“She’s not the first Suffern woman to die in childbirth. Death and birth, birth and death; we walk such a fine line.”
“There is great power in women.”
“Is there? Tell me where. I’d like to find some.”
He closed the book and sat up. “You survive, Rachel, despite denial of food, proper shelter, aid. Why do you persist? Why not give up?”
His emotionless words triggered pride, rage, and a concrete certainty that I must protect my child. “Pearl.”
He nodded. “That is something we lack.”
He made a little noise in his throat. “No, a connection to them, a drive to protect them as individuals. When they are very young, they are strangers. Once they’re old enough to leave the Nest, they’re enemies or allies.”
“You view your children as enemies?” I crossed to the fireplace and settled on the warm hearth. “How sad.”
“Hmm. Sad. I never thought of it that way.”
“Do you have any children?”
“Offspring, yes.” He looked down at the floor. “Children, no.”
“What does that mean?”
He met my gaze again. “We don’t raise our own children, Rachel. They’re conceived according to formula, raised in groups, trained for occupations as determined by caste. The Ohnenrai rarely foster long-term relationships.”
“Most Ohnenrai connections are about competition. Only the Elite families marry, and those bonds are for power and privilege.”
I tilted my head and studied him. “Why are you strangers to each other?”
The coals settled, sending a small whoosh of embers up the chimney.
“We never know when someone will die.” He sat back. “The people in the two ships orbiting your planet are all that’s left of a billion Ohnenrai.”
“What happened to your world?”
He looked up at the ceiling as if seeing through it. “Orbiting Terra is a mother ship large enough to hold eight million people. In a matter of minutes that ship bridged a distance that light needs over five hundred years to cross.” His gaze returned to me. “That kind of power demands sacrifices.”
His neutral expression seemed a strange accompaniment to his sad story. “How is that possible?”
“Covering that distance? Destroying so many people? What technology permits such a thing?”
“We bend space.”
I must have looked confused because he explained, or tried to. “We harness stars to open wormholes. But the technology is stolen, and its owners are a vengeful people. They destroyed Ohnenrah as my people watched. And we’re still feeling their wrath in the genetic degradation they began. They’ve slowly destroyed us from the inside out, and we’ve been helpless to reverse their vengeance. There are fewer and fewer Ohnenrai children to raise.”
I couldn’t imagine his people helpless. What kind of enemy have they made? The destructive technology he implied stopped my breath.
An owl whoo-whoo’d, and the wood on the fire sighed.
“Yet you do to us what was done to you. How can you live with yourselves?” I watched the grotesque shadows that lurked within the fireplace, then looked at him. “How can you face me?”
His eyes reflected the banked fire’s faint red glow; the rest of him was lost to darkness. “It shouldn’t be like this. But we lost our way when we lost our planet. And it continues unabated—the death and destruction. I’m not sure my people know how to stop.”
I turned away. “The Ohnenrai must be very desperate.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because only desperate people would bring their suffering to others.”
“We were not always this way. But, yes, now we’re broken and desperate.” Ehtishem Zain lay back on the cot, his hands behind his head, and stared at the ceiling. “Desperation spawns mistakes.”
I folded my knees to my chest, rested my cheek on them, and watched the slow pulse of the glowing coals.
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