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Prologue

"So, how go your plans for the humans, Tir?"


The Darhel Ghin sat in a pose copied from the humans, legs bent and spread flat, one foot crossed onto the opposite knee. His face was impassive, ears still, and it was impossible to tell from his expression what might be meant by the curious choice of position. His hair had the metallic sheen of antique silver, with glints of black threaded through. The slit-pupilled eyes were a deep emerald green with a light tracery of violet blood vessels around the whites, impassive in the narrow, fox-like face. The face would have looked elfin except for the sheer, solid realness of it. The rows of pointed, razor-sharp teeth were concealed, for now, between his still, closed lips. In short, he was average for a Darhel, in virtually every way. That very attribute had led more than one unwary rival to grievously underestimate him. In his youth, at any rate.


"Well, Your Ghin." He stared directly into the wall-sized view screen. His superior's Indowy body attendants could be seen working unobtrusively in the background. A human might have compared them to small, green teddy-bears. The Tir barely thought of them at all, their omnipresent service being an unremarkable, comfortable fact of life. "Planetary reclamation of our Posleen-occupied interests with greatest profit potential is on schedule. Hazard loss of human colonists is within ten percent of optimum. Loss of human colony ships is optimum, plus or minus two percent. The loss concealment program is operating as designed. Monthly profit margins are running at seven percent, plus or minus one point five percent, at the ninety-five percent confidence level," he recited. His ears were perked through the metallic gold hair, uncommon but acceptable in their race, his posture erect in a position of strong confidence. The old fool must surely be becoming aware by now that he was slipping.


"The humans, they are rather more . . . numerous, and less grateful, than your projections when you initiated the program during the Posleen war."


"All plans require adjustment as part of the process. We have discussed the purpose of the job of management before, Your Ghin." How did he always do that? The obsolete fossil had the annoying habit of posing just the question that prodded the most inconvenient aspect of any operational plan. But the Tir's control over his own body language had improved over the years, and he cocked one ear slightly in a gesture that coasted just between polite condescension and careful attentiveness.


"With respect, Your Ghin, profits are up and contingency plans to manage the humans are functioning well within acceptable parameters." He had an itch on the left side of his muzzle, just below the top of his whiskers. With effort, he resisted twitching them. Or squinting his eyes. Decreases in light tended to cause the slit-pupils to round noticeably, making even a slight squint more pronounced than it would have appeared in a round-pupilled being.


"Your parameters fail to take account of recent evidence of active hostile human resistance." The one thing he could admire about the older Darhel lord was his control over his expressions and gestures. The humans had an oddly apt expression for such control. A poker face. They used it to describe a game. One of the few personal interactions he chose to engage in with humans was an occasional evening playing this poker game that the human Worth and a couple of his underlings had taught him. The contact was annoying, but you could actually win money at this game, and he regularly did, which the Tir found fascinating enough to outweigh the disadvantages.


"Because plans are already in motion to bring that small detail back in line with optimum management conditions." How could the aging obstacle know that? Was it possible that his own communications were less secure than he had believed? It bore investigation.


"I also note that hazard loss of human colonists is highly selective in its action." There had been a slight emphasis on the word "selective." Impossible to tell if it was faint praise or criticism.


"Yes. It allows us to optimize our profits from the remaining colonists." He had to resist the urge to preen, or the closest Darhel equivalent, which was not a social display, but was instead more a personal expression of satisfaction with one's own accomplishment. His superior was doing his usual exemplary job of appearing unimpressed.


"It is good to know you continue in your usual exceptional standards of job performance, Tir." The flash of rows of razor-sharp pointed teeth, in a very brief display of that copied human expression, the grin, almost caused a slight shudder. But, really, the old fool was just trying to put a brave face on the hunt breathing down his neck. Age was beginning to rob his vigor, would soon take his wit, and ultimately his life.


This time, the Tir could not quite resist the urge to preen.


 


 


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Framed