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With Unclean Hands

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With Unclean Hands

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Author: Adam-Troy Castro
Publisher: Jabberwocky Literary Agency, 2014
Analog Science Fiction and Fact, 2011
Series: Andrea Cort

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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: First Contact
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Nebula-nominated and AnLab Readers' Choice Award-winning Novella

Andrea Cort. War criminal. Genius. Outcast. Heroine.

Sent to the home-world of the Zinn, a once-powerful race now on the long path to extinction, she's expected to sign the approval for a simple prisoner transfer - but why are the Zinn so eager to take custody of an unremarkable human murderer? What brutal crime is being planned against an innocent? What hidden agenda threatens to topple the balance of power?

This is the earliest adventure of Andrea Cort, heroine of the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Emissaries From The Dead. This story was originally published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, November 2011.


Does "incomprehensible" mean you can't understand - or you don't want to?

Counselor Andrea Cort escaped the reception at the Zinn capitol at something like the local equivalent of midnight, feeling more out of place among her fellow human beings than most people feel visiting alien civilizations.

It had been a grim occasion. For three hours she'd had to endure the conversations that pointedly excluded her, the snatches of overheard scandalized conversation that were about her, the banal embassy politics that had nothing to do with her, and the thousand-and-one manifestations of interpersonal drama that had started before her arrival and would no doubt continue in their endless variety after she left, so unaffected by her passage that she might as well have been a ghost, incapable of any affect but the offensive.

Cort was only a couple of solo assignments into her Dip Corps career. She was still young and untested, had yet to develop a professional reputation, and was not yet inured to the nauseated look that appeared on the faces of her purported colleagues when they put face to name and recognized her as the infamous child war criminal whose blood-soaked image had once scandalized civilized space. Her personal armor was a harsh and even off-putting personality marked by cold manners and a habitual scowl on a face that otherwise might have been perceived as delicate or even beautiful. Within a very few years her frigid mask would become notorious. But it had not yet become impermeable. At this point, she was still capable of exposing weakness when her feelings were hurt.

So she wandered away from the discordant Zinn music and the even more discordant banter between her human colleagues, got lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the ancient Zinn capitol, and found herself outdoors, on a balcony garden just outside a chamber she guessed to be the equivalent of a chapel.

It was a cool evening, tinged with the spice of the unspoiled forest that grew, undisturbed by civilization, on much of the Zinn homeworld. There were only a few lights shining up from the valley below, site of the ancient city of Purehome that now housed the entire population of the once-numerous, once galaxy-spanning race. In the dark, Cort could not see just how high this mountaintop embassy loomed over the city and thus didn't have to fight the special kind of vertigo that always came complete with the overwhelming urge to jump. She could imagine herself still aboard one of the orbital habitats she had long preferred to planets, peering through a viewport at stars too far away to burn.

Lightheaded from the intoxicant buzzpops she'd taken to settle her nerves before the party, she found a small knee-high retaining wall enclosing a clutch of swaying pink flowers, for the moment enjoying the absence of any oppressive, intrusive, condescending, despicable, patently other people. For a few seconds she did not want to die.

Then an unaccented voice asked, "Are you in pain?"

It sounded like a human girl. It could, of course, be any one of a number of different species currently maintaining embassies on this world; though the reception had been meant for the human contingent only, she had spotted a Tchi, a K'cenhowten, and a Szabi among the alien dignitaries visiting from their respective embassies. But when Cort turned, she saw that the questioner was a Zinn, albeit one who stood only as tall as her, which made it approximately half the height the species averaged in adulthood. Its head was a thin vertical crescent ringed at the midpoint with a dozen black marble eyes, its torso a series of boneless, puffy sacs connected at hinged joints and descending in a train three-quarters of the way to the tiled floor. The two multi-jointed limbs that served as the Zinn's legs and the two that served as its arms were all anchored at the disk-shaped shoulder bone, just below that sickle of a head.

Cort had not been on-planet long enough to master the subtle visual cues a human needed to distinguish any one of the race's four sexes from another, let alone whatever they used for body language, but it was simple enough to make an elementary deduction from this one's relatively short stature. "Are you a child?"

The little Zinn emitted a series of short whistles that might have been its kind's equivalent of laughter. "Yes. Are you?"

"I may be a little on the short side for females of my species," Cort said, "but not by that much. I'm an adult."

More whistles. "I apologize for any offense."

"None taken. I'm impressed by your command of Hom.Sap Mercantile. Do you live here?"

"Yes. I am the project administrator's fotir."

That was the word for an offspring belonging to the Zinn's egg-producing gender, not the completely separate egg-incubating gender or the two actually responsible for copulation. Under the circumstances, it was simplest, and most acceptable under local interspecies etiquette, to consider this individual as a little girl.

But even before Cort finished working that out, the Zinn child said, "I am still concerned. Are you in pain?"

"Why would you ask me that?"

"I know a little bit about the emotional displays of human beings. Your eyes are leaking fluid."

Cort dabbed at her cheeks and discovered to her chagrin that some tears had escaped. "It's just an involuntary discharge. It doesn't always indicate pain."

"Why then are you not with the others at the reception?"

Truth, Cort decided, was simplest. "I was not enjoying myself."

"Adults can be boring," the alien child agreed, with a slight dip of the head.

"Sometimes worse than boring," Cort said.

"What's your name?"

"Andrea Cort. And yours?"

The little fotir provided a long string of unpronounceable sounds, punctuated by whistles and snorts and extending long enough to fill several sentences in Cort's preferred tongue of Hom.Sap Mercantile. "Our names are more like what you would call autobiographical essays, and get longer as we age. For simplicity you may call me First-Given."

"It is an honor to meet you, First-Given."

"And to meet you, Andrea Cort. You are my first human being."

Cort found that odd. "This is your capitol. Alien ambassadors must visit here all the time."

"I have met Riirgaans, Tchi, Bursteeni, and even a few K'cenhowten. I like the Bursteeni best; they're funny. But I've always been told to stay in my room when human beings are around. My parents said that my presence would disrupt the negotiations."

Cort didn't see how, but supposed that alien parents could be as inscrutable as human ones. "So you're breaking the rules by talking to me?"

"I don't believe so. The exchange is almost settled, now, and everybody's so excited about the prisoner you're turning over to us that the family security's gotten careless, and I was able to get out and find you. This makes me glad. It is a good thing in a short life to have made friends with one human being."

Cort reflected that it was more than she'd ever managed to do, then shook her head angrily; aside from being untrue, it was also downright maudlin. "It's not that impressive an accomplishment, First-Given. We're awful."

"I know that a few of you are supposed to be. My teachers have told me frightening stories about ones like your Hitler, your Dunnevad, your Beast Magrison. And then, of course, there's the prisoner; he is evil in ways we find impossible to understand. We have no such individuals in my species. But I do not make the mistake of believing that you're all like those."

Or like me, Cort thought with a pang. "Your species is fortunate, First-Given."

"My species is not fortunate," First-Given said. "My species has been dying for longer than yours has been rising."

The collapse of the Zinn empire might have taken thousands of years, but it had been no less inexorable for that, a total retreat from other advancing civilizations that had amounted to the ceding of entire clusters without so much as a shot being fired. These days they barely stirred themselves to procreate, and would likely fall below the critical genetic viability threshold within a very few generations. It hadn't ever occurred to Cort, before, how much that knowledge would weigh on the young of the species. "I'm sorry."

"There is no need to apologize," First-Given said. "This has been a short life and I do not have time for it. May I think of you as a friend?"

Cort usually responded to such offers with the firm announcement that she wasn't looking for any. But the innocence of the request, and the apparent absence of the hidden agendas Cort had grown used to finding in the overtures of the kind of people capable of wanting to collect the likes of her as friend, touched a part of her she had considered buried since childhood. "Yes, First-Given. I would like that."

"As would I," the alien child said. "I suspect it will prove a comfort."

Cort was about to ask First-Given how old she was, by the standard of her species, when a sudden commotion erupted behind her.

She had just enough time to say "What the hell--" before the Confederate Ambassador, Mira Valcek, grabbed her by the arm and yanked her off her feet.

Valcek loomed two heads taller than the compact Cort. She had bulging athletic shoulders and a flat, fearsome face with cheeks rippling from parallel lines carved into the flesh from some kind of ritual scarification. Her eyes were a cold arctic blue beneath red locks cut into a fierce military buzz. The inescapable implications about the kind of society she must have come from, and what it said about her that she'd still ended up working for an organization devoted to keeping the peace, rendered her a formidable enemy, if that was indeed what she wanted to be. The jury was still out on that; she'd been courteous, if cold, since Cort's arrival on-world three days earlier. But there was nothing but fury in her eyes now. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing?"

There were a dozen other figures, all told, some human and some Zinn, all scandalized, all indignant at what seemed to be a massive breach of protocol and all determined to stop the conversation between Cort and First-Given before it went any further. Four adult Zinn had surrounded First-Given and were now sweeping her away without so much as a word; about twice as many human beings backed Valcek, providing her with a physical advantage she didn't even come close to needing.

Cort said, "In most advanced civilizations it's known as talking."

"In diplomacy," Valcek said, "it's unauthorized contact."

"She's a child, Ambassador. She spoke to me, I returned the favor. What was I supposed to do? Treat her like she was beneath my notice?"

Valcek's furious glare might have drawn blood from someone less exquisitely armored. "At your level of inexperience you don't just wander away from an embassy reception, where the attending locals are authorized to speak to you, to have unsupervised conversations with those who aren't. You could be affecting issues you don't even have a clue about, endangering agreements that we were hammering out a year before you showed up to provide your official rubber stamp. At the very least, you could be endangering your own..."

A tuxedoed Dip Corps functionary who Cort had overheard earlier that evening referring to her as a monster pressed his way past the phalanx of indentures and leaned in close to whisper in Valcek's ear.

Valcek's eyebrows knit. She gave the functionary a sour look. He murmured something else Valcek couldn't hear, and Valcek's rage burned darker.

"They want you," she said.

Flanked by a pair of adult Zinn who towered above her like construction cranes, Cort was escorted down a series of hallways, up a series of graduated rises that might have qualified as a human stairway had the steps been uniform in interval or height, and down a corridor where, for no reason making sense to her, the walls all waxed convex, giving the space between them the outline of an hourglass. She was left in an egg-shaped room with a rippled, glowing floor and a pair of thick fabric slings hanging from the ceiling.

There was no obvious place to sit, so Cort just stood beside one of the hanging slings waiting for the consequences to play themselves out until something not quite a door-opening happened at the far side of the room, and an adult Zinn appeared there.

It spoke to her in a voice not quite as unaccented as the little fotir's, the tinny Mercantile testifying to the use of a hidden translator. "There is no furniture designed for the use of human beings in this part of the facility, but you may use the sling as a an improvised seat, if you wish. It will bear your weight as well as it bears ours."

Cort sat, her legs dangling in a manner that brought back vivid memories of a swing set the local children had played with during a childhood she had not yet known to be doomed.

The Zinn rested its weight on the other sling, its head and all four of its limbs dangling over the side closer to Cort, its segmented torso dangling to the ground on the other. The position looked hideously uncomfortable to her, but then she didn't have Zinn anatomy; for all she knew the pose might have been downright indolent.

It said, "My name is," then erupted into a series of whistles and snorts and grunts, three times longer in duration than the one Cort had heard from First-Given. "I am the administrator of the project involving the prisoner. You may call me by my job title, Feeder-Of-Prisoners."

Cort's heart thumped. "Is that what I am to you? A prisoner?"

The crescent-shaped head tilted at her. "Do you believe that you should be?"

"Not for anything I've done tonight. Am I correct that First-Given is your child?"

The translation program conveyed a certain wry amusement. "She is in a greater sense our world's child. But yes, she is genetically mine."

"Then, if by exchanging friendly words with her I violated some primal law or taboo of your society, or local diplomatic protocol, I did so without malice, and I apologize."

The crescent-shaped head tilted to one side, and the dozen black marble eyes blinked, one after another, as if in reaction to an invisible object passing close to the concave curve of the face. After a moment, Feeder-Of-Prisoners said, "You have committed other crimes in your life. Crimes against children."

"Tell me about them."

Cort had spent too much of her life attending to those who wanted the gory details to recount the same old story without protest. "It's common knowledge, sir. It also would have been provided to your people, when you were sent my credentials..."

"Nevertheless. Tell me about them."

She wanted to tell Feeder-Of-Prisoners to go to hell. But she was young and unsure of where the boundaries were drawn and not at all used to being in over her head... so she heaved a deep sigh of resignation and reported the weight she was doomed to carry for the rest of her life. "I was raised in a small utopian community on a world known as Bocai. It was just humans and Bocaians, two species that resemble each other quite a bit and normally get along quite well. Where we lived, they even participated in the rearing of one another's children."

"It must have been interesting. Continue."

"Everything was peaceful until what I suppose you'd call a night of sudden madness. There might have been some kind of environmental reason, some kind of psychoactive agent we don't know about. Nobody knows for sure. But the humans and their Bocaian neighbors turned on one another without warning, friends killing friends, married couples killing each other, children killing other children. When it passed, I was one of the few survivors left standing." Cort hesitated. "I was eight years old. That's very early childhood, by human measurement."

"You had killed, by then?"


"How many times?"

"I direct you to the official record. I'm certain that Ambassador Valcek could help you with that."

"Do you remember the experience?"

"Every waking moment of my life."

"What did it feel like?"

Cort was incredulous. "Killing?"


"What the hell difference does it make what it felt like?"

"I ask what I need to ask in order to learn."

Cort remembered her pounding heart, her bloody hands, the joy in holding part of what had once been a beloved Bocaian adult in her own tiny fingers.

"When I was in the grip of whatever caused it, it felt good."

"And afterward?"

"The memories still make me want to commit suicide. Is this really necessary?"

Feeder-Of-Prisoners asked, "Have you ever killed any other sentients since then?"

The unfortunate, hated answer was yes; Cort had been the equivalent of a convict for what remained of her childhood, and on a couple of occasions had been obliged to take extreme measures against people responsible for guarding her, when they'd taken advantages that only monsters take with the children in their care. "I prefer not to answer that question."

"Is that a tacit admission of guilt?"

"No, sir, it's a tacit line being drawn between what you have the right to ask me and what's none of your fucking business. If you honestly believe that I meant the child harm, or that my mere presence threatened her in any way, then declare me persona non grata, expel me from your world, and do a better job of supervising her so she doesn't run into random human beings who might be wandering your facilities late at night."

Feeder-Of-Prisoners stepped out of the sling, paced in a slow circle, then looked at Cort again. "You are not accused of being a physical threat to her."

"Then what's the problem?"

"The problem is inherent with our status as a declining species. Our numbers are now few, and our reliance on our few remaining children extreme. They are now all raised from infancy with a firm understanding of the specific roles they must someday play in our society. We were concerned that your conversation, however innocently intended, might have introduced new variables serious enough to compromise First-Given's training. Can you tell me what you spoke about?"

Cort had had more than enough of this shit. "I was upset for reasons that are also none of your business. She asked me why I was crying. I told her my tears were nothing to worry about. We exchanged names, and she said it was nice to have met one human who could be her friend. I gave her no reason to believe otherwise. That, sir, is as far as the conversation had a chance to go. If it was enough to compromise her training in some way, I apologize, but I should say I'm damned if I can see how."

Feeder-Of-Prisoners performed that little circle of his once again. "Adjustments may need to be made, but if that is truly all that passed between you, I don't believe you have caused any permanent damage. I may even allow First-Given to speak to you again. I will have you returned to your embassy, with the proviso that you do not leave Zinn territory until we have decided how to proceed."

Cort wasn't happy about that either; her remaining duties on-world would be completed in a day. Having to spend any longer than that among diplomats who despised her, while aliens decided whether to prosecute her, wasn't her idea of a productive way to use her time. But it couldn't be helped. She hopped out of the sling and spat, "I'll try not to have any more unnecessary conversations while I'm here."

Feeder-Of-Prisoners didn't seem to recognize the sarcasm. "We appreciate your cooperation."

The chief annoyance of unwittingly sparking a diplomatic incident is that you need to take shit for it not once but twice, answering at length to your own side after you've answered at length to the other's.

By the time Cort was shuttled back to the Confederate Embassy, subjected to the standard hour or so of cooling her heels in her quarters, and then escorted to the ambassador's office for a proper reaming, Valcek was at her desk, chin on fist, all of her attention focused on a full-body hologram of the prisoner in her embassy's improvised holding cell.

It was a still, not a real-time image, and it was a significantly dated portrait, as it came from his criminal record and reflected what he'd looked like on the day of his arrest thirteen years ago more than the way he looked now. It depicted a large, round-shouldered man with a thin hatch of straw-colored hair and an expression that some slight asymmetry in the set of his jaw transformed into a crooked grin. He didn't look like evil incarnate, more like some paragon-of-harmlessness who had always been thirty seconds behind in every conversation he'd ever had, whose only option as he struggled to keep up was gentle self-deprecating humor at his own stupidity.

Cort had endured several unpleasant conversations with Simon Farr, in the course of confirming his willingness to surrender himself to Zinn custody, and knew that nothing about that impression was true. He was not stupid. He was not self-deprecating. And he was as close to evil incarnate as anybody she had ever met, no small achievement given that her life had already forced her into close contact with several people who belonged in the same general category... the same category, not so incidentally, so many others had placed her in for so long.

Valcek stared at the slowly rotating image, as if hoping to find in Farr's curved shoulders or slight pot belly some clue to the corruption the holo had failed to capture. Brooding, she tapped her bare desktop with a fingernail, beating a martial refrain that stopped only when she spoke without looking up. "You know there's a pretty crucial trade deal at stake, here."

"I spoke to a child, Ambassador."

Valcek ignored that. "The Zinn may be on their last legs. They may live like a defeated people about to expire from culture shock. But technologically they're millennia ahead of us. The knowledge they're willing to turn over, in exchange for this sorry sack of shit," she indicated the holo of Simon Farr, "is expected to give humanity an economic and military advantage that'll put us on top for centuries. Centuries."

"And again," Cort said, "all I did was speak to a child."

The ambassador didn't look up. "All you were brought here to do was provide a legal rubber stamp. You were here to confirm Farr's informed consent, inspect the conditions at the facility where he's to be housed, and authorize the final transaction. Anything else, including conversations with indigenous children, was extraneous."

"So's attending fancy receptions, and, if you'll excuse me, getting called on the carpet for acting the way anybody addressed by a child would have acted. I suspect that this isn't really about what I did. It's about who I happened to be when I did it."

For the first time during the meeting, Valcek met her eyes. "You have quite a persecution complex, Counselor."

"It's appropriate for someone who's spent her life being persecuted."

The ambassador straightened, her cold eyes never leaving Cort's, never admitting a single moment of warmth. "That has a lot to do with why I told New London that you were absolutely the wrong person for the job."

Cort almost appreciated Valcek's belated honesty. After all, many in the ambassador's position would have drawn rhetorical circles around the topic, calling attention to it only insofar as a satellite describing an elliptical orbit around an unseen mass manages to prove that object's existence by mere trajectory. A direct and immediate attack came as a relief. "Do you actually imagine me incapable of providing you with your rubber stamp?"

"For that job I actually consider you overqualified. I'm certain that you have a promising future, if you can get past the prejudice of others. But this is a highly sensitive situation, and I honestly don't think your substantial capabilities have anything to do with why the Corps chose you to handle it when they could have chosen any number of advocates with more experience. No. I think they sent you, instead of all the possible candidates for this assignment, specifically because you're the one with the most despicable history."

Cort stiffened. "Is that also how they decided to appoint you ambassador?"

"Listen to my actual words. I'm not abusing you, I'm warning you. The piece of scum you're here to represent is only here in the first place because the Zinn wanted custody of a specimen of human evil and were willing to hand over unbelievable wealth to get him. Given your past - which I am otherwise perfectly willing to leave in the past - you need to consider the possibility that our superiors might have thought they were handing you over as a special bonus."

Cort searched the ambassador's martial features for signs of duplicity and found none. "You want me to believe that you're trying to protect me."

"I don't give a shit what you believe. But your reputation does put you at special risk."

"Unfortunately," Cort said, in words as sharp as ice, "my reputation travels with me wherever I go. Once I start using it as an excuse to avoid situations I'll never get out of bed in the morning."

Valcek studied her for several seconds, while tapping the desktop again, a three-four-three refrain that repeated several times before wrapping up in a sharp series of knocks. "What does get you out of bed in the morning, Andrea? I know it's not pleasure in the company of your fellow human beings."

"My work. Which I have not endangered in any way."

Valcek drummed the desktop. "You have a lot to learn about professional detachment. Someday it'll bite you. But I suppose that's something you'll have to learn for yourself. You're free to go."

The moment called for something more, but the half-dozen exit lines that occurred to Cort all struck her as inadequate or inappropriate or simply asking for more trouble. It didn't help that she was lost in the minefield that was interaction with other people, and expected that she'd always be. After a moment she offered a stiff nod that could have meant anything.

She hated the pity in the nod she received in return, but was willing to take it as long as that provided her with an excuse to leave.

Copyright © 2011 by Adam-Troy Castro


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