My proposal—including financial plans, budgets, resource allocation, and personnel recommendations for newly created positions—is attached.
The AI interrupts us to proffer a mild warning. “A number of individuals are approaching the cockpit. Their vitals indicate agitation.”
I never know if AIs are programmed to sound like that, or if it’s some developer’s quirk slipped into a prototype ages ago. Someone tries to open the door, then bangs with both fists. Through the metal, I hear Dina swearing.
“There’s a group of angry Ithtorians screaming for blood outside the ship,” she shouts. “What the frag have you done now?”
Shit. I have no earthly idea. Whatever’s wrong, we didn’t do it; nonetheless, a cold feeling rises up in me. It’s probably good they roused Dina. She has an impressively royal demeanor when it suits her. I thank my lucky stars that she and Hit prefer to sleep on the ship whenever possible, when they aren’t needed for some diplomatic display.
“Stall them,” I call back, frantic. “Is Hit out there? Ask her to use the wardrober in my quarters to get me something decent to wear. You know the parameters?”
“Roger that,” the tall pilot answers.
I need a san-shower, but we probably don’t have time. March lets me slide down his body as he steps back. His expression is rueful as he shakes his head.
“Our timing has always been rotten,” he mutters. “But I think this might be just be the worst.”
I agree wholeheartedly. Instead of getting to enjoy the rosy glow of endorphins inspired by heel-banging sex, I have to scramble to figure out what’s gone wrong. Dammit. And I thought things were going as well as could be expected. For Mary’s sake, I thought we were on the verge of signing a treaty, even bearing in mind the Grand Administrator’s objections.
March unlocks the door, and I go at a dead run toward my quarters. I hear his footsteps behind me. He’s dressed at least. Good thing he was sitting in trousers and a shirt when I pulled him out of his room.
“Fasten your pants,” I whisper.
His hands get busy. Since it was so early when we went out, I just put the hooded coat over my thin ki pants and sleep cami. I should know by now that things never go as I expect. The reason why I don’t expect trouble probably reflects some innate lack.
Mary, could this get worse?
We pass Dina en route. “Make it quick,” she calls. “I don’t know what exactly has happened, but they think you’re trying to make a run for it.”
Shit. That’s really not good. Okay, so maybe on the surface it looks bad, finding the ambassador on board the ship in the wee hours, coincidentally after something’s gone wrong; but we can straighten this out. I take a deep breath and dodge into my room, where I find Hit waiting with a suitable gold, sleeveless robe.
Bless her attention to detail.
It will be cold outside the docking area, but I can live with that. More than ever, I need to show strength and authority. No time for modesty, so I shuck my clothes, exposing my scars fully. Hit averts her eyes, but March has never looked away from me, not even from the first day we met.
As best I can, I assemble myself into the image of the ambassador the Ithtorians have come to expect. Then it’s time to head for the doors. The Bugs won’t board us, as that would be construed as an aggressive act and terminate the nascent accords between our peoples, but as we approach the exit ramp, I can hear the commotion just outside.
For the first time, the clicks and chitters sound enraged and dangerous. Thankfully Dina has managed to keep them contained, and I meet Vel coming up as I step out onto the ramp. Thank Mary. He can help me smooth things over, if it can be done at all.
I pause to ask in an undertone, “What’s going on?”
Anyone else would chide me for not being where I’m supposed to be at this hour, but Vel doesn’t waste time with recriminations. He deals with situations as they are instead of as they should be. His side-set eyes glitter in the overhead lights as he buys us a little time by greeting me with a particularly poetic wa.
The chip surprises me by offering visual signals shifted to word meanings: When the dark breaks, white wave looks to brown bird. There will be no tears born of new light. I realize that’s what I called myself in the wa he translated for me. He must be white wave. I don’t know how I know that, but he’s acknowledged it by referring to himself that way.
“Sharis has been admitted to the medical facility. At this time, he is critically ill, and the physicians do not know whether he will survive the night.”
Aw, shit. He’s one of our strongest supporters, which might be why he wound up in the hospital. That doesn’t explain why I have the Bug Gestapo clamoring just a few meters away. They look like they want my entrails on a stick.
Then it dawns on me. “No. Surely they don’t think . . . what possible reason could I have for jeopardizing my mission?”
Not when so much rests on my success here. I grind my teeth against the urge to start swearing in every language I know. But I can’t fly off the handle. I’ve been cool and calm so far. This isn’t the time to break precedent.
“Not you, necessarily,” he replies. “But they believe it was someone from our delegation. Preliminary toxin screenings have indicated he was slipped a quantity of citric acid, which is nutritious to humans and—”
“Poison to Ithtorians,” I finish grimly.
Vel inclines his head. “That is the current conjecture.”
It goes without saying that an Ithtorian could still have done it, intending to make it look like we did. Is that something those extremists in the park who nearly killed me would do? Well, I don’t have time to cycle through all the potential suspects right now.
I have to talk these Bug soldiers down before they send all of us to the mines. Sentencing without a trial wouldn’t be constitutional for a native, but as foreigners, we lack the same rights. My fingers tremble as I step forward, so I lace them together.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of Sharis’s illness,” I begin. “I have come to respect him greatly during my time here. I will, of course, cooperate fully with the authorities to try to bring his attacker to justice.”
Vel translates for me, putting a more polished spin on my words. Thank Mary for his political background. The soldiers rumble and hiss.
“More lies,” one of them says.
“We should slay the lot of them,” his commander adds. “And let the Iglogth sort them out. I knew nothing good would come of allowing humans back on world. There were reasons we banished the scum in the first place.”
A deadly chill radiates from Vel, standing beside me. “May I remind you that our party possesses a personal warrant of safe passage from the Grand Administrator herself? I understand you perfectly, and any hostile action taken toward me or my companions will result in your immediate death. The Grand Administrator does not take kindly to having her pledges foresworn by a filthy lot of untaught foot soldiers.”
I can almost see them deflate, duty supplanting aggression. The captain steps forward and executes a lovely, apologetic wa. “I beg your pardon, ambassador. We allowed our grief and outrage to overwhelm our better judgment. We beg that you will not report our transgression to the Grand Administrator.”
“I share your grief and outrage,” I answer smoothly. “Thus, I understand it. Only let me know what I may do to facilitate your investigation. I, too, want the culprit brought to justice with all haste.” In conclusion, I offer an acknowledging wa, fluid motion that shows I have the capacity to forgive his transgression.
To my surprise, Vel relays my message word for word. Maybe I’m finally getting good at this. I’m not sure it’s a skill I really want, however. March fell in love with me because I had no doublespeak at all. Whatever I thought, I never hesitated to say it. How will he feel about a woman grown expert in prevarication?
Warmth surges through me, the likes of which I haven’t felt in so long, I almost cry out. March fills me like he used to, easily, softly, and it takes all my will to school my features. Don’t worry, he tells me tenderly. It doesn’t matter who you’ve been, who you are, or who you become. I’m with you every step of the way.
Mary, how I needed to hear that.
“At this time, all diplomatic processes will be placed on hold,” the captain continues. “The vote will be delayed until after Councilman Sharis has recovered from his illness and the guilty party apprehended.”
I acknowledge that with a nod. Doubtless that’s just what the Opposition Party wanted. The Bugs have learned to interpret the inclination of the head as a positive response, so Vel doesn’t need to translate.
“Then, if it pleases the ambassador, we will escort you to the center for jurisprudence.”
At any other time, the commander’s formality would amuse me. Not now. We stand at the edge of a terrible precipice, and I’m the only thing that can keep us upright.
Hope my balance is up to the task.
Jael trots along beside me like an annoying pet. The apparent threat to his generous salary, paid by the Conglomerate, has roused him to near agitation. He doesn’t seem to care about Sharis’s health, but he has all kinds of advice for me.
“Don’t go with them, Jax. This is nothing but a trumped-up excuse to take you into custody. They’re not going to let you help with their investigation. They’re just going to hold you so you can’t get in their way.”
“I realize that,” I tell him darkly. “But it’s in our best interests to cooperate fully, whatever that entails. The alliance he proposed stands on shaky ground, and I have to do whatever it takes to steady it. Do you have any idea what’s going on out there?” I gesture vaguely above my head, encompassing the universe entire in the motion.
“Yes.” His voice is grim. “But you can’t do any good out there if you let them send you to the mines down here.”
“For Mary’s sake,” I say in exasperation. “I’m not going to the mines, just to an interview room. I don’t have anything to hide. I didn’t do this to Sharis.” I keep walking, and add over my shoulder, “And I highly doubt any of us did. If I had to bet, I’d lay money that it was someone in the OP or one of the Grand Administrator’s minions. But just to be thorough: Where were you tonight after you left the party, bodyguard?”
Shame colors his reply. “Playing Charm with Dina and Hit. I’m sorry I left you, but that shindig was bloody boring. I stayed as long as I could take it.”
“Some help you are. Your paranoia is not an asset.”
Now there’s some irony—me accusing someone else of paranoia. Maybe it’s a sign I’m recovering from the havoc the psychs wreaked upon my psyche. Dina always said I just needed time, and it seems like she’s right, as usual.
A question occurs to me. “Have you seen Constance tonight? She’s usually working in my quarters, but I haven’t seen her since this afternoon.”