I so don’t want this to turn into a fight.
The Ithtorians seem as if they’d be happy to execute us without a trial, though on what charges I can’t even guess. I’m doing my level best not to make the situation worse, other than the stupidity that landed us here. Vel does all the talking for obvious reasons.
I stand with my hands in plain view. See, I’m not moving at all. Not a threat. Just a cute little cuddly human. Inexplicably, I want to giggle. It’s the higher nitrous content in the air, I know, but it’s starting to affect me.
It seems like my silly, not-hostile stance might be working.
Until the missile hits me in the face. I don’t see which Bug threw it—or what hit me—but it hurts. The hot trickle down my cheek makes me think I’ve been injured.
Seeming not to care if he lives or dies, March throws himself at the five Ithtorians closest to him. I don’t know why he snapped, but with his bare hands, he’s more lethal than most would be using a weapon. In two brisk moves, he puts a couple of them on the ground by slamming their heads together. He’s quick and angry, but the Bugs fight back without hesitation. Soon we’re lost in a brutal melee, and March stands at the center of it.
I don’t know what the hell would have happened if a siren hadn’t sounded. Everyone stills, turning to face the authorities. Vel speaks to them quickly, and before I can hardly process what’s happened, we’re loaded into a small private vehicle. The pair of Bugs who extricated us gets in the front, leaving us in a cargo area in back.
“What’s going on?” I ask Vel as heat washes over me. “Are we being arrested?”
I’m more than a little concerned about March—and the fate of our mission. Wouldn’t my mother laugh to learn I’ve already screwed this up, despite my best intentions? That’s my girl, she’d say with a delighted smile. Thanks to my good offices, the Morgut will eat their way through human settlements while she gets rich off the terrified survivors.
“Your party has diplomatic immunity,” Vel explains. “The cut on your cheek, plus the footage from public-security surveillance proves you did not offer aggression first. It can be argued that March acted in defense, fearing for your life. It would have brought great shame to our people if anyone in your delegation suffered irrevocable harm after offering safe passage.”
I’m pretty sure the only thing on March’s mind was squashing Bugs. His expression makes me doubt he wanted anything more than to kill something. Even now, he looks savage and feral, unsatisfied by the brutality he inflicted. I shiver a little.
“So where are we headed?” March asks in a low growl.
“The spaceport,” Vel answers. “We will use the maintenance tunnels that run parallel to the underground. I explained to the peace officers that you needed to retrieve equipment from your ship, but became disoriented in the underground.”
Which made us sound stupid, but that story had the virtue of being true. We could work with it. They might ask why we didn’t simply send a messenger for the item, or request an official escort. I’m starting to wish we had.
On the other hand, meeting that angry mob gives me a better idea how the average Ithtorian feels about the proposed alliance. It’s not going to be all sunshine and roses, no matter what Chancellor Tarn hopes. The Grand Administrator doesn’t favor the measure, and it sounds like the people echo her misgivings.
My bare arms sting from the abrupt switch from cold to heat. More than anything, I’d like a reassuring touch from March, even just his mind to mine, but there’s nothing. He might as well be on a different continent, and, Mary, I want him back like he was. Like we were.
“Why did you not request my help?” Vel asks quietly. “Even if you had a surreptitious agenda, you must have known you could rely on me.”
Even against your own people? Though I don’t want to say it out loud, I realize now I subconsciously lumped him with “them,” the nebulous collective against which I need to be on guard. I was afraid to tell Vel about March’s instability, afraid it could somehow be used against us. And I was worried he might take it wrong, if he learned I wanted to have my own chip implanted.
“Do I?” I try to soften the implicit question.
March shifts in his seat, regarding us silently. I mentally will him to stay out of it, but I don’t feel the telltale prickle that alerts me when he’s reading me. No, in this moment, he’s no more than a mute observer. My problems aren’t his.
The bounty hunter turns his face away, choosing to look out instead of answering. The vehicle roars as the driver switches from ground to hover mode. We soar over titanium spires toward the delicate firefly flicker of the spaceport.
“These are not my people.” The neutrality of the vocalizer makes his words more poignant for their lack of vehemence. “This is my race, but these are not my people.” I don’t know what to say to that, but he goes on, so I don’t need to deal with my inadequacy. “I left here because I did not fit. I traveled, but never did I . . .” He pauses, as the translator seeks a word—or perhaps he is thinking. “Belong. In more turns than you can imagine, the closest I have ever come to a home is with you, Sirantha.”
I still am not sure how to respond. Part of me wants to hug him, but he’s told me Ithtorians don’t form emotional bonds, and that a hug would be construed as an aggressive act. But hasn’t he just said he’s not like others of his kind?
“But surely with the Guild—” I begin.
“I made money for them,” Vel tells me. “I am excellent at hunting fugitives. Even now, my record remains impeccable, but I did not feel entirely accepted. I was still alien, still other.”
Sudden insight washes over me. “You were that here, too.”
Vel inclines his head, a learned human gesture that reminds me how familiar he’s become to me over the past months. Whether he would agree with the assessment or not, I consider him my friend—and the one person I can trust at my back, no questions asked. I see now that trust can extend even here on Ithiss-Tor. He would choose us over his own people. For that, they would doubtless call him traitor, or worse, and I can see how my decision must have slighted him, shaken his sense of belonging, even if he doesn’t know emotional pain as we do.
“I’m sorry,” I say quietly. “I won’t cut you out of the chain of command again. You’re a valuable team member, and I don’t think I realized until this moment—”
Before I can finish my thought, the comm crackles to life. Clicks and chitters come across that make sense only to Vel, but I can interpret what I see out the window well enough. What would have taken March and me ages to sort out, Vel handled with a few words. We’ve come up one of the side tunnels and emerged behind the underground. From the station adjacent to the spaceport, we walk up the ramp into the docking authority proper. It’s cold in here as well, with bizarre-looking droids darting around on six legs. What I presume to be a san-bot comes up to me and nudges my foot. Pushy little bastard, aren’t you? I step aside and let it get the smudge.
With some relief, I recognize the Lachion ship, which is much different in design from Ithtorian vessels. The ones that are kept here look so ancient I can’t imagine they would even fly without a significant amount of work. Theirs tend to be long and narrow, with a multiplicity of decks. Our ship is fat and broad, only two levels.
Vel pauses to converse with the peace officers, which I take to be something like policemen. I reflect how much I hate being left out of a conversation. Once we’re on board, I’ll tell Vel about my plan to get an implant. I owe him a tangible demonstration of the trust I damaged by not including him in the first place.
He and I have been through so much together, I feel stupid for thinking he might forget that just because we’re on his homeworld. I know if I had the choice between helping Vel and a bunch of strange humans, Vel would win every time. I’ll never be one to sacrifice the few for the many.
March and I wait while the Ithtorians wrap up their conversation. Then the bounty hunter turns to us. “They cannot keep news of the altercation from reaching the council, but they are not going to make the report themselves. I suspect they would merely like to avoid dealing with the paperwork. They’re also very interested in visiting our vessel. With your permission, I could give them a tour.”
That sounds like a fair reward for our relatively bloodless extrication from the square. I nod. “Sure, they can come along. Just keep them out of med bay for a while, will you?”
Vel agrees. “I will save that for last . . . and alert you on the comm before we come in. Does that sound feasible?”
So now we’re off to see Doc.
Omni News Net: Special Report—the Real Syndicate
[A young brunette faces the vid, settling herself comfortably in her chair. Behind her, there is a wall of images reflecting the important guests she has interviewed over the years. Another woman joins her; dark-haired and impeccably coiffed, she is older but gives the impression of being ageless.]
Lili Lightman: If you’ve just joined us, welcome to Lili Lightman Live. I wrapped up my report on toxins in the water supply on Saleris, and now I’m privileged to have a guest on the program. She doesn’t usually permit interviews, but she’s made an exception today. Please welcome Ramona Jax.
Ramona Jax: Thank you, Lili. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Lili: You initially refused the invitation when our producers contacted you. Is that right?
Ramona : It is.
Lili: May I ask why you changed your mind?
Ramona: [She offers a winning smile.] Certainly. It occurred to me that this could be an opportunity to shed some light on the truth about our organization.
Lili: And what would that truth be?
Ramona: The perception is, we’re a band of bloodthirsty criminals. [She leans in toward the vid, encouraging the close-up.] And that simply isn’t the case. We are businesspeople, nothing more, nothing less. We provide a wide variety of goods and services, but we force none of our goods and services on those who choose not to patronize us.
Lili: So you claim there’s no criminal element?
Ramona: My dear, trade agreements vary so widely from planet to planet that it’s become a gray area for nearly any large company. For instance, the sale of slaves is clearly prohibited on New Terra, but is lawful on Nicu Tertius. As long as we do not traffic in proscribed regions, in what way are we breaking the law, should we trade with the Nicuan Empire?
Lili: I think my viewers would argue there’s a moral imperative at work that supersedes any planetary policy.
Ramona: But isn’t morality an artificial value system imposed via the codification of cultural norms? On one world, they accept human sacrifice as part of their religion. On another, brothers and sisters marry. What right have we to condemn others for their beliefs? [She lofts a brow.] Do you feel qualified to sit as judge?
Lili: [She shifts, obviously uncomfortable.] Well, no. So you’re saying there are no absolutes.