“You need to be careful not to antagonize Councilor Karom. By the best of my calculations, he does not like you and will be working actively to entrap you. He will be very pleased if you bring shame upon this delegation as it will prove his point about the general unworthiness of humanity.”
“What do you think about humanity?” I ask.
She regards me as if my question is unexpected. “I find it . . . irregular.”
I give a half smile. “In what way?”
“In every way. Most of you are very illogical, but I find your loyalty to one another admirable.”
“Well, that’s good, I guess. Anything else?”
“I also find it curious the way you . . .” She pauses, seeking a word. “Bond.”
That requires a little thought, then I realize she has to be talking about what happened between March and me. So she’s not entirely different from a human friend. She just waited for me to bring it up first.
But I ask for clarification just in case I’m humanizing her in a way that doesn’t fit. She could be talking about friendship. “You mean the way I feel about March?”
Constance inclines her head. “It is very strange that you were willing to allow him the opportunity to inflict physical harm. He is stronger than you. I do not understand why you would not simply pick another suitable mate if this one is damaged to the point of being difficult to manage.”
I laugh sharply at the description. “He was always difficult to manage. This is just a different manifestation of it.”
She looks puzzled as only a droid can. “I see.”
Clearly she doesn’t. I decide to get things back on track. “What else should I note for tonight’s festivities?”
“You are doing very well with body language. Keep it minimal. Avoid excessive hand gesturing. Avoid showing your teeth while you eat.”
“So I need to watch my behavior across the board then.” I’m sure she thinks she’s being helpful, but I already knew that.
She goes on, “You may wish to pay particular attention to Devri. His physiological readings, if I have analyzed them correctly, indicate a certain excitement in your presence. I have insufficient data to determine whether his interest is sexual.”
Now that surprises the shit out of me. Being attracted to soft-skins would certainly be considered a kink among Ithtorians, if not an outright perversion. I can’t imagine such a misalliance being accepted.
“It might just be enthusiasm for the potential alliance,” I offer.
“Possible,” she acknowledges. “I would need to scan an Ithtorian male who is ready to mate before I could determine the meaning of the elevated heat levels I noted in Councilor Devri’s anatomy while you were speaking.”
Heh. I don’t see us being offered that opportunity, no matter how hospitable the Ithtorians seem. Then something else occurs to me. “Did you notice similar elevations in any other Ithtorians?”
“Searching.” She scans her records for me. “Yes. Councilor Sartha also exhibited similar hot points, but you were not the target of her scrutiny.”
“Who was?” But I already know.
I shake my head and sigh. It’s gonna be a hell of a party.
This trip is way more of a minefield than I expected. Tarn made me think that the Ithtorians were as eager for this alliance as we are, particularly those of us who have seen the carnage that the Morgut leave at isolated outposts. Instead, I’m fighting for their good opinion, swimming against the tide.
Speaking of Tarn, I should check and see if he’s replied to the message I bounced to him earlier. I swore after all the trouble we had getting here that I wouldn’t play fast and loose, that I’d do this by the book. And that means keeping in touch.
When Constance finishes with her review, I head for the terminal and input my pass codes. The screen flashes a welcome at me, loading my user profile. Because my correspondence has a certain security clearance, I’m asked for a scan, so I lean in and feel a slight tingle as the thin green beam sweeps across my face.
“Sirantha Jax, confirmed,” the machine tells me. “Would you like to see your messages?”
“Please.” I never can seem to break the habit of saying “please” to machines. If you knew Constance, you might even understand.
Suni Tarn’s face comes on-screen immediately. The New Terran Chancellor is a big man with disheveled salt-and-pepper hair, but he offers me a pleased, politician’s smile. Behind him is a blue backdrop emblazoned with the Conglomerate’s symbol, a stylized sun crowned with a laurel wreath. This is an official communiqué then.
“I’m glad to hear you’re taking this task seriously, Ms. Jax. After the road you took getting there, I must admit I was a bit worried.” He gives a nervous laugh and continues, “This message has been scrambled and encrypted so I think it unlikely anyone but you will ever hear this. I have to risk a possible breach in the hope of conveying to you the weight of the responsibility with which you have been entrusted. Perhaps I erred in not doing so before you left.”
Shit. I have the feeling I’m not going to like what’s coming.
Tarn runs his hand through his already untidy hair, as if trying to think how to frame what he wants to say. “But the fact is, we need this alliance desperately. In the Outskirts, our fleet has been attacked by Farwan loyalists”—I’m surprised to hear that anyone would be loyal to Farwan, after the fascist way the corporation governed, but some people resist change, even when it makes no sense—“independent raiders, Syndicate pirates, and as if that’s not bad enough, the Morgut are growing bolder. We’ve taken more losses since Emry Station, three more outposts annihilated. We seized all assets from Farwan that we could find, including many of their ships, but they have hidden resources, and they’re reorganizing.”
Double shit. That’s the last thing I want to hear. But it makes sense that the highest executives—the ones with all the money and power—wouldn’t just tamely roll over and head for prison voluntarily. No, the smart ones would have dug in and shed their outer skins while never changing their natures.
Farwan stepped in after the Axis Wars, quietly offering to negotiate as a new party. They established treaties and trade agreements and took control by millimeters; by the time the devastated Conglomerate realized what had happened, their control had been reduced to that of a toothless diplomatic organization. Farwan won’t roll over quietly, and now they’re looking for a new way to seize control, changing the names but not the players. The Conglomerate is the best hope to prevent that from happening.
At this point, though, it doesn’t look good. They have too many enemies and too little practical experience in doing anything other than talking about problems in an endless committee. My stomach feels queer and tight.
The Chancellor looks exhausted as he leans in, new lines bracketing his mouth. I wonder what the hell has been going on since we’ve been gone. How many ships have we lost? Are we fighting a quiet war—I start counting enemies—on four fronts?
“If we don’t sign the Ithtorians, who have never agreed to any treaties, as a symbol of our capability and power, well . . .” His voice grows grave and heavy. “I don’t know what will happen.” He leaves the rest unspoken; he doesn’t need to spell it out for me. “I wanted to be sure you understand the gravity of the situation. Thank you, Ms. Jax. Keep me posted. Tarn out.”
Like anybody else, I’ve seen vids in the aftermath of the Axis Wars. I know how Ambassador Fitzwilliam gravely insulted the Rodeisian empress and how she sent ships to sack every human colony she could find in retaliation. Axis V was the beginning; I saw the piles of burnt bodies and children with flies on their eyes.
Mother Mary of Anabolic Grace. I’m not really the praying kind, but I find my mouth moving in the old, sacred words. Adele, a woman who became like a surrogate mother to me in the time I lived on Gehenna, would be proud. She taught me everything I know about spirituality, which doesn’t amount to much.
What I do know is this—I don’t want to be the one who brings down the second wave of destruction upon our heads. We’re just starting to recover—both humanity and the Rodeisians. We’re just starting to relate to each other without prejudice and hatred.
I won’t do the same thing here. I won’t. My arms wind around me, and I start to rock before the blank terminal screen. Between the stress of securing the alliance, my fear for March, and my subsumed need to jump, I feel like I’m coming apart at the seams.
“Are you well?” Constance inquires.
“No,” I tell her shakily. “I’m beginning to think I’m totally fragged.”
I have a couple of hours to pull myself together.
By the time I take one last look at myself in the mirror, I decide I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I’m wearing a different gold robe this time. This one has a delicate imprint of leaves embossed on the fabric, but you can only discern the pattern when the light ripples across the luxurious silken folds. The lines are simple, flowing, and leave my arms bare. Constance has tightened up the split-twist on the back of my head.
The final preparation comes when I outline my eyes in gold and paint my lips a cherry red. From taking note of Ithtorian markings, I’m positive that yellow and red denote the highest status in their society. I look good, I think.
I wonder if I need to worry about declining Devri’s advances politely. When I decided he was the handsome one, I never expected him to respond in kind.
Constance regards me doubtfully. “Are you sure you wish to wear that lipstick, Sirantha Jax?”
I frown. “Why not?”
“I have been researching the meaning of the Grand Administrator’s red claws,” she tells me. “And it seems that she is adorned as a symbol of her ability to protect her people. The red claws are symbolic of her rending prey.”
I follow that to its logical conclusion. “So by painting my mouth red, I’m boasting of my capacity to take prey down with my teeth?”
“I believe so. I do not know whether such a claim would be considered a bold, admirable move, or a savage, barbaric one.”
“Both,” Vel answers, as he comes into my quarters unannounced. “You need not wipe it off. It will impress some and confound others. As it is, at base, an assertion of strength, it will insult none.”
“Good to know.”
“You need only one thing more.” Vel heads for my cosmetic kit and taps a few buttons.
He looks even more naked now that I know he should wear colors on his thorax. The process is intriguing, akin to the primitive art of tattooing. They use a mild acid wash to roughen the smooth carapace, which is then treated with specially formulated ink that bonds with the damaged surface, imbuing a permanent status symbol. If the marked individual fails to honor his or her new rank, the color must be sanded away, leaving an irremediable scar. Since we arrived, I’ve only seen two Ithtorians so penalized, and they were broken things, scurrying like slaves.