Zack knew the situation was wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. He shambled along in the state between dreaming and waking, still trying to discern why it felt like someone was holding his arm behind his back. The path was long and narrow and dark, just like his dream had been.
“Not far now, Mister Gamma. This place is making my head swim. Do you ever say that?”
“The shangmere don’t say that. We don’t do a lot of swimming, though it’s really fun when we do. Our idioms are a little different. I love human idioms, though. And most of human society. I was really excited to move to the Angelor Republic proper. Humanity gets a lot of flak out there, but it always seemed so nice to me. It’s like your race is made up of social structures that clumsily get by on nothing more but dumb luck and mishmashes of traditions and quick-fixes, but all the individuals are so suave and refined.”
“Hhng… suave? Y… you think humans…”
“Well, not ALL of them, obviously.”
Zack shook his head. The conversation was pulling him out of his walking dream. He wasn’t in an alley, he was in a cave. The trial pit’s cave was stretching before him, and he could just see light ahead. His hands weren’t restrained behind him, they were just held in place.
“I mean, now that I’ve lived in the Angelor Republic for this long I know that even humans have their downsides. In some ways that makes you better, though, don’t you think? I mean, perfection would be boring. Everyone has to have their little quirks and failings, and humans pick ones that are-”
“Nectra? Is that… you’re Nectra.”
So he hadn’t dreamed Nectra. He was really being escorted by the shangmere.
“I don’t mean to… I mean, I know you want to kill me, but could you have waited until after I was done in the trial pit? It’s really important that I finish this, and I’ve got a feeling that there’s some kinda penalty for taking a mulligan on spirit quests.”
“Oh, that’s what you were doing? Okay, that explains a lot. Zack, this probably isn’t the right time, but you know that you live the best life, right? I mean, you get to do so many fun things.”
“Yeah, try it for yourself some time, I think you wouldn’t like it so much. Listen, I-”
“And you’ve always got the perfect comeback lines. Do you think that if I wasn’t out to kill you and otherwise imprisoned for life that we might’ve been able to be friends?”
“People like me don’t get many friends, but I guess anything’s possible. Look, Nectra, you’ve gotta let me go back there.”
“One thing at a time, Zack. I need to kill you first.”
“You’re not thinking straight.”
“I’m not craz… well, maybe the fumes down here are getting to me.”
“Right,” said Zack. “And even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t think you were crazy. You’re a little eccentric, sure, and I think you’re a very… emotional person, but I don’t think you’re crazy.”
Nectra stopped walking Zack forward. She leaned into Zack’s field of view, and the almost-human, vaguely bat-like face slid into his peripheral vision.
“I think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
“You really think I’m not crazy?”
Zack stared into the wide, uncanny eyes of the shangmere and gave the question some serious thought.
“I really don’t,” he said. “You sound… well, you sound like someone who could probably stand to talk to some therapists about everything you’re going through, but I’ve met insane people before and you’re not like them.”
“Yeah. Sure, I’ve only known you for…I lost track of time in there, about half a day maybe? So, I’m just working on first impressions here, and I’m not what you’d call an expert, but I don’t get an ‘insane’ vibe off you. You seem more desperate than anything.”
“Oh, thanks!” she said. “Zack, that really means a lot. Really. I know I’ve already said this, but I’m really going to regret killing you.”
“Then don’t kill me!”
“It’s not that simple.”
“I think it is,” said Zack. “Look, you’ve gone through some desperate times, I can tell that just by looking at you, so you’re jumping at some sort of straw to prove that you’re innocent of… something, I wasn’t clear on that whole situation, but the fact is the option you’ve been given is clearly immoral and probably illegal. I’ve helped a lot of people who wanted to turn to options like that… and believe me, some of my clients have been in pretty dire problems… but in my experience, when you’ve been thrown a bone like that to get out of trouble, you’ve not been given anything good to work with. You’ll keep your head above water, and maybe someday you’ll even get out of the jam you’re in, but you’ll have sidestepped a better life.”
“Wow,” said Nectra. “You might have a point. Was that off the cuff?”
“That’s another human idiom I like. We don’t usually wear the kinds of sleeves that humans do, which means we don’t really have shirt cuffs, so-”
“Yeah, it’s a great idiom. So, why don’t you let me go?”
“Oh, Zack, I wish I could,” she said, her eyes twisting into a recognizable expression of genuine sadness. Zack wondered if shangmerian eyes worked like that, or if she’d picked up the habit from humans.
“Why can’t you?”
“It’s great that you believe everything you just told me,” she said, leaning her head back so that she was entirely behind Zack again. “It makes me think of the great heroes of human books and movies. But do you really think civilization works that way? From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t.”
“It does if enough people work to make it work that way,” said Zack, feeling the gentle push to begin walking forward again.
“I think you’re right,” she said. “But that’s the fatal tragedy of humanity. I don’t think enough people will ever work together to make it something that sweepingly epic and beautiful. Human society can’t exist without its flaws, after all. It’d get boring otherwise.”
“Don’t make a joke to dodge actually thinking about the topic.”
“I’ve thought a lot about this, Zack, I was in prison for a while. And right now, killing you is the only way that I can prove that I’m innocent and that my research works.”
“All right. Nectra, I’m really sorry.”
Zack jumped forward, dragging Nectra with him. He ducked and somersaulted, pulling Nectra into a whirl as she opened her wings to try to stop the pull of the air. The loss of momentum caused Zack to land on his back halfway through the twist, on top of Nectra.
The surprised shangmere, having just had the wind knocked out of her, loosened the grip of her clawed hands enough for Zack to pull his wrists away. He jumped up and ran down the corridor as fast as he could, heading toward the light.
“No!” she shouted. “No, don’t go! Zack! Get back here! I’ll find you! You can’t hide from me, I have a tracker!”
Zack ignored Nectra’s betrayed cries and moved quickly. He didn’t know how fast she could run, but wasn’t going to wait to find out.