“Argus Dahlgren?” I put down the datapad.
“Yes, ma’am.” He does not relax one iota.
“Why don’t you take a seat?” I indicate the spot opposite me.
It took Vel a couple of hours, but he’s rigged the chair as a lie detector, using contact points. I was all for doing it openly, but he pointed out that a skilled adversary can beat such devices pretty regularly, if they know it’s been hooked up. So we’re running beneath the radar on this one.
He looks very young and worried as he sits down. I don’t know if Argus even left the spaceport. He was under strict orders to stay on the ship, so maybe that’s what he’s nervous about. That’s what we’re trying to find out. It may have been nothing more than a dare or a bet, something that would give him bragging rights back home.
His pale eyes flicker to mine at last. Surprise rocks through me. His irises are like mercury, sparked through with silver ice. Contrasted to his shock of black hair, it marks him as a jumper. Well, no wonder he left the ship. As a whole, navigators tend to be governed by their impulses, so this ambassadorial gig has been pretty close to hell for me.
“Would you like something to drink?” I ask, now wanting to set him at ease.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t our guy. He’s not caught up in some purist movement that doesn’t want humanity associating with filthy alien scum. He’s just a kid hungry to see everything in a way he probably doesn’t even understand yet.
Before Argus can respond, Vel says, looming behind me, “You can attend the niceties later, ambassador. He has some questions to answer first.”
Ah, now I get it. Well, it makes sense for Vel to play bad cop. Argus seems half-terrified of him as it is, and he hasn’t even done anything yet. Yep, welcome to the weird, wide world, kid. Untold wonders await.
“Very well.” I sit forward, inviting confidence. “You want to tell me what you were doing dirtside?”
To his credit, he doesn’t try to play it off. “I was curious,” he says with a touch of defiance. “And bored with hanging around here.”
A bored jumper is never a good thing. We need to get him into training and focus his need to explore, but where? Right now, everything is in flux, and they’ve closed the academy on New Terra. Shit. Maybe I’ll wind up a teacher someday after all.
But first things first.
“What did you do while you were there?”
“Nothing,” he mutters. “But not for lack of trying. I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the docking area.”
I’m inclined to believe him, but I slant a glance at Vel to confirm. He inclines his head ever so slightly. Okay, him, too. We’re in accord then. I’ll switch tacks before we cut him loose.
“Do you know of anybody who doesn’t approve of us being here?” I ask casually. “Any complainers on the ship?”
Argus shakes his head. “No, ma’am. Doc recruited us because we’ve all talked about seeing the stars at some point or another. There aren’t a lot of ships going out from Lachion. March handles most of our off-world runs, and he keeps a small crew.”
“So as far as you know, there aren’t any dissident factions among your mates?”
He looks genuinely bewildered. “Any who?”
Despite the severity of my task, I bite back a smile. “Never mind.” I turn to Vel with an inquiring look. “Further questions?”
“Nothing at this time, but . . . we know where to find him.” That sounds positively ominous. Shame on Vel for trying to rattle this kid’s cage—then again, maybe he needs a lesson. Something irreparable could happen to him if the Bugs catch him.
“So can I go?” Argus sounds eager to get away from us.
“Almost. Just one more question—would you like to be a navigator someday?” I assume he knows he has the J-gene.
“More than anything,” he breathes.
I try not to wince. Mary, was I ever that young or that eager? I suppose I must have been. Running off to the Academy against my parents’ wishes indicates I was.
“I’ll see what I can do for you.” When his face brightens to near nova, I caution, “I’m not promising anything, mind, but we may as well put you to work doing something you’ll be good at. You realize things are in a bit of disarray just now?”
There’s no point in telling him about the dark side: the compulsion to jump once you’ve tasted grimspace, the addiction to something that kills you slowly, and the way you won’t, in fact, know just before your last jump. Let him enjoy the thrill of the idea for a while first. I certainly did.
He nods. “Yes, ma’am. It’s been that way ever since you took down Farwan. Is it true you discovered the existence of the Marakeq ten turns ago? The chieftain said she saw you pick a fight with six armed Gunnars with her own eyes. So did you really pull Hon’s heart out of his chest with your bare hands? The stories they tell about you—” Argus freezes, probably realizing he’s said too much. He looks as if he’s scared I’ll tear the tongue right out of his head.
That’s when I realize—he’s afraid of me every bit as much as he is Vel. We’re like the wicked witch and her demon familiar or something. Together, to this kid, we must seem like the stuff from nightmares and legends.
How the hell did that happen?
Omni News Net: Opinion of the Week
Dear Ms. Lightman:
I think you did your viewers a serious disservice in not offering a counterargument to the comments made on your program by Ramona Jax. Don’t let the Syndicate’s slick PR department fool you into thinking they smell rosy. How can I be so sure? Well, I used to be the Assistant Director of Public Relations for Farwan Corporation, New Terra head-quarters, and I recognize a spin job when I see one.
The Syndicate is a parvenu compared to us; nonetheless, their latest crop of advertisements is tailor-made to reassure the average consumer. If you compare the two, you’ll realize that their new slogan “Protecting your world” is a direct theft from our campaign ten turns ago. I wrote the ad copy myself, including the phrase “Protecting your world.” They’ve also lifted our image in terms of showing average people going about their lives while the Syndicate works for them in the background. You’ll see lots of happy, smiling citizens in these ads, and it’s a good, solid strategy.
If the common folk see Syndicate guards as helpful often enough, they’ll eventually integrate that view as part of their personal belief system. That kind of thing can be broken down into ad exposures and simple mathematics. For example, if a person encounters this depiction of a softer, gentler Syndicate three times within twenty-four hours, that image will soak in on some level. Repeated exposure over time kept me earning big credits for many, many years. This experience impacts brand loyalty and decision-making. There will come a point when people just won’t care about the truth, and all the exposés in the world won’t matter.
It was my job to make sure Farwan came out of any situation, however grim and catastrophic, looking like white hats. Based on what I’m seeing on the bounce now, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of my former colleagues have gone to work for the Syndicate, because that’s some truly excellent PR, and I know that of which I speak.
If the Conglomerate doesn’t get its act together, it will be too late. Ordinarily, I’d be amused to see them fail—history suggests it’s their specialty—but this is no laughing matter. Take it from a reformed company man. If these thugs establish themselves as the galactic governing body, we’ll wish we lived in some other universe.
Alfredd E. Pruitt
“Here’s where it gets tricky,” I say with a sigh.
I don’t want to interview Dina, Hit, or Jael, but we can’t leave any stone unturned. They need to sit in the rigged chair without knowing they’re being tested. They won’t be on their guard as much, so I need it to seem casual.
It can’t seem like an interrogation. I also don’t want them ever to know I felt like I had to ask. That kind of thing can end a friendship, but when it comes to March’s life, I can’t trust any of them.
I don’t think Dina would ever do anything to hurt him, but maybe she didn’t realize he’d feel obligated to confess to get me out of trouble. Once, I thought she hated me enough to hide the poison in my room on purpose, but that’s not true anymore. She doesn’t fit the height profile, but that doesn’t clear her as a conspirator. Even if my gut says she’d rather die than do this, I must validate intuition with investigation.
Hit and Jael, I don’t know nearly as well, but I’ve come to think of them as friends. I’m afraid of how they’ll take it if they figure out what I’m doing. I don’t have so many friends that I can afford to offend them. But if they want me to find out who poisoned Sharis and get March out of the hot seat, they won’t mind my crossing them off the list of suspects with a few pointed questions, so maybe they’ll just be mad at me for a while over the subterfuge.
“Ideas?” I ask Vel.
He understands the way my mind works nearly as well as March. “Order food,” he suggests. “It will make the occasion seem more social, as if you want commiseration with the frustration of your task.”
Before I can send for anything or anyone, Vel’s personal communicator beeps. The person speaks too faintly for my ears, but when he terminates the conversation, he looks stunned. “Sharis is awake. And he’s asking for us.”
A weight lifts. “Let’s go see him.”
“We will have an armed escort,” he warns, as we head for the door. “They are taking no chances this time, even on us.”
Vel wasn’t kidding. There’s a complement of six Bugs in full military regalia, which means they have the same color stripes and are carrying weapons. From what Vel said, those little units have enough electricity to turn us into heaps of smoking coal. I’ll watch my step.
In the hall, a san-bot emerges from the honeycombed wall, driving itself around me in circles. Something is seriously wrong with these things. Whoever’s in charge of maintenance is doing a shitty job.
The guards don’t say much as they take us to see Sharis. At his door, the commander searches us thoroughly and takes even our personal electronics. We’re permitted to see him only if we’re willing to go with just the clothes on our backs. Fair enough—I don’t want anything else to happen to him either, but part of me wonders if they’re being this cautious about other Bugs.
Even though they’re almost sure we had nothing to do with the attack on Councilor Sharis, they also make us step into a decon chamber to make sure we haven’t rubbed any toxins on our skin. This paranoia, however, speaks volumes about how the general Ithtorian populace feels about human beings. They believe we’re all capable of horrific things, and since I’ve killed with a disruptor and watched a man’s chest turn itself inside out, I can’t really argue.