“Don’t worry,” I tell her politely. “We’ll have him back before you know it.”
Then we’re off to the hospital.
Not surprisingly, Sharis is well guarded. Vel has to explain our mission to four different commanders, going up the food chain each time, before one of them thinks to fetch the doctor in charge of the councilman’s case. After fifteen minutes of milling around, he escorts us to a lounge to wait.
Activity prevents me from thinking about what I’ve lost. Somewhere deep inside, I’m dying, but there will be time for that later. A navigator always makes one big jump before the end anyway. Mine has to be spectacular to live up to my reputation.
Eventually, a Bug physician deigns to come see what we want. Doc launches into a long, technical explanation, which Vel translates. At first the Ithtorian doctor doesn’t seem to believe what we’re saying. He thinks it’s a trick, although why we’d be dim enough to tell them we’re trying to finish Sharis off—well, it really illuminates for me just how stupid they think humans are.
The light dawns, gradually. How it must sting that the idiot soft-skins came up with a cure.
“We will need to test this extensively,” the doctor says, taking the datapad with Doc’s results on them. “And verify your results. But if your findings are accurate, we will be beyond grateful. We are unable to do more than keep him stable, unfortunately. Citric acid is an alien toxin, and thus, we have never had a case like this before. Trying to figure out how to treat internal burns has stumped us.”
“We just want him to get better,” I say sincerely.
The others echo my concern. That seems like our cue to let the good Bugs get down to business. We can’t be too pushy about this, or they’ll become suspicious that there’s something hidden in the data. Scary how well I’ve come to know their thought processes since we’ve been here. They’ll waste crucial time trying to deconstruct what Doc has found instead of verifying his treatment.
I execute a respectful wa in parting as if the best of me isn’t sitting in a cell, awaiting judgment.
My first sign things have changed for the better comes when a courier intercepts us on the way back to the government center where we’re lodged. A quick check tells me he’s male. That’s common; males often hold low-ranking, fetch-and-carry positions here. He’s also lacking any stripes on his carapace, so he’s either young or incompetent. I don’t remember seeing this particular Bug before.
“Councilor Devri would like a word with you,” he says with an obsequious but somehow insincere wa.
I return his polite discourtesy, layering my bow with meanings I’m not supposed to understand. Maybe it’s petty, but I enjoy puzzling them and making them wonder if it’s a fluke, like a dog that can howl in tune. The messenger regards me for a moment with his head canted at an insulting angle.
Behind him, water trickles down the textured walls, making a soft sound that offers the illusion of privacy anywhere in the complex. The pallor of the organic building material contrasts sharply with the lush, extravagant colors that grow in a riot all around us. On the far wall, there’s a climbing plant with large, spiky leaves in a green so bright it almost looks artificial, and the blooms look like blood.
There are not nearly enough doors in any of their buildings. Everything stands wide open, full of scrolling arches that make me think of hives. Mary, but I would love to snap my fingers three times at the lot of them and go get March. Instead, I make my expression welcoming without showing my teeth. Vel translates unnecessarily—and I’m tired of that, too. The air is too thick and sweet, a little too warm. Ithtorians prefer to keep the indoors like the tropics they no longer enjoy outside, but I’m no hothouse flower.
“We’d be honored to see Devri,” I answer at length.
“Only you and your translator,” he cautions me.
Well, that’s a familiar theme. Does that mean Devri doesn’t think the authorities arrested the right guy, or does he really not trust us now? If that’s the case, it’s a fierce blow. Besides Sharis, he was the strongest ally we had. If he thinks we’ll take hostile action against him if he sees us all, then we’re fragged.
The others shrug to show they don’t mind being excluded.
“I think we’ll head back to the ship, actually.” Dina doesn’t look to Hit for agreement, taking her acquiescence for granted.
Doc agrees. “Rose will worry if I tarry too long.”
He still hasn’t asked about March, likely figuring he’s off brooding somewhere. Maybe it’s better if he believes that for as long as possible. I sure as hell don’t want to be the one who breaks the bad news; Doc will be devastated. Something tells me March is like a son to him. They’ve known each other for turns. I realize now I’m not even sure how long it’s been. Long enough for him to be saved and lost and saved again. Long enough for him to fight a war to repay a dead woman’s kindness.
I can’t continue with that train of thought. It’ll break me.
So the other four return to the spaceport, leaving Vel and me to be escorted to Devri’s apartment. Though we know the way, the messenger dogs our every step. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be flattering, or if he’s been charged with retrieving us like a couple of lost parcels. Thankfully, he doesn’t say much along the way.
My heart isn’t in this anymore. I’m doing the right thing, but I don’t want to. With all my heart, I wish I could scrub out my moral conscience and say to hell with the rest of the universe. I want March, and I honestly don’t care how many obscure outposts the Morgut ransack as long as we can find a quiet corner to hunker down somewhere.
I also know March would never forgive me for making that decision. He’d find it unforgivable, and I’d still lose him. At least this way he respects me.
Fucking cold comfort.
I want to hit somebody. It’s getting harder to restrain my impulses. It’s not easy for a navigator to stop jumping, and the stress of my current situation exacerbates the problem. One day soon, I’m just going to blow, and it will be spectacular . I hope our business is done by then because nothing Vel does will hide the fact that the ambassador has gone barking mad.
I need to jump. I need to get away.
I don’t need to be following some stupid lackey up the lift to Devri’s flat. Of course, I’m doing just that, which should tell you just how wrong things are. Once we arrive, the messenger makes himself scarce.
Unlike the last time we were here, the place is empty. I pretend to admire the garden atmosphere, but in truth, I want to go home. I miss furniture made of synth, and solid floors, not stuff that squishes underfoot.
Devri doesn’t keep us waiting long. “If Sharis recovers, I am going to call the vote,” he says without preamble. “Otherwise, you have no hope.”
A blunt answer. Well, I respect that.
After the obligatory pause for Vel to do his thing, I answer, “I guess you know that we’ve been to the clinic?”
“Indeed. I applaud the notion of putting your personal physician on the problem. It shows your willingness to aid us in times of need, very astute.”
Huh. Even Devri doesn’t think I might truly care if Sharis lives or whether he’s crippled for the rest of his life. I fragging hate politics.
“He is a scientist foremost,” Vel corrects. “But you are essentially correct. How long do you estimate it will take for your people to validate his data?”
“No more than a day. If this treatment can help, then time is of the essence.”
“It’s early yet,” I muse, once Vel has given me the opening by summarizing their exchange. “So the vote could take place as soon as two more days?”
That’s longer than we expected before this mess began.
I’m tired of hearing everything twice. We might be able to let Devri in on the secret, but I’d rather not chance it. He might surprise us in a bad way by switching sides and running to the Grand Administrator for the prestige of betraying me. I’m not entirely clear on whether loyalty is a virtue here; initial impressions indicate it’s situational, impacted by what decision results in the greatest personal achievement.
So explain Vel, a little voice demands. And I can’t. It bothers me that he sees himself as defective when he so clearly embodies so many virtues, as humans judge such things. If I were a religious sort, I might think that Mary and his Iglogth had done some sort of drunken swap one night, and he wound up with a human soul in a Bug body.
Maybe that comes from living among us, though. It’s a question of nurture versus nature, I suppose. But he said he was different from the beginning—
“—factors would need to align.”
Shit. I missed what Devri said. This time, it comes in handy for Vel to repeat:
“If Sharis shows improvement as projected by your doctor’s treatment plan, then he could be well enough to vote by the day after tomorrow. Of course, a great number of factors would need to align.”
Got it. So we have two days. In that time, I might be able to find the bastard who’s responsible for this mess. I’d like to kill him myself, but maybe, just maybe, I can save March if I present them with this other person along with some compelling evidence. Now that we’re no longer confined to quarters I can begin my own investigation. Vel can surely help with that.
March doesn’t expect me to save him. I know that. He gave himself up for the greater good, knowing there had to be a whipping boy. But I can’t let that stand if there’s anything I can do about it. I waffle between grief and despair, not knowing whether his death is inevitable, or if I’ll make this worse. Regardless, I won’t give up on him until they actually put him on the tram to the mines. Hell, maybe not even then. I’ve acquired something of a reputation for achieving the impossible; that’s why I’m here.
I incline my head. “I suspect you didn’t call us in to talk about Sharis.”
Devri seems pleased by my acuity. “Clever female. As a matter of fact, I did not. I wanted to warn you.”
Oh, this doesn’t sound good. I sit quiet, waiting for the rest.
“My sources tell me that the Grand Administrator does not intend to let you leave the planet. She is highly incensed that one of your party dared to attack a council member. At this point, nothing will appease her but a series of executions. She feels a strong precedent must be set.”
My stomach heaves. “Even if the alliance passes, she still wants to kill us all?”
“In a word? Yes.”
Vel and I have been left to our own devices. Over the past few days, he’s become the best friend I have. I don’t know if he’d be happy to hear that or entirely alarmed. I doubt I’ll ever field-test it. Some things are best left unspoken.
This late, the halls are clear and quiet. Our first stop is the bank of cameras, where Vel installs a gizmo that should scramble them long enough for us to get past unnoticed. And if they ever ask us about the suspicious glitch, well, we’ll alibi each other again.