He’s a few paces behind me and to the left. I can’t see his face, but I know the silence means he’s thinking. “I’ll always come for you, Jax.”
I smile. “Yeah. And here you are. You know what that says to me?”
“I have no idea.”
“That you keep your promises.” It takes a lot for me to articulate the feeling. “That I can rely on you, no matter what.” I bite my lip, fighting for the strength to continue. I don’t like talking about stuff like this; it makes me feel weak, vulnerable, and naked. “It tells me you’re rock solid, and you’re here for me. I’m sorry you’re going through this for the second time, March, but you’re not alone. I won’t let you be.”
The hallway ends in a spacious, glastique foyer. To the left, I can see the tunnel that leads to the underground. We can take the tube to the spaceport. Since they don’t travel on the surface, everything is pristine, nothing like New Terra. Idly, I wonder what the Ithtorians would make of Wickville, with its vice and easy violence. Doubtless they’d take it as justification for their wariness of humanity.
With the lights behind and the crystal before us, I catch March’s blurred reflection; he looks strange and stricken. By the time I spin to see him straight on, he’s mastered his expression, eyes dark as a starless sky. I don’t know what to do with him, but I won’t let him go either.
“Thanks,” he manages to say finally. “Right now, if I could be, I think I’d be glad of how stubborn you are.”
The doors slide open at our approach, allowing us to pass into the sloping corridor. More of those glossy aquamarine leaves surround us, pretty and functional. I have some idea that they aid with ventilation and air purification, as well as emitting faint warmth. I’m interested in their technology, but first things first.
Glastique limns the tunnel to the underground, allowing our first private glimpse at the planet from the ground. I stand for a moment, admiring the view. The outside of the buildings seems vastly at odds with the almost tropical appearance of the interiors. It’s as though they’ve created an exoskeleton of iron and titanium, polished to an unearthly sheen, then filled the heart of their world with the sweetness of living things.
Ithiss-Tor is an icy planet. As I understand it, the surface was once covered in a tropical jungle, but as a result of their constant warring and the use of dangerous, high-tech weapons, the climate changed permanently. The Bugs adapted to the cold. In terms of physiology, Ithtorians are not so different from us. The climate, along with their predatory past, dictated the development of the excretory glands that allow them to cover their exoskeletons with insulation. They, too, need an oxygen-rich environment, although they like it spiked with a little nitrogen, which makes us silly in larger concentrations.
The sky is gray as nebulous morality, clouds fusing with whatever colors might swirl up there naturally. I’ve been studying the culture, not atmospheric conditions. March stands beside me, close enough to defend me but not making contact.
“We should be able to take the tube to the spaceport,” I offer hopefully.
He nods. We pass downward, away from the windows. I hear the smooth rush of cars leaving the station. The underground operates on a magnetic system, I think. If we can’t figure it out, I don’t know how we’ll get back to the ship without alerting Sharis to our intentions.
The station at the governmental hub is nearly deserted. I wonder if that’s common for this time of day as we join the four Ithtorians waiting for the next tram. They recoil when they catch sight of us, sidling away with clicks and hisses that sound almost hostile, though I can’t make out what they’re saying. Their reaction doesn’t bode well for the proposed alliance.
Their faceted gazes touch on us and slide away. Not being able to understand them frustrates me. I need that implant sooner rather than later. Beside me, March tenses, anticipating trouble. Given our history, that’s not entirely paranoid. I’m starting to wish we hadn’t ventured out alone. I was just thinking about protecting March.
To my relief, the Ithtorians decide to ignore us. Their conversation subsides as the next train arrives. The doors slide open with a hiss, and we board. Calling on my crash course in Ithtorian symbology, I’m almost positive I’ve identified the one that represents the spaceport. Not surprisingly, it’s the last stop, and the Bugs disembark before us.
“This must be the place,” March says, as we get off.
“I hope.” Since I’m worried about him, my smile doesn’t come off as sincere as I’d like. I hate playing politics with my lover. He could detect my falseness if he wanted to, but he doesn’t anymore. I miss him.
This station is a stark and sterile gray, with seamless walls that provide a dizzying sense of distance. I don’t recognize the place, but perhaps we took a different line earlier. Maybe we’re not lost.
My throat tightens as we climb an upward-sloping ramp. It’s hard telling where we’ll come out. I hope I made the right call, and that we’re about to enter the spaceport via some connecting tunnel.
A cold wind seems to deny that possibility.
“Shit,” I mutter.
“What do you think?” March asks. “Do we see where this leads or go back the way we came?”
I don’t know why, but the question strikes me as symbolic, like if we go back, I’m expressing some subtle regret. Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines, but he has to know I’m not sorry for anything that has passed between us. I only wish he was with me all the way, as I remember him.
“Let’s go forward.”
March’s look is inscrutable, but he merely lifts his shoulders in a shrug. For now I’m in charge . . . because he doesn’t trust his own judgment anymore. Talk about an ironic juxtaposition—I’m not exactly a sterling candidate for mental stability.
We emerge into an open plaza underground. The floor has been laid with some unknown stone-metal hybrid swirled with strange patterns. This dark gray material shines as though glazed with glastique, but as I take two or three steps, it seems as though the colors shift beneath my feet, giving glimmers of violet and aquamarine. A sculpture stands in the middle of the square; if it were a human piece, I would say it looks incomplete, nothing more than a skeletal frame with an enormous head. Since it’s designed by Bugs, I’m not even sure it’s meant to be art.
Around us, the area is filled with scurrying Bugs. Tunnels slope down from four corners here, leading Mary only knows where. This appears to be something like a public park. It’s a little cooler here than in other parts of the city. That seems to lend itself to more strenuous activity, and there are a few Bugs doing something that I’d call exercise in a human.
Apart from the athletes, there’s another subsection of the crowd that isn’t hurrying to some other destination. They’re assembled in a semicircle with one Ithtorian as the focus of the others’ attention. By its gestures, which are fierce and sweeping, it’s giving a speech. Now and then it pauses to let the audience respond with high-pitched sounds that hurt my ears. I remember from my studies, that noise qualifies as applause.
As we hesitate at the top of the ramp, we draw the notice of some Bugs at the back of the crowd. They alert the others quickly, and before we can react, they surround us. We could turn and go the way we came, but I’m not sure we should make any sudden moves. Hostility bleeds from their claws, echoed by their clicking and hissing. They have to be wondering what the hell we’re doing here, if they’re being invaded, although March and I don’t quite qualify as a dangerous force.
Well, maybe March does.
I’m still a little weak from the debilitating bone condition; my ability to repair grimspace damage via a freak mutation did a number on my skeletal system, but the daily injections have helped. More to the point, I’m completely unarmed. I don’t know what they’re saying, but a Bug with yellow stripes on his carapace steps forward. Those markings mean he enjoys high status, so maybe he realizes we’re with the human delegation. I think that right up until he curls his claws up against my abdomen.
I freeze. If I shift a millimeter, those talons will pierce my gut. This isn’t how the mission is supposed to end. Beside me, March tenses, one heartbeat away from going into kill mode. In fact, I’d guess the only reason he’s restraining himself now is because I’m being threatened, not him. He lacks any emotional attachment to me at the moment.
All told, that’s probably a good thing, even if it breaks my heart.
My knees go soft when I recognize Vel pushing through the crowd. He speaks to my captor in the native tongue. For obvious reasons, he doesn’t translate for me, but whatever he says, the other lets go. I stumble back, rubbing my stomach.
“How’d you find us?” I whisper.
His vocalizer takes a second to kick in. “While we were on the ship, I isolated the isotope the Syndicate utilized to track you and input the signal into my handheld. Somehow I did not think you would remain in your quarters, as instructed.”
I feel a hot blush steal over my cheeks. He knows me too damn well. Either that, or I’m predictable in my propensity for doing other than what I’m told. I could take offense, but Vel’s caution has prevented us from landing in worse trouble, so I decide to be grateful he’s able to calculate my behavior based on past experience. That ability is probably part of what made him such a great bounty hunter.
“Thank Mary for that,” I mutter.
The ring around us doesn’t look inclined to disperse. March hasn’t given up the stance that says he’d like to fight; in fact, according to his body language, he’s aching for it. And the Bugs don’t look like they’re ready to let us walk either.
Vel speaks without moving. “Why did you come here, Sirantha? What did you hope to gain?”
I hunch my shoulders against the wind. “I didn’t mean to. I thought I recognized the symbol for the spaceport. Doc needs to take a look at March.”
And me, I add silently. Getting a translator chip implanted has just moved up to the top of my to-do list.
“The symbols might look similar,” Vel murmurs. “If you’re not a native speaker. The spaceport sign has a bend to the right on the top of the character, not left. It also has a tiny dot on top.”
That doesn’t help a whole lot right now. The Bugs who have penned us in grow impatient with our conversation, and the one who threatened to disembowel me confronts Vel, belligerence in every click of his mandible. I can tell by his posture that he’s the highest-ranking Ithtorian on scene. The others will follow his lead.
“Can you do some fancy talking?” I whisper. “Get us out of this?”
“Unlikely,” he returns, when his dialogue with the leader comes to an ominous conclusion. “You have stumbled into a demonstration.”
Uh-oh. “Against what?”
“By the way they’re looking at us,” March says, “I’m going to guess . . . humans.”