Chapter 7: Tensions
Three years after the Vancouver Attack
I-5, Northbound. Everett, Washington
thup, thup…thup, thup…thup, thup…
♪ might as well face it…might as well face it you’re addicted to lo-ove…might as well face it…might as well face it…might as well face it…♫
The five o’ clock freeride, classic rock, 92.9… KISM
♫ See me ride out of the sunset, on your color TV screen. Out for all that I can get, If you know what I mean…♪♫
“100% chance of rain, but we got a great match-up tonight, Washington taking on the Dallas Cowboys…”
”…results are in from across the globe as China announced their representative for the first meeting of the Global Representative Assembly, and not a moment too soon with the Assembly’s first meeting taking place next week in Cape Town, South Africa to appoint the world’s ambassador in space. CRAZY, right? And just think, this time three years ago we thought the alien abduction people were all wack-jobs…”
”…and then good old NASA, and—forgive me folks, but I still think of it as an AMERICAN institution, the “National” in “National Aeronoautics and Space Administration” stands for US after all… They may have kept the acronym, but don’t try and sell me this bull about how it’s the NATO Aeronautics and Space Agency nowadays, NASA landed men on the moon back in ‘69 and I don’t care if it was a Canadian scientists who invented the warp drive or whatever they’re calling it, but it was an *American who flew Pandora, am I right?”
“So Pandora flew to, I dunno, Mercury and back…”
”…And all of a sudden it’s like “hello humanity, welcome to the stars, join us all in sunshine and hugs and yeah we’re really sorry about LOCKING YOU UP, please do us the honor of sending forth what you hoo-mens call an ‘am-bass-a-door’ that we might blah blah.” Why are we even bothering? you know what those alien douchenozzles deserve? Two fingers, one on each hand! Tell ‘em to come back once they’ve found Jesus!”
“Oh for—” [click] “—fuck’s sake!”
thup, thup…thup, thup…thup, thup…
”…And we put a Democrat in our seat on this Assembly? I thought we were supposed to be appointing somebody to represent America’s interests, am I right?”
♫♪ …in New England town, feel the heat comin’ down. I’ve got to keep on keepin’ on, you know the big wheel keeps on spinnin’ around and I’m goin’ with some hesitation. You know that I can surely see, that I don’t want to get caught up in any of that…♪♫
thup, thup…thup, thup…thup, thup…
1,500 Km above the Arabian Peninsula
“SUBLIME power to idle.”
“Power to ISDE.”
“Pandora, Mission Control. Checklist complete.”
“Mission Control, Pandora. Checklist complete.”
“Copy that, Rylee. Scotch Creek reports the package is ready. In your own time.”
“Hey, what is this, Houston? My fifth?”
She laughed. “And nobody else has even done this once, yet.”
“Elitist. Just try not to slam into the moon at seven kilolights, we’ve only got one.”
She decided that she liked her new controller. He wasn’t afraid to drop the professional bullshit and send a joke up the line to comfort her nerves.
“I’ll try, Mission Control. Pandora, going FTL.”
On her own insistence, the silly big red button had been replaced with a thrust lever. It just felt more right, more Star Wars. Granted it only output a binary “go” command to the navigation computer rather than providing analogue control over the engine power, but it still just felt right to reach forward, grip a solid chunk of plastic and metal, and push it firmly forward as far as it would go.
She patted an exposed patch of Pandora’s hull fondly. “Let’s ride, baby.”
This was by far the shortest hop they had yet done, she didn’t even have time to see anything happen: the moon just became bigger. In less time than an eyeblink, it ceased to be a distinct object in the sky, assessable in its entirety with the naked eye. Now it was an expansive feature. She realised she was now the closest person to Luna since 1972, although still deceptively far away at some sixty-four thousand kilometers, close to but not directly on top of the earth-moon L1 point.
“Mission Control, Pandora, checkpoint reached.”
“Nicely done. ESDAR has you on target to a…0.3% deviation.”
“My compliments to navigation!” She could already hear the applause in the background.
“Yeah, they’re pretty happy. ERB-2 is still reading green, I have go code from the package.”
“Copy, Control. Opening the door.”
This piece of equipment was mission-specific, and although Pandora had been designed with future-proofing in mind, she hadn’t been designed to interface with alien technology, which was why the mission package was activated via a smartphone that had been duct-taped to the flight console.
She reached out and tapped the app icon with the stylus that had been secured to the back of her flight glove with the most useful substance in space, some more duct tape.
A space station blinked into existence three kilometers in front of her. All things considered, its arrival was depressingly anticlimactic. She’d been hoping for special effects, maybe some kind of wibbly-wobbly space fireworks. At most she detected a faint shimmering of the stars around it, as if space had bulged gently.
The station itself, however, was impressive. Pandora was by no means a small vehicle, but the station was orders of magnitude larger, reminding her of the time she had gone surfing in California only for a Right Whale to breach the surface just ten feet to her right, but scaled up to eleven. It was like being ambushed by an airport terminal.
Fortunately, they had thought to compare notes as to communication protocols, wavelengths and codecs before the mission, so the transmission from it was clear and bright.
The voice that spoke did so in curiously accentless English. “Embassy Station 172, jump complete. Our thanks.”
“Welcome to Sol, 172.”
“It is a pleasure to be here, Pandora. Will you be docking?”
“Not in my mission profile, 172, I’m sorry. I’d love to come aboard.”
“We understand, Pandora. Launching shuttles, they will follow you on autopilot to a safe landing facility.”
“I look forward to coming back.”
“We look forward to it too. In fact, we request that you be the pilot who escorts your world’s selected Ambassador on board. It seems only fair.”
Rylee grinned inside her helmet. “Wild horses couldn’t hold me back.” she promised.
Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility
Jenkins turned at a familiar voice speaking his name, and laughed aloud when he saw who it was.
“Jesus shit. Terri Boone? When the hell was the last time I saw you?”
She’d lost weight and muscle tone, her hair had gone from a shoulder-length bob to halfway down her back, and she looked like death warmed up, but she still treated him to a smile.
“About two and a half years ago,” She sat down. “Nice bar you’ve got here. You can sell booze on a military base?”
“Why not? They aren’t on duty all the time, and they’ve got families. Good coffee, too, and you look like you need some.”
“Oh, hell yes. You do lattes?”
He busied himself with the espresso machine. “The best lattes in Scotch Creek, I promise.” He said, tamping down the coffee grounds and locking the portafilter into the group.
“I’ve seen Scotch Creek, that’s not much of a boast.” she said, watching as he selected a panini and slid it into the grill for good measure.
“You should have seen it when the convoy first got here. It’s five times the size it was then.”
“And eighty percent of that’s the base?”
He finished the drink with a flourish of steamed milk, and slid it in front of her. “On me.” he said. She picked it up like it was made with water from the Fountain of Youth and sipped it. “Okay, that’s damn good coffee.” she allowed, sagging as it chased the tension of a long journey out of her.
“Told you,” he said, pressing down on the panini grill. “Now, not that I’m not glad to see you again, but this ain’t a social call, am I right?”
“It’s business,” she acknowledged. “I’m…kind of betraying my employer’s trust.”
“Your mysterious employer?” Jenkins asked. he plated the panini and set it down, doing that too-handsome guy smile up one side of his face as she grabbed it and took a huge bite. “Finally exceeded your professional ethic, huh?”
“Mmf…o’m’g’d what’ff in thifth?”
“Bacon, brie and cranberry,” Jenkins told her.
“Mm…I’ll never say a bad word about the French ever again,” Terri promised.
“So, what’re you breaking trust over?”
“Well, he’s going to be getting this information too, but I just figured that you might find a use for a list of every abductee who’s currently outside the bubble.”
“You’re shitting me!”
She pulled a USB stick from her bag. “Nope. It’s just a best guess, the end result of thirty months of globetrotting, research and questioning people who most of the time didn’t even speak English, but I’m pretty sure it’s mostly right.”
Jenkins picked up the device and pocket it. “I’ll…make sure the ambassador finds out about this.”
“You’ve got a line to him?”
“No, but I play poker with somebody who does.”
She inhaled the rest of her panini. “God, I needed that.”
“Where the fuck did you drive from, Mexico?”
“Got a place to stay?”
“If you know any comfortable couches that are going spare…?”
“How about a futon?”
She sighed happily. “Oh yeah. You know what a weary traveller needs.”
Ten days later
She scooted out from under Pandora’s port wing where she and a flight technician had been fine-tuning the ESFALS array.
“Doctor Anees Hussein, I presume,” she said, rising from her trolley to extend a hand to Earth’s selected ambassador. He cut a strange figure, a small, bald, bearded Iraqi man in a nice suit, leaning slightly on a beautiful polished wooden walking stick while around him men and women in jumpsuits bustled back and forth, prepping Pandora and the three alien shuttlecraft for flight, though the latter apparently required practically no maintenance. The fourth had been shipped north to Scotch Creek, to be enthusiastically devoured by the reverse-engineering teams.
“For my sins,” he agreed, shaking her hand and smiling warmly. Rylee returned the smile genuinely—she had always had a soft spot for charming old men with a twinkle in their eye, and for all that he was twice her age, Doctor Hussein had that kind of charisma by the tonne. “She’s beautiful.” he added, looking towards Pandora and instantly winning Rylee’s good graces.
“She is,” she sighed, looking fondly at her sled. “Less so when she’s grounded though. She’s born to fly.” “I look forward to seeing that. I understand you’ll be flying her up alongside our shuttle.”
Her esteem for him grew even further. He wasn’t complaining, or even questioning, that she should be flying Pandora rather than the shuttle. The Ambassador was clearly an expert at first impressions.
“The embassy did say they hoped I’d be the one to escort you and, frankly sir, flying anything else would feel like cheating on her.” She said.
“I guessed as much.” Hussein replied amicably, folding his hands gently on his cane. “I wish there was a second seat, actually. Something tells me nobody will ever pilot her but you.”
“They’d have to shoot me before I let somebody else fly my girl.” Rylee agreed, matter-of-factly.
“I had best leave you to keeping her in perfect order then.”
“Please. It’s a long checklist.”
“Leaving so soon?”
Terri sighed. “you woke up,” she accused.
“Hey, you’re the one sneaking away without saying goodbye. It’s not even light out yet.”
“I’ve been here ten days, Kevin.” she said. She stooped and collected a discarded bra, and shrugged into it, trying not to let the way his dark eyes roamed all over her, getting a good last look, effect her. Those ten days had been…enthusiastic. Both of them had made up for a couple of long, dry years.
“I need to get back.”
“I know.” He said, and stood up. She took her own opportunity to get a good look at him as he yawn-stretched and then put on some pants. “I’m not dumb enough to do something soppy like try and stop you, neither. I just figured you may as well start the trip with a full stomach and a proper farewell.”
“Come on. Best pancakes in Scotch Creek, I promise.”
“I’ve seen Scotch Creek, that’s not much of a boast…”
“Pandora, mission control. Checklist complete.“”
“Mission Control, Pandora. Checklist complete.”
Every time, Pandora performed just a little better. Or maybe it was just that Rylee herself was becoming more in tune with her sled’s foibles, but she could swear that the disconcerting wobble that had defined their previous ESFALS vertical take-offs was gone now.
“You alright over there, Limo?” she asked of the pilot of the diplomatic shuttle, on her wing, as both craft extended their flight surface fields and coasted higher and higher on only a gentle thrust.
“Jealous of you. This thing handles like my sister’s car.” “That bad?”
“The controls are idiot-proof.”
Rylee made an “aaaah” noise of understanding. “Idiot-proof” meant one thing to an experienced pilot: that you couldn’t do half of the things you would like to have available as options.
“Hey, at least you can scratch your nose,” She said, leaning forward to brush that offending organ against the patch of velcro that had been glued to the inside of her helmet.
The helmet was full of little customisations like that, from the velcro pad, to a suction nozzle in case of a repeat of Luca Parmitano’s experience with water flowing freely inside the helmet or—God forbid—Rylee vomiting. The whole suit was a testament to the power of cobbled-together solutions to minor irritations, and was designed for long-term habitation, right down to some rather cunning plumbing around the pelvis. She could have worn it for a week and experienced nothing worse than the desperate need for a bath.
She noticed with amusement that she had forgotten to remove the smartphone stylus from her glove. Oh well, it would probably prove useful anyway.
“And you can thumb yours at us. This things gets three kilos, tops.” “You’re kidding?”
“Nope. I’m flying the next best thing to a moped…comfy in here though. No expense spared in upholstering the ambassadorial transport.” She chuckled. Next to Pandora’s sleek-yet-functional lines that showed off her Lockheed heritage, the shuttle was an uninspiring box that relied entirely on its fields for aerodynamic profile. A team of designers had done their best, stripping off the original beige paint and polishing the metal to a mirror shine, and reportedly filling the interior with tasteful wood and woven fabrics.
The original leather upholstery idea had been swiftly abandoned on the advice that the aliens were almost universally herbivores and would be thoroughly disgusted by the idea of sitting on a once-living thing’s skin, or even a facsimile of it.
Pandora alerted her to something with a pleasant beep. “Coming up on Delta-point 1,” she said. It was deceptive how quickly space could sneak up on them when the ride was so gentle.
“I see it. Slaving FTL to you….Mission Control, Limo. Escort has the button.”
“I have it. Mission Control, Pandora. Escort has the button.”
“Pandora, Mission Control. You are clear for FTL.”
She didn’t bother making any comment this time, just rubbed the exposed bit of Pandora’s chassis for luck, and pushed the thrust lever forward.
Again, the moon just blinked larger in the sky, and there was Embassy-172, an impressive tower of white, almost blinding in the sunlight even through her dark glasses and Pandora’s own reactive window tint.
“172, Pandora. Ambassadorial transport on final approach.”
“Copy, Pandora, the Ambassador is cleared for bay one. Will you be coming aboard?”
“I will, 172. Pandora requesting permission to land.”
“Permission granted, you are cleared for bay three…. ah. Pandora, we can’t handshake with your landing system, it’s giving an incompatible protocol error.”
“Dammit.” Rylee scrabbled to troubleshoot the problem, then decided it wasn’t worth her time. “Copy that, 172. Request permission for a manual landing.”
There was a pause filled with the hiss of solar radiation and nothing more.
”… Pandora did you just say MANUAL landing?”
“Affirmative 172, manual landing.”
“That’s…oh? Right. Yes, sir. Pandora you are clear for manual landing, bay three.“
“Copy 172, bay three.”
Rylee shook her head in bemusement as she rounded the station’s bulk and lined up on her assigned bay. In fact, of all the manoeuvres she had rehearsed in the simulator before Pandora was even built, manually landing on an enclosed flight deck aboard a steadily-rotating space station had been one of the first and easiest, and that had been when they still thought she’d have thrusters that required fuel. Nowadays, with an unlimited thrust budget, it was even simpler.
Match rotation, nose forward, probe forward with ESFALS and haul herself forward and gently on to the deck. Frankly, she doubted that the computer could have done it any smoother.
Compared to landing on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, landing on Embassy-172 was trivial.
By the time post-flight checks, power-down and securing her ship had finished, the bay had become host to a welcoming party of weirdness. She tried not to stare at them as she swung her boots over and dropped down to the deck, easily and buoyant in the light gravity.
<+Oh my God that one looks just like Rocket Raccoon, don’t stare, don’t stare…+>
A short creature with the uncomfortably familiar face beloved by the UFO community the world over approached, trailed by an archway of some kind that moved on a hovering pad, which settled in front of Rylee.
She tried not to let the fact that half the assembled beings apparently had no issue with nudity bother her. Strangely, the one wearing the most clothing of all of them was the furry little raccoon-alien, who was wearing a garment that seemed to resemble a cross between her own flight suit and a pair of dungarees.
“Captain, if you would be so kind as to step through this decontamination archway before removing your flight suit, you would save us all a great deal of trouble and potential agonizing death.” Requested the Grey. Up close, she could see that the movements of its mouth bore no relation at all to what she actually heard, which was a pleasant male tenor with a faint hint of…condescension?
Intellectual superiority? The effect was convincing and humanizing at least.
“Sure!” she said happily, and stepped through it, followed by “Wow! Oh my God that feels weird!”
The little grey alien stepped forward sharply. “Are you in pain?” he asked, tone tinged with concern.
“No, no, just…wow, my teeth have never felt so clean!”
“Ah, yes. Streptococcus Salivarius in particular proved to be exceptionally resilient, as did Staphylococcus Aureus, but we beat them in the end. You may remove your helmet now, Captain, we are for the time being quite safe from you.”
Rylee did so, pleased to be out of it, and took the opportunity to scratch an itch above her ear.
<+I knew that stylus would be useful…+>
“Excellent. If you intend on staying longer than eight hours, we will need to give you a longer-lasting injection or even, if you are willing, a permanent implant. Until then, I shall leave you in the capable hands of the rest of the crew.”
Rylee watched him go. “Wow. I’ve had some terse doctors in my time…” she said.
There was a chittering noise from the space raccoon. Something in…his? …body language suggested amusement, so she decided that the chittering had probably been the equivalent of laughter.
Her suspicions were confirmed when the translator gave him a wry baritone “By his species’ standards, that was a warm welcome.”
Rylee smiled. “I guess I got so caught up in flying Pandora there that I forgot to read the cliff notes on…everyone.”
She looked around, taking in the blue and white giraffe-people, the bat-person, an enormous pile of fur in the back that seemed to be content to observe from a distance for the time being, and more. Most of the rest of her welcome party sketched respectful gestures of welcome and left her to converse with the raccoon.
“I can’t blame you, it’s beautiful.”
“She is, isn’t she?”
“She? As you wish. And I’ve got to say that was some beautiful flying. I know Traffic Routing get fidgety over manual landings in their bays, but I’ve never seen a landing that smooth from anything, muscle or machine.”
“You’re a pilot yourself?”
“I am! Officer Goruu, of Clan Firefang, My species are called Gaioans.”
“Captain Rylee Jackson, NASA. Human, obviously.”
“A pleasure. Be gentle, right? You could probably crush my hand if you squeeze too hard.” he extended a hand—and it was, to her relief, definitely a hand, an honest tool-user’s fingers, rather than an animal’s paw—so she disengaged the pressure seal on her gauntlets, removed them and shook the offered extremity as delicately as she could, intrigued at how warm and silky the short fur of his hands was.
<+I’m shaking hands with an intelligent alien raccoon. Holy. Shit.+> “Want to see Pandora up close?” She offered. “I still have a few post-flight checks to run through.”
“It’d be my pleasure.” Goruu said. He started to enthuse more and more as they got closer to the sled’s hull. “She’s so aerodynamic! By the time my kind developed warp technology, we’d long since abandoned these kinds of curves in favour of shaped fields.”
“She was mostly made by a company called Lockheed.” Rylee said. “She’s got those shaped fields too, but they stuck to a policy of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” After all, if the fields fail I’d rather not be flying something with the aerodynamic profile of a boot.”
“That…makes a lot of sense actually. I might have to take that saying home.”
Goruu said. He stooped to look under Pandora’s belly. “Huh. Your kind go in for redundancy in a big way, don’t you? Pressurised cabin and pressurised flight suit, the whole hull and field thing, two forcefield landing systems…”
“She could limp home on just one engine, too.” Rylee said. “It’s called Murphy’s Law.”
“Your legislation mandates redundant systems?”
Rylee laughed. “No, no. Murphy’s Law isn’t legislation. It’s an…observation.
Like a law of physics. ‘Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, eventually’.”
“I’m taking that one home, too.” Goruu said. “Oh! A field-assisted scramjet?”
“Yep! She’s the fastest thing we ever built by a long, LONG way, both in space and in atmo. Mach 20 across the ground, easy.”
“What’s her maximum?”
“We don’t actually know.” Rylee beamed, correctly interpreting the Gaoian’s open-muzzled expression for the dazed awe that it was. She opened a hatch, checked something inside, closed and sealed it, checked the seal, and then ticked something off on the little booklet attached to her wrist.
“Theoretically, with the fields doing the heavy lifting and taking mechanical stresses out of the equation, we think she could hit somewhere upwards of Mach 30. Of course, that’s small fry next to the FTL.”
“Well, obviously.” Goruu agreed. “What’s she do?”
“That depends how much I give her.” Rylee told him. “I guess if I really pushed her…Seventy kilolights for six hours? Of course, right now that’d be a one way trip, they’ve not finished the WITCHES yet.”
“Seventy…how? She’s not big enough for a power plant that size. Especially given that—no offense—I doubt your first ever FTL engine is very efficient.
And what’s WITCHES?”
“None taken, she’ll get faster as we swap out the FTL core. She was built to be future-proof. Anyway, the power plant’s for running the on-board electronics and life-support. Power to the FTL comes from a supercapacitor bank. At the moment that’s charged on the ground, but WITCHES—that’s WIde aTtainment CHarging Energy System— can take photons from any local stars or whatever and convert them into stored energy. The bigger the field, the faster we charge. Once that’s finished and installed, in theory, Pandora could go from dry to fully charged in less than a minute just by sunbathing.”
She grinned. “And of course, crazy-prepared beauty that she is, if I did get stranded, the ship power plant is good for fifty lights. Not fast, but better than dying alone in deep space.”
Goruu stood back and used his claws to comb some stray fur back behind one ear.
“I take it back, she’s not merely beautiful, she’s the most gorgeous thing I ever laid eyes on.”
“Aww, the ladies must be all over a charmer like you.”
“I’ve sired my fair share of cubs.” the Gaoian agreed, sounding pleased with himself, so Rylee assumed that her compliment had been a success.
He pulled a device that looked much like a smartphone from the pocket of his own flight suit and glanced at it, then said something which the station didn’t translate. “I should go, my Clan-Father wants to have a word with me.”
“It’s been a pleasure, Goruu.” Rylee said, still scarcely believing that she was already considering an alien raccoon to be a likeable acquaintance and potential friend. She paid close attention to the markings of his fur around the eyes and muzzle and memorized them—It would be very embarrassing to have got on so well with him only to confuse him for some other Gaoian.
They shook hands again, and Goruu ducked his head in what she took for a respectful gesture before jogging away.
As Rylee watched him go, she carefully tucked away the scrap of paper he had palmed her when they shook hands, and busied herself with completing her post-flight checks.
“Did you succeed?”
“Yes, Father.” In Goruu’s case, the title of respect bore a slightly more intimate meaning: the face looking back at him from the screen of his communicator bore markings and coloration that were almost a mirror of his own, and there could be little doubt that Clan-Father Amren was his Sire, but that relationship was a distant second place to the bond of Clan. Being the Clan-Father’s cub brought no special privileges, nor should it: the entire clan structure existed specifically to avoid that kind of nepotism. But they had a good relationship nonetheless.
“Excellent. The ambassador will be arriving shortly. We’ll let this…mockery of diplomacy play out: the important part has been accomplished. You’ve done well.
Did you find it hard to get into the pilot’s good graces?”
“I didn’t even have to act. Some of the innovations and philosophy that went into that little ship truly are stunning, and she’s hopelessly in love with it.
I confess, so am I. If we adopted some of the ideas she told me about into our own craft…”
“Now is neither the time nor the place, Brother.” the Clan-Father reminded him.
Goruu ducked his head and flattened his ears, chagrined. “Yes, Father.”
“Good lad. Take the First Frost back to Gao: I’ve convinced a Mother to join us.”
“Yimyi. And yes,” he said, holding up a paw and displaying tolerant good humour as Goruu’s expression lit up “she will have Sister Niral with her, Brother.
You’ll have plenty of opportunity to make a good impression before they head back.”
This was by way of being a reward for special success, and Goruu could barely contain his gratitude, but the Firefangs prized emotional control and maturity, so he settled for a compsed “Thank you, Father. Good luck with the ambassadors.”
“More fool the others for making us need luck.” Father Amren practically spat the word.
“They can’t possibly believe that concealing the existence of the Great Hunt and the jettison order will do anything but harm in the long run, can they?” Goruu asked.
“I truly have no idea. Gao voted in favour of full disclosure, we were overruled, and will face sanctions if I break that ruling during this session.”
Amren ruffled the fur at his shoulders, irritably. “Idiots.”
He recovered himself, giving his jaw a determined set. “Goruu, making a good impression with the humans is vital. It’s only a matter of time before they discover how poorly their people have been treated by the Dominion, especially in response to the Great hunt, and Gao must get on their good side: Your rapport with their pilot and the influence of the Clan of Females might well tip the balance. I suppose we’re just fortunate that we have the time to move behind the scenes before your note can be raised at the next meeting.”
“Okay.” she said. “Those were some DAMN good pancakes.”
“Yeah. You should.”
She stood up and looked around the room. “Um, d’you know where my panties wound up?”
“Somehow, I had expected somebody rather different. A warrior, like his escort, not…well.” the Vzk’tk ambassador signalled the image of Doctor Hussein limping along the corridor, leaning heavily on his stick even while engaging his aides and staff with avuncular small-talk.
“Not a frail elder?” asked the Rauwrhyr ambassador.
“You have it exactly. A reminder of their physical abilities would make sense, and instead they’re sending us this specimen?”
Clan-Father Amren chimed in at that point, and a few of the ambassadors flinched. The Gaoian had been inside a privacy field for several minutes: they had all but forgotten he existed. “In which case they have shrewdly out-played you.” he commented. “A fair reminder to respect their intelligence as well as their muscles, not so?”
The ambassador for the Corti Directorate signalled agreement. “Humans are not a savage species, gentlebeings. They are from a savage world. There is a critical difference, and failing to remember it can only be dangerous.”
“Forgive me, Ambassador” commented the ambassador for the Kwmbwrw “but they eat flesh. That in itself is a mark of savagery.”
The diplomats shot glances at one another. The Kwmbwrw had suffered terribly from their close proximity to Hunter space, and had suffered raids by those enigmatic, evil things since before they had invented movable type. It had badly, but understandably, prejudiced them.
“So do my own species, ambassador.” Amren reminded him, voice calm and affable.
“Are we savages to you?”
The Kwmbwrw wisely chose to maintain a diplomatic silence, but fidgeted sulkily in his seat, and the gathered dignitaries refrained from further conversation until the door opened and the station’s security director introduced the human.
“Doctor Anees Hussein, ambassadors.”
The ambassadors rose from their seats in a mark of respect as the human limped in and looked around with a faint smile, hands trembling slightly as he rested them on his cane. “Well. Thank you for the warm reception.” he said.
“We have much to discuss.” the Corti ambassador said. As founding members of, and indisputably the most influential members of, the Dominion, it was a tradition for the Directorate’s ambassador to speak first on such occasions.
“But welcome, Doctor. This day has been sooner in coming than in the history of any other species yet known to us, and is all the more wonderful for it. Earth has already made big waves among the interstellar community, and we are keen to see what more your people are capable of.”
There was a general murmuring of agreement, and the security director respectfully escorted the human to his own desk, diplomatically arranged as part of the circle, rather than in the interrogative middle of the room.
“To business, then.” the doctor said. “If I may say a few words?”
He stood up again, resting himself gently against the table and selecting one of his notes with that same trembling hand. He fastidiously opened a pair of reading glasses, set them on his nose, lifted the note up to peer at it, and then nodded, satisfied.
“Ahem… ‘Ultimatum from hunters: demand all humans be turned over else quote Swarm of Swarms endquote will raid known human locations. All ships, stations carrying human passengers advised: jettison immediately’.”
In the ringing silence, he set the paper down and gently tweaked it until its edges and corners were flush with its fellows. He took off his reading glasses, meticulously folded them, and set them carefully on top of his notes, before looking up and skewering them all with a hard glare that bore no relationship whatsoever to the kindly sparkle his eyes had held only moments before.
“I think, ambassadors…” he said “…that we are owed an explanation.”