SPOILERS AHEAD: RIGHTS OF USE
I highly recommend recapping Vinnet Vignette #2a and #2b before reading the conclusion! Most of these will be episodic, but this one grew a bit.
Also, shout out to Zelienople, PA, which is a wonderful and mighty little town. Don’t listen to Vinnet, Zelie; you can change the world!
Gentle Giant Counseling
Sarah Anderson, 2002
“What I want to know,” Hartwin insisted, “is what’s going on between you two.”
It’s none of his business. I was with Vinnet on this one. Sure, she was being mean and wrong about the whole wrong-decision-to-not-kill-Maggie thing, but it was between us. I thought.
Counseling is part of his job.
Something about that screamed that there was a conflict of interest.
Honesty among us is the only way to live in peace.
But he doesn’t have to be honest with you? I objected.
He chooses to be. We all must continuously make that decision. Vinnet tucked my legs up in the chair. “Have you ever returned to the place where your host experienced trauma?”
He shuddered and nodded.
“Have you ever lived there?”
Now, he had my undivided attention. At that point, the only other person I knew who understood was Maggie.
“Vinnet, I love meeting people. You didn’t think I vied for this role, just to be on the Council, did you? I had other reasons for giving up going off world.” He smiled sadly. (Knowing him better now, I think he has a smile for every emotion. I don’t know how he does that.) “Are you still living there?”
“Not the majority of the time. Speaker Rockefeller convinced Sarah’s parents to let us attend a boarding school with his daughter—”
“Hold on. Her parents? Let you? Why are they treating you like a child?”
“They consider Sarah a child.”
“But she’s…” He waved down my body.
The legal age is eighteen! I insisted, trying to explain.
Your years mean nothing to him, and I don’t want to convert your nonsense decimal math right now. She raised her voice. “She’s a child to them. They shelter their children far longer than anywhere else I know. By their laws, Sarah has three, nine, 108 years remaining. Approximately.”
“She’ll be free for the next Kings’ Ball.”
“Please don’t joke about that.”
I thought it was funny.
Hartwin crossed his massive arms. “Vinnet, we’ve been working out how to accommodate their demands to keep you there. You have a role. You’re there to teach them and recruit hosts. It’s not a family vacation.”
And it didn’t feel like one. Vinnet’s temper flared with mine.
“I’m working with them, too. It isn’t a vacation. It’s a delicate situation. The whole planet thinks they’re the only life in the galaxy. Sarah’s parents don’t know about me, and by their laws, Sarah belongs to them. It is a different kind of undercover mission and not one we can dismiss without ruining our relationship with Project Black Book.”
“Step me through that,” Hartwin asked.
Vinnet sighed. “Project Black Book is Earth’s only effort in pursuit of defending the planet against the Kemtewet. It’s very small, perhaps under two hundred people, and its continued existence is contingent on financial backers who are largely unconvinced of the threat.”
Hartwin’s jaw dropped open.
“Their activities are monitored by blasé superiors and by a xenophobic task force called NFI-Com that is convinced my ultimate aim is to launch an attack on the country from within. By cooperating with the government’s secrecy and accommodating the needs of Sarah’s family and her social expectations, I have preliminarily established our goodwill toward humans on their own merit, rather than Earth’s tactical merit. Insisting that I work only with Black Book and disregard Sarah’s place in society would—” She furrowed her brow. “—seem to be taken as trying to erase her.”
“She’s—” He fumbled his words. “—old enough. She can participate and contribute.”
Ha! I told you so!
“Don’t encourage her,” Vinnet grumbled. “Her country has a prescribed path to social maturity, and if we deviated from it, it would be seen as a threat.”
Hartwin looked me in the eyes again, as if he expected this conversation to have three participants. But he had to know I couldn’t speak with her in control. He hummed and reached back for his own golden bottle. “Hence your turmoil.”
What‽ How does he know that?
He’s good with people, both hosts and symbionts. Frowning, Vinnet looked away. “That’s much of it.”
Hartwin shrugged. “Then come back. If they’re not going to treat you with the respect you deserve, we have other places to deploy you.”
“But Katorin’s intel—”
“—has stepped up every timetable we had,” Hartwin finished. “We have to find a way to end this before the Kemtewet can assimilate Earth, or we’ll never weed them back out before we all die of old age. If Earth doesn’t want you to be effective there, we’ll find better ways to use your talents.”
“After I already failed our best chance?”
“You can’t place that all on yourself, Vinnet. Teresh used the opening you made.”
Vinnet flung her feet to the floor and sat on the edge of the seat. “He got in?”
“He did. And soon after, he had to flee, too. We knew it was a long shot. We had to try. We did. It didn’t pan out. We’re back where we were: fresh out of workable strategies to actually win. For the time being, those who aren’t in strictly intelligence gathering roles are back to pursuing kingdoms.”
Groaning, Vinnet hung her head in her hands.
What’s that mean? I demanded.
Our best plan right now is to have operatives work their way to becoming lords then from lords to kings. From there, they’ll have the resources to stage an attack on Sais if they can do so without a mutiny.
Sounds like a plan.
A plan with a 1% success rate and 66% mortality rate. In base eight.
Tell me in real numbers, I insisted.
Those are real numbers.
More than three out of four.
Almost a quarter seemed like it wasn’t terrible odds until I started thinking names. That’d be like Vinnet surviving but Hartwin, Kitchell, and Katorin dying. Almost everyone.
There must be another way. Vinnet squeezed her eyes closed, trying to come up with a plan when the Gertewet’s master strategists had nothing. If we ally with Earth…
Vinnet, humans—Earth humans—can’t even get to Mars without Kemtewet tech. What do you think we can actually help with?
You’re not without Kem tech. That’s why it’s an alliance. Part of why our options are so limited is that there just aren’t many of us. Earth doesn’t have that problem. You have a real, sustainable population. She wilted back in the seat. And if we lose the opportunity to work with Earth, it’s all up to a few thousand Gertewet.
That sounds like a lot.
She sighed again. If we use the current plan, there will soon be fewer Gertewet left than people in your parents’ town. She winced. There might already be.
Zelienople had a Main Street. And a few traffic lights.
Could Zelienople alone combat the rest of Earth?
Working together, everyone in Zelienople might be able to cause some problems in Pittsburgh. But not the state or the country or the world. It wasn’t big enough to make a difference.
We need a big ally. We need Earth.
I couldn’t roll my eyes with her in control. (She relished that.) Which means playing by Black Book’s and NFI-Com’s rules. I get it.
Vinnet looked up at Hartwin quietly sipping his booze. “We need Earth. Ten years of building trust with Project Black Book is no more time wasted than ten years seeking sponsorship and planning an assassination to become a lord.”
“I see.” He tilted his bottle at her. “May I speak to Sarah?”
She frowned but nodded and started to give me control.
He didn’t even wait for me. “Sarah, I’d like to hear your perspective on all of this. You’re one of us now, but you’re still your own person, too. I’m sure you see different possibilities for your future than Vinnet does.”
He finished right as I finished gaining control. Neat trick. “Vinnet’s right. Working with the Air Force has to be better than the whole lord thing. And, yeah, the whole school thing sucks, but Vinnet’s right again. That’s what’s keeping everyone thinking she’s a good guy.”
“I’ve heard from Vinnet. What do you think?”
I tucked my knees under my chin. “I spent the entire time with the Kemtewet wishing I was back home and things were normal. Things will never go back to the way they were, but I think they’re better. Black Book is taking us seriously. They’re trying to figure out how to protect the planet. And…”
The alternative Hartwin offered struck me again. It was either stay at school, where everyone treated me like nothing happened and I didn’t have an alien spy in my head, or go back to her life of danger and intrigue and constant worries that someone was going to find out and kill me, just like I’d experienced on Sais. As much as I resented how everyone on Earth treated me, just like Hartwin seemed to resent it, the only other alternative was everything I wanted to get away from when I’d first started hosting her.
Except things were different now.
I’d done it once, and I trusted Vinnet’s experience a lot more now. She’d become a lord several times before. She could do it again. We could do it.
Or I could stay in school, where it was safe, hang out with Maggie, and help Black Book defend Earth, which Vinnet thought was the better long-term plan, anyway.
I watched my fingers pick at cuticles. “I’m glad not to go back out yet. Is that what Vinnet means by me being too young?”
Hartwin didn’t answer immediately. Was I proving Vinnet extra right? He hummed. “Maybe. When her past hosts haven’t been emotionally ready, though, she’s said so. She didn’t tell me anything about you being too young.”
“She said I’m too young to understand what it means that we failed the mission as Anjedet.”
He sighed, set down his bottle, and folded his hands. “First, it’s good to acknowledge that everyone thinks differently at different stages of life. For humans, there’s a correlation to age, among many other things. For tewet, it’s more cyclical, as we’re influenced by our hosts.” He shot me a stern look. “Vinnet, like many of us, doesn’t have much experience with hosts who are starting into the prime of their lives. It must be a rather destabilizing experience for her.”
I wondered then, and I wonder now: How could any experience destabilize Vinnet? It rang true, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it.
“Her first host had raised children to adulthood before they met. She’s never experienced life at your age.”
“Am I… Too young for her to understand me?”
He chuckled. “In some ways, though all our hosts have been your age. It’s not completely alien.”
I studied him to try to see if he meant the pun, and I pinkie promise you his eyes twinkled. I couldn’t help smiling back at this near-stranger eliciting all my secrets.
He picked up his bottle again. “If Vinnet actually called you too young—”
I nodded emphatically, my cheeks burning as I ratted out my symbiont.
“—she’s probably looking at the situation from a perspective of a different stage of life. The way you see things may be strange to her, but that doesn’t make it invalid.” He hesitated before taking a sip. “How do you see things?”
“We blew the mission, because I convinced her not to kill my friend.”
He shrugged and took a sip. “You’re fine.”
“You don’t have to brush it off. She’s been putting herself through the guilt wringer, thinking that she should have killed my friend.”
“The spare?” he guessed. How did he know?
Hartwin talks to everyone incessantly.
“Yeah. Maggie. She’s my roommate at school now.”
He nodded and looked me in the eye again. “Vinnet, you don’t have to prove anything. You didn’t lose your abilities by sitting out a year. You make good decisions.”
You weren’t there, she answered.
“She says you weren’t there.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Teresh was. He knew about the doppelgänger. Those were long odds. They probably wouldn’t have worked out.”
He shrugged. “Everything is a possibility. Nothing is certain. You’ll get used to it.” He winked. “In a different stage of life.”
When I was older.
I rubbed my face. Symbionts.
Are you just going to let him put words in your mouth? I asked.
Something in Vinnet’s emotional bass-line resolved. Yes.
How am I supposed to know he’s saying the right things for you?
You’ll know. And Sarah? I apologize. I shouldn’t have said that to you.
I wilted against the chair’s arm. Hartwin says you’re right.
He says you’re right, too, about Maggie. I’m glad I have you here to make me be better.
The best companions aren’t the ones who never make mistakes. They’re not the ones who never think of themselves. They’re the ones that learn from their mistakes and take time to listen.
And that’s my symbiont.
She’s the best.
Previously in Vinnet Vignettes: