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Karminjeeru
by Oswego del Fuego


AW 1029

The soldier Dasamariel came back from the Territories War with a new seriousness about him. This was some feat, as most had thought him somber to begin with. It was known that his return had come well in advance of the scheduled end of his mission. Rumor claimed that something terrible had happened in the desert, either to Dasamariel or because of him, and that this fact, now being suppressed by Command, was the reason for his early dismissal. Anyone in a position to know was ordered to say nothing--or so it was believed. As for Dasamariel himself, he was in no position to clarify matters. He had never been very sociable, and typically spoke only to his nearest bunkmates at the barracks. After his return, the situation became even more marked. He was sequestered in a private, guarded apartment. He did not go to the barracks or take part in daily exercises, nor was he seen at meal time, or official functions, or even at the base's market. This was highly irregular for any member of personnel, but especially so for a low-level private like Dasamariel.

Dasamariel's absence was all the more conspicuous because Dasamariel himself was so conspicuous. He was the only member of the Native Mota race present in any official capacity at Royal Army Base 14M-Delta, one of the more noteworthy installations on Mota. In fact, he was one of only a thousand or so non-Palm servants of the Palm government, despite its ubiquitous presence across all three of Algo's planets. Dasamariel stood out in the crowd; there was no avoiding it. Indeed, some speculated that his severe nature might be due, at least in part, to his status as perpetual alien. Dasamariel's colleagues treated him honorably and accorded him his due respect, but everyone, including Dasamariel himself, saw that no Native in the Palm forces could truly be just a man among his peers. His ways were bound to be foreign, his comrades said, not to mention, of course, his appearance.

Sadly, Dasamariel fared little better with many members of his own species. Distrust of all things Palm was high in the colonies, and the Territories, a sizable region of Mota left to Native control, was easily the most tumultuous of all hotbeds. Many residents of the Territories viewed Dasamariel as a traitor to his race and world, and these were people with whom Dasamariel was forced to have constant contact, as the city of Kueri, where Dasamariel was stationed, was the only island of Palm civilization in all the Territories. The days of the bandits and raiders were over, true, but the animosity between colonizer and colonized was alive and well. Despite the best efforts of Dasamariel and the other peace-keepers, the racial tensions had erupted into open combat for the first time in over two hundred years. A war ensued. The insurgents almost always chose fighting to the death over compromise or capitulation. Dasamariel was left with the blood of his own on his hands--many of his own. No one knew how he would react to this, but all assumed that his unenviable situation had at least played a part in his unexpected return.

* * * * *

Agent Vess MacArthur, born on the home world and trained in Paseo, had at first felt uneasy about her assignment in Kueri. Though a lovely and prosperous town, with its bustling sea port and prestigious academy renown throughout the empire, Kueri had forever been in a state of flux. Originally it had been an outpost of traders from the settlement of Casba, who sought to make their fortune on the shallow, fledgling ocean that Mother Brain had recently created. Aside from Uzo, a mere fishing village, Kueri was the first town to take advantage of the sea, and, as such, it became a major hub of trade. In time, it surpassed its parent city, which eventually died out and was swallowed by the desert, its precise location forgotten by most.

With Casba's decline, the lack of any major Palm settlements nearby made Kueri an easy target for native barbarians and other opportunists. The taming of the desert by Palm and Mother Brain eased matters somewhat, but the official establishment of the Territories ushered in a new era of unrest. The population of the Territories was grouped into small villages, lone farms, and nomadic tribes. There were few permanent settlements of any size, no universal law, and no central government. Palm could do little to pacify matters, as it was strictly limited in terms of what order it could impose.

Still, the empire did what it could, which included appointing a Territories ambassador and establishing a major military garrison at Kueri. This outpost guarded not only Kueri itself, but also the ocean and the desert regions surrounding the city. It was this unit of which the Native soldier Dasamariel was part, and to which Vess MacArthur, Palm agent, made a visit.

* * * * *

Base 14M-Delta consisted of a series of low, squat buildings arranged around a wide, green, and immaculately kept courtyard. Only the company headquarters, on the far end of the yard opposite the main gate, was larger and more ornate. That building's whitewashed sides and paned windows were a stark contrast to the utilitarian metal structures of the barracks, commissary, gymnasium, infirmary, and so on. It resembled nothing so much as the opulent Gubernatorial Mansion in Paseo, albeit on a smaller scale, and Vess found herself thinking that it must be a historic structure that had survived from the colonial period. Three flags flew above it. The first bore Waizz's Standard, emblem of Palm's empire. On the second was the provincial flag of Mota. On the third, the seal of the Royal Army was proudly displayed.

Looking around, Vess could see the exercise yard and training grounds beyond the buildings on her right, with the vehicle storage area and landing strip beyond that. To her left, past a high chain fence and a thick line of trees, rose the defensive wall of the city proper. Further beyond that, the highest of the nimble, graceful towers of downtown Kueri were visible. All along the parkway that led from the city to the base, Vess had heard the drone of traffic and even the occasional mournful blow of a ship's horn. As minutes passed, however, all of that became intermittent, then slipped away entirely. All she could hear now was birdsong, the rumble of a single small vehicle, and the hut-hut chanting of a solid block of men and women practicing their maneuvers on the far end of the yard. Everything else was quiet and still, save for the gentle, yet hot, and utterly ceaseless wind that seemed to be everywhere one went on Mota.

Vess had to suppress a sigh as she took the base in. Army installations like this one were not the same as those employed by the Security Agency, and a careful observer could find myriad differences between the two. Yet, the similarities were sufficient to elicit a feeling of nostalgia in Vess. Her training period, or summer at camp, as Agency parlance called it, had been a happy time despite the rigorous testing she was required to undergo. It had ended too quickly for her liking. Now her career consisted of so many low-key missions which, despite their sometimes unbearable tediousness, had to be pursued and completed with all of the determination and passion she could muster, if she was to someday rise to better things. Vess knew this, and so, despite an encroaching feeling of dread, she stepped into the base.

She had an appointment with one General Belvedere Camuel, the ranking officer present, at 1300 hours, but that was still an hour away. Vess had purposefully arrived early, as she often did when on official business, so that she might do a little reconnaissance before conducting her interview. She didn't intend a thorough search of any kind. That would come later, if her superiors deemed it necessary after reading Vess's report. All Vess wanted to do at the moment was get a general lay of the land and a feel for the mood on base. Her earlier missions had taught her that even cursory observation, combined with a trust in her own subconscious perception and intuition, often resulted in surprisingly perspicacious insight. Vess suspected that her superiors realized this strength in her and valued it, and that it was for this reason that she was often selected for assignments like this one--the fact that she loathed assignments like this one nonwithstanding.

Her first stop was the barracks, where Private Dasamariel had lived prior to his ill-fated perambulation in the desert. It was a sprawling structure, intimidating for its size and total impersonality. It reminded Vess of an aircraft hangar. There were large windows across both the upper and lower levels, but the glass was frosted, allowing only light to pass through. No view of the scenery would be possible from the inside, not that the scenery was all that interesting anyway.

There was a guard at the front door. He carried a rifle and had a handgun at his belt. He looked to be all of nineteen or twenty. Though he was only a few years younger than Vess, she found herself bemused by his appearance, thinking him a child in comparison. His skin was red from the sun, making the freckles on his face, which was still weighted with baby fat, stand out all the more. He looked a little out of place in his dark blue-green uniform and domed white helmet, but Vess thought he had the potential to cut a dashing figure someday. The guard lowered his gun and saluted Vess as she approached. She returned the salute.

"Ma'am?" he asked.

"Agent Vess MacArthur," she answered. "I was dispatched by the office of the Royal Attaché to the Territories to conduct a preliminary investigation into the case of Private Dasamariel. I have an appointment with General Camuel this afternoon, but would appreciate the opportunity to examine this facility beforehand. Specifically, I would like to see Private Dasamariel's living area."

The guard nodded. "Understood," he said. "Would you like me to accompany you?"

"No, that's all right," Vess said with a smile. "This won't take long."

"If I may," said the guard. "You likely won't find anyone inside at this hour, and there are hundreds of bunks. If you wish to find Private Dasamariel's, you'll need someone to show it to you." He waited a moment for her to answer, then added, "I wouldn't mind." When Vess still didn't answer immediately, the guard smiled and said, "Really, I'd appreciate it. I've about had it with standing here like this."

Vess smiled pleasantly. "Then I suppose I'd better accept your offer," she said. "I'd appreciate your assistance anyway."

"Then let me just call for my relief," he said, pulling a small communicator out of a slot on his belt. A second guard arrived in moments, at which point the first guard turned to Vess and said, "I'm Private Landley Malka, by the way. Please, after you." With that, they went inside.

The interior of the building was as bland as the outside. The floor was concrete, the walls a dull gray-white. The entire space was filled with rows upon rows of three-tiered bunk beds. The beds were a washed-out mud color and cast from wrought iron. Their crisp white linen looked clean but uncomfortable. Vess frowned. The accommodations at the Agency camp, which had seemed merely functional at the time, looked posh compared to this. Camp had felt like exactly that--a camp. These barracks, however, felt like an institution. A prison, maybe? No, more like a hospital. Vess was not left disconcerted by the atmosphere, but she did find it displeasing aesthetically.

"Over here," said Malka. He gestured forward, then started walking and motioned for Vess to follow. Dasamariel's bunk was on the far right side, near the back of the room. His bed had been the bottom one. It was neatly made. There were no personal effects to be seen, save for a single pair of military issue boots neatly placed at the end of the bed.

"Has everything been moved to the Private's new quarters?" Vess asked.

"No, it's just been stored away," Malka said. "I don't think they've let him retrieve anything, actually." The young man bent down on one knee. He pulled out a long chest from beneath the bed, unlocked it with a skeleton key on a large ring kept in his pocket, and opened it. The contents were unremarkable--changes of uniform, a few items of civilian clothing, grooming items and toiletries. A personal link for news and entertainment feeds and online access, a few books, both printed and electronic, a set of pens, and a pad of paper.

Only one item stood out. It was a photograph of a young Native child and his mother. The child wore a very old fashioned and obviously second hand jumpsuit like those worn by children attending public education. Vess could see where large patches of off-color fabric had been used to patch holes in the suit. It was obvious that a lot of effort had gone into maintaining the garment, despite its careworn appearance. The woman was young, though no longer a girl, Vess thought. She wore garb traditional for women of her race and station--multiple layers of skirts and robes made of thin, heat-reflecting material, a head wrapping, and a wide hood over that. Her face was cast in shadow but she appeared to be smiling. The child, too, was smiling. Vess thought they looked like a happy family. They stood on the porch of a small and modest but modern-looking house. The ground before then was hard-packed dirt. It was likely a government-sponsored farm or a residence in one of the few established Territories townships.

"That's Dasamariel and his mother," said Malka. "He said it was taken about ten years ago, I think, when his family still lived in the desert."

Vess looked to Malka and said, "Then the mother resides in Palm territory now? That's rather unusual."

Malka said, "Dasamariel--or Dasa, that's what we all call him--said his father worked with the government. He wasn't military. I think he was some kind of independent contractor. Construction or mechanics or something. So, Dasa grew up around Palm people. He's comfortable with us, although all of us aren't always comfortable around him, but that's another story. Anyway, that's why Dasa became a soldier. His father was able to provide a much better life for them than what a lot of other Native families got, and I think Dasa wanted to give something back. He moved his mother to a nicer home here in Kueri not too long ago. It must have been a hardship for him, financially, but he did it."

Vess nodded. "What happened to the father?" she asked.

"He's dead now. He was murdered."

"Murdered?"

"Yes. There's still a lot of bad blood between Palm people and Natives in frontier cities like this one. Well, apparently someone didn't like a Native working so closely with the government. So, they killed him. I don't know all the details, honestly, although I'm pretty sure that they did catch the party responsible, eventually. Dasa and I used to take the same meal time, and I probably got closer to him than anyone else around here, though that's not saying much. Dasa told me everything I just told you, but I didn't feel comfortable asking too many questions, about this subject in particular. He always seemed a little defensive when talking about his parents."

"I suppose that's understandable," said Vess. "And thank you for sharing all of this with me. Anyway, it seems clear that Dasamariel is sufficiently at ease amidst Palm society, but would you say he has any bitterness toward Palm people over what happened to his father? Could that be the source of his sensitivity?"

Malka frowned. "I shouldn't think so," he said. "The person who killed Dasa's father wasn't Palm, ma'am. It was another Native who did it."

* * * * *

Upon leaving the barracks, Vess and Malka made a quick tour of most of the base. Malka made sure to name and describe each point of interest they passed, but Vess found very little of interest in it. Fortunately for her, it did not take long to complete the tour and, with about fifteen minutes to spare, they found themselves approaching the base headquarters where General Camuel was waiting. En route they passed a spot where a few men were doing chin ups and other exercises. One man was practicing with a bladed weapon. As Malka and Vess were passing, the man with the weapon called Malka's name. Malka frowned when he saw who had hailed him. Although Vess wanted nothing more than to be done with this place so she could finish her interview as quickly as possible, something in Malka's eyes caught her attention. He looked uneasy. She decided to stop and see what, if anything, was amiss.

The man with the weapon was blond and square-jawed, well-built and bare-chested. He put his blade away and began mopping himself off with a towel. His nose was upturned and he made a point of looking down at Private Malka. There was a contemptuous sneer on his face. While there was no denying the soldier's physical charms, Vess found herself disliking the man immediately. He was brash as a sandworm and looked about as friendly.

"Morning, Chalm," Malka said dryly. "What do you want?"

Chalm glanced quickly to Vess, acknowledging her only with a flick of his chin. "Who's this with you?" he asked. His voice was gruff but still had the high timbre of youth. Vess guessed that he was near her own age of twenty-three, perhaps a year younger.

"I am Agent MacArthur," Vess said flatly. "I'm here on official business." Nodding to Malka she said, "Let's go."

"Hold on a second," Chalm said, taking a few steps toward them. "Is this about the Furry?"

Vess blinked and Malka looked at her uncertainly. Though some considered it an innocuous nickname, many took the word Furry for a racial slur. Vess took a deep breath, pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes, and said simply, "I am here on behalf of the Territories Attaché. Our office is launching a preliminary investigation into an alleged incident regarding a member of this company."

Chalm's eyes narrowed. "So, do you know what happened out there?" he asked. "What did he do? Only a handful of people are allowed to see him. No one will talk, not one of them, and it's driving me nuts."

"I don't know for sure that anything happened," Vess told him, deciding there was no point in sustaining the pretense that her business involved anything other than Dasamariel. "There is some confusion regarding the matter. As this is not simply an internal Palm matter, the Attaché's office requested that--"

Chalm gave a laugh that was more like a bark. "You don't know any more than we do, do you? Nobody knows anything except Dasamariel himself, and maybe the General, and your boss is afraid this is going to blow up in his face and totally embarrass him. That's why you're here."

Malka sighed and adjusted his gun on his shoulder. "Oh, shut up, Chalm," he said.

Chalm took another step forward, making a point of it to thrust his powerful upper body toward the much smaller man. "What'd you say, Malka?" he asked.

"You're being stupid, Ermon," Malka answered. "Just let Agent MacArthur do her job. Maybe she'll be able to learn something. Hey, who knows? Maybe it'll turn out to be a Karminjeeru that's behind this after all."

Chalm's eyes went wide and the color seemed to go out of his face. He slung his towel over his shoulder and said, "Don't even joke about that, man. It's not funny." He glanced at Vess again, muttered something along the lines of "Morning" or possibly "Ma'am," and went to work on some chin-ups.

Once he and Vess were sufficiently far away, Malka turned to Vess and said, "I'm really very sorry about that. Chalm's a bit of a--"

"Don't worry about it," Vess said. "The truth is, he's right. The Army isn't talking about whatever it is that happened concerning Private Dasamariel, and since Dasamariel was in the Territories at the time of his unexpected recall, it has my superiors worried." She let out a breath, then said, "Our office has a very difficult job. There is no single body or entity in control of the Territories. It's a total free-for-all. As such, we have to maintain lines of communication with a host of persons, clans, tribes, and the like. It's a precarious situation, especially over these past few years, what with the anti-Palm insurgency. This would be the absolute worst time for an interstate incident, especially when the fighting is just starting to calm down."

Malka gave Vess a sympathetic smile. "It must be very difficult," he said. "All I can say is, I hope the General is more sympathetic to your curiosity than he is to that of his men, because if he's not, you're in for a world of frustration. Anyway, can you believe that Chalm, of all people, is on infirmary duty today? God, I can't even imagine his bedside manner!"

They both laughed. A moment passed, then Vess asked, "What's this Karminjeeru you mentioned? I'm not familiar with the term."

Malka's grin widened. "New to Mota, are you?"

Vess smiled back. "I'm from Palm. I've only been in the Attaché's office about a month, and I'd never been to the Territories before that."

Malka nodded knowingly. "Well, about the Karminjeeru," he said. "According to Native folklore, the Karminjeeru is a predatory spirit that wanders the desert. To see the Karminjeeru is unlucky, and there are ritual cures which must be undergone to nullify its curse. To be in the immediate presence of the Karminjeeru causes destructive, evil thoughts. Prolonged exposure leads to madness, and finally death."

Vess shook her head. "A charming story. But what does this have to do with Dasamariel?"

Malka chuckled under his breath, then said, "Nothing, I'm sure. Don't take offense, but a lot of newcomers are really affected by the desert. There is something about the atmosphere that unnerves them, and the mythology surrounding it only compounds matters. The desert is just something that it takes time to get used to, I suppose. One good thing about it is that it makes it easy to get under the skin of newbies like Chalm." He sighed, then said, "We're all adults here, but newcomers find themselves in a strange place that has a lot of very scary stories told about it, and something about that puts you back in the most vulnerable part of your childhood."

Vess nodded. She had heard many long-time residents of Mota say this very thing since her arrival, and she thought she was beginning to see what it meant. Mota-born colonists had an almost instinctive understanding of the desert. They were able to take it in stride. They respected the desert for its power, but it was simply an everyday force in their lives, much as the changing of the seasons was to the people of Palm.

Visitors from the home world, however, rarely found it easy to adjust to Mota's wilder qualities. The desert was regarded by them with an almost superstitious dread. Vess suspected that Ermon Chalm, despite all his bravado, was just as wet behind the ears as she was, and felt terribly out of his element. Vess had observed this behavior in many of the new Agents she had worked with during her brief time in the colonies, and, she had to admit, she had been overcompensating a little bit herself. There was simply nothing on Palm that was comparable to the vast and seemingly unending desert of the Territories. It was beautiful and exotic, but also terrifying. Anyone who became lost out there was certain to die. Aside from the poles or some remote mountain top, there was virtually no place on Palm where one ran that kind of risk. That, Vess had decided, was the ultimate source of the fear. The desert was simply too brutal, too unsafe, for modern, pampered man to handle. Surely it must be so, if even military professionals like Chalm, who would have scoffed at most rites and customs of the desert people, blanched with dread at the mere mention of the Karminjeeru.

* * * * *

Vess found the office of General Camuel most impressive. It was an expansive room with a wooden floor carpeted by a Dezorian rug that, Vess thought, must have cost a fortune. The walls to both the left and right were covered with bookcases that contained hundreds of volumes, as well as other curiosities, such as a stuffed rappy, a scale model of a military class low-orbit cruiser built by Diauron Corp, a bronze bust of Waizz the Great, an antique Dezorian pistol, and more. There were also several portraits. Among these were a nearly life-size painting of Orion Landale, King of Palm and all its colonies, and a framed photograph of Mosiah Adorr, Supreme Commander of the Mota forces, as well as similar photos of the Governor of Mota, the Prime Governor of the empire, and others.

The far wall of the office consisted primarily of glass double doors, beveled and carved with spirals and intricate designs, which led onto a veranda that encircled the upper story of the headquarters building. The room's primary source of illumination was the natural sunlight that poured through these doors. Mounted high on the wall above the doors was the head of an immature sandworm. Even the creature's delicate feeding tentacles had been preserved--a rare sight indeed, due to the small window of opportunity after the kill in which preservation was possible, and the great difficulty involved in assuring that preservation--and these flagella were posed in a posture of attack. Beneath this rather gruesome display was a magnificent wooden desk that, like the building in which Vess found herself, was doubtlessly a relic from the early colonial period, when all of Mota was under military control, and self-absorbed, arrogant commanders divided the planet into small private kingdoms for their personal enrichment and aggrandizement.

As regal as the furnishings were, Vess thought that they suited their owner well. Many men would have looked small, even presumptuous, in such a grand and richly decorated room, but General Belvedere Camuel seemed at home there. In fact, something in his demeanor suggested that he had been born to hold his present position. He was a tall man, trim, but also solid and well-built. His gray hair was thinning and his face was gaunt with encroaching age, yet he looked healthy, robust, and strong. For all of her youth and speed, Vess would have never wished to face this man in combat. The suit Camuel wore was the same dark teal color as the uniforms worn by Private Malka and the others, but of a much more elegant and elaborate design. The jacket sported a high silver collar, matching cuffs and epaulettes, and a generous complement of medals. His white dress shirt was neatly pressed and bore a series of falling ruffles at the neck. Camuel also wore a gold ring inlaid with a blue-green stone, into which was etched the insignia of the Royal Army. Vess's first impression, gleaned during the brief moment in which she and Camuel exchanged introductions, was of a man who was serious, sober, and competent. While she reserved her final judgment, she did not sense any hostility or stealth on Camuel's part. She gave an internal sigh of relief, and allowed the General himself to begin the interview.

Camuel leaned back in his chair and made a steeple with his hands. He regarded Vess seriously for a moment, then said, in a deep baritone, "Allow me to make this easy for the both of us, Agent MacArthur. I have preferred to keep my men in the dark regarding the incident involving Private Dasamariel. I know they are displeased, not to mention curious, but I have my reasons. However, I see no reason at all to extend this policy to the Attaché's office. In fact, I hope that you and your colleagues may be of some help in resolving this matter."

"I am gratified to hear that," Vess said. "But if that is the case, perhaps it would be best to explain what, exactly, has happened."

Camuel nodded. "It begins with Private Dasamariel's field of expertise," he said. "Specifically, his training in the areas of espionage and surveillance. I imagine the reasons for his focus here are obvious."

"Of course," said Vess. "As the only Native under your command, he offers a unique opportunity to study Native society from the inside. This would be of special importance right now, given the recent hostilities."

"Precisely," Camuel said. "Private Dasamariel's last assignment was in Kvarts, a small Native township not too far from here. We had reason to believe that leaders of the remaining insurgency were gathering there, planning their next big attack. Dasamariel's mission was to keep his eye out for known insurgents or any suspicious activity, gather whatever intelligence he could from the locals, and report his findings back to us." He sighed. "For two weeks, all was well, though we didn't learn very much, sad to say. And then, there was a murder."

Vess sat forward. "You believe Dasamariel is responsible for this murder?"

Camuel took a deep breath and rocked back and forth in his chair. "Therein lies the mystery," he said. "Dasamariel absolutely denies any involvement in the killing, but some of the facts suggest otherwise. First, he was staying at a little inn in the center of Kvarts. The murder occurred in Dasamariel's room."

"No one heard or saw anything?" Vess asked.

"No," said Camuel. "Not the innkeeper, not the guests, no one. Secondly, the murder was committed with a long, curved dagger which, sadly, we were not able to recover. We were able to deduce what sort of weapon was used based upon the shape of the victim's wounds. This particular type of dagger is a traditional weapon of the Mota people, and Dasamariel admits to owning such a weapon--and, of course, his just happened to go missing on the night of the murder. Third, and surely the most important fact of all, is that the man who was killed is the very same man who we have long thought responsible for the murder of Dasamariel's father some years ago."

"I just learned of his father's murder earlier this morning," Vess said, "but I was under the impression that the responsible party had been caught some time ago."

"There was a man arrested for an unrelated charge who later confessed to the crime," said Camuel. "However, we were never convinced that he was the real killer. He was a petty thief and low-level smuggler with no known history of violence, but a long history of mental instability. He was found guilty of his other crimes and was punished accordingly, but we had no evidence on which to convict him of the murder charge. Anyway, the man found dead in Dasamariel's room, unlike our smuggler, was a known murderer and terrorist with confirmed ties to the insurgent elements. He was also a neighbor of Dasamariel's family back when they lived in the Territories, and we have many reports of verbal altercations between this man and Dasamariel's father. Dasamariel's father grew up in a traditional setting and kept many of the old ways, but he had no sympathy at all for the anti-Palm radicals, and he was often harassed over that. Anyway, there is additional evidence suggesting the guilt of our murder victim, but it is of a forensic nature and dates back many years, and I do not care to go into it just now."

"Is there any such forensic evidence in this case?" Vess asked. "Natives don't leave much in the way of fingerprints, but they almost always leave hair samples behind."

"We found samples from both Dasamariel and the victim throughout the room," Camuel said. "However, we found no samples from Dasamariel anywhere on the victim's body itself, which is strange if Dasamariel is indeed the killer. Stranger yet, we did find samples from a third, unidentified party. Not only were hairs from this person found on the victim's body, but there were large concentrations of these hairs under the victim's fingernails, suggesting that this third person was in fact the murderer, with the killing taking place after a struggle. We have, naturally, sent these samples to our lab for analysis. Hopefully, they'll match someone already in our files."

"Then, you are holding Dasamariel for the purpose of questioning?" Vess asked.

Camuel paused, then nodded slowly. "We are, more or less," he said. "We have no direct evidence to prove Dasamariel's guilt, or even to place him at the scene of the crime. However, the fact that the murder took place in Dasamariel's room, and one of his possessions was the likely instrument of the murder, and the murder victim was the man thought to have killed his father, is certainly sufficient cause to at least suspect he might be responsible."

Vess nodded and said, "Well certainly, but what does Dasamariel say about all of this, aside from his denial of having committed the crime?"

"He claims to know nothing," Camuel said. "He says that he discovered the body upon returning from his overnight recon beat. He checked the body to make sure the victim was in fact deceased, then went to the village constable to report what he'd found. He was detained, we were contacted, and we launched our own investigation as soon as we had Dasamariel home."

"Does his claim that he was out on official business at the time of the murder correspond with the orders you gave him?"

"Absolutely. Dasamariel would have been violating orders had he been home at the time we believe the murder took place. Dasamariel is a highly dedicated and loyal soldier. For him to violate orders, especially so he might engage in a brutal act of vengeance, seems totally out of character for him. I think I know him well enough to say that."

Vess thought for moment, then said, "You have him under house arrest, as it were, but you haven't jailed him."

"Because we have nothing on him, save for our doubts and fears," Camuel said with a shrug. "Had this happened in Kueri or anywhere else, we would have had our people on the scene from the first, and would probably have acquired a lot of evidence which has now been lost. I've been among the Natives too long to question their intelligence, but the fact is that they're still living in the medieval. Their investigative and law enforcement methods are not exactly up to our standard. There's no telling what sort of vital clues may have literally been washed away or thrown out with the garbage."

"Then what will you do?" Vess asked. "Hold Dasamariel indefinitely? Or until you get a confession, whether true or not?"

Camuel sighed again and rubbed the bridge of his nose. His eyes were tightly shut, as if he had a terrible headache. He said, "No, we don't want that at all. My inclination, honestly, is to believe Dasamariel. He's been a good soldier since the beginning. I've always had a lot of hopes for that boy. His father was a friend to us, and while it's true that he met a bad end, there's no denying that his family prospered due to their close relationship with Palm society. Dasamariel took that lesson to heart. He joined us in order to make a better life for himself, as well as his mother. I've hoped that he would be the first of many, and that those young people would finally build a bridge between Palm and Mota. Now, this happens, and all of that is in jeopardy. The truth, Agent MacArthur, is that I'm too invested in all of this to see it objectively. I kept my people out of the loop because I thought that was best for the unit, but I'm frankly sick from all of this, and would be more than happy to hand it over to your office." Camuel reached into a desk drawer and produced a folder which he tossed onto the desktop. He motioned for Vess to take it and she did so. Before she could open the folder, however, he added, "Brace yourself."

Vess looked inside and gasped. Enclosed were color snapshots of the murder victim. He hadn't simply been killed; he had been gutted and dismembered, and his face horribly mutilated. Vess covered her mouth with her hand as she said, "My god."

"This isn't simply a brutal murder," Camuel said. "It's a very specific vengeance ritual which was part of Mota society for centuries."

"Was a part?" Vess asked. She looked up at Camuel, eager to take her eyes off of the horrifying images.

"Yes, as in past tense," he said. "It hasn't been practiced in a very long time, at least not in mainstream Native society. While the memory of this act survives, only the most extreme traditionalists would ever actually commit it."

"And Dasamariel is no traditionalist," Vess said. "That's what you're getting at, right?"

Camuel nodded. "Yes, exactly. The traditionalists consider Dasamariel treasonous for his connection to us. While there may be a certain irony in using such an archaic method to dispose of an insurgent, I can't see Dasamariel knowing about something like this, or really appreciating that sort of irony, even if he did. And that's all besides the fact that I just can't imagine him killing anyone, not even a terrorist, in cold blood."

"Not even his own father's murderer?" Vess asked.

Camuel shook his head vigorously. "No."

"Then what, exactly, do you think?" Vess asked. "If it wasn't Dasamariel, then who? And why was the man killed in Dasamariel's room? Was this an attempt to frame Dasamariel, who many Territories residents view as a sell-out? Was it an attempt to further damage relations between the Territories and Palm? Was it a random act or, as you suggest, a revenge killing? I'm sure you realize that, in either of those cases, the chances of us ever solving this mystery are nil."

"I can't possibly say for sure," Camuel said. "All I can tell you is what my gut tells me. I have no way of proving it, but I think that whoever did this was trying to protect Dasamariel. My theory is that our victim was lying in wait for Dasamariel's return, intending to finish the vendetta the insurgents had against his family since a generation ago. But, the murderer got wind of this, somehow, and prevented it from happening by killing the would-be killer while Dasamariel was out."

"Using a knife that Dasamariel just happened to possess?" Vess asked.

Camuel shrugged again and said, "It may not seem likely, and I'm not arguing that my theory is necessarily the correct one. It's simply what came to my mind, based upon my knowledge of Dasamariel and his circumstances."

"I'm not going to argue the point," Vess said. "I believe in gut instinct, and mine tells me that you're in a position to know that of which you speak. Private Dasamariel is an unknown quantity to me, but I do have an idea of you, now. For the time being, at least, I trust your judgment in this matter."

Camuel gave a little smile and said, "Thank you."

Vess sat back for a moment to think about all that she had heard. At last she said, "All I can do now is report this back to my superiors. It seems to me that the Security Agency is better equipped than the Army to investigate a matter of this nature, and I think we would all feel better with the diplomatic corps in place to calm the waters as much as possible."

Camuel nodded, though his frown spoke to deep personal regret over the outcome. He said only, "Very well."

Vess stood and said, "I believe this concludes our interview."

"Please, wait a moment," said Camuel. He smiled up at Vess. "That isn't all. There's one more very important thing. Someone I'd like you to see, at the infirmary."

* * * * *

Vess didn't appreciate being kept in the dark as to who it was she was about to meet, nor did she necessarily enjoy being detained longer than she had anticipated. Even so, she couldn't help liking General Camuel. He talked her half to death about absolutely nothing all the way to the clinic, but she found his conversation friendly, charming, and welcome. He was still talking as they made their way down the halls of the infirmary to a small observation area adjoining a private room. Vess and Camuel could see into the room by way of a two-way mirror which, Camuel said, was invisible on the other side. This spy feature was unusual enough, but what made the room stranger yet was the fact that it was unusually luxuriant for hospital accommodations.

Seeing that Vess was puzzled over these anomalies, Camuel explained that this particular room was usually reserved for five-star generals, high-ranking politicians, and other such dignitaries when they required a doctor's attention--hence the aristocratic outfitting. As for the hidden view port, it was for security purposes only, as some guests requested, or required, constant supervision, yet the injured and unwell often expressed discomfort over the ceaseless presence of armed guards at their sickbed. Furthermore, the room was also used, from time to time, to detain insurgents who were being allowed to heal while they awaited questioning. The value of the secret window in cases such as these was obvious. Still, Vess couldn't help but wonder if maybe this hidden feature was sometimes used on friendly guests without their knowledge. She decided not to ask.

The present patient, however, was certainly not any politician or general, nor was she an insurgent. She was a middle-aged Motavian woman, dressed in a hospital smock and sleeping peacefully under multiple downy blankets. She wore a traditional head wrapping. She did not appear to be injured, save for a bandage around her upper right arm.

Vess recognized the woman at once, though she now looked much older than she had in the photograph Vess had seen earlier. "That's Private Dasamariel's mother!" she said. The somber surroundings had reduced Vess's voice to a near whisper, but there was no mistaking her surprise and confusion as she asked, "What is she doing here? What happened to her?"

Camuel gave a little sigh and said, "Several days ago, just before Dasamariel was called home, his mother was attacked outside one of the shops in town."

"Attacked by who?"

"We aren't sure," Camuel said. He shook his head. "She was stabbed, and the perpetrator escaped. It was only due to good luck that the poor woman wasn't killed. Her attacker had the bad timing to launch his assault just as two Agents were coming around the corner. Anyway, I'm happy to report that her shock was worse than her injury. She'll be good as new in a couple of days."

"Please tell me she wasn't stabbed with a ceremonial dagger," Vess said tiredly.

Camuel gave a little laugh as he looked at the woman. Vess thought there was an almost paternal affection in his eyes. Camuel said, "Oh, no, nothing like that. The instrument of the attack was a regular knife, like one you might find anywhere. We're still trying to locate it, though you can imagine how difficult that is. I have a few men searching as we speak."

Vess said, "I assume she is here for her own protection."

Camuel nodded again. "As you probably know, racial tensions run high in frontier settlements, even large, sophisticated cities like Kueri. We know that her assailant was Palm, so that almost certainly rules out the insurgents, which is good news. Still, there could be any number of racist organizations with covert operations going on right in the middle of downtown Kueri. Or, there might simply be a lone lunatic running about who blames all Natives for the atrocities committed by the insurgents. In either case, I wanted to guarantee this woman's safety until the perpetrator is safely where he belongs."

Vess nodded and said, "I don't blame you. Do you think this attack could be related in any way to the incident involving Dasamariel? I must admit, I can't see a connection right now, but perhaps you know something I don't."

Camuel thought it over for a moment, then said, "I want to see a connection, too, but I simply don't. Dasamariel's mother was attacked in Kueri by a Palm male. A few days later, a Mota insurgent was murdered in Dasamariel's room in a faraway town. No, the only concrete connection between these incidents is that both involve the same family. He sighed again. "Anyway, there's a reason I wanted you to see this. I've managed to keep this entire, sordid affair under wraps so far, but once your friends and God knows who else get involved, this is going to bust wide open. Sooner or later, probably sooner, the media is going to get wind of it. The Natives have a lot of advocates in the media, and I approve of that. The Natives are good people by and large, and they need their advocates. Unfortunately, sometimes the advocates go overboard."

"You're afraid," said Vess, "that your reputation, or that of your entire company, is going to be besmirched by all of this."

"You bet," Camuel said. "It's happened before. I've done my best to give Dasamariel the benefit of the doubt, even over considerable objections from some of my colleagues. Not because I wanted to look sympathetic, but because I genuinely believe Dasamariel's claims of innocence." He gestured to the sleeping woman beyond the glass. "I have to admit. Part of the reason for his mother's superlative care is because I need her to deflect some of the criticism I'm bound to take, though I would have tried to do my best for her anyway." He looked Vess in the eye. "I'm not a racist, Agent MacArthur, and I don't want to be branded as one."

"You don't have to convince me of that, General," Vess said. "I know better."

Camuel patted Vess on the shoulder. "Unfortunately," he said, "you aren't the one I have to worry about."

They left the room. On the way back down the hall, Camuel smiled to himself and said, quietly, "I swear, it must be the damn Karminjeeru."

"What?" Vess asked, a wry smile coming to her lips. "What about that?"

"You're familiar with the legend?"

"Yes," she said. "Private Malka explained it to me earlier."

Camuel nodded and said, "He probably told you a horror story, but not all Karminjeeru are bad, especially the ones that are associated with families. Sure, there are plenty of stories where the Karminjeeru acts as the grim reaper or banshee of a cursed clan or tribe, but just as often, the Karminjeeru is a kindly spirit, like the ghost of an ancestor. It's a protector, a personal angel. These good Karminjeeru are often housed within a magic heirloom.."

Vess's eyes narrowed. She asked, "A Karminjeeru can haunt a particular family?"

Camuel nodded again and said, "Oh, yes. You can see, I'm sure, why the idea occurred to me here. The Karminjeeru often has a chosen one within a family around whom its activities center. In this case, I'd say that person is Dasamariel." He laughed. "I'm not seriously suggesting this, of course. It's just an old superstition. People talk about it, but I doubt that anyone really believes in it anymore."

Vess suddenly had a sensation akin to vertigo. She knew this feeling well. It meant that her subconscious had pieced something together and was trying to tell her. She stopped dead in her tracks and put a hand to her forehead. Camuel looked at her with obvious concern, but Vess put a hand up to hold him back. "I'm fine," she said. "I just had a terrible thought."

"What is it?" Camuel asked, apprehension ringing clear in his voice.

"Dasamariel's mother is in danger. And that might not be the end of it."

"What do you mean?"

"Your men, they alternate which site on base they work at. Today, Malka was at the barracks and Chalm was supposed to be here. Yes?"

"That's right," said Camuel. Now his own eyes narrowed. "Why do you ask?"

"Where is Chalm now?"

Camuel checked his timepiece. "He should still be here," he said. "But, why--?"

Vess didn't answer. She turned and broke into a run back down the hall, brandishing her gun as she did so. Camuel didn't bother shouting after her, deciding instead to follow close behind and ask his questions later.

They were nearly back to the room of Dasamariel's mother when they heard a scream. Vess rounded a corner to see a young female soldier staggering out of a room next to the one where the Native woman was sleeping. At first, Vess thought the young woman was injured. When they young woman fell to one knee, Vess crouched down beside her. She quickly realized, however, that the young woman was not hurt, but simply about to vomit. Vess backed off and allowed the woman to do what nature demanded. Then she turned, raised her gun, and kicked open the door to the small room.

Vess's first impression was that an open door on the far end of the room would allow an assassin easy access to the room of Dasamariel's mother, who still slept and would be easy prey.

Her second impression was that she was too late to prevent murder, though the victim was not who she had expected.

Private Chalm was lying on the floor in a rapidly expanding pool of his own blood. He had been stabbed repeatedly and his gut had been slashed. His face had also been horribly disfigured. In fact, while Vess's first thought was that the man was Chalm, based on his build, his eyes (still open, awful), and the color of his hair, she could not be certain until she read the name tag on his red-stained uniform. There was a knife lying next to him. Vess was certain it was the same weapon he had been practicing with earlier. It was an ordinary knife, like one you might find anywhere. Just like the one used on Dasamariel's mother.

Vess sighed and leaned against the door. She glanced through the open door and saw Dasamariel's mother raise her head, a look of bewilderment on her face. Just then a nurse came in and began speaking to the woman in soothing tones. Vess decided it would be best to shut the door. She did not want a person still recovering from a shock of her own to witness a sight like this.

Camuel came to the door just as Vess was stepping out. He got a good look at Chalm, sighed, and turned away. By that time, a handful of soldiers and hospital staff had gathered. Vess checked to make sure that the young female soldier was being attended to, but made a point of it not to concern herself with the hubbub beyond that.

Camuel was white. "How can this be?" he asked. "We were just here minutes ago. Chalm, was he--?" His voice trailed away after that.

"I'm certain he's the one who attacked Dasamariel's mother," Vess said. "He was here to finish the job. Check the knife. It'll match." She remembered Chalm's racial slur from earlier that day, and it made her angry. She took a breath to settle herself, then said, "Awful as it is, this bodes well for Dasamariel. The manner of this killing matches that of the murder in Kvarts. As Dasamariel was safely under lock and key when this attack took place, and we're quite certain that he has no link to the radicals, he can't possibly be responsible."

"And so, therefore, he may not be responsible for the other crime, either," Camuel said.

Vess nodded. "Especially since the motive in both cases was the same. The first time, it was Dasamariel who needed protection. The second time, it was his mother. Whoever this unseen protector is, he couldn't get to the mother in time to stop the first attack, because he was off in the far desert, watching over Dasamariel. This time, though, that wasn't a problem, with the two of them only a few buildings apart."

"But who could have done this?" Camuel asked. "And where has our perpetrator gone?" The General called a few of his men over and began barking out his orders. They were to seal all entrances and exits of the infirmary. They were to close the gates of the base and man the watch towers. They were to comb the streets and watch the port. They were to leave no stone unturned until they found the monster responsible for these--and possibly other--terrible acts.

Vess suddenly felt very tired. She allowed herself to collapse against the wall and sink into a crouch. She ran her hands through her hair. She knew who had done this. She knew whose DNA the lab technicians would find in the hair samples from Kvarts, assuming that data was still on file. She knew the rest, too, but didn't want to say it aloud. General Camuel was a believer in intuition himself, but he might not give his own sixth sense as much credence as Vess gave hers, and she didn't feel like being called a fool.

That dagger. That ancient, ceremonial, Native dagger. Vess was sure it was an heirloom of Dasamariel's family. Where else would Dasamariel, with his modern lifestyle, acquire such an item? It must have come from his father--a traditional man who left behind all that was familiar to find his way among Palm society. A man who cared deeply for his family and sacrificed much for them, including his very life. A man who had no tolerance for those who resisted peace between the races, and who would show little mercy to those who threatened his wife and child. The avenging angel too swift and watchful to be caught behind any wall or gate. The Karminjeeru.

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