He nods. “She was in comms on deck two, looking through the archives. She said you asked her to research something.”
I said anything that could help the alliance go forward, as I recall. Well, that’s one worry off my mind. “Good to know.”
Hit and Dina had scrambled into their honor-guard uniforms while I was changing, and they’re marching along behind us. I haven’t had a chance to savor the fact that March is back, but he’s part of me in a way he hasn’t been for months. Telltale warmth results whenever he brushes close with a mental touch.
His solid presence at my back gives me more comfort than I like to think about. It would be exponentially worse if he weren’t here. That also applies to Vel, who’s taken a position directly behind me next to March.
We have Bugs on either side of our six-person crew. Maybe they haven’t said so in as many words, but this is an armed escort. I know what would’ve happened if I had protested or tried to return to the ship. Best if I keep things civil.
In the pit of my stomach, I register the worry that we’re fucked, and there’s no fixing this. The chief proponent of the alliance has been poisoned . . . with a uniquely human compound. We can eat citrus fruit all day long and lick the juice from our fingers without suffering any harm.
That’s assuredly not true of Ithtorians. Sharis may have suffered irreparable damage, and I’m heartless because I can only think about how it’s going to impact humanity. I took Chancellor Tarn’s message to heart, and I feel quietly frantic at the idea of things falling to pieces here. Mary curse it, I wanted to succeed, and I was doing so fraggin’ well, better than anyone could have predicted.
I let none of this inner turmoil show on my face as we pass from the spaceport down the tunnel that leads to the underground. Without a jacket, it’s cold as hell, but I manage not to shiver, showing I’m impervious to discomfort. But it’s only the tight clench of my jaw that prevents my teeth from chattering.
Thankfully, the tram isn’t far, and the Bugs herd us toward the proper station. Silence becomes the order of the day, so I listen to the quiet hum of machinery until the commander says, as the tram slows, “We disembark here.”
It’s become second nature for me to let Vel tell me what I already know before I make a move. So after he does so, we head for the “center for jurisprudence.” Since we enter via a lift inside the tram station, I don’t get a look at the building’s exterior.
Inside, it’s typical of other Ithtorian spaces, full of lush color and blooming plants. The flooring gives way softly underfoot, rich and loamy in a way that seems strange to me, even after spending time here. I’m used to rugs or tile, so I find their bioengineered furnishings a little disturbing, but then . . . they find it disturbing that humans surround themselves with the deceased and inanimate. No wonder they call us carrion eaters.
With some disconnected portion of my brain, I wonder what weapon sculpted their world in permafrost. Their physiology is better suited to a tropical environment, akin to Venice Minor, yet they dwell on Ithiss-Tor, which is more akin to Ielos. They strive to create their sultry paradises indoors.
To my distress, they show us into separate rooms. I sit down nonetheless and arrange myself as if I am perfectly at ease. I’ve come to learn that face is everything, so if I comport myself well here, perhaps something can be salvaged.
“We wish to speak with you first, ambassador,” the commander tells me. “Thus, your translator will remain here for now.”
This time, I almost incline my head before Vel translates. Catching myself, I sit like an uncomprehending stump while the bounty hunter rephrases what I already know. Then I indicate my understanding, so the captain goes on:
“Velith Il-Nok will then be required in the other interview chambers. You will be detained only long enough for us to ascertain the whereabouts of your core party. Eventually, we will probably wish to speak with everyone aboard your ship.”
“Will you be interviewing everyone who had access to Sharis’s quarters?” I ask.
They know as well as I do; that encompasses a lot of Bugs, including the Grand Administrator’s personal assistants and countless underlings who are always scurrying to do someone’s bidding. Vel puts the question to the commander with a touch more tact.
“Of course.” I don’t imagine the guard leader’s distaste at having to placate me. He executes a perfunctory wa, then says, “The interrogator will be with you shortly.”
Once they’ve gone, I take stock of my surroundings. There’s only one door, no windows. In some ways, it’s like we’ve been left in a small garden to relax. The petal-soft leaves that furl into the chairs we now sit upon are very soothing, and the sweet scent I’ve noticed pervading most public spaces is present here as well.
In other ways, I feel totally confined, as if all these other living things are sucking up the air. With some effort, I make myself calm down. This isn’t the time to think about the walls closing in or the stench of burning flesh.
“How bad is it?” I ask Vel, sotto voce.
“That depends on a number of factors.” How like him not to want to commit to a prediction, like I’ll blame him if he’s wrong.
“If one of us did this,” he says deliberately—and I’m momentarily distracted to hear him identify himself as one of us, “then our chances of getting off world are slim. We landed under the flower of peace. If one of us attacked Sharis, then they will want to punish all of us for the transgression, however unfair that may seem. And human beings have no rights on Ithiss-Tor.” He spreads his claws. “I will do my best to argue that only the guilty party should be penalized, but I cannot guarantee results.”
Well, that’s bleak as hell, but I can’t believe one of my people would do this. Everyone knows how important our mission is. Even if they haven’t seen the private reports I receive from Chancellor Tarn, they’ve certainly heard about the escalating Morgut attacks on the vids.
Emry was just the beginning.
To make matters worse, we’ve also got the Syndicate, independent raiders, and Farwan loyalists going head to head. But I can’t think about the way the galaxy is going to hell right now. I was doing my best to patch things up, help the Conglomerate show its power and competence by bringing the Ithtorians aboard. Until this very substantial hitch.
I’m not the praying kind, but I can’t help asking for a little help. Mary, please don’t let Sharis die. We need him. There’s no sense I’ve been heard, but I derive a bit of comfort from the ritual. Maybe that’s the magic after all.
“I can’t say you pull your punches,” I murmur. “If one of them did it, the OP perhaps, would they ever admit it? Or would they try to cover it up?”
Vel considers and eventually has to spread his claws in puzzlement. “I cannot say. It would be a dishonorable act, to say the least; but, as you have already discerned, face is not comprised of always doing the right thing, here. Sometimes prestige is earned by doing the wrong thing . . . and not getting caught.”
Huh. Wonder why I’m not reassured.
The Ithtorian who joins us after what seems like hours— and doubtless we’re intended to be sweating by now—is unknown to me.
A quick glance tells me this is a male. He stands taller than most of his fellows, and his thorax seems elongated, as if he has an extra segment, though I can’t say for certain from my quick visual scan. The interrogator also gleams sickly yellow, which fills me with foreboding.
Then I realize why it bothers me. The odd, artificial color of his chitin will never show the high honor of xanthic stripes. That means he must operate outside the system; nothing he does can earn him face . . . or result in its loss. That doesn’t bode well for us.
“I am Ehon Il-Chath.” His wa of greeting sets my teeth on edge.
I don’t like the angle of his bow, or the way he nearly shows me his claws. He doesn’t lower his head either; instead his side-set eyes bore into mine in oblique accusation. Obligingly, the chip provides references that expand upon my unease: In the time after all-sorrow, gray adder devours the vanquished.
How I wish I could attempt to infuse a rebuttal in my answering wa, but whatever I say, I can’t look like it was on purpose. So I keep my face blank as I reply via body language. I think something of my natural feeling slips through because the interrogator takes a step back before catching himself.
“This is merely a formality, but I must ask a few pertinent questions,” he says, taking the seat opposite. “I will not keep you long.”
Just long enough to search our rooms for traces of citric acid, right, Ehon?
I sit impassive while Vel relays the meaning, then I incline my head. “I’m happy to help. We’re all shocked and saddened to hear what happened to Sharis.”
Mary, but I’m tired of hearing myself spouting platitudes. No matter how sincere you are, if you repeat the same sentiment often enough, it starts to sound fake, even to your own ears. Pretty soon, I won’t mean anything I say; I’ll just say it because I know I’m supposed to. And that was most of the reason I ran away from the future my parents had planned out for me. If I don’t find some other line of work soon, I’ll turn into a politician, and there will be no saving me.
Ehon consults a datapad, leaving me a little time to think. I manage to ignore the growing ache inside me. Being in the cockpit wasn’t necessarily a good idea, for all it helped March. It roused a nearly ungovernable desire to say “fuck it” and just head off into the stars. Let mankind worry about itself for a while. That’s the old Jax talking, and I have to admit, there’s something seductive about her thought processes.
The interrogator gets right down to business, once he’s acquainted himself with the facts of the case. “Can you tell me your whereabouts between the hours of midnight and five in the morning?”
They don’t tell time like we do, but the chip couches the question in terms that make sense to me. I slant a glance at Vel as he translates. What will it mean for him when word gets out that he spent the night in my room? I have no idea what interpretation his people will put on that. Just based on the way they’ve treated him to date, they’ll probably assume he’s an utter deviant, but since he’s attached as my cultural liaison, they can’t pass judgment and send him to join the other mental defectives doing hard labor.
“What time did we leave the party?” I ask Vel.
“An hour past the new day?” He’s come to count time as we do, no surprise, given how long he’s lived among us.
I nod. “Let’s go with that.”
The interrogator watches us with an unhappy cant of his head. He doesn’t like that we can discuss things without him understanding us, but unless there’s another translator on world—and there isn’t—he has no choice but to trust Vel. He breaks in to demand, “What is she saying?”
Vel replies smoothly, “She is merely asking what time we departed Councilor Devri’s flat in order to answer your question accurately.”