Except she’s not happy with the decision I made to let them take March. So there won’t be any celebration there, and I still only have a couple of days to prove he didn’t do it. They’ll be sentencing him soon, then it’ll be too late.
Somehow, I manage to school my features into some facsimile of gladness and appreciation as Vel explains to me what just happened. I offer a fine, restrained wa to each council member as they pass by and murmur something banal, knowing Vel will make it sound nice regardless.
“At your earliest convenience, we would like you to carry our acceptance to the Conglomerate,” Sharis tells me. Something in this tone tells me this is a warning as well as a request. “Please tell them to arrange a summit, wherein we will meet and discuss the shared goals of our people. We look forward to meeting all of the representatives.”
Leave? That’s my first frantic thought. They want me to leave? Oh no. No. But from their perspective, my work here is done. I’m not a diplomat permanently attached to the human embassy on Ithiss-Tor. Such a thing doesn’t even exist yet. I’m a goodwill ambassador who has done her job, and now it’s time for me to skedaddle.
But I can’t.
While Vel translates, I try to come up with an alternative, but thinking isn’t my strong suit at the best of times, and my pent emotions are threatening to swamp me. “I can bounce him a message,” I offer. “Then when he replies, I can brief you on the location selected for the summit.”
Devri has paused beside us, giving me a strange look. “We can access information via satellite relays, just like anyone else, ambassador. It is highly preferable that you deliver the message in person. We anticipate there will be retaliation for this victory, and you . . . are the softest target.”
I understand the danger, but my stomach hurts at the thought of leaving March behind. I didn’t want the sacrifice to be real and permanent. I didn’t want that. I always thought I’d have time to turn things around, but things have happened so fast—
I can’t give in without one last try. “Sharis, you said your ships were antique. How will your representative get to the summit if we don’t give you a lift? It’s been hundreds of turns, right? Do you still have trained jumpers standing by?”
Brilliant, I silently congratulate myself. I’m betting they don’t. They haven’t planned this far ahead. Deep down, they didn’t really think they’d get the support they needed. Still, I wait, every muscle tensed for their reply.
Devri shares a look with his coconspirator, and then responds tiredly, “You make a valid point.”
Then I realize what I’ve done—volunteered to transport an important Ithtorian dignitary. If anything goes wrong, it’ll be just like the Sargasso all over again, and I barely scraped out of that with my sanity intact. And some days, I wonder. I shove the terror and nausea down.
The important thing is, I’ve bought a little time. I just hope it’s enough.
I’m at my wits’ end.
Dina still isn’t speaking to me. The investigation is going nowhere, and time is running out. I’ve just heard from Sharis that March will be sentenced in the morning. This is just a formality, of course. Everyone knows he’s going to the mines for the assault on a councilman. If Sharis had died, he would have been executed.
We still haven’t found Constance. Though we first thought her disappearance had something to do with research and that she’d show up in time to help us make the alliance happen, I’m starting to think she knows something she shouldn’t. It worries me, but I’ve been unable to focus on her when I need to find a way to free March.
Jael has moved into the quarters that connect to mine. He was furious when he heard about the anticipated threat. It’s a wise precaution, and I don’t have the energy to argue, though not from any illness of the body. I’ve been taking my injections daily, so I’m pretty close to a hundred percent; the bone loss caused by repair of grimspace damage is nearly restored. Instead, it’s more a sickness of the soul.
In some ways, this mission has been the worst failure ever while simultaneously being my greatest success. Now I’m starting to wonder if I can live with myself. In the bleak, silent hours of the night, I’m sickened by the way I let March sacrifice himself. I should have at least tried to protest. Instead, I put too much faith in my ability to land on my feet.
Thing is, that doesn’t apply to anyone else.
Ironically, the fact that I’m lying awake at this hour, fretting, saves my life.
One minute, I’m staring at the ceiling, which offers no answers to my problems, and the next I’m rolling over the side to avoid the blade that comes whistling down at me. I hit the floor with a thump and yell for help. Even if I wasn’t in my sleep cami and ki pants, unarmed, I’d still stand no chance against a determined Bug assassin. It pursues me with merciless intent while I scramble backward on the heels of my hands.
The connecting door flies open and Jael launches himself through the air. He lands on top of my attacker, taking him to the ground with his weight, but the Bug is agile and quick. He flips Jael, who counters with a wrench of his arm. The merc is having a hard time with this opponent because of the natural body armor.
Their lightning-fast moves are hard to track with the eyes, but instead of watching in stupefaction, I do the smart thing. I shove to my feet and sprint for the terminal in the next room. I tap it to life and bring the AI up. From the noises, the fight seems to be slowing, but I can’t tell who’s winning. The communications suite connects to their security, and using color codes, my AI can alert their system of any emergency situation.
“Security needed in my quarters. Assassination attempt in progress.”
“Acknowledged,” the machine tells me. “Have you sustained injuries that result in a significant loss of arterial blood?”
I stare at it in disbelief. “Yes.”
Maybe that will get them here sooner. There’s a small pause while the machine alerts certain linked systems. It’s marvelous how machines can communicate on a level that surpasses language, but it’s also a little terrifying.
“Dispatch notified. A team should arrive at your location in two minutes. Thank you and have a nice day.”
From the muffled thuds and thumps coming from the next room, I should really get out of here because Jael might wind up incapacitated. Since his enemy doesn’t know how quick he heals, he won’t realize he should sever his head or cut out some vital organ. He’ll come after me, maybe with a knife stuck somewhere unpleasant for his trouble, but that won’t save me from the same fate while Jael regenerates.
Thanks to genetic engineering, his body can take insane amounts of damage, so there’s an obvious advantage in a Bred bodyguard, but Jael’s not invincible. On Emry Station, I saw him fall. In fact, I thought he was dead until he made me pull the spiked Morgut limb out of his guts.
I hesitate, eyes on the door. Two minutes until security arrives. Should I head out into the hall to wait for them? If this Bug had backup, surely he or she would have already come in, as the “simple” job has taken way too long already.
With a sigh, I make up my mind. I’m not leaving. Unfortunately, I don’t have so much as a shockstick, so I start looking around the room for anything I could use as a weapon. There’s a heavy pot full of greenery in the corner of the room. That might do some damage, provided I’m strong enough to lift it.
Determination makes me so. Jael cries out as I reach the doorway. The Bug has jammed the serrated blade into his side, twisting. He has a fair notion of human anatomy, so on anyone else, that would be a kill shot. As luck would have it, his back is to me, so I stagger toward him and cosh him in the back of the head with all my might. It’s not enough to do real harm, but he seems dazed, staggering forward like a drunken sailor.
That dropping of his guard gives Jael the opening he needs. He strikes, using brute force to push through the Bug’s natural body armor. My would-be assailant shrieks at the upper edge of my register as it dies.
With a grunt of effort, Jael retrieves his weapon from the corpse, one hand holding the blade in his side. When it comes out, it will make a hell of a mess. I don’t dare touch it without Doc here.
“Thanks for the assist.” He gives me a searching look. “You all right?”
What a question . . . I should be asking him that. “I am now. Security is on the way to clean this mess up. I’ll buzz Doc now.” I make the call quickly, not liking his pallor. “Are you in a lot of pain?”
He manages a smile. “Best not to talk about it. Or breathe, much.”
He staggers, so I help him to the wall for support. I’m guessing sitting would hurt worse, so I put my hand over his, his blood seeping through my fingers. His breath comes in jagged rasps. I let him lean on me while I buzz Vel on the emergency channel. I’m willing to bet he beats security here.
“Anything more I can do?” It sinks in then. He saved my life.
“Talk to me,” he grits through clenched teeth.
So I do, rambling about the significance of the attack. “Sharis and Devri warned me. The Grand Administrator told me her intentions up front. So I can’t claim I’m surprised. If I die on world, they’ll express condolences to the Conglomerate, claiming it was an unfortunate side effect of progress . . . and they can’t be held responsible for the actions of disgruntled fringe groups. In fact, they can even say, truthfully, that they advised me to depart. Now that the alliance has passed, my importance has dropped to nil. The fact is, I’m no longer irreplaceable.”
“Not to me,” he says softly. “You think I’d let just anyone see me like this? I’m so weak right now that I could be killed pretty easily, if you wanted to do it. I never thought I’d say this, but . . . I trust you, Jax.”
“That means a lot to me.”
I’d like to touch his cheek or offer a tangible gesture to show I appreciate his faith, but I’d just smear him with blood. His feelings don’t change reality, either. Every moment I linger on world, I increase the risk to myself and my crew. At what point do I cut my losses and roll out?
My heart says never. I’ve learned enough about being a soldier from March, however, to realize that’s not a practical answer, and he wouldn’t want me to kill myself for his sake. But I don’t want to live without him even if it’s for the greater good.
“This is bad,” Jael tells me. “There’s only one of me, and I can’t stay sharp forever.”
I sound tired and snappish when I answer, “Sorry it’s been such a hard job keeping me on my feet, but if you want your payday from Tarn, you’ll stay with it because we’re not done here. I’m not leaving anyone behind.”
“Oh, Jax.” His expression gentles in a way I can’t tolerate.
“Look, darling, nobody blames you.”
“I blame me.” The response slips out before I can stop it. “So does Dina.”