Death By Tradition
Anna Mary Hall
Kang paused behind Mara, glad of a chance to catch his breath and settle his backpack into a new position. The narrow path became even steeper ahead, just at the place it curved to bring a climber into full view of the lookout post. Moving cautiously to the outer edge of the path, he looked over. Straight down. You wouldn't even bounce for 100 meters, he thought. Perhaps those tales Mara's grandfather had told of helping hold off an attack of thosdevi, the semi-intelligent natives, with only rocks had been true!
"Ready?" Mara started ahead as she asked the question. Her pace slowed to match the increasing angle of the climb. They would reach the top unwinded, ready to fight or, in this case, to examine the memorial.
The Watchtower's fame dated from the Klingon's earliest days on Skikof. The rocky spire had gained its name during the two long years when they had fought to retain their foothold on Skikof. Within a month of the departure of the ships that had planted the colony, the early disorganized attacks of thosdevi had become an unrelenting, constant pressure. The Klingons had been forced to leave the narrow belt of fertile plains, to retreat to the rugged hill and return to hunting as a means of survival. Guards had manned the Watchtower day and night to give warning of the sudden, slashing attacks that drove into the barren hills, and to pick targets for the equally-savage Klingon raids into the plains.
Shedding his pack, Kang began a slow circuit of the Tower. To the east, the cliff fell sheer to the Canyon called "Edge of the World", desolate and unexplored even today. There were believed to be a few thosdevi still hiding in its depths, but none had dared to climb out in Mara's lifetime. The rich lowlands to the south were already dark, dotted now with the lights of scattered farming communities. A hundred years ago, it was from the south that the thosdevi had come. Mara and her brother, Rad, had told him family tales from the early years; of the beacon shining from the tower to rouse the settlers; of the gathering of weapons and the race to defend the passes. Near the end of the wait for the first reinforcements, the Klingons' weapons had been almost as primitive as the ones used by the thosdevi.
The hills to the west had not changed since the time of settlement. They were still dry and barren, visited only by occasional hunters, and visitors to the Watchtower. But to the north, the glow of lights dimmed the stars, though the lights themselves were too distant to be seen. The lights marked the site of the planet-bound section of Base Two of the Klingon Imperial Fleet, the reason he and Mara were here. True, they had spent their time at the home of Mara's brother, showing off Kiloran to his Skikof relatives, but the opportunity for the visit would not have been there if the Klothar had not needed maintenance and improvement work that could be done at Base Two.
Kang frowned as he turned to study his wife. Mara - the problem to which he had to find a solution. If he was to work for the Superiors, she would have to know and approve of the work; he would never be able to hide it from her. He had planned to tell her immediately after his first meeting with Gekelok, the Superiors' agent who had contacted him on Shabas, but Kang had realized the surveillance devices in their quarters and offices would have picked up the conversation. The devices could have been disabled, but that would have caused suspicion, too. He had postponed talking to her, intending to wait until sometime when they were outdoors; away from watching and listening eyes and ears. When the opportunity came, he still kept silent. Mara might not agree immediately; he was certain he would convince her eventually, but it might take some time. More time than he would have had on Shabas, with people in shouting distance.
Soon they would leave Skikof - and he still hadn't told her. It had to be tonight! Now...? No, she had started to prepare food. He would wait until they had eaten. A Klingon was always more reasonable with a full stomach, and he wanted Mara to be very reasonable.
One of Skikof's three small moons was climbing rapidly in the east when Kang acknowledged he could delay no longer. He settled with his back against the inner wall, looking out over the "Edge of the World" to the white moon. "Mara, we must talk."
She dropped down on the folded blankets near her pack, the harshness in Kang's voice chilling her light-hearted mood. Now, perhaps, she would find out what had been bothering Kang the last few weeks.
The moon rose another three degrees while Kang stared at it blindly, then he began abruptly: "I have told you of my visit to Old Earth, and of the help Gary Seven gave the Lady Lorna and me, but I did not tell all. Seven's great powers were given to him by beings he called the Superiors. There was an offer made...."
"To you, or by you?" Mara asked when the silence grew too long for her nerves.
"To me. Seven's Superiors exist today, still undiscovered. They have goals they cannot reach without help. I have been asked to join them."
Mara grew cold as she listened to his explanation of their purposes. She had believed at first that he meant to take the help they could give and use it to reach his own goals, but his tone convinced her he was sincere. He meant to give - had given? - his loyalty to these creatures.
Mara sprang to her feet. "Traitor," she hissed. "You betray the Empire! You condemn our children's children to scratch out their lives on barren worlds while the Federation takes the fertile planets."
"No." Kang rose to face his wife. "It will not be that way. I can explain."
Mara's brittle laughter rang out over the dark canyon. "Are you certain? Or did you wait until now, until here, to tell me, so that one of us can 'fall' to leave Kiloran a clean future, if it becomes necessary?"
"I...." Kang could not continue the denial. He had not consciously planned it, but he realized bitterly that his battle training had guided him to choose this location for the disclosure. A fall in the dark. Such an easy solution, were Mara not the one to whom he spoke. "Hear me out, Karmitharn. Perhaps neither of us must fall."
"Oh, I will listen, Kang." Mara's voice was too soft. "I will give you your chance to convince me, but do not try to use the empty eloquence you have learned in diplomacy to sway me. Prove you do not plan to betray the Empire."
Drawing a deep breath, Kang began: "You, yourself, on the Enterprise, were the first to tell me that we could stand with humans to meet a common enemy. The Superiors say that it is possible to stand together even when there is no enemy to face...that our disputes can be settled without war."
"Humans are much like us," Mara agreed. "They can be talked to. But, suppose we find another world like this, where there are natives that are too wild to listen? Do we leave the world and its riches to them, or do we take what is ours by right of strength?"
"We take," Kang said, then tried with little success to fight down the primitive response. To let the weak keep what they did not have the strength or intelligence too use was wasteful.
"And what will your Superiors think of that attitude?" Mara asked. "It does not sound very peaceful."
"I haven't talked to any of the Superiors," Kang admitted, "and Ge-...the person I've been talking to, discussed dealings only with other space powers."
"So.... There are other Klingons working for these beings, and they must be on Shabas itself." Mara began to allow herself to hope. If others had worked undetected.... "What did these Superiors promise you to make you turn traitor! Power? Wealth? Long life?"
Kang looked startled for a moment, then a grim smile spread across his face. "They have promised me nothing, and I have asked for nothing. It seems that the work is its own reward. They did not contact me until I had already realized war was not always the answer to a conflict of interests. So far, I have done nothing I would not have done if I'd never heard of them."
"That's fine for now," Mara sneered, "but what if they ask you to do something that will harm the Empire?" The moonlight seemed to clothe her in gleaming silver, an armored warrior judging his words. "What will you do?"
It was a question Kang had considered many times since he had returned from Old Earth. "My work may cost the Empire some short-term goals, but over the years it will not weaken it. I swear it!"
"You have never lied to me, Kang. Though I have more questions, I accept that you are not a traitor." She relaxed, calmly bringing a disruptor out from behind her back and fastening it to her belt. "You would be falling now, my love, if you hadn't convinced me."
Mara's questions continued far into the night. Once they returned to civilization, they would not be able to discuss the Superiors openly. The third moon was rising by the time Mara signalled her complete acceptance by shifting over to rest her head on Kang's shoulder. "Karmitharn, when do we meet this Superior who will work with us?"
"Tomorrow. Gekelok said we would be found wherever we were on this planet."
Mara slid down the hill behind Kang, then moved up to walk beside him when the trail widened. "What do these Superiors look like?"
Kang thought of the small black animal who had worked beside Gary Seven. "I have never seen one in its natural form, but Gekelok assured me I would know one when I saw it."
Mara snorted at the lack of scientific details and took the lead as the trail narrowed to wind up another hill. They were moving through one of the sparse groves of trees when she asked quietly: "Do you think that might be the Superior you are expecting?"
The glowing ball of energy descended slowly through the tree branches until it floated only inches above the narrow path. Frozen between awe and fear, Mara still managed to study the being with some scientific detachment as it began to darken and condense. The blue glow vanished as though it were being sucked into the developing figure, and a slender Klingon woman stood before them. She stretched, testing the body she had just formed, then smiled at the motionless couple before her. "Kang, you are as I remember." The dark eyes focused on Mara. "And you are as strong as the image Kang carried in his mind."
Kang frowned, suspicion blossoming. He did not see how this could be a trap set by Imperial Security, but her statement must be wrong. "'Remember'? When did we meet before?"
"Centuries ago, on the planet Earth. I worked with Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln. They called me Isis."
"That was only months ago...," Kang began.
"Ah, but you used a short-cut. I came to this meeting the long way, experiencing the normal flow of time. For me, those events are centuries in the past." She read his struggle to accept and added facts: "I am not immortal, but those centuries are to my life span as a similar number of years would be to you. By the reckoning of my race, I am still young."
"And foolish!" Kang snapped. "How can you accompany us? Klingon records are complete. There is no record of you. You would be discovered before we could even leave this planet."
She did not answer vocally, but the lines of her body blurred, condensed, darkened even more. Where the slender woman had stood there was now a dark, dappled riar, one of the hunting cats from the northern continent of Shabas, trying its claws on a tree trunk.
"Beautiful!" Mara breathed, studying the lines of the half-grown kitten.
The riar purred, and the purr became a thought in both their minds. //You approve? When you join Mara's brother at the forest lodge, you will find that he wishes to give you a riar kitten as a guard for Kiloran. I am the pick of the prize litter.//
"You will take the place of one of the kittens?" Kang discovered that after what he had seen, it was easy to accept this animal as an intelligent being.
//I am one of the kittens. I took my place when they were born and matched my growth to theirs.//
"Two months ago? Do you know the future?" Mara asked. "Is that how you knew we would come to Skikof?"
The riar turned to face Mara, tail twitching slowly from side to side. //We do not know the future. We have many sources of information and much practice in interpreting that information. Our predictions of major events involving governments are 89% accurate, but we know nothing of the future of individuals.//
//Even two months ago, Mara, the thought was in both your minds that you wished to bring Kiloran to Skikof. I trusted you to be able to find a way to do it. If you hadn't, two months is a very short time for me to invest.// The riar absently washed a paw with her tongue. //And I like being a riar.//
"You can read thoughts," Mara said without surprise. "That's how you found us today." All her doubts flashed through her mind and she looked at the riar, half-frightened.
//Yes, Mara...Kang. And I read nothing in either of your minds that worries me in the least. We want thinkers, not docile followers-of-orders. I am here to guide, suggest, and provide some information, but the decisions must always be yours. We do not rule, even in small ways.
//I must not stay away too long!// The riar reminded them. //You still have doubts. There will be chances to discuss them later, but let me settle some of them now. We are not in a hurry. We seek to make changes, but they must be made slowly and within limits that are acceptable to the culture.// The riar began to glow faintly blue. The light grew stronger, obscuring the form that had been within it, then rose into the sky and swiftly disappeared to the southwest.
Kang looked at Mara, but could find nothing to say. A riar that is not a riar and can read minds? he plotted. Telepathy.... That would be very useful in my diplomatic work. I would know exactly how much the other side was prepared to yield. An unfair advantage is always useful...
"Have you read Kor's report on the Organians?" Mara interrupted. "His description does not match the appearance of this being. I'll check the report again when we are back aboard the Klothar."
"She will know," Kang warned, "that you are trying to discover her home."
Mara considered that for a while. "She won't care."
The half-grown riars rolled and tumbled, growling fiercely. "I want you to have the best one." Rad leaned against the fence and whistled sharply. The tangled ball of furry bodies abruptly sorted itself out into four leggy kittens. Three of them sat and looked expectantly at Rad. The fourth, the darkest female, moved slowly toward the fence, her nose up sniffing the air. She detoured slightly and reached the fence near Rad's knee, then turned and hissed at the visitors.
"This is Afhal." Rad reached through the fence and scratched behind her ears.
"Soft killer," Kang muttered. "Does she live up to her name?"
Rad chuckled. "Not yet, but she would if her training was completed. If you accept her as a companion for Kiloran, she won't need any more training. Any threat to him will arouse her protective instincts. Her ancestors have been guards since before our history was recorded."
"Are you certain she isn't too dangerous?" Mara asked as she crouched down to meet the animal's eyes. "She is still growling at us."
"You haven't been introduced." Rad snapped his fingers. "Friends, Afhal. Friends."
The growling ceased, and a cautious nose sniffed at Mara's extended fingers, then at Kang's. A rough tongue swished over both sets of fingers. The riar then trotted to the gate and reared up on it, purring loudly. "She usually gets out to play with Kiloran at this time of day." Rad opened the gate.
Afhal slipped out and loped across the bare courtyard to where Kiloran was walking with Mureta, Rad's wife. The child turned loose of her hand and took two unsteady steps to wrap his arms around the riar's neck. With one hand clenched tightly in Afhal's fur, Kiloran staggered toward his parents.
"We accept the gift, rol," Mara said formally as Kang went down on one knee to sweep up his son. "She will see many strange worlds with us, and will always remind me of home and family."
"Yes, Family." Kang heard the heaviness in Rad's voice and looked up alertly. Kiloran was safe in the curve of his arm, Afhal leaning against his knee, purring loudly. "Kahfar will be arriving tomorrow." Rad said.
Kang sighed loudly. Kahfar, Mara and Rad's uncle, was head of their family, a position of even more power on Skikof than on Shabas. "Has he changed any of his opinions since our last visit?" he asked.
"No." Rad remembered the main points of the argument that had raged for three hours the last time they had talked. "He still doesn't think the Turon-Lura trouble should have been settled diplomatically. Even though we get half the output of the planets' dilithium mines, he maintains the fleet should have gone in and taken it all. Your argument that any fight would have cost more in lost ships, material, and trained fighters than paying for the dilithium crystals, just earns you curses." Rad deepened his voice and straightened his back, copying Kahfar's manner: "'Klingons fight for what they want. Start ignoring the old traditions and the Empire will fall apart!'"
"We owe him respect, Rad," Mara reminded. "He took good care of us after Father was killed. He helped you keep the land, and saw to it that I could finish my training."
"It was done without feeling, lor. A man traditionally takes care of his brother's children," Rad replied. "If Taramu Kahfar had his way, the Families would still be fighting each other on the plains of Shabas. He is a fanatic, and his position gives him the power to cause trouble, even for a Tarlokarne in the Imperial Fleet."
"Eski," Kang agreed. "Best we return to the base before he arrives."
"I am sorry to see you go, but I think it would be wise," Rad admitted. "It is not good to spill blood within the Family."
"Blood! Would he challenge me?"
"I'm afraid he might, if the rumor is true. Are you giving up your ship to spend all your time thwarting Klingon attempts to gain more territory?"
Mara's fingers tightened on Rad's arm as Kang's face went set and cold. "Where did you hear that?" she demanded.
"From Kahfar. That is his interpretation of the official announcement from Shabas that Kang will now hold the permanent title of 'Ambassador'."
"The rumor is half-true," Kang said softly, cradling a tired Kiloran in his arms as he rose. "I have the title - but I shall keep the Klothar." A wicked grin lit his face. "Federation ambassadors often travel by starship. I'll arrive on my own battlecruiser."
The rain poured down, drenching the two figures hurrying toward the Visiting Captain's quarters. Kang and Afhal slipped through the door, both pausing just inside. Mara laughed as she tossed Kang a towel to dry with. "Use it on Afhal when you finish. She'll soak the rug by Kiloran's bed otherwise." Kang squatted down and ran the towel down Afhal's sleek sides. It was easy to forget she was anything more than an animal, and that was good. He glanced casually at the ceiling where he knew a microphone and camera were concealed. He had lived all his life with surveillance, but had never been aware of it until he had a secret to keep.
"They've finished work on the Klothar. The recall to the crew has gone out, and resupplying will commence tomorrow."
"I'll be glad to be back aboard," Mara said. She stood looking out the window at the rain. "Why do I resent being shut in a house by rain, yet look forward to being shut in a ship for a much longer time?"
"This is forced on you; you choose the other." Kang gave a last swipe at Afhal's still-damp fur and rose to join Mara by the window. Afhal gave a shake to straighten her fur and padded softly to check on Killoran.
"Rad called while you were out," Mara said abruptly. "Taramu Kahfar demands to see you. I don't believe there is any way to avoid this confrontation. If it doesn't take place now, it will the next time we are on Skikof." She turned and looked up at Kang. "With your approval, I'll call and arrange for Kahfar to meet you in your office here on the base tomorrow."
"Here?" Kang questioned, not following her strategy.. "This is family business. Would it not be better to conduct it privately at the lodge?"
"He is not alone in his opinions," Mara said, "and his following is growing. They will undermine any diplomatic work you do. The High Command debated long before deciding to attempt to settle the Turon-Lura trouble with diplomacy. At that time, there was no organized opposition within the Empire. If Kahfar has his way, the next time there will be a great outcry from those who wish to cling to the old traditions.
"He is opposing your work for the Empire, so force him to meet you here as Tarlokarne Kang of the Imperial Fleet."
"Arrange it," Kang ordered.
Mara returned to his side after making the call, leaning against the wall, watching the storm which had increased in fury, but very conscious of the man at her side. "Be careful, Kang. Kahfar is a wily opponent. He has some reason for demanding this meeting, and I fear it goes beyond talking."
"You must be with me tomorrow. I need your knowledge of him to aid me."
Aid her husband against the head of her family? It was contrary to custom, but she had already broken or ignored other customs. A soft yowl drew her attention to Kiloran's room. Afhal sat in the doorway watching her steadily. The presence of the riar reminded Mara that they were supposed to be diplomats - clarifying the situation in her mind. "I will be trying to help both of you."
Kang frowned at the man pacing around his office. Tall, thin, burning with a restless energy that kept him ever in motion. Kahfar had let Kang talk without interrupting, but he hadn't listened. "It is possible to bargain...."
"'Bargain'!" Kahfar spat the word back like a curse. "Klingons do not bargain! They take what they want. This has always been our way."
"Ways change," Kang said loudly, overriding whatever else Kahfar had intended to add. "There are cheaper prices to pay than lives, and other beings have their ideas of rights. Sometimes it is necessary to compromise."
"Treason." Kahfar said the word triumphantly. "You talk treason. You bring disgrace on yourself, on Mara, and on the Family through her."
Afhal growled and Mara stiffened where she stood behind Kang, but he gritted his teeth and managed to reply reasonably: "Our Karnekelin approved this 'treason'."
"The Emperor grows old! He listens too much to his young advisors and ignores the old...."
"His 'young' advisors have all fought against the Federation. They know what we face."
"Klingons...afraid of a fight...?"
"When did you kill your last foe?" Kang froze as he spoke the insult. Too late! This was no diplomat facing him. The triumph apparent in Kahfar's eyes above his curling mouth told him Kahfar had been waiting for such a mistake.
At long last, Kahfar was still. "You call me coward before a witness, my own Ratamu. You must pay for that, Kang." He smiled at Mara as he continued: "I will not even demand your husband to fight me, since only you heard the insult. He has a choice. If he does not wish to fight me, all he has to do is tell the High Command he will no longer be their Ambassador."
Mara let out the breath she had been holding and bowed slightly to her uncle. "Taramu Kahfar." Her face was an expressionless mask and she did not look at Kang. "My Karmitharn and I will be leaving Skikof soon. Do you agree to fight today, here on the base."
Kahfar's eyes widened in surprise, then he matched Mara's bow. "Agreed. I have friends there. One will stand with me. An hour from now?" He turned and, Afhal pacing behind him, marched out of the office, well pleased that he had a chance to put a decisive end to this foolishness.
Mara rested her hand on Kang's shoulder and he covered it with his own. "Well spoken, Mara. A fine beginning to my career as a peacemaker, isn't it?"
Afhal growled softly from the doorway. //You must also live in your own culture, Kang. You are Klingon. That means you will live with violence while you seek Peace. To do otherwise would lose you the respect of your fellows, and in the end, cost you your life.//
Kang glared at the small furry creature, not at all in the mood for lectures. "And will I survive today's combat?"
Afhal sat, her tail curved around her paws, the tip twitching restlessly. //That depends on your skill with weapons, as your success or lack of it will always depend on your skills, not mine. I will do nothing to affect the outcome.//
The windows surrounding the dueling square were filled with spectators, busily making their wagers. Kang smiled sardonically, wondering if any of the watchers besides his own crew were hoping for him to win. Kahfar and his friends had managed to spread word of what the quarrel was about, and several cries of Ame reaching Kang's ears indicated that the crowd backed Kahfar's stand. If he, Kang, were killed, the High Command might continue as before. He looked at Mara pacing solemnly at his side, tightly holding Afhal's leash. She would take the job, but the High Command would never offer it to a female. Hal nog. He would do his best to be sure they had no reason to return to the old ways.
Kang turned to the display wall. There was a fine selection of blades to choose from. He knew Kahfar wanted this to be an elegant affair - a traditional battle ending with a neat thrust to some vital area, so he chose short double-edged blades; plain everyday weapons with which to slice up an enemy. He balanced his in his hand, remembering a similar one he had wielded on the Enterprise. Then, he had fought a war at another's urging; now, he fought because he wanted to stop wars, yet the weapon was the same. How strange!
Kang and Kahfar stepped through the door into the square. The duelmaster, a cold-eyed, clean-shaven civilian, stepped between them, calling Kang back to the present. "How do you duel?"
"Vhy i thos," they answered in unison.
"Is this a personal quarrel that ends with the death, or is there a feud to be continued by your Families or friends?"
"There is no feud." Kang had spent a few difficult minutes arguing that out with Mara, but thought her agreement would stand past his death. "Ki ni thos."
"It ends with the death," Kahfar echoed sourly. He had followers who would have carried on a feud. With his niece promising to make it an intra-family feud, he had abandoned that idea.
"Begin." The duelmaster stepped from between them and their swords rang together as he retreated rapidly.
They had met each other before in training fights and knew what to expect. Kahfar had more skill and a longer reach, but Kang was stronger and faster. Kang's only hope of surviving was to press the fight, keeping Kahfar always off balance, on the defensive. A thin, red line across his left shoulder from the first exchange showed what he could expect if he allowed Kahfar to set himself for a proper stroke.
The hacking match worked its way around the square - Kahfar being much too skilled to allow himself to be trapped in a corner. Kang picked up several minor cuts without ever touching Kahfar.
Kahfar suddenly leaped backward and Kang's rush was too slow. He paid for it with a blood-seeping slash across his midsection. A fraction of an inch deeper, and blood would have flowed rather than seeped, and Kahfar could have retreated, and retreated cutting carefully at Kang until he fell.
Kang attacked wildly as though fearing the loss of strength. Kahfar braced himself to parry Kang's weight behind the blade, but Kang pulled his second blow in the flurry. Kahfar's blade, meeting much less force than he had expected, went too high. Kang's blade slipped down, and sideways, sliding easily between two ribs and out the side of Kahfar's chest. He sagged, and Kang dispassionately sliced his throat as he went down.
The duelmaster ran a scanner over the body. "This quarrel is ended."
Mara touched Kang's shoulder and stood locking down at her uncle. "He chose his time to die."
Afhal crouched at Kang's feet, snarling softly at the scent of fresh blood.
//He was wise in a way. If he could not stop the changes you herald, he would prefer death. He would not have enjoyed the world you seek to build.//
Kang was barely aware of them. In the past, he had killed with his own hand, and it hadn't bothered him. This death shook him. For the first time, Kang realized that an obstruction in his path had really been another intelligent being with goals and dreams of his own.
Until now, he had viewed the prospect of working with the Superiors with detachment, thinking of it on a universal scale, not on a one-to-one basis. Yet, his career as an official diplomat and as a private seeker of Peace had begun - standing over a still-warm body with a bloody sword in his hand.
Not very diplomatic, or peaceful, but very real....
Issue Number Three: December 1976
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