Your female is safe,” Zhyen answered.  “She has suffered no more harm than you.”

      “Is she in a room like this?  Have any of you confronted her?  Is she okay?”  The anxiety was quickly bubbling back to the surface of Jason’s mind.

      “She is perfectly safe for the time being,” Zhyen assured him.

      “For the time being?” Jason repeated.  “Where is she?  What’s going to happen to her?”

      “I can tell you no more regarding the female at this time,” said Zhyen.

      Jason snapped and leapt to his feet.  “No, you have to tell me more!  I’m cooperating with you because you told me it was the only way I could keep her safe.  Well, I’m not going to be cooperating for very long unless I know for a fact that she’s going to be okay.  So either you take me to see her right now or I’ll just sit here in silence until you decide to kill me or let us go.”

      “Such concern for the female,” Zhyen remarked.

      “Stop calling her ‘the female’!” Jason shouted.

      “Why does that offend you?” asked Zhyen.  His tone was perfectly calm and indicated nothing more than simple curiosity.

      “It doesn’t matter,” Jason answered, already regretting his hostility.  “Are you going to let me see her or not?”

      “If you cannot accept me at my word that she is safe,” replied Zhyen, “then there is little hope indeed of your being spared execution.  I understand that you have no reason to trust me, but the only alternative is death for both of you.”

      Jason turned away and ground his teeth.  He had an almost irresistible urge to slam his fist into the wall but he knew he was already acting far too hostile around these creatures.  It would be in his and Jessi’s best interest to be as peaceful and cooperative as possible.

      “Forgive me, Zhyen” Jason spoke in a much calmer tone of voice as he turned back around to face the creature.  “But when it comes to the girl I suffer from a very debilitating weakness.  I am deeply in love with her, a concept you don’t seem to understand, and it’s very hard for me to be calm when I’m worried about her.”

      “I understand completely, and your feelings do you credit as I said earlier,” Zhyen replied.  “And if I may be so bold, I will admit to you that if it was my decision to make I would most certainly let you see the girl.  I can foresee no harm coming of it, but as you will see the Yvenzhel are above all an extremely cautious race, and we take no chances when it comes to our enemies.”

      “Why am I your enemy?” Jason asked, all of his confusion flooding back to him.  He had almost forgotten the actual magnitude of the situation he was in.  This might be a very difficult and dangerous situation, but it was also an opportunity to learn about intelligent life, and apparently about intergalactic politics as well.  “I’ve never even heard of the…Yvenzhel.”

      “That is quite possible,” said Zhyen.  “Your government, the STAR, keeps the knowledge of our existence secret from most of the Human.”

      “Yeah, there are a lot of things that STAR keeps secret from its people,” spoke Jason with an unmistakable tone of hostility towards his former company and government.  “But how did our two species come into contact?  Has STAR finally begun expanding into Andromeda?  Are we at war?”

       “You have many questions,” Zhyen answered calmly.  “Assuming your ignorance is genuine, I would like to explain everything to you. However we have certain procedures in these matters that I have no choice but to follow.  The next time we meet we will begin a mutual exchange of information.  You will tell me why you came here and for what purpose you had been studying that planet.  I will tell you of our empire and our relationship to the Human.  Now I must depart for a time.”  And with that Zhyen turned around and began walking out towards the opening once again.

      “But wait!” Jason shouted.  “Why are you holding me here in the first place?  Where is this ship going?  Could you please just tell me what’s going on?”

      Zhyen reached the opening in the wall but did not turn around.  His eye sockets bent backwards to stare directly at Jason.  “The Human are forbidden in this galaxy,” he said.  “We look at any Human visitor as a possible spy for the STAR, the greatest enemy of the Yvenzhel.  You will be brought before a tribunal on the Yvenzhel home-world, a great distance from here.  If it is determined that you are a spy, you and the female will be executed.”

      “And when you realise we’re not spies?” asked Jason.

      “If that is the case you will be granted your freedom, of course,” answered Zhyen.  “But you must leave our galaxy and never return.”  And with that, Zhyen marched out of the room and the wall sealed itself behind him, leaving Jason alone in the dark once again. 

* * * * * * * 

      The time between Zhyen’s departure and his next return was far longer than the initial waiting period.  Although there was no way to be certain of how much time was passing, Jason felt sure that he was kept there for at least a day without food, water, or company.  He merely lay on the hard floor (which by now he was quite used to anyway) and tried to focus his thoughts on the present situation.

      He had just encountered a member of another intelligent species for the first time in his life, and it had not gone at all as he had pictured.  First of all, for the past few months he had been imagining an encounter with a species that was far less advanced than his own, but now it seemed that he had actually met a race that was even further along in its technical evolution.  He still had no idea exactly how they had brought him aboard their ship simply by zapping him with a beam of light.  This technology was clearly beyond anything Jason had ever seen.  But he remembered that he had been absent from the Milky Way for over a billion years and for all he knew humans were now even more advanced than this species, the Yvenzhel.

      It was easy to see how their physiology allowed them to survive on their planet and develop intelligence.  The eyes that could move forward and backward were undoubtedly a strong evolutionary advantage, allowing them to see in all directions without turning their bodies.  Also, their bodies were so thin that they were probably not the most tempting of prey to the other creatures on their planet.  Finally, those long fingers and toes with so many joints certainly meant a great deal of dexterity, which must have been highly useful for engineering purposes once they began to develop serious technology.

      As far as surviving in interstellar space for so long, Jason had no doubt that their highly cautious nature to which Zhyen had referred could account for that.  In dealing with other species it was most certainly prudent not to take any chances, and to know as much as possible about one’s enemies.  Jason assumed that this was probably the case with most species that had vast interstellar empires.  They must either be extremely cautious or extremely brutal.  Humans were probably more the latter.

      Jason pondered these things for awhile in between his constant worries of what Jessi might be going through, and eventually fell asleep.  When he woke up he could not be sure whether he had been out for hours or minutes, but it felt as though he had not had any sleep at all.  He was exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, and he began to wonder what the point of making him wait for so long was.

      He scanned the room for the millionth time but could not see anything resembling a camera, though he was completely positive they were watching him.  It was very likely that this waiting period was completely unnecessary and they were merely subjecting him to it as a test, possibly to see if he would break down and start cursing his captors as they probably expected.  But Jason resolved not to become hostile as long as he could help it.  He had already lost control of himself twice, but he was deeply worried about Jessi and it had been nearly impossible to keep a cool head when he had no idea if she was alive or dead.  But Jason was now fairly certain that she was alive, and the only way to keep her safe was to convince his captors that he was peaceful and that he meant them no harm.  But he would rather be given the chance to convince them with words than by enduring solitary confinement for an unknown duration of time.

      He did not believe they were going to keep him there for too long, as they claimed to be a “peaceful race” and he did not expect extremely harsh treatment from them.  It was possible that they were just trying to weaken him a bit before letting him out so that he posed less of a risk.  This was a precaution that made perfect sense and while Jason certainly didn’t like it, he understood it and made up his mind not to express any resentful feelings once they finally let him out.  The friendlier he could be, he figured, the likelier it would be that they would release Jessi and him.

      He fell asleep a second time, but was woken up by the sound of footsteps (or toe-steps, rather) entering the cell.  He opened his eyes to find that Zhyen had returned, accompanied by two other Yvenzhel who looked nearly identical to Zhyen.  They were slightly larger and their black uniforms had bright orange stripes on the sides.  Rather than three gold circles on the chest, these only had one.  The stripes, Jason figured, designated them as security guards, while the circles must signify rank.

      “I greet you again, Jason Floyd,” said Zhyen in the same calm, friendly tone.  “I am sorry to have kept you waiting for so long, but it was necessary.  Now you may accompany me to the interview room.  Follow me.”

      Without a word, Jason rose to his feet and followed Zhyen out into the passage.  The two security guards followed behind.  Wherever they were going, Jason was relieved to finally be leaving that miserable cell. 

* * * * * * * 

      The corridor outside of the cell was lit in the same dim blue light.  But as Jason followed Zhyen through the circular pathways, he noticed the lights growing steadily brighter.  Eventually they came to a series of cylinders arranged in a circle.  Zhyen placed his fingers on one of the circles and an opening formed revealing a small, bare room lit from the ceiling by a plain white light.  Jason stepped into the room and the two security guards followed, sealing the door behind them.

      Zhyen spoke a word in his own language, “dyorzhan,” and Jason immediately felt the room they were standing in begin to accelerate upwards.  In a moment, this room—which Jason now realised was an elevator—came to a stop, and another opening appeared revealing a corridor lit in bright red.  Jason followed Zhyen down a small pathway, which led to a room bathed in a dim red glow.  The room was a bit smaller than Jason’s cell, but contained two chairs and some equipment that looked too bizarre for Jason to make any guess as to what it might be.

      “Please take the seat on your right,” Zhyen directed him.  The seat on the right was of a different shape than the seat on the left, and it was a moment before Jason realised that his seat was specially designed for humans.  He wondered how many others like him had been taken and interrogated by this species, and whether or not they had been spies.  Zhyen took the other seat, while the security guards stood by the entrance to the room, which promptly closed as they entered it.

      “What’s the deal with the lights on this ship?” Jason asked, both out of curiosity and a desire to start things off in a friendly manner.

      “Why are you interested?” Zhyen asked.

      “I’m just curious,” replied Jason.  “You don’t have to tell me.”

      “I do not have to tell you anything,” said Zhyen.  “But I will answer your question, though I must first explain how this process will work.  The Yvenzhel do not volunteer information—we exchange it.  I understand you are curious about our race and you have many questions.  I will answer any questions you have, provided the answers do not compromise our security, but only in exchange for information from you.  If you would like to know about our vessel, I must ask you to volunteer information regarding your own.”

      “That sounds fair,” Jason replied, still doing his best to sound friendly, “but there’s not much to say about my ship.  Back when I bought it, which was a billion years ago—a billion human years—it was a very high-end privateer-class ship.  It has a powerful telescope and all of the most sophisticated computer programs for tracking objects.  There’s only one room, which has a cockpit, a bed, a kitchen…” 
 “I apologise for interrupting,” Zhyen broke in, “but all of this is information we have already gathered by inspecting your ship ourselves.”

      “I’m sorry, I…” Jason began.

      “There is no need to apologise,” said Zhyen, sounding a bit friendlier, “it is I who should have been clearer.  We would like information regarding the technology your ship contains which has allowed you to endure for billions of human years.”

      “You mean the Infinite-Capacity Thrust?” asked Jason, wondering how much of his own race’s security he might be compromising by speaking of that.

      “Is that what you call it?” asked Zhyen.

      “Yeah, ICT,” said Jason.  “It gives my ship the ability to travel as fast as I want without limitation.  I can reach anywhere in the universe in a matter of seconds.”

      “We are familiar with the technology.  It was banned a long time ago,” Zhyen informed him.  “We would like to know how your ship came to possess it.”

      “Well,” Jason began, somewhat unsure of himself now, “STAR did ban the technology when it was invented but I was able to have my ship equipped with it because…” he suddenly stopped, thinking for the first time that it might not be as easy as he’d believed to convince them that he was not a spy.

      “Go on,” Zhyen urged him.

      “Well, because for a brief period of time I knew the C.E.O. of the STAR Corporation.”

      Zhyen did not respond, and his face betrayed no hint of surprise.

      “She wasn’t really the actual head of the company though,” Jason went on, speaking very quickly and tripping over his words.  “You see, when our ship came back from Andromeda the commander, Arnold Juciper, became a huge celebrity.  And his daughter, Rachael, who was on the second ship, wanted to be C.E.O.  So the real head of the company, Brian Davis, changed his identity and allowed her to take the position as a figurehead.  Of course that wasn’t the only reason.  It also had something to do with a conspiracy to commit genocide, but that’s a different story.  But anyway, because I was a friend of the family, Rachael let me have the technology.”  Jason was very nervous now, and Zhyen’s blank stare did nothing to relieve his anxiety.  When nothing was said, he went on.  “Normally only STAR security ships are equipped with ICT.”

      “Interesting,” Zhyen suddenly spoke.  “Do all of their security ships have the technology?”

      Jason was uneasy about giving the Yvenzhel this information, but he spoke openly as he felt no obligation to protect STAR.  “Yes, as far as I know,” he said.

      “Very good,” Zhyen answered.  “Now I shall answer your question.  We use coloured lights on our vessel to help ourselves know where we are in the sphere at all times.  The lights cross the entire range of the visible spectrum, with red at the very top and violet at the bottom.  The degree of brightness changes as you approach the centre of the sphere.  The exact centre of the sphere is bright yellow, but the outer edges of the yellow deck are as dimly lit as this room, which is equally far from the centre.”

      Jason might have found this very interesting a moment ago, but now he was only frustrated.  Clearly, the information he had given Zhyen was far more important than that bit of triviality.

      “Would you like to ask another question?” Zhyen offered.

      “Yeah,” Jason began quickly, “you said that ICT technology was banned a long time ago and I assumed you meant by STAR.  I always thought STAR invented the technology.  Is that not the case?”

      “Your question is appropriate and I shall answer it fully,” Zhyen replied.  “The STAR did not invent this technology.  We do not know how they came to possess it.”

      “So it was you who invented it?” Jason asked.

      “No.  The truth is that even the Yvenzhel do not know the origin of this technology.  A long time ago it was brought to our galaxy cluster, which you call the ‘Local Group,’ by travellers from a distant part of the universe who sold this technology to the governments of advanced interstellar empires in exchange for information.  Both the Yvenzhel and the Human came into possession of the technology at about the same time. Because this technology would allow instantaneous travel between our two galaxies, and this possibility was in neither the interest of the Human nor the Yvenzhel, our two races agreed not to use it, and to abide by the time-scale limitation of the existing technology, which had been discovered in your galaxy by the Arthur Romband near the end of your ancient epoch.  Certain exceptions are made of course, as in the case of security vessels, but civilian ships are not to be equipped with the technology under any circumstances.”

      Jason found this information fascinating, but it left him even more confused.  “Now I’ve got a million more questions,” Jason replied.

      “That is understandable,” said Zhyen, “and you will have the opportunity to ask all of your questions, but now you must answer one of ours.”

      “I understand,” said Jason.  “What do you want to know?”

      “The presence of the Infinite-Capacity Thrust technology on your vessel was the matter of most pressing importance to us,” Zhyen began, “and you have confirmed that the STAR has violated the agreement by providing you with this technology.  Now we come to the matter at hand.  You are a member of the original twenty-three.  We must know why you have returned and for what purpose.”

      Jason was confused.  “I’m sorry, ‘the original twenty-three’?  What do you mean by that?”

      “The first of your kind to enter our galaxy,” Zhyen clarified.

      Suddenly a few more pieces of the puzzle clicked into place.  There were twenty-three astronauts who came to Andromeda in the two pioneering missions.  Jason was one of ten who had arrived on the first ship (having lost Mark Staff and Craig Malls before arriving) while the next ship brought thirteen people including Rachael Juciper as a passenger.  “That’s how you knew my name!” Jason exclaimed.  “You were around when we first came here?”

      “You did not expect your presence in our galaxy for such a long period of time to go un-noticed, did you?” Zhyen replied.

      Jason could hardly believe it.  The Andromeda had not encountered any intelligent species in its travels, but it had not been looking.  The Yvenzhel, it seemed, had been around even then, and had monitored their progress through the galaxy.  “Is that how you first came into contact with STAR?” Jason asked.  “Did our mission actually open up the first dialog humans ever had with an extragalactic species?”

      “You are asking more questions and avoiding those posed to you,” Zhyen challenged him.

      “Yes, you’re right again,” Jason conceded.  “You wanted to know why I came back?”

      “Yes, and I should caution you to speak carefully and truthfully, as your fate depends on it,” Zhyen warned.

      Jason shuddered.  From the moment he’d been brought to this ship he had feared that he would eventually be asked to talk about the circumstances under which he’d come to Andromeda, and he had not been looking forward to it.  He had no desire to revisit the awful events of that day, and the idea that his story would certainly be put on record and carefully scrutinised by members of another species made him nauseous.  Yet he knew that he had no choice.  If he wanted to save Jessi’s life, he had to tell them the truth.

      In order to ease into things, Jason began by talking about his return from Andromeda and the sense of alienation he felt from the rest of his race.  He spoke of his deep desire to escape and travel the universe, exploring and learning all he could about the nature of existence.  He spoke at length on these subjects, as though talking to a therapist rather than an interrogator, but Zhyen did not give the faintest hint of impatience.  On the contrary, he looked extremely interested.

      But after repeating the part about Rachael Juciper and having his ship equipped with ICT, Zhyen interrupted him to ask about “the female”.  Jason breathed a heavy sigh and moved right into it.  He told them everything, from the first moment he laid eyes on her in Arnold’s doorway, to their brief period of friendly correspondence and finally the encounter on the space station.  Although he did not dwell on the subject of his feelings for her and certainly downplayed his affection, Jason recalled in detail every moment that took place as he attempted to return Jessi to her father without being captured by STAR.  He even told them about the secret data given to him by Jack Peskie which caused the situation to erupt beyond his control.  Finally, he spoke of Arnold’s sacrifice and his escape from the fleet of security ships.

      “Why did you choose to come to Andromeda?” Zhyen asked when Jason was finished.

      “I don’t know,” Jason replied honestly.  “I’d always had it in the back of my mind to start exploring the universe by coming back to Andromeda.  It just seemed appropriate.”

      “I see,” Zhyen answered.

      Jason suddenly understood why STAR Security had not pursued him—they were banned from entering Andromeda!  Of all the places in the universe, Jason had inadvertently picked the galaxy from which STAR was banned by treaty!  And now it made perfect sense why the Yvenzhel had confronted him and taken him prisoner—he was not welcome here either.  “Can I ask a question now?” Jason asked.

      “You may,” Zhyen replied.

      “How did our species first come into contact with one another?” Jason asked.  “How is it that we became enemies?  I know that’s two questions but the answers must be tied to one another.”

      “Indeed they are,” said Zhyen, “and you shall have both answers.  As you have already guessed, the Yvenzhel became aware of the Human when the twenty-three passed through our galaxy.  We did not confront your ships because it is our policy never to make ourselves known to a race we know nothing about.  At this time the Yvenzhel owned less territory and had not yet explored our entire galaxy, so it was assumed that you were merely from another sector.  The Yvenzhel had not yet considered the likelihood of intergalactic travel, but when your ship departed on a heading towards our neighbour galaxy, we looked for the first time beyond our galactic border.

      “I cannot venture into the details of how we first made contact with your species, but once we had established communication with the STAR it was determined that the Human were a dangerous race.  You spoke yourself of their policy of exterminating all non-Human species.  We attained this knowledge ourselves and saw the imminent possibility that the Human, whom we knew were already capable of reaching our galaxy, might eventually try to colonise it.  So we made it clear to the STAR that any aggression on their part would be met with force.  A mutual agreement was reached and a treaty was signed.  We agreed that no race native to our galaxy would encroach on your galaxy as long as your people showed us the same courtesy.

      “We have been at peace with the STAR ever since, but it is a peace that cannot endure.  Gravity is slowly pulling our galaxies toward one another, and they will collide in approximately six billion of your years.  There is no known technology which can cancel the gravitational force of galaxies, so the collision can not be avoided.  Our territories will merge and distort one another, creating political chaos.  Unless the STAR chooses to ally with us, a possibility considered by most to be extremely unlikely, there will be conflict.  It is generally believed that war with the Human is inevitable.”

      “Wow,” was all Jason could think to say.  This information was so astounding that he nearly forgot he was being interrogated.

      “I have one more question to ask you for now,” said Zhyen.  “You have spent a great deal of time in orbit of a new star system and the planet that was recently destroyed.  What were your purposes there?”

      “Only to study,” Jason answered.  “I’m curious about how life evolves and I’d always wanted to watch a planet go through its entire evolutionary process.  I had actually been hoping for an intelligent species to evolve, but that didn’t happen.”

      “What did you plan to do if an intelligent species had evolved?” asked Zhyen.

      “I’m not sure, exactly,” Jason answered.  “I guess I would have tried to contact them when I thought they were ready.”

      “For what purpose?” Zhyen pressed.

      “Just for the sake of curiosity,” said Jason.  “I would have liked to communicate with a different species and learn about them.  In exchange I could have provided them with information regarding how their species evolved and what forms of life occupied their planet before them.”

      “Interesting,” Zhyen remarked.  “Would you like to ask one last question?”

      “Yes,” Jason began.  “Now that I finally am communicating with another intelligent race I’d like to know more about you.  How did your race come to be as you are now?”

      “I will provide you with a brief account of our history.  The Yvenzhel originated from the Zhel, a planet very similar to Earth.  Like the Human, our ancestors lived in a symbiotic relationship with organisms nearly identical to the trees on your world,” Zhyen explained.  “When we broke free of that relationship we began to grow larger brains, and soon developed languages.  Civilisations formed, technology grew, and eventually we were exploring space.”

      “Did your civilisations fight wars with one another?” asked Jason.

      “During our early history, yes,” Zhyen answered.  “Our ancient history is much the same as yours.  Our primitive ancestors developed technology at a far too rapid pace to keep up with it, and we found ourselves on the verge of destruction with the discovery of nuclear energy.  Many technologically developing races do not survive the discovery of nuclear power, and our species would have fared no better had it not been for the insight and leadership of the Vyenkorzhak, who is as much of a revered figure among the Yvenzhel as the Jon Clark is among the Human.

      “The Vyenkorzhak was a general in the military of the Zhak, the most powerful nation in our world at that time.  The Yvenzhak were the first nation of the Zhel to develop nuclear weapons, but they never used them used them in aggression, keeping them merely as a deterrent against enemy attacks.  But other nations began to duplicate the technology, including the Krit and the Praz, nations determined to destroy one another. The Vyenkorzhak was able to recognize just how perilous circumstances had become, and he devoted his life to preventing the destruction of our species.

      “The Vyenkorzhak came to understand that the ancient code of honour by which our people had been living, with its core values of sovereignty and ownership, would eventually mean our annihilation if nations insisted on retaliating against all affronts by other nations as our moral code demanded.  He spoke out against the ancient traditions, and through the sheer force of his arguments was able to convince the population and world leaders alike that our most celebrated values of strength and courage could no longer sustain us, and that caution and pragmatism needed to shape the new order of things. Under the Vyenkorzhak’s leadership all peoples of the Zhel, including the Yvenkrit and the Yvenpraz, eventually came together under one united world government, although this was not accomplished without difficulty and much regrettable bloodshed.

      “The Vyenkorzhak’s teachings prepared us for our encounters with extraterrestrial civilisations once we ventured into interstellar space.  Upon journeying out to other star systems we found life on many worlds, but intelligent life on very few.  We have now explored our entire galaxy—which we call the Zhelva—and have found that we were in the lucky position of being the first advanced race in the Zhelva to develop interstellar travel capability.  Most of the intelligent civilisations we encountered were still in the pre-space-faring stage of their technical evolution, which gave us power over them, just as the STAR had the same advantage in your galaxy—which we call the Kazva.  But unlike the STAR, the Yvenzhel did not wipe out all other species indiscriminately.  While we did have to exterminate the more hostile, threatening races, most civilisations were allowed to endure on the condition that they remain in their own native solar system.

      “Some civilisations, however, had already achieved interstellar travel capability when we first encountered them, and had grown to occupy vast territories of their own.  Thus the Yvenzhel do not completely dominate the Zhelva as the Human do in the Kazva.  We occupy slightly less than half of the star systems in our galaxy, but there are three other major interstellar empires, all of which are allies of the Yvenzhel.  Two have very large territories on the opposite side of the galaxy, while the other occupies a relatively small but dense area surrounding the galactic core.  There are also large expanses of the Zhelva that are protected under treaty to preserve natural space.  The nebula which formed the star system you had been studying was part of one of these territories, which is why your presence went un-noticed for so long.”

      “But when you did discover my presence?” Jason asked.

      Zhyen’s voice now bore a tone that was unfamiliar to Jason.  “We determined that you had landed on the surface of the planet, and because of our policy to take no chances, the decision was made by the Council of Allies to have it destroyed.”

      Jason felt as though he’d been hit in the gut and that all of the wind had been knocked out of him.  He was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of dizziness and nausea.  That last bit of information came as more than just a shock.  It was not the idea that a council of advanced races like the Yvenzhel could be so cold and indifferent, but the fact that the planet and all of its life had been destroyed not by a cosmic accident, but because of Jason.  He was responsible.  In spite of all his principles and convictions about not interfering with other life-forms, his actions had had an effect after all—a devastating effect, the proportion of which was staggering.  Had it not been for Jason, an entire planet would still exist.  Countless trillions of organisms, now floating dead through space, would still be alive.  An intelligent species which may have developed, which may have eventually had an influence throughout the entire galaxy, was now wiped from existence.

      Zhyen said a few words in his own language to the security guards, who then promptly left the room, leaving Zhyen alone with Jason.  “I am truly sorry to give this news to you,” he said, his voice filled with what sounded like genuine compassion.  “I realise how terrible it must make you feel, and I deeply regret the decision made by the Council, but I’ve sworn an oath to perform my duties even if I find them distasteful.  I was ordered to alter the course of a comet so that it would result in the planet’s destruction, and although I voiced my objections I could not prevent it.  Had I not carried out the order, another vessel would have, and I would have been executed for treason.”

      Jason was just staring at the floor, struggling not to pass out or vomit.  But at Zhyen’s words he looked up and saw in those giant eyes a look of what appeared to be genuine concern.  But how could he tell?  How could he read the emotions of an unfamiliar species?  “You objected to the decision?” he asked weakly.

      “No race is all of one mind,” Zhyen replied.  “We all disagree with the powers that govern us from time to time, but we are not justified in disobeying as long as we agree with the central philosophy by which that power has established itself.  Personally I do not think the destruction of the planet was necessary, but I understand the need for caution, especially when it comes to enemies as powerful as the STAR.”

      “And what about me?” Jason asked.  “And Jessi?  How do you feel about taking us prisoner and holding us captive without food or water for days?”

      “I find such duties distasteful,” Zhyen replied, “but I understand why these precautions are necessary.  Personally, I believe your story and I am sorry that you find yourself in such a difficult situation.  But I also understand the need to bring you before the tribunal and debate your case.”

      “You believe me?” Jason asked.

      “Yes, and if I may be so bold I will also tell you that I have much sympathy for you.  I did not become Ambassador to the Human by accident.  I have always been very interested in your race.  I am extensively familiar with your history and the art that was produced in your ancient culture.  I have a great respect and admiration for the Human of the ancient epoch, from which you originate.  I can scarcely imagine the difficulty in adjusting to the new circumstances when you returned to find your species in the modern epoch.  I find your desire to escape completely understandable.  And your situation with the female must be incredibly difficult for you.”

      This was too much for Jason.  His head was spinning so quickly that he could barely think, let alone find any words to speak.  Yet he managed to squeeze out a weak, “I don’t deserve any sympathy.”

      “Perhaps not,” said Zhyen.  “But I am afraid I have already spent more than the allotted time for this interview.  I must call the guards to take you back to your cell.  Before you go, do you have any requests?”

      In spite of all his mental turmoil, an idea popped into Jason’s mind at the moment Zhyen offered him a chance to make a request.  “Brownie…what have you done with the creature…the animal from the planet you destroyed?”

      “We have done nothing but keep it in captivity,” Zhyen answered.  “The Council will decide whether it needs to be eliminated.”

      “Can you let Jessi hold on to it?  It would…it would really make this whole nightmare so much easier for her.”

      Zhyen paused to consider the request.  “I can not guarantee that such a thing will be permitted, but I will try to arrange it.  I will also order that both you and the female be fed and given soft surfaces to sleep on.  The degree of the threat you both pose is now under my discretion to determine.  I believe you pose no threat, and will therefore order that you both be made more comfortable.”

      “That won’t be necessary…for me,” said Jason, still struggling to speak.  “I sleep on the hard floor anyway, because…I feel so guilty.  Now I feel even more guilty, knowing I’m responsible…that I’m responsible for the destruction of that planet.  I just…I couldn’t accept anything that might make me more comfortable.”

      “As you wish,” said Zhyen.  “You are a unique individual, Jason Floyd.  I bid you farewell until our next meeting.”

      Zhyen shouted something and the security guards returned to the room.  “Dyorzhil ka Jason Floyd vun ka tlevzhirak,” Zhyen said to them. The guards approached Jason, who tried to stand but found his legs give out beneath him, his mind still racing with guilt and confusion.  The guards had to carry him back to his cell. 

* * * * * * * 

      Jason spent the next period of time—probably between ten and twenty hours—lying on the floor of his cell and agonizing over having caused the destruction of a planet.  He was given some sort of food, which looked like red mashed potatoes, but although he was starving he could not bring himself to eat it.  He had only a few tortured hours of sleep, in which he was haunted by nightmares of intelligent creatures that were never born accusing him of denying them their existence.

      Several hours after he abandoned even trying to sleep, Zhyen entered his cell again, this time unaccompanied by guards.

      “You feel personally responsible for the destruction of that planet,” Zhyen began immediately.  “But it was not your intention to have it destroyed.”

      “Intentions don’t matter,” Jason barked from the floor, his voice still weak with hunger and exhaustion.  “Only consequences matter.”

      “That is merely an ethical proposition,” Zhyen assured him.  “Is an action wrong because of its intended consequences or its actual consequences?  This is an ancient debate that by its very nature can not be resolved.  Since the time of Vyenkorzhak, the Yvenzhel have understood the ideals of right and wrong to be nothing more than mental abstracts.  Ethics are rooted in subjective feelings, not in the physical universe.”

      “I know,” Jason replied, still lying on the ground.  “I’ve felt that way most of my life, but it makes no difference.  Like with Jessi—I know what I did wasn’t wrong in any concrete sense, but it doesn’t make me feel any less guilty.”

      “Because you are the cause of her suffering?” Zhyen inquired.

      “Exactly,” Jason replied.  “And I’m also the cause of trillions of deaths, the annihilation of an entire planet.”

      “In that matter you are only one of many causes,” said Zhyen.  “You may bear some share of indirect responsibility, but only a small percentage.  My share of the responsibility is far greater, as it was my ship that knocked the comet onto its collision course.  Most of the responsibility lies with the Council of Allies, which itself is made up of hundreds of delegates thus diffusing the responsibility even further.  So no particular individual is to blame, especially you who had no way of knowing what the consequences of your actions would be.

      “And if you looked at things from a broader perspective,” Zhyen continued, “you would see that the planet’s destruction was actually the result of infinite causes.  You can blame the parents of the Council delegates for giving birth to them, or the person who introduced your grandmother to your grandfather.  Any past event that eventually led to the planet’s destruction can be blamed.  You can go further and blame the nebula from which the star and planet formed.  You can even blame the entire universe for simply existing in a form which allows such things to happen.  But to take all of the responsibility on your shoulders alone is not only illogical, but practically hubris.”

      These words reached Jason.  Their logic was undeniable, and for a moment he felt as though the weight really was lifted from his shoulders.  Then he thought of Jessi, and it all came crashing back.  “With that perspective you can justify anything,” said Jason.

      Zhyen let out an incredibly strange sound, something Jason had not heard in what felt like a billion years.  Although the tone was unfamiliar, the sound coming from Zhyen’s vocal chords could not have been anything but laughter.  “Yes indeed, Jason Floyd, yes indeed.  To shift blame from one’s own actions to the immutable laws of the universe is the ultimate method of justification.   To declare an action inevitable is to free oneself of responsibility.”

      “My kidnapping Jessi wasn’t inevitable,” said Jason.  “I had the opportunity to make the right decisions, but I didn’t and now we’re both fucked.  I can’t free myself of responsibility for that.”

      “And perhaps you ought not,” said Zhyen.  “But the planet’s destruction is an entirely different matter.  Political forces that have been in place for aeons are ultimately what led to the destruction of that world.  It is not the first world that such forces have destroyed and it will most certainly not be the last.”

      Suddenly Jason sat up and stared Zhyen straight in the eyes.  “And what are these forces all about, anyway?  How can you claim to be a ‘peaceful race’ when you think that destroying an entire planet is justified?”

      “Whether the destruction of a planet is justified is irrelevant,” Zhyen spoke.  “The concept of ethical justification is an abstract.  A civilisation does not acquire and maintain power for very long by following a strict code of self-imposed ethics.  It does so by doing whatever is necessary to maintain order and eliminate all possible threats.”

      “What was so threatening about my presence around the planet?” Jason challenged.  “Why couldn’t you confront me, find out what I was doing, and then destroy the planet if you found it to be necessary?”

      “The planet’s destruction became necessary the moment you set foot on it,” Zhyen answered with a trace of regret.  “In the eyes of the Council, the world had been irrevocably contaminated by the Human.  The Council of Allies has resolved to keep this galaxy free of all Human influence, however small that influence may be.”

      “Why?” Jason pressed.  “Why is that necessary?”

      “The Human are our enemies,” Zhyen replied.  “It is very unlikely that will ever change.  Had you gone undetected longer and an intelligent species had arisen on that world, you would have communicated with them. You cannot deny this, as you said in our interview that you would have done so.  As a result, this civilisation might have borne sympathetic feelings to the Human, which could have led to unnecessary civil strife within our own galactic borders.  The Council may have been forced to go to war with this race.  This would have cost even more lives—intelligent lives.  As a matter of precaution, it was decided to eliminate this possibility before it had a chance to occur.  So rather than risk a future war that would result in the destruction of an intelligent civilisation, we destroyed a planet occupied only by primitive life.”

      “Innocent life,” Jason remarked.

      “Another abstract concept,” said Zhyen.  “But if you insist on condemning us for this action, you may.  And if you insist on feeling guilty for your role in this tragedy, you may do so as well.  I merely wanted to explain our actions to you and attempt to alleviate some of your guilt.  You must eat, Jason Floyd.  I will return at a later time for our next interview.”

      Jason did not reply.  Zhyen left the room, and a security guard entered with another plate of food.  Before the internal debate in Jason’s mind could even get started, he angrily shoved the food into his mouth.  Responsibility or no responsibility, Jason thought, the collapse of his pointless resolve not to eat was inevitable. 

* * * * * * * 

      Lying on his stomach on the hard floor, Jason tried to put his emotions to the side and consider his situation objectively.  Was there anything more he could be doing to help ensure Jessi’s safety?  Was friendly cooperation his only option, or was there even a small chance of actually escaping back to his ship?  Jason was sure of one thing—he did not trust Zhyen.

      There was something about the ambassador that seemed artificial.  He was not just acting too nice or too sympathetic, but too human.  An intelligent race in another galaxy with a billion years of separate history should not be so similar to Jason’s people in demeanour.  Communication was far too easy.  They shared the same concepts and concerns.  Zhyen even claimed a fondness for ancient human art.

      And yet he had personally overseen the destruction of an entire planet.  He was keeping Jason and Jessi in solitary confinement with an absolute minimum of comfort. He was taking them to be tried and very likely executed before a governing force that believed their ends were justified by even the most abominable means.  All the while he acted like a friend and confidant to Jason.  Jason simply didn’t buy it.

      The whole thing must merely be a diplomatic ploy.  Zhyen was probably using friendliness as a technique—if he could convince Jason that he was trying to help him, Jason might reveal more to him than he would say otherwise.  If Jason believed Zhyen to be a friend, he would be less inclined to try and escape.  He might seriously believe that the Council would find him innocent and let him go.

      But the more Jason thought about this Council of Allies, the less hope he had of actually being set free.  Zhyen had mentioned the cautiousness of his people more than once.  Their government was so cautious in fact that they would destroy a planet to eliminate the mere possibility of future conflict with a race that might have come into being.  None of them had to take personal responsibility for such destruction, because it was a Council made up of hundreds of delegates.  Jason could not honestly believe that such a force would actually let him and Jessi go, even if they believed in their innocence. 

      No, the situation was all but hopeless and Zhyen could not be trusted.  Jason had to start thinking of another way out of this situation.  The problem was that the Yvenzhel were so cautious that he would almost certainly never find an opportunity to escape.  He knew of their technology which could somehow transport people from one place to another through space, but he would most likely never come within ten feet of the equipment that could do this.  And even if he could, he would have no idea how to use it.  Not to mention that he had no idea where his ship was or where Jessi was being held.

      Without realising what he was doing, Jason began lifting his head off the floor and letting it fall back down with a thud.  For awhile he continued to bump his head on the ground in this manner, until Zhyen finally entered with two guards who lifted him up and escorted him back to the interrogation room. 

* * * * * * * 

      “This interview process will be much different from the first,” Zhyen began once they were both seated in the dark red room.  “We have very little time, so today I will not ask you any specific questions, but merely give you a chance to respond to some information.  We have confirmed your story of the circumstances under which you returned to our galaxy.  It seems that you were indeed chased by a vessel occupied by the Arnold Juciper and an agent of the STAR, though we could not confirm whether this agent was in fact the Brian Davis.  Your ship was indeed cornered by nearly one hundred ships of the STAR, and the Arnold Juciper did in fact destroy his own vessel which allowed you to escape.”

      “How could you possibly have confirmed that?” Jason asked.  “STAR would never have given you that information.”

      “You are correct,” said Zhyen.  “The STAR has denied your story, at least the parts that were deniable.  They claim you obtained the ICT technology illegally and this is the reason their security ships were chasing you.  They claim that the Arnold Juciper was part of your plan, and the STAR agent with him was his bodyguard, also complicit.”

      “They expect you to believe that?” asked Jason.

      “They do not,” said Zhyen.  “Their story is completely unbelievable.  If the plan was for you and the Arnold Juciper to escape from your galaxy with the ICT technology, he would not have taken a bodyguard employed by the STAR, and it is unlikely that he would not have been with his family.  That the female was on your ship and the other members of the Juciper family were not makes their story nonsensical.”

      “Doesn’t it seem like if they were going to invent a story they would at least make it believable?” asked Jason.

      “I believe they have deliberately given us a story that is obviously false,” said Zhyen, “in the hopes that we will assume the entire incident that brought you here was a rouse on their part to infiltrate our galaxy.  They want us to believe you are working for them, I believe, because they want you to be executed.”

      “That makes perfect sense,” said Jason.  “But why even admit to all that about my being cornered by a hundred ships and everything?”

      “They cannot deny the visible facts,” said Zhyen.  “We have an extremely sophisticated system of monitoring the past.”

      “What?  How?” asked Jason.

      “We have telescopes positioned throughout our galaxy and beyond its borders stretching half-way to the edge of the Local Group,” Zhyen informed him.  “Because light takes time to travel through the universe, each telescope is receiving light from different time periods, but it can transmit the information to us instantaneously.  If we want to know what happened at a certain point in time we merely access the telescope that is in the necessary position, point it at the area of space in question, and watch the event.  We were able to witness the confrontation between your ship and the STAR with our own eyes.  This is also how we were able to determine that you had in fact set foot on the planet you had been studying.”

      “Amazing,” Jason remarked.  “So you’ve actually got proof of my innocence?”

      “Unfortunately it is not that simple,” said Zhyen.  “Visual evidence is always subject to many interpretations.  It is just as likely that you and the STAR staged the entire event to provide you with an explanation for your presence in our galaxy should you have been discovered.  The female may have been placed on your ship to lend credence to your story, and the Arnold Juciper may have been forced to sacrifice himself as well.”

      “Then why wouldn’t they confirm my story?” asked Jason.  “Why give you one that was clearly made up?”

      “There are some parts of your story that they could not openly admit to, such as allowing a civilian ship to be equipped with banned technology, or that the leader of the STAR was killed in the process of your escape.”

      “But you can’t honestly believe that everything was staged by STAR?”

      “I do not believe it,” said Zhyen.  “As I have already said, I believe you have been truthful with us from the beginning.  I am merely informing you that the evidence we have does not completely prove your innocence.  Your story is in fact so perfect that many will disbelieve it for that very reason.  What better excuse could an agent of the STAR have for being present in our galaxy than that he was unaware of our existence and had come here as a fugitive?  The presence of a young female could easily have been designed to throw off suspicion.

      “Then there is the undisputed fact that you have worked for the STAR in the past, and the very incriminating fact that you were one of the twenty-three who first came to our galaxy.  There is your testimony that you were acquainted with the leader of the STAR, the Rachael Juciper, whom the STAR claim was the genuine head of the company and not merely a puppet.  Finally there is your suspicious presence around a planet in one of our protected areas, for purposes unknown.  You claim that you were merely studying the planet scientifically, but many will find this difficult to believe.  The data you retrieved and which we have studied may have had scientific value a long time ago, but not in the present day.  All of the information you gathered had been available in Human scientific journals even before the time of your departure.”

      “What are you trying to say?” asked Jason.

      “I am merely offering you the facts of the case to let you know what you are up against.  If perhaps you would like to offer another explanation or change your story in any way, you may do so.”

      “You know damned well that if I change my story I’m as good as convicted!” Jason exclaimed, losing his self-control for a moment.

      “Then you do not with to alter your version of events?” asked Zhyen.

      “Of course not!” Jason shouted.  “My version is the truth!”

      “Good,” said Zhyen.  “I had expected as much, but I had to give you the chance to recant.  It was my duty as Ambassador.”

      Jason breathed a heavy sigh.

      “I know you distrust me,” said Zhyen.  “I completely understand this.  In your place I would not trust myself either.  I am in an awkward position indeed.  But we will continue to conduct interviews and I will do my best to defend you at the trial.  Hopefully I can convince the Council to free you.”

      “You’re going to be defending me?” asked Jason, not sure how to feel about this new development.

      “I am, and I intend to do so successfully,” said Zhyen.  “This will be the defining moment of my career.  Not every Ambassador to the Human has had the opportunity to actually deal with a Human face to face.  I have had the exceptional fortune of dealing with three others before you, all of whom were in fact spies for the STAR.  Two of these I prosecuted successfully, while the third did not give himself up willingly, and I was forced to engage his ship in battle.  I destroyed him but lost many valuable members of my crew.  My career has earned me quite an honourable reputation.

      “But I believe that you are not a spy, and I am anxious to demonstrate to the Council that not all Human are a threat to us.  I am one of a very small minority of individuals in this galaxy who do not believe that war with the Human is inevitable.  If I can do my part to show that not all of the Human are dishonest and violent, it may eventually lead to a more open-minded view of your people on the part of the Council.  By the time our galaxies collide, there may yet be a chance for peaceful coexistence.”

      “You can’t be serious,” said Jason.  “If you’re looking for an example of an honourable human, I am definitely not the right choice.”

      “Ultimately, that will be for the Council to judge,” said Zhyen.  “But we have very little time today, and I am afraid that time has now expired, along with my obligations to interview you.  However I will continue to conduct interviews with you until we reach our destination, no longer as Ambassador but as counsel for your defence.”

      Jason had no response.  He remained silent, trying to work out Zhyen’s possible motives in his mind.

      “And before you go,” Zhyen continued, “I should inform you that I have attempted to receive permission from my superiors to allow you to see the female.  Unfortunately my request was denied.  However they agreed with me that it would be harmless to keep the creature you rescued in the female’s cell.  It is with her now.”

      Jason blinked, and let out an awkward, “Thank you?” 
 “I assure you it was the absolute least I could do,” said Zhyen.

      “Have you been interrogating her as well?” Jason asked.  “How is she doing?”

      “I have questioned her, and her story matches yours,” Zhyen informed him.  “However I can not say that she is doing well.  This situation is just as difficult for her as it is for you, probably more so.”

      “That’s what I expected I guess,” Jason sighed.

      “I regret that we seem to always end our conversations on an unpleasant note,” said Zhyen.  “But as I have said, we have run out of time.  I will see you again soon.”  And with that he promptly stood, calling the guards to escort Jason back to his cell once again. 

* * * * * * * 

      In what might have been exactly twenty-four hours, Zhyen and two security guards returned to Jason’s cell to escort him back to the interrogation room.  As usual, Zhyen walked a few paces ahead of Jason while the guards followed several paces behind.  Jason did not notice anything out of the ordinary until they were halfway to the elevators in the middle of the deck, when he heard the sound of footsteps coming around the corridor.

      A group of three guards appeared in a triangular formation, and walking in the middle of them was Jessi.  Jason was shocked, and he stopped dead in his place.  When she spotted him, she cried, “Jason!” and took off in his direction.  But she was only able to take two steps before the guards grabbed her and dragged her back in the opposite direction, out of Jason’s sight.  All the while she was calling out to him.

      Jason felt his already weakened legs grow weaker, and his already tortured mind begin to swim even faster with confusion and frustration.  The guards behind him pushed him forward and he resumed walking without a word, but he tripped on his own feet and fell to the floor.

      The sound of Jessi’s cries echoed through his mind.  She was calling out his name, as though begging him to save her.  Him.  Jason Floyd, who had destroyed her life and her family, who was even responsible for her current predicament.  Calling for him.  Running to him.  Crying out his name.  “Jason!  Jason please help me!”

      The long fingers of the security guards wrapped themselves around Jason’s arms and lifted him to his feet.  They began dragging him through the hall, but with an effort he took his footing and resumed walking on his own.  The guards fell back into place and they all continued through the corridor as though nothing had happened. 

* * * * * * * 

      Unlike the previous two interviews, the guards waited outside of the door while Zhyen and Jason were seated alone in the room.  Zhyen began by saying, “I am sure you realise what happened just now was no error.”

      Actually, that hadn’t even occurred to Jason.  “You mean you planned that little encounter?”

      “Yes.  You wanted to see the female and now you have,” said Zhyen.  “And it can be called an unfortunate accident, with no harm done.”

      “Um…thank you?” said Jason, now unsure as to whether he had actually wanted to see Jessi in the first place.  Without being able to see her, she was less real to him.  She was merely a thought, an image in his mind to represent his ever-present guilt.  But now that he had seen her alive on this alien ship, she was suddenly an actual person again.  Not just an idea that tortured Jason, but a real human being with an awareness of her own predicament.  Jason had almost forgotten what all that torture was about—he didn’t mind loathing himself and feeling awful all the time because he was used to it.  But to have the reminder that she was being tortured as well through no fault of her own…the cold comfort of Jason’s guilt had vanished and been replaced with genuine, agonising feelings of remorse and self-hatred.

      “I had thought you would have been happy to see her,” said Zhyen with a tone of concern.  “Now you know that she is alive and unharmed.”

      “Unharmed?” said Jason.  “No, she isn’t.  The harm I’ve done to that poor fucking girl is beyond anything that an innocent person should have to go through.”

      “I apologise then,” said Zhyen.  “I had not realised.  Perhaps you would rather we conduct our interview some other time?”

      “No,” Jason cried abruptly.  “No, there are a few things that have been bothering me that I need to ask you.  I’ve been waiting awhile for the chance, and I can’t wait any longer.”

      “Very well,” the concern in Zhyen’s tone disappeared.  “Then let me explain how this process will work from now on.  You have far more questions for me than I have for you.  So we will begin each session with a question from me to you.  Once you have given me the information I need, you may use the rest of our time to ask as many questions as you like.”

      “Okay,” said Jason, trying and failing to shake the image of Jessi and her agony out of his mind.

      “I and the rest of my people have always been curious as to why the twenty-three came to our galaxy in the first place,” Zhyen began.  “You did not depart during the rise of the modern epoch but rather at its very beginning, in the transition between the ancient and modern Human periods.  This was before the STAR had found any extra-terrestrial life and initiated its policy of indiscriminate conquest.  Your race had barely expanded beyond its local group of stars, and yet the decision was made to embark on a journey all the way to the next spiral galaxy.  Why?”

      Jason looked at Zhyen’s absurd eyes, bent forward and staring him in the face.  What were the creature’s true motives?  It sounded like he was asking this question out of pure curiosity.  It would seem as though he had set up that chance encounter between Jason and Jessi as some sort of gift to Jason…a way to earn his trust.  He must have some ulterior motive, but Jason could not figure out what it was.  But he had no time to ponder that now, as he had to answer Zhyen’s question. 

      “That’s a point of contention even among our own people,” Jason began.  “The only real answer is that we did it because we could.  One of our top administrators, Jim Lampert, had the idea in his mind and figured that with existing technology it would be possible to send a ship to Andromeda and have it take only a year for the astronauts on board.”

      “But back then the five-million year journey must have seemed an eternity,” Zhyen put in.

      “Oh, it did,” said Jason.  “A lot of people thought he was crazy.  There was absolutely no need to go to Andromeda, and a great deal of doubt as to whether humans would still be around when we came back.  But we went anyway.  Although nobody could ever confirm it, a lot of people believed it was just a publicity stunt.  People were losing interest in STAR and funding was low.  Sending human beings to another galaxy was STAR’s way of showing everyone just how incredible their potential was.  If STAR could reach the next galaxy it was capable of just about anything.  People would stop looking at it as just a simple company and more like the arm of humanity itself, stretching out into the universe.”

      “Fascinating,” said Zhyen.  “So you would say that the STAR has always had great ambitions?”

      “Actually, back then the motives seemed pretty pure,” said Jason.  “The purpose of STAR wasn’t conquest or control but merely exploration.  That’s how it all began anyway.  Just the innocent desire to explore our surroundings.  But when colonisation was thrown into the picture, it opened up a whole new direction for STAR.  They were no longer just controlling missions to distant stars, but organising colonies and serving as a form of government.  As the colonies grew in size and number, STAR grew more and more powerful.  While we were gone it managed to expand through our whole galaxy and become the sovereign governing force over everything.  But back when we left I really don’t think STAR had any tyrannical motives.”

      “I see,” said Zhyen.  “That is very interesting.  Now you may ask me anything you like.”

      “I have so many questions,” Jason began.  “I wanted to ask you about the other races in your galaxy, and about your technology, but a few bits of yesterday’s interview have been sticking in my mind.  I need to ask…what happened to Lauren and Rachael Juciper?  You mentioned Rachael in our interview yesterday.  Did STAR tell you what happened to her and her mother?  Did you find out when you were using your telescopes to investigate?”

      Zhyen was silent for a moment.  “We were unable to determine the fate of these individuals, although we did not investigate this to our full potential.  If you like, I can personally look into this for you.”

      “You could do that?” asked Jason.

      “I will access a telescope at my next opportunity and attempt to determine their fate,” said Zhyen.  “But now you would like to know about the other races in our galaxy?”

      “Yes, the other three civilisations,” said Jason, using every effort of will to push his thoughts of Jessi and her family to the side.  “What are they like?”

      “They are all quite different from each other in many ways,” Zhyen began, “but also very similar in certain respects.  Each of the four dominant species in our galaxy has evolved from very different types of creatures.  The Yvenzhel, as I have said, evolved from what you might call ‘tree-dwellers’.  Over time, random genetic mutations gave us the two necessary traits for development into an intelligent technological species—dexterity and large brain size.  Like the Human, our time in the trees had already given us the advantage of dexterity, and when our brains began to grow, our movement towards becoming an advanced race accelerated until we survived our nuclear period and began to explore our solar system and finally the rest of our galaxy, the Zhelva.

      “The first interstellar empire we encountered was that of the Ngyang, who evolved from reptilian creatures similar to the dinosaurs that inhabited your world in the prehistoric epoch.  It is not uncommon to find a world dominated by such reptilian species, as they have many natural evolutionary advantages, but for one such species to develop intelligence is extremely rare.  The Ngyang had the luck of a genetic mutation which increased their brain size threefold, a trait that survived through the generations until the advantage of dexterity—also highly uncommon in reptilian creatures—randomly appeared in their genetic code.  Slowly but surely the Ngyang became their world’s dominant species and eventually made it to interstellar space.

      “Not far from the Ngyang home-world, however, another intelligent species began to develop at a far faster rate.  The Heohweh are the only known interstellar empire native to the type of world you call a ‘gas giant’.  They evolved from creatures that dwelt in the upper atmosphere of a gaseous world similar to your planet Jupiter.  These balloon-like creatures who maintain their buoyancy through the hot air inside their own bodies existed for billions of years without even a spark of intelligence, until a random mutation blessed them with that advantage.  The tentacles that they had been using merely to capture other creatures and devour them suddenly became tools for engineering, and before long they were expanding their race throughout the galaxy and acquiring new territory gas planet by gas planet.

      “Because gas planets are far more common in the universe than rocky worlds with a stable orbit and liquid water, the Heohweh had a far easier time expanding, and the Ngyang very quickly recognised this threat. Although neither could exist on the same type of world, neither the Ngyang nor the Heohweh wanted to share any star systems.  It was unacceptable for the Ngyang living on a rocky world to allow the Heohweh to occupy a gas world in the same star system.  The Heohweh felt the same way about the Ngyang occupying a rocky world in the same star system as one of their gas worlds.

      “This of course led to conflict and a violent interstellar war that lasted for nearly an entire galactic rotation.  But when the hostilities between these two races began to encroach into the territory of the Yvenzhel, we had to put an end to it.  The Yvenzhel threatened to enter the conflict on the side of whichever race pledged itself in an eternal alliance with us.  Because both races knew that it could not prevail if the Yvenzhel were on the side of their enemy, they both pledged themselves in an alliance with us, and a peace agreement was reached, awarding an equal amount of territory to the Ngyang and the Heohweh.  The Ngyang now occupy more star systems than the Heohweh, but because gas planets are far more common the Heohweh actually control more planets and their empire is much denser.

      “The final extra-terrestrial empire was first encountered by the Yvenzhel during our exploration of the galactic core.  In the barren, rocky worlds around the centre of our galaxy was a very unique species that required no air to breathe, and survived underground, burrowing through solid rock.  This race, the Rkragrii, was one of great strength long before it developed intelligence.  Its body is merely a strong central casing for the brain surrounded by ten solid appendages for burrowing and climbing up cave walls.  When their brains became large enough to allow for a form of language, industrial society appeared at record pace.  They fought no internal wars, and began taking over other barren worlds and building their underground civilisations without conflict.  The Rkragrii remained neutral during the war between the Ngyang and the Heohweh, content to remain within the densely packed area at the centre of our galaxy so long as no other species attempted to encroach upon it.

      “Despite our many differences, each of the dominant races in our galaxy shares several important things in common.  We all have a strong sense of territoriality, as well as a drive for expansion.  But this drive is kept in check by our even greater inclination towards peace and stability.  All races that we know of that control interstellar empires, including the Human, are essentially systems designed for self-maintenance.  We do not like change, and we do not value progress if that progress is dangerous.  While minor technological breakthroughs are made occasionally, things tend to remain as they are for many galactic rotations.

      “When this galaxy was younger there were other interstellar civilisations, but the four that survived did so because they shared the characteristics I have just described.  Races of great ambition, those who valued rapid progress and a constant drive to expand their own knowledge and power have all been destroyed.  They were simply too dangerous, and races more inclined towards stability banded together and wiped them out.  Now we have a solid group of allied civilisations, each with its own clearly defined borders and sovereignty over their own race.  The peace is kept by the principle that all races have agreed to live by, which is never to attack another race or encroach on one another’s territory.  Should any of the four civilisations violate this agreement the other three will rise up against it.  Each civilisation therefore knows it is incapable of expanding its territory any further, and is thus content to maintain things as they are.  As separate nations we are vulnerable, but together we make up one Great Empire, the strongest in the known universe.

      “As an allied force, our only true enemy is the Human.  The truth is that your race would have been eliminated or pacified long ago if you had evolved here in the Zhelva, but you were lucky enough to evolve on your own very rapidly and very early in the history of your own galaxy, the Kazva.  And although you live by the same value of maintaining things as they are for the sake of stability, it is believed that you would expand beyond your galactic borders if it were possible.  You would almost certainly have attempted to take over the Zhelva if it had not already been strongly held when you first came here.

      “But once our galaxies collide and all of our territories are distorted and meshed together, chaos will almost certainly erupt.  The STAR is about as powerful as the Yvenzhel, but they could never defeat all four of our species on their own.  Their only hope for victory, as they are no doubt aware, is to form an alliance with one or two of the other races and even the odds.  This is why we grow so nervous whenever the presence of a Human is detected within our borders.  We cannot allow any chance of divisions to be forged between us, or we may face annihilation when the galactic collision occurs.  It is with this in mind that the Council of Allies will hear your case and decide your fate.”

      Jason had been so fascinated by what Zhyen was telling him that he’d forgotten all about the dire situation he was in, and the almost certain doom that awaited him.  “It sounds pretty hopeless,” said Jason.

      “Not completely,” said Zhyen.  “I am well respected by the Council.  If it is my opinion that you are innocent and you ought to be let go, this will hold a great deal of sway among the delegates.”

      “And just who are these delegates anyway?” asked Jason.  “I don’t suppose they’re elected democratically?”

      “No,” Zhyen answered.  “Democracy is not a pragmatic form of government over large territories.  Even before the time of Vyenkorzhak, it was known that democracy is only effective in small groups.”

      “So how are things run in your galaxy?” Jason asked.

      “The Yvenzhel system of government is a hierarchy composed of leaders of varying degrees of responsibility.  There is always one Yvenzhel in charge of each family, each neighbourhood, each city, each terrestrial region, each planet, each star system, and finally each interstellar region, of which there are 144 in the Yvenzhel territory.  The leaders of each interstellar region are the delegates to the Council of Allies.  The other civilisations operate by similar hierarchies, with only minor differences in how leaders are chosen.  For instance, the Ngyang appoint their leaders from below until the planetary level, while this only happens among the Yvenzhel at the family level, where the person given authority to speak for the family unit is decided within the family.

      “This hierarchical structure is of course essential in all governments with control over large territories.  In fact the only important difference between our system and that of the STAR is that the supreme authority in our galaxy is divided among hundreds of Council delegates, whereas in the STAR it is given to only one person at a time, the C.E.O.

      “Among the Yvenzhel, all leaders above the family level are chosen by their predecessors.  A leader keeps his position for as long as he chooses unless he is ordered from above to step down.  Upon retirement, the final responsibility for any Yvenzhel in a position of power is to name his successor.”

      “Is that how you became Ambassador?” Jason asked, for the first time feeling curious about Zhyen’s personal history.  Now that he knew Zhyen would be defending him at the trial, he wanted to know more about him.

      “It is,” answered Zhyen.  “My grandfather, the Tarkzhyenzhel, served as Ambassador to the Human for many galactic rotations, until he finally retired and took a female.  He had hoped that his son, the Vyentarkzhel, would eventually follow in his footsteps, so he appointed a friend of his to succeed him on the condition that he step down once the Vyentarkzhel was ready to take over.  But although the Vyentarkzhel was taught to appreciate Human culture, he took a female very early in life and decided not to become Ambassador, a career which requires the use of a time-scale and is therefore incompatible with family life.  The Vyentarkzhel moved to a young, Earth-like world called Tluk, where he instilled his father’s love of Human art and history into me, his first-born son.  When the time came, I took the opportunity that he had sacrificed, and I was appointed Ambassador to the Human by the man whom my grandfather, the Tarkzhyenzhel, had appointed.”

      Jason thought for a moment, contemplating what the Ambassador’s life must have been like, raised to appreciate the culture of a civilisation that his own people considered to be their worst enemy.  Zhyen was silent too, seemingly lost in thought.  Jason had a feeling that some crucial detail had been left out of his story, but he decided not to press the Ambassador.  But there was another question he had been meaning to ask.

      “The way you talk about females…” Jason began, but he had a hard time coming up with the right words for his question.  “You don’t seem to hold women in a very high regard in your culture.”

      “On the contrary,” said Zhyen.  “Females are of tremendous value among the Yvenzhel.  You must understand that the division of sexes is far more pronounced in our species than among the Human.  There is only one female born for every six males.  It is the duty of every female to couple with a male and produce offspring to continue the species.  The duty of raising children is more important and respected than many of the duties of public life.”

      “But are all of your women forced to take the role of mother, even if they don’t want to?” asked Jason.

      “No, of course not,” said Zhyen.  “While it is true that they are strongly encouraged to accept this role, and most do so gladly, it is inevitable that some females desire a chance to serve in public life.  Such females are given that opportunity, but they must undergo surgery to prevent them from producing offspring.  We see it as immoral for a female to be both a public servant and a mother, as this would be an unfair disadvantage for her children.”

      “I thought morality was nothing but mental abstracts,” said Jason.

      For the second time since Jason had met him, he heard the bizarre sound of Zhyen’s laughter.  “Yes, that is true indeed,” he said.  “But one thing you would notice about our people if you spent enough time among us is that in spite of the teachings of Vyenkorzhak, the Yvenzhel have never been able to fully break free from our natural inclination to moral judgment.  All we have truly lost is the ability to justify these judgments.  We accept that morality is not absolute, but we have not abandoned our morals.”

      “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Jason, who was now completely lost in thought.  There was so much to think about that Jason had almost completely forgotten about his encounter with Jessi immediately prior to the interview, or the questions he had regarding the fate of Lauren and Rachael.

      After a lengthy pause, Zhyen spoke again.  “We have run out of time, but I do have a moment to spare.  When we began our session, you had indicated your curiosity regarding our technology?”

      “Yes,” Jason remembered.  “I’ve been wanting to ask you for awhile.  The way you took me and Jessi from my ship…how did you do that?”

      “Yes, you left your galaxy before the Great Discovery,” Zhyen began.  “You would not understand how this was done.”

      “What do you mean?” now Jason’s interest was peaked.  “What’s the ‘Great Discovery’?  Can you explain it to me?”

      “Unfortunately I can not,” said Zhyen.  “I am forbidden to give you any information regarding our technology, and I can not explain the Great Discovery without inadvertently providing you with the knowledge that this scientific information can be used to create transportation technology.  We do not believe the STAR has made this discovery yet and we must maintain this advantage at all costs.  Although I do not believe that you would inform the STAR of anything I tell you, giving you that information would be dangerous for you.  If the Council knew, they might refuse to let you go even if they found you innocent simply due to the small chance that the STAR might someday be able to retrieve this information from you.”

      Jason was disappointed, but he knew it would be pointless to argue.  “Then I guess we’re done for today,” he said.

      “Very well,” said Zhyen.  “I will meet you again soon.”

      And with a few words from Zhyen, the guards were back in the room.  Jason walked back to his cell on his own this time, as the guards merely followed and operated the elevator and doors.  Although he kept an eye out for her, he did not see Jessi again. 

* * * * * * * 

      Jason had no way of knowing how much time was passing in the cell, yet he somehow anticipated Zhyen’s return only a moment before it happened.  He had remained awake the entire time with perhaps only a few minutes of scattered sleep.  At one point during the long, monotonous wait, he suddenly felt completely certain that Zhyen was about to re-enter his cell, as though he could somehow feel him coming.  Sure enough, Zhyen entered a moment after Jason had this premonition.

      As soon as Zhyen returned, Jason immediately stood and asked, “Did you find out about Lauren and Rachael?”

      “I did,” answered Zhyen, without a hint in his tone as to whether the news was good or bad.

      “Well?” Jason pressed.

      “I will answer at the appropriate time,” Zhyen coldly informed him.  “Now we must return to the interview room.”

      Jason opened his mouth to begin to argue, but reminded himself again that it was no use.  Silently he followed Zhyen back to the room with the guards behind him.  As soon as they were situated, with the guards outside the room again, Jason repeated his question.

      “Please tell me what you know,” he said.  “It’s been killing me.”

      “I will,” Zhyen replied, “but we must maintain the proper format for these interviews.  I must ask you a question before I answer yours.”

      “Fine, fine, go ahead,” said Jason, figuring that he had lived for months with the uncertainty of what had happened to Rachael and Lauren and that he could last a few more minutes if he had to.

      “This is a very important question,” said Zhyen.  “It goes right to the heart of your case, so I must ask it now.  It has to do with the banned ICT technology on your ship.  You said you were able to obtain it because you knew the Rachael Juciper, who at the time was in the top position at the STAR.  However you also claim that the Rachael Juciper was not actually in control of the company, but merely a puppet for the Brian Davis who had been posing as bodyguard for the Arnold Juciper.”

      “Yes, that’s exactly right,” Jason responded.  “What’s the question?”

      “How was the Rachael Juciper able to equip your ship with the banned technology if she had no real power herself?” Zhyen asked.

      Jason took a deep breath and searched his mind for the answer.  “I don’t know,” he said as he thought.  “I’ve honestly never even thought about it.  I didn’t realise she was just a figurehead when I asked her for ICT, and I didn’t ask her any questions once it was installed on my ship.  I suppose she just went ahead and gave the order to her engineers without consulting Brian Davis.”

      “But you are not certain?” Zhyen pressed.

      “No, I’m not,” said Jason.  “But now that I’m thinking about it she must have done it without the knowledge of Brian Davis.  I’d asked him for the technology a few years beforehand but he forbade me from having it.  Rachael must have…” Jason stopped, suddenly realising the awful implication in what he was saying.  Rachael had snuck behind her boss’s back and risked her career and quite possibly her life to give Jason the technology which he later used to abduct her sister and ruin her family.  “What happened to her?” he asked again, in a very low voice.

      “Please finish what you were about to say,” Zhyen urged him.

      “I’m finished with what I have to say,” Jason spoke through his teeth, feeling an oncoming rush of anger rising from deep inside his mind.  “Now tell me what happened to Rachael.  Tell me what happened to Lauren.”

      “I will,” said Zhyen.  “But before I do I must be perfectly clear on this point.  Are you saying that the Rachael Juciper was able to order engineers to equip your ship with banned technology on her own, without permission from the Brian Davis, whom you say was the actual leader of the STAR?”

      “Yes,” Jason answered, growing ever more impatient.  “I doubt the engineers knew that she was just a puppet.  When she gave the order they just followed it.  Now please just tell me what happened to her.”

      “Very well,” Zhyen seemed to sigh.  Jason braced himself for the worst.  Zhyen took a deep breath, and spoke.  “During the crisis, while you were on the run from the ship of the Arnold Juciper, both the Rachael and the Lauren Juciper were kept in the mission control room at the headquarters of the STAR on Earth.  They were then taken to a bunker below the building and kept under guard.  This is presumably the time at which you began threatening to expose the policy of the STAR to exterminate all extra-terrestrial species on newly discovered planets.

      “At the same time, the STAR released a story to the news media claiming that all four members of the Juciper family were in great peril, that their ship had been attacked by the Jason Floyd in an attempt to kidnap their younger daughter.  When you escaped from the galaxy, the media reported that the STAR Security forces had been able to destroy your ship but could not save the Jucipers.  The Rachael and the Lauren Juciper were executed and their bodies were burned, having never left the bunker.”

      Jason could not move.  He could not think.  His mind could not seem to process this information properly.  For a few seconds, all he could do was sit and blink.  He stared at Zhyen, who was silently observing his reaction, not daring to speak anymore.  He must have been aware that he had just given Jason the most devastating news he had ever heard, but he gave no indication of emotion.

      Then slowly it began to hit him.  Lauren was killed.  Rachael was killed.  STAR had killed them both.  Their lives were violently taken from them.  They were killed because of Jason.  He might as well have pulled the trigger himself.  He had killed Lauren.  He had killed the woman he loved for most of his life.  He had killed Rachael.  He had killed the only girl who actually considered him a friend.  She had risked her career and her life to do Jason a favour, and was repaid by her own premature death.

      Jason’s heart began to pump faster and faster.  He found himself short of breath.  All of the blood in his body raced to his head.  His mind was assaulted by images of the Juciper family and the lives they might have lived.  Jessi and her father off on an adventure.  Arnold and Lauren cuddling in bed together.  Rachael married to a good man.  Lauren and Jessi embracing as she comes home from college.  Arnold beaming with pride at the accomplishments of his daughters, with Lauren by his side until the end.

      None of this would ever be, and it was undeniably Jason’s fault.  He had stolen their futures, wiped out their potential happiness and replaced it with tragedy—his own personal tragedy.  Theirs was a rich life full of love and happiness, and his darkness had invaded and completely demolished it.  They were all dead now.  Arnold, Rachael, and Lauren were dead, and Jessi might as well be.  She probably would be soon.

      Jason’s head would not stop spinning.  With each agonizing half-second that passed, his mind was ripped apart by the darkness.  Soon he could not breathe at all.  The last image he saw in his mind’s eye was that of Lauren’s grateful, tear-stained face on the Andromeda after he had rescued Arnold from the black hole.  Then finally fate had mercy on Jason Floyd.  He passed out and collapsed on the floor. 

* * * * * * * 

      Alone in a dark cell, Jessi sat in silence and stroked Brownie’s fur for hours on end.  She had no idea how long she had been there, but it felt like years.  She hadn’t thought that anything could be worse than being trapped on Jason’s ship for all that time, but being held captive by these aliens was.  At least she’d had a comfortable bed on Jason’s ship, and food that actually tasted good.  The mattress they had given her was too thin, and what little flavour the food had was not to her taste—she let Brownie eat most of it.  And to top it all off, there were no windows and the dim violet light did nothing to keep her mood from sinking lower than she had ever thought possible.

      When she’d first appeared in the room, she had yelled and screamed and cried, pounding on the walls and shouting, but nobody came to her for what felt like days.  She would fall asleep, wake up, scream and pound some more, and eventually fall asleep again.  When those hideous aliens came into the cell the first time, she passed out from sheer terror, and found herself alone again when she woke up.  As the time crawled by she found herself crying on and off with such frequency that eventually she stopped noticing whether she was crying or not.

      Eventually the aliens returned, and one of them who called himself Zhyen spoke to her in English, in a tone that was suspiciously compassionate.  They brought her out of the cell and up to a room with a dark red light, and Zhyen asked her questions about how she had ended up on Jason’s ship in their galaxy.  She had absolutely refused to tell the story, explaining that she just couldn’t bear to go through it again in her mind.  Zhyen told her that he would give her more time to think it over but that she must eventually give them her story because her life depended on it.

      She cried ceaselessly when she returned to her cell after that first interview.  It was all too overwhelming for her.  Just when she had thought that things were as terrible as they could possibly be—trapped on a ship with a psychopath and her family dead and gone—they had gotten much worse.  She had never asked for any of this.  She just wanted to finish high school, meet a cute guy, fall in love, and eventually get married and have a family.  Now she was being held prisoner by aliens from another galaxy that were probably going to kill her.  Until then she had been dreaming that her family would somehow come and save her, but now she was at the breaking point.

      Without realizing exactly what her mind was doing, she suddenly broke into hysterics and began to hyperventilate.  Subconsciously, she had just let go of the foolish belief that she would somehow be rescued.  Her mind gave into the hopelessness of the situation and accepted the reality in all its horror.  Her life would never be as good as it once was.  Things were only going to get worse, until one day she would be killed.  If not by these aliens, Jason would kill her.  And if Jason wouldn’t do it, something else would.  But she was sure of one thing—between then and the time of her death there would never be a single happy moment.

      And with that thought, her hysteria vanished in a flash.  She was stunned by herself.  It was not that she didn’t feel like crying…she simply couldn’t.  It was as though her eyes had run out of tears.  As soon as she accepted that life was shit and would always remain shit, she could no longer cry.  It wasn’t merely Jason who had destroyed her life, but fate itself.  Fate had fucked her over and would never repay the debt.  It was as though the entire universe was laughing at her, laughing at her tears.  Well, she was not going to cry anymore.

      During the second interview, Jessi told the whole story to Zhyen, at least the parts she understood.  She withdrew herself from the story as much as possible, telling it as though it had happened to someone else.  She surprised herself by how easily she was able to speak of those events without being overwhelmed by her emotions.  In telling the story she barely seemed to feel the pain at all.  When she had finished, Zhyen thanked her and sent her back to the cell.

      A short time later, Zhyen returned to the cell with food, a mattress, and Brownie.  Jessi couldn’t believe it.  She was even more shocked when Zhyen told her that it was by Jason’s request that he had arranged for the animal to be kept with her.  Of all the strange twists of fate, she actually found herself feeling grateful to the man who was responsible for bringing her into this mess in the first place.  The universe was still laughing at her.

      A few days later she was brought back for another interview, but Zhyen had left early and a few moments later the guards began escorting her back to the cell.  On the way back she was shocked to see Jason being led by Zhyen in the other direction.  Without thinking she cried out to him and ran in his direction, but was quickly subdued by the guards.  When it was all over and she was back in her cell thinking about the incident—how she had cried out and rushed at the man who had done this to her—she could have sworn that she actually heard the universe laughing at her.

      And now she was sitting against the wall with Brownie again, as she spent nearly all of her time, trying not to recognize the disturbing feeling that had been growing inside of her that she actually wanted to see Jason again.  But this feeling was impossible to ignore, as much as she despised it.  She was starved to see another human face, and Jason was the only one around.  He was trying to help her, she couldn’t deny that.  He was doing everything he could to save her—he had promised he would, just before she was taken.  As disgusted as she was by the idea, he was really her only hope.  Laughter—the cold laugher of the cosmos.

      Until recently she had been a sponge, absorbing every cruel joke that the universe inflicted on her while the water of her tears was slowly squeezed out.  Now she resolved to be a rock.  Let the universe play its pranks, but let the laughter bounce off her hard, rock solid surface.  She was already in Hell.  Things could not get worse and if they did, she was prepared for it.  She’d already been raped and murdered.  If there was anything else the universe wanted to throw at her, she would take it and throw it right back.

      Zhyen entered the cell again, this time with only one guard, and informed her that it was time for another interview.  Without a word Jessi rose to her feet and followed him to the interview room.

      “How are you doing?” Zhyen asked once they were seated.

      “Wonderful,” Jessi replied.  “I’ve never been better in my life.”

      “I am sorry,” said Zhyen, who understood how to recognize sarcasm.  “Again I apologize that you have to go through all of this.”

      “Whatever,” Jessi remarked.  “It doesn’t bother me.  I’m really starting to like it here, actually.  I’ve got such a nice big room and I get to eat the most wonderful food all the time.  Not to mention my extremely comfortable bed.  And that dark purple light…I miss it already.”

      “Although I am aware of your lack of sincerity,” said Zhyen, “I am pleased that you have recovered from the state of emotional fragility you were in when you arrived.”

      “Yep,” said Jessi, forcing a smile.  “I’m all better.  So what are we gonna talk about today?  More stuff about my dead family, I hope.”

      “Actually, yes,” said Zhyen, no doubt having a difficult time responding to Jessi’s strange disposition.  “I am trying to clarify exactly how much power your sister, the Rachael Juciper, had when she was in control of the STAR, and how often she spoke with the Bob Drady.”

      “I told you before, I don’t know anything about that stuff,” said Jessi.  “Arnold always told me that there were some things it was dangerous for me to know.  Especially about Bob Drady.”

      “But did you ever suspect that he was more than just your father’s bodyguard?” asked Zhyen.

      “Yeah, all the time,” Jessi replied.  “Ever since he threw me across the room when I was little and my dad didn’t fire him.”

      “That is interesting,” Zhyen replied.  “Of course I am sorry that this happened to you, but this information may be to your advantage.  You say that the Bob Drady actually assaulted you and there were no consequences?”

      “Nope,” said Jessi.  “Nobody ever gets punished for hurting me.  I’m just a big punching bag.  Maybe you’d like to hit me right now.  Go ahead.  Nothing bad will happen to you.  Maybe you’ll even get promoted.”

      “Your sarcasm saddens me,” said Zhyen.  “You are covering up a great deal of pain.”

      “Nope,” Jessi denied.  “Why should I feel pain?  My life has been a fucking fairy-tale.  Nothing painful has ever happened to me.”

      “Perhaps we should conclude our interview for today,” Zhyen suggested.

      “What?” Jessi shouted.  “No, we haven’t even started to have fun!  Ask me another question, please.  Pretty please?”

      “Very well,” said Zhyen, “but I do not have any specific questions for you.  I am merely looking for any information that could corroborate the story given to me by you and Jason.  Anything that might indicate that it was actually the Bob Drady in control of the STAR and not your sister would be helpful.”

      “Helpful for what?” Jessi asked playfully.

      “For your case,” Zhyen replied, becoming flustered.  None of his diplomatic training or years of research on Human behaviour had fully prepared him to handle something like this.  “For persuading the Council of your innocence and letting you go free.”

      “Free?”  Jessi laughed.  “I’ll never be free.  Never.  I don’t care what the stupid Council says.  They can kill me, let me go, or keep me locked up for the rest of my life.  It makes no difference.  Life will suck no matter what happens.”

      “I am beginning to believe that I will no longer be able to learn anything useful by interviewing you,” said Zhyen.

      “Why would you even think I could be useful to you at all, silly?” Jessi laughed.  “Unless you want to piss on me, what am I good for?”

      “I am so sorry for what we have done to you,” Zhyen concluded, and called the guards to take Jessi back to her cell.  He would not bring her up to the interview room again. 

* * * * * * * 

      Zhyen could no longer hope to gain any useful information from Jessi, but he had even less luck with Jason.  Once he had confirmed what Jason had feared—that he was in fact responsible for the deaths of Lauren and Rachael—Jason lost the will to do anything.  He stopped eating, drinking, and speaking.  Zhyen would come to the cell every twenty-four hours in an attempt to continue the interview process, but Jason had no interest.  At first Zhyen would have the guards drag him to the interview room, but Jason would remain silent the entire time.  Eventually Zhyen stopped bringing him to the interview room and merely asked his questions of Jason while he lay silently on the floor of his cell.  And eventually he gave up on this too.

      But one day Zhyen came into the cell with resolve.  He came without guards, walked straight up to where Jason lay and sat on the floor beside him.

      “We arrive at our destination tomorrow,” he told Jason, who did not so much as turn to acknowledge him.  “The trial will be held and I will do everything I can to convince them to let you go free.  But this is the last chance I have to gain any useful information from you.  If you have any desire for your freedom, please speak to me.”

      Of course, Jason said nothing.  He just continued to stare blankly at the ceiling, not even acknowledging Zhyen’s presence.

      “Please,” Zhyen pressed.  “I told you what happened to the Lauren and the Rachael because I wanted you to know that I was being completely honest with you—that I was only holding back what I have been forced to hold back.  I see now that this was a mistake.  I gained nothing by it, and now I have even less of a chance of winning your freedom than before.”

      Not a word from Jason.  Not even a slight movement of the eyes.

      “Do you not want to keep living?” asked Zhyen.  “Do you not want the Jessi to keep living?  Or do you want to be responsible for her death as well?”

      As Zhyen had expected, the mention of Jessi stirred Jason out of his silence.  “I’m already responsible for her death,” he said.  “She’s as good as dead now anyway.”

      “Do you really believe that?” asked Zhyen.  “Do you not have some small hope for the future?  As long as life continues there is always the chance it will improve.”

      “Not for her,” said Jason.  “And not for me.”

      “But the universe is vast,” Zhyen argued, “and life can be quite long.  Surely you do not believe that everything you have done so far can eliminate all hope of a better future?”

      “I don’t deserve a better future!” Jason yelled, and suddenly sat straight up, staring Zhyen directly in the eyes.  “Not after what I’ve done.  I should be tortured and killed.  I killed my friends.  I killed the woman I loved.  I killed the only girl who cared about me.  And I robbed the girl I love of any chance of happiness in her life.  All I deserve is pain.  Lots of pain.  So much pain that I’ll actually feel like I don’t deserve it.”

      “You are so tied down to these abstract concepts,” said Zhyen.  “What does one deserve for their past actions?  How can such a thing be determined?”

      “I don’t know,” Jason said, and he lied back down on the floor.  “And it doesn’t matter.  All I know is what I feel that I deserve, and I feel that I deserve the worst that the universe has to offer.”

      “But I do not understand this,” Zhyen pressed.  “It was not your intention to destroy the Juciper family.  You merely wanted the love of the female.  The deaths you are responsible for are merely the unintended consequences of your pursuit of that love.”

      “We’ve already gone over this,” Jason grumbled.  “It doesn’t make any fucking difference what my intentions were.  My actions had the worst possible consequences.  Whether I was directly or indirectly responsible doesn’t matter.  What I had hoped for when I asked Jessi to come onto my ship doesn’t fucking matter.  When I knew I could have ended it before it got out of control—when I realised I could have taken my own life and let Jessi go back to her family with no harm done—I didn’t.  I saved my own worthless skin and because of it, three innocent people are dead and one is doomed to a life of total misery.  It might even be better for her if she is executed by your Council.”

      “You carry too much guilt,” Zhyen spoke softly.

      “And you’re too quick to forgive,” Jason rasped.  “Can’t you see what a monster I am?  Why would you even want to convince the Council of my innocence?  I’m guilty enough.  Maybe not guilty of what they accuse me, but I’m fucking guilty all right.”

      “I neither forgive nor condemn you,” said Zhyen.  “As I neither forgive nor condemn myself.  I have done far worse things than you, Jason Floyd.  I have pointed weapons at living beings and shot them dead.  I have destroyed entire worlds.”

      “Yeah, but at least you did those things for a reason,” said Jason.  “To keep the peace, probably.  Or for the good of your race.  Something bigger than yourself, at least.  Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve only done for my self.  My fucking worthless self.”

      “And allowing your self to be executed is different?” Zhyen raised his voice.  “Is it not the case that your desire for self-destruction is just as self-motivated as everything else you’ve done?”

      Jason blinked twice, realising immediately that Zhyen was right.  Then he raised his head and slammed it against the floor with as much force as he could muster.

      “Is not your self-abuse self serving as well?” Zhyen softly suggested.

      “It is,” said Jason.  “So you can see how deep the hole is.  You can see how fucking high the walls around me are.  How am I supposed to do anything for anybody else anymore?  What do I have to live for?  Not my own people, that’s for sure.  Not the girl I love—nothing I could ever do for her can possibly make up for what I’ve done to her.  It’s just me.  I’m the only thing I have to live for, and I’m not worth living for.”

      “What about understanding existence?” Zhyen offered.  “Is that not what your objectives were when you first planned your journey?  To experience as much of the universe as you possibly could?  To learn the answers to all of the greatest mysteries?”

      “Apparently, from what you’ve told me it’s all about the struggle to acquire and maintain power.  I used to think that maybe it was just my own people who were soulless, power-hungry beasts.  But from what you’ve told me I realise now that it’s every advanced race.  It’s survival of the most ruthless.  That’s how the entire universe is built.  Those filled with love and compassion are wiped out by those filled with greed and self-interest.  The only intelligent races to endure are those without conscience.”

      Zhyen remained silent for a moment, pondering what Jason had said.  Finally, he stood up and walked back towards the wall, where he opened the entrance.  Bending his eyes backward to give Jason one last look, he said, “The battle between self-interest and conscience will rage forever.  It is fought between the interstellar empires of a galaxy, between different factions of individual races, among friends, within families, and inside each individual mind.  Your mind is one of the bloodiest battlegrounds I have ever encountered.”  And with that Zhyen left the room, leaving Jason alone to fight his battle. 

* * * * * * * 

      Before Jason knew it, his cell was open again and the Yvenzhel guards were entering to retrieve him.  Only this time, Zhyen was not with them.  “Dyorzhim,” one of them said. Jason understood that this must have been a command for him to come with them, and immediately stood up to follow.  They led him to the elevators and took him inside, but upon exiting Jason found that he was in a corridor lit in bright yellow as opposed to dim red.  This was a level of the ship he had not been on before.

      The guards led him down the pathways as he passed many other Yvenzhel going about their business, with all sorts of coloured stripes on their black uniforms.  While most of these had only one gold circle on their chest, several had two.  They all turned to look at Jason as he passed by, but none acknowledged him.

      As they walked further the lighting grew dimmer, until they eventually reached what must have been the outer edge of the sphere.  One of the guards said, “Vrizhna ka tlaz,” and a seal opened, revealing a very large room lit with regular white light, filled with Yvenzhel busy operating all kinds of strange equipment.  From the way the two walls bent in towards one another and met at the far end of the room, Jason discerned that he was now in the front of the triangular portion of the ship that extended out from the sphere.

      Zhyen was standing in the middle of the room, giving orders to his crew.  One of the guards approached Zhyen, and the ambassador turned around to acknowledge Jason.  “Welcome to the bridge,” he said.  “We shall be transported to the surface once the others arrive.”  He then turned back to his crew and gave another order.  “Vrizhmek ka vorzhap yakir vun ka ezhbek.”  Instantly an image seemed to materialise in mid-air right at the front of the room.  This must have been the view from one of the ship’s external cameras.  It was a planet, similar in appearance to the one Jason had been studying but different in some ways.  There were clouds and oceans, but the continents were all reddish brown, seemingly barren of any vegetation.  As Jason looked harder he could see a few grey blotches, most likely cities, scattered about these continents.

      “This is Vyongkir,” said Zhyen.  “It is the central planet of galactic commerce, the only world in the Zhelva where you will find members of all four interstellar empires on the same planet.  Of course the Heohweh are sparse and live in special habitats designed to recreate the gas-giant environment, but they are there.  This is where all of the Council delegates must live while serving out their terms.  Here is where you will be tried.  And if you are found guilty, it is where you will be executed.

      Vyongkir.  Jason stared at the planet.  Would this rock really be the place where his journey came to an end?

      Just then the door behind them opened, and Jessi was led into the room by a group of security guards.  She did not cry out for Jason this time, but rather glanced at him with a quick smile…she actually smiled at him.  Jason returned her glance with a look of extreme confusion, which only made her smile again.

      The last guard to enter the room was carrying a small cage with the animal, Brownie, inside.  He stood beside Jessi as Zhyen turned around to greet all of them.

      “Welcome to the bridge, Jessi,” Zhyen spoke to her.

      “Long time no talk, Zhyen,” Jessi remarked. “I missed you.”

      Jason could barely believe the tone of her voice. He turned to her again with the same confused look.

      “I missed you too, Jason,” she said with a giggle.

      Jason almost slapped himself.  This was not the same girl who had been on his ship before they were taken.  What had they done to her?

      Zhyen shouted a few more orders at his crew, and the security guards brought Jason, Jessi, and the cage with Brownie to an empty spot towards the front of the room.  “Are you all right?” Jason asked Jessi quietly as they stood there.

      “Of course, silly,” said Jessi.  “Why wouldn’t I be?”

      Jason could not find a single word with which to answer her.  He just stood there dumbfounded, forgetting completely about the trial ahead of him.

      In a moment Zhyen was standing between them, while three guards lined up on either side.  “Prepare to be transported,” Zhyen said to them in English.  Then gave another order, “Tlotazh dyorvek,” and instantly ten beams of light were shot through the front of the ship, striking Zhyen, Jason, Jessi, Brownie, and the six guards.

      Jason watched with confusion and some fear as the bridge seemed to expand outward at an enormous rate.  For an instant, however, the others around him seemed to remain the same size.  But after half a second he could no longer see anything, including his own body.  The pain of extreme cold shot through him, as though every cell in his body had suddenly frozen, and he finally lost consciousness once again.