We have been silently sharing strips of jerky and dried fruit, sleeping under the double-band of the Usquan Nebula in a black sky filled with stars. I feel that Qualamo and I have developed a sort of kinship, reluctant on my part, but passive and entirely natural on his. On the third day, I attempt to speak to him. It seems the polite thing to do.
“Qualamo,” I say in the language of the Core, the most common tongue of the Galaxy, “was there a particular reason that you followed me out here?”
He smiles, his massive jaw splitting to show equally massive teeth. His face is like a slab of granite, this man. “Was there a particular reason you came?” he retorts calmly, without malice.
“Do you always answer a question with another question?”
Stalemate. What is the use, trying to get a straight answer out of a people whose very lives depict a paradox of motion without purpose? I decide the mature thing to do is to simply continue speaking as though no offense has been made, and indeed I am not sure one has.
“Do you know,” I say, as though he were actually interested, “that in some Peripheral worlds there are religions that teach that cosmic death is the only end to suffering? that all beings have immortal souls that survive the body to live on in yet another suffering body? that the only way to end this cycle—to achieve Cosmic Death—is to cut off some part of your own body, usually an arm, and have one of your children eat it?”
I realize immediately after saying this that I am actually doing a very immature thing, saying something shocking just to see if he will have any reaction. But I cannot back out of my ploy, so I sit there, staring at his slab of a face to see what will occur.
He merely stares back and smiles.
“What do you think of that?” I prompt after a long silence.
He shrugs. “They do what they must do.”
I frown at this. “You don’t think this is wrong? do you even attach meanings of right and wrong to things like that? beliefs, I mean.”
Qualamo laughs. “Always the same with the ones who come from the Homeworld. They come here and they are tekeput, running here and there and asking questions that lead around in circles. We have a saying: ‘If you give a Homeworlder a hot meal, he will trip over it and break his skull.’ “