My connection to Hal froze for long enough to make me wonder if it had been dropped, but then he said, [The encryption is complex. It will take some time to decrypt it.]
[Unknown, but minutes, possibly hours instead of seconds.]
“Okay. Let me know when you’ve figured it out.”
With that I dropped out of contact with Hal and become more aware of the digital conversation I’d left—the one with Jaclyn, Cassie, Marcus, Tikki and Kals. “Your voice blinked out,” Jaclyn told me. “What did you do?”
“I gave Hal the encrypted file and asked him to decrypt it.”
Tikki grinned at me, a flash of white teeth. “Of course you did. He’s made for it.”
I shrugged, “More or less. He’s more for simulating battles than encryption, but you need to know a lot to make a good simulation.”
Still grinning, she said, “I know. I’m familiar with battle simulation AIs. One of my friends loved fighting and got me interested in the technology. I still keep up a little. Yours ought to be on a flagship. It’s one of the big ones, the kind you’d use to simulate multiple fleet actions, ground invasions and espionage, complete with the personalities of the commanding officers.”
I’d momentarily forgotten that she was an engineer. Life support didn’t include AIs or combat technology, but the better starship engineers had secondary specialties.
She reached for another piece of meat from her plate and ate it. As she opened her mouth to eat, her mouth seemed a little too wide or had too many teeth? I couldn’t be sure. You never knew what the Abominators put into their gene lines. The Xiniti implant didn’t either.
I didn’t have time to go down that rabbit hole though. I had another question. “Kals was wondering if she could stay here for the night.”
Jaclyn looked at her and then me. “I assume you’re meaning in our room and not yours. Because squeezing into Nick’s bed won’t help with Katuk.”
Kals rolled her eyes. “You people worry about sex all the time. Trust me. I’m not here for that. I’m here to get away from my mom for a night.”
Jaclyn took a breath. “Fine, but you’re not the only one. Tikki’s staying here too.”
Cassie stopped eating only long enough to add, “She’s staying on our side too. Sorry, Marcus.”
Pouring a green sauce over the vegetables on his plate, Marcus said, “Yeah, yeah. I knew that. Besides, I do want to help with Katuk. I’m thinking that Nick and I ought to apologize on behalf of everybody and see if that works.”
Jaclyn frowned, shook her head and then took another helping of vegetables. “Cassie and I already tried to apologize, but he didn’t accept it, but maybe the two of you will have better luck.”
“I’m hoping,” Cassie said, continuing to eat. “All the stories I ever heard about how the Xiniti destroyed whole worlds didn’t include anything about how mopey they were. You’ve got to get this guy out of his funk.”
Grateful that all our talk was taking place through our implants, I thought, “We’ll see what we can do.”
That’s when Hal reported back. With no warning, I knew the contents of the encrypted data file. Katuk’s father had been a criminal, a Xiniti outcast who had killed his unit in a dispute and then slowly gone mad, only recovering his reason after being captured by a crew of mercenaries. That crew of mercenaries had eventually been hired to attack Earth—which was where Cassie, Jaclyn, and I had killed his father.
Of course, we had.
The implant informed me that in cases like this, the Xiniti had a much greater chance of going violently insane as a direct result of the stress from years of distrust during the process of growing up. The Xiniti were far more affected by the distrust of beings in their marriage group. Exposing them to other species and alien ways of thought helped them reduce and resist it.
Making a split second decision, I passed it to the group—all of us including Tikki and Kals.
Everyone stopped eating. Jaclyn blinked. “That’s much worse than I was expecting.”
Kals stared at me. “You’re all Xiniti because you killed one of his parents and you didn’t know that you had that connection until now. That’s… scary. He’s got every reason to hate you.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But on the other hand, his father had been gone for years before we killed him. His father’s death might have lifted the social stigma from him, making it all better.”
Kals glanced over toward the room Marcus and I shared with Katuk.”Do you think he agrees with that?”
I followed her gaze. “No idea, but Marcus and I should find out as soon as we’re done eating.”
Marcus looked up from the table. “At least I’ll get to die on a full stomach.”