“The commander will see you now,” one of the templars informs Imogen and Lilly.
Imogen brought the control matrix out with her, so she simply nods and begins walking along with them. Lilly drops her voice and quietly observes, “There’s something a little weird about Karax.”
“In what way?”
“I don’t know. He just seems not-so-protoss-y.” Too nice, maybe. Not aggressive enough. Too much like a scientist.
“He’s the first khalai we’ve had much interaction with,” Imogen points out.
“I guess that’s true…” The only other protoss scientists they spent time with were the veterinarians that patched them up a few times. Including after her fun sparring sessions. “I wonder if Axion’s around.” Without a word to their escort, Lilly dashes back to their ship to grab the book she got for him on Korhal.
For her part, Imogen wonders whether Arudin is around. The templar they rescued from Antiga was in a far shakier mental state than Karax. Last time they were here, Selendis said he was doing better lately, but Imogen has not actually seen Arudin since delivering him here months ago.
“Do you mean to keep the commander waiting?” one of the escorts demands roughly when Lilly comes running back.
“I’ve got a gift,” Lilly huffs.
“A gift for Selendis?”
“No sir, for Axion.” A look of understanding passes between a couple of the templars, as they realize this is the terran who sparred with Axion. “Yeah, I’m that terran,” Lilly says. She figures they have all heard the story about how it went, given how upset all the protoss involved got when she sliced herself up with the Aiur blade. She holds out the book in case they need to inspect the present.
“What is this? Some kind of primitive data storage device?”
“Yup!” Now, these guys really seem like protoss, Lilly thinks. The guards resume escorting them to Selendis. “Hey, did we get the crystal?” Lilly asks Imogen. There was a lot going on aboard that space station once the fighting started.
“Did we get the—”
Imogen tolerates a lot of absent-mindedness from Lilly, but this is absurd. She cuts off her partner. “If you’re going to ask if we got the whole thing, no. It would have filled up the whole interior of Saffron.”
“Oh. Okay. Good point.”
* * *
Selendis dismisses the guards once the terrans are presented to her. “I appreciate that you were able to rescue Karax. We thought he had just perished in the wastes, a victim of one of his own experiments with the wildlife, perhaps. It is good to feel his presence again.”
“Somehow he ended up in tal’darim hands,” Imogen tells her.
“That is most distressing. We will be investigating thoroughly. He will necessarily be very clear to us about how that happened. But you need not concern yourself with such details.”
“Does he have any choice about that?” Imogen asks. “With the Khala, can you hide things from each other?”
“After a fashion, no, we cannot. We are all connected, bonded in this way. I do not think he would resist anyway. If he was working on a new experiment, maybe. Some things are perhaps more dangerous than they are worth. But he and the other khalai are an important part of our society. We could not function without them. It is not for me to judge whether his experiment was inappropriate or not.”
“So, are the other scientists here—the ones who were taking care of the animals and things like that—are those all khalai?” Imogen asks.
“Of course. One could not have a templar do such tasks,” Selendis answers, as though that were self-evident.
“How many types of castes are there? There’s templars. There’s khalai. What other levels are there?” Prying like this may be inappropriate, but Imogen wants clear answers.
Selendis’s brow crinkles. “What you call the caste system, the Khala, is what binds us together. It is not just a matter of there’s this caste and there’s that caste. It is a terran desire to fit things into such categories,” Selendis insists. Imogen thinks that is a load of crap, but she holds her tongue, since the protoss commander is clearly not finished talking. “We have the khalai. We have the templars. You might roughly consider the khalai as civilians, after a fashion. There are further khalai subdivisions, so to speak. But that is a primitive way to describe it. And within the templars, there are also a range of roles that various templars can fulfill. And again, I apologize, but your very language itself is lacking in the nuances to describe these terms.”
All of Selendis’s words boil down to exactly what Imogen already understood. “So there’s khalai, and there’s templar,” she sums up.
“Yes, there are khalai and templar, but we have duties and bonds to each other.”
“But there aren’t any other categories,” Imogen presses.
“Broadly speaking, no. There are adjudicators, who are also a form of templar. And I wish to clarify that it is not that they are the highest form, it is that they bear the burden of judging other protoss. There are also executors. You might call these admirals or generals. They bear the burden of making decisions in battle at a larger scale. And again, this is not something that we can fully describe using terran language and your idioms.”
Imogen recalls the protoss who first ignited Malorn’s psi-gauntlet and how furtively he did so. He seemed a khalai afraid of being observed doing something forbidden. “So, do any khalai ever become templars? Or templars, khalai?” she asks Selendis, wondering whether Arudin has been “demoted” to a khalai due to his injuries.
Selendis glares at the terran, her eyes narrowing. “No! One cannot become the other. One is templar or one is khalai. They are not just labels. Your limited terran understanding is at fault here. You literally do not have the societal functions to be able to put this together, to know what it is like to be connected to everyone around you in that way. If a khalai were to do such things, it would be dangerous. It would be discordant! That would take us back to the strife we came from.”
“Oh right, the independence of the nerazim,” Imogen murmurs, trying to fit this into her fractured knowledge of protoss history.
Selendis has had enough of trying to contort sophisticated protoss concepts into limited terran speech. She instead forces a brief vision upon Imogen Owendoher, showing the terran a glimpse of the far distant past.
This is an age long before psi-gauntlets, but there are plenty of vicious physical weapons. It is a field of slaughter, with two protoss armies brutally killing each other. The vision is far more violent than any snapshot of protoss warfare Imogen has ever gotten from psychometry. None of the protoss she sees have nerve cords, so this is some time before the Khala—before protoss physiology adapted to it or was forced to change to support it. There definitely were at least some psionically-inclined protoss during this dark age, though, because Imogen occasionally sees lightning storms of the kind summoned by the terrazine-addicted templar on Brontes IV. The attacks are chaotic, uncontrolled. The vision is intense. Imogen feels the heat of the lightning, hears the swish of whirling blades. Then, with a jarring snap, she is pulled back to the present.
Why are they being so quiet? Lilly wonders. What an awkward pause. She herself has not been paying much attention to the conversation up until now, instead daydreaming about another rematch with Axion. Are they done? Did we give her the crystal?
“Do not think that you can understand protoss culture by asking a few questions, by seeing a few things,” Selendis admonishes Imogen Owendoher as the terran’s eyes refocus on the room. “Ours is a long history.”
And yet, protoss think they totally understand terrans, Imogen reflects. We may not have been in this sector for terribly long, but our species goes back a million years. She holds her tongue despite the hypocrisy she sees, having realized that she has crossed some line here.
“I appreciate the services you have rendered,” Selendis continues. “If I need anything from you, I will be in touch.” Imogen sets the dragoon control crystal on the table in front of her, and Selendis picks it up from the other side. “You are dismissed.”