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Authors: William Alexander

Ambassador

BOOK: Ambassador
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Para mis sobrinos Isaac y Navarro

PART ONE
SELECTED
1

The Envoy tossed itself at the world.

An ambassador's business had left it stranded on the moon for years and decades. During all that time it tried to patch together a return capsule from Soviet equipment abandoned on the surface. But this had never actually worked, and now it needed to hurry, so it gave up on the capsule and built a cannon instead. Then the Envoy aimed itself and its cannon at the world.

This was not the tricky part.

Moving through vacuum for several days was not the tricky part either. The Envoy had no ship, no craft, no transportation. It had only itself: the spherical, purple transparency of its own substance. It clenched its outer layers, becoming glass-like to bounce radiation away and keep itself from dehydrating. But it remained clear enough to let light in. All of it was sensitive to light. It
was its own big, purple eyeball. The Envoy watched the approaching planet with all of itself, and enjoyed the view.

The nightside of the globe grew large ahead. Constellations of bright and artificial light stretched out across landmasses. The Envoy expected to land in Russia again, or possibly in China, but North America stretched out below it.

The first hints of atmosphere scraped against its skin. The Envoy winced. This was going to hurt.
This
would be the tricky part.

The Envoy became a blind eye, opaque, closing itself and all its senses. The view was about to become too searingly bright to appreciate. Air turned to plasma against the friction of the Envoy's passage.

It shed several layers of scorched self. Then it slowed down by expanding, thinning its substance against air currents like the stretched skin of a flying squirrel or a flying fish or a flying squid. It became its own parachute—though it didn't slow down nearly as much as a real parachute would have. The Envoy tumbled into a rough glide. It became transparent again, letting light pass through it, trying to see where it was going and what it was falling toward. It failed to see very much.

The Envoy smacked into a small pond in an urban
park. The noise and splash startled several geese, ducks, catfish, and turtles.

It sank into the mud and muck at the very bottom and felt itself gradually cool, losing the sting of impact. It needed time to collect itself—though not literally, for which it was grateful. Its substance remained in one single piece.

A few curious fish tried to nibble the Envoy. It tried to ignore them. Then it made a limb and shoed them away. Finally it stretched out and relearned how to swim. It had been a long time since the Envoy had lived in an aquatic environment, but now it remembered how to wave and ripple like a manta ray. It swam up to the surface of the pond. There it carefully observed the shore, the surrounding park, and the playgrounds.

The Envoy spent many days floating and recovering from planetfall before it noticed Gabriel Sandro Fuentes.

2

Gabe sat on a swing and watched his toddler siblings, Andrés and Noemi.

Noemi sat underneath a plastic slide and poured handfuls of sand over her sandals. Andrés, her twin brother, climbed up and down the stairs that led to the slide. He didn't actually like the slide itself, but he loved going up and down the stairs. They both seemed focused and content with what they were doing.

Gabe kept a close eye on them anyway.

The chains of his swing creaked like door hinges as he swayed back and forth. His friend Frankie sat in the other swing and complained. Gabe was dark and shorter than his average peer, while Frankie was pale, tall, and spindly thin.

“Why do you have to babysit today?” Frankie asked.

“It's Thursday,” Gabe answered, as though that explained everything.

“So?” said Frankie.

“So Mom tutors on Thursdays. I can't remember what subject she's got today. Might be Spanish. Might be math. I hope it isn't standardized test prep. She
hates
test prep. And my sister has a restaurant shift, and then Dad has his own shift later. He's making dinner now. So that leaves me to watch the twins.”

“Huh,” said Frankie—the uncomprehending grunt of an only child who has never had to watch anyone else. “I wish I could come over for dinner. I'd rather have your dad's cooking than eat with my mom while she glares at me.”

“You can't, though,” said Gabe. “We're
supposed
to be avoiding each other right now.”

“Yeah,” Frankie said sadly.

The other kids playing nearby were either very much younger or very much older than Gabe and Frankie. Two older boys played basketball in a court adjacent to the playground. They shouted and cursed each other out. It sounded angry. It sounded vicious. Gabe glanced their way whenever an especially sharp curse cut the air. But it didn't look like they were fighting. Not really. So it was probably just aggressive conversation. The cursing might have been part of their game.

Gabe looked back at the twins. Noemi still sat under
the slide with her handfuls of sand. Andrés kept climbing the stairs.

“My mom is pretty mad,” said Frankie. “Have you noticed how she seems to get taller whenever she gets mad?”

Gabe nodded without looking away from the twins. He had noticed. Frankie's mom turned into a towering statue of wrathful ice whenever she got mad.

“She's sending me to live with my dad for the rest of the summer,” Frankie went on. “In California.”

That got Gabe's attention. “Really?”

“Really,” said Frankie. “She puts me on a plane tonight.”

“Tonight?”
This was a terrible thing. Frankie was Gabe's only friend within walking distance. They usually spent whole summers together—except for the summers Frankie spent with his dad. And this summer wasn't supposed to be one of those. “So we don't have time to talk her out of it?” He tried to think of apologies and promises that might somehow appease Frankie's mom.

“Don't try to talk her out of it,” said Frankie. “Really. Don't. It won't work. And at least in California I won't have to see her glare at me for a while.” He kicked the sand under his swing with one foot. “I think we got the fuel mix wrong.”

“I think we shouldn't have used a metal pipe,” Gabe told him. “Model rockets are usually paper and plastic.
Lightweight. They cause less damage when they hit things. And they're less likely to just fall over, spin in place, and spew flames.”

“But the pipe looked like it
wanted
to be a rocket, just sitting there in the garage,” Frankie said. “It was all shiny. Like it
dreamed
of becoming a rocket rather than a piece of plumbing. Anyway, thanks for saying it was your idea.”

“You're welcome,” said Gabe.

“It kind of
was
your idea,” said Frankie.

“No, it wasn't,” said Gabe. “Did any of the lawn furniture survive?”

“None of it,” said Frankie, his voice morose.

“Is lawn furniture expensive?” Gabe asked, a bit worried.

“Probably,” said Frankie. “I think she plans to take it out of us in leaf-raking and snow-shoveling later. But right now she doesn't want to see either of us, so she's banishing me to California. She'll probably just ignore you if she sees you around. Were your parents mad?”

“Sort of,” said Gabe. “Dad tried to be, but he kept laughing. Mom was angrier, but mostly she was just relieved we didn't die.”

He watched Noemi sift sand. Then he looked for Andrés and noticed that Andrés was no longer climbing stairs.

Gabe couldn't see him. He scanned the various small
children, looking for a familiar one. He stood up from his swing, still searching, ready to run but not yet sure which direction to run in.

Noemi still sat under the slide.

Andrés didn't seem to be anywhere.

Then Gabe found him, finally. The toddler had left the playground, stepped onto the grass, and approached a very old woman sitting on a park bench. The old woman glared at the playground. She watched the children play as though planning to eat them all.

Andrés toddled right up to her as if he meant to offer himself as a sacrificial meal to spare the other kids. He stood and stared at the old woman. She stared right back at him. Neither moved or spoke until Gabe swooped in, scooped him up, and gave a quick apology.

The old lady turned her mighty glare on Gabe. He flinched, retreated to the sandy playground, and put Andrés down.

The toddler immediately headed for a trio of girls building sand castles with shovels and buckets. He snatched away one of their shovels when he got there.

“Hey!” the shovel-owner shouted. She seemed old enough to have a sense of ownership, but too young to realize that Andrés didn't. Gabe moved to intercept. Then several things happened very quickly.

Gabe picked up Andrés and plucked the plastic shovel from his hand.

Andrés let out an indignant squawk.

The older boys on the basketball court gave a warning shout.

Their ball flew away from the court in a high arc headed for the middle of the sand castles.

Before it could land and destroy all the sandy buildings in its path, Gabe kicked the ball like a soccer goalie. It sailed away from the kids, away from the castles, and back toward the basketball court. He did this while still holding the squawking Andrés. Then he took a breath and smiled, proud of his reflexes and also a little surprised.

One of the older boys cursed Gabe out for kicking their ball—one shouldn't ever kick a basketball, apparently—and the other grinned and shouted thanks. Gabe waved to both of them as though they had said the same thing, and maybe they had.

He returned the plastic shovel to the castle-building girl, who took it as her rightful due and went back to work. Then Gabe put Andrés down and checked to make sure that Noemi was still under the slide.

She wasn't. She was running away from the playground, downhill and toward the duck pond. She laughed the shrieking laugh of forbidden freedom.

“Your baby sister's making a break for it,” Frankie said, helpfully pointing at Noemi but not moving otherwise.

Gabe hoisted Andrés back up again, dropped him into an infant swing to contain him, and sprinted after his sister.

He caught her at the very edge of the pond.

“Splashy!” she yelled while Gabe marched her back up the hill. “Splashy, splashy! Ducks! Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks! Meow!”

“Ducks say ‘quack,' ” Gabe told her.

“Meeeeeoooooow!”

They got back to Andrés, who was trapped in his swing and crying. That set off Noemi, so Gabe pushed them both in the swings for a bit until they cheered up.

“That was smooth,” said Frankie, who hadn't budged from his own swing the whole time. “That was ninja-like.”

“Thanks,” said Gabe. He wanted to point out that Frankie could have helped rather than just sitting there and watching, but he didn't bother.

“I'd still rather be a pirate than a ninja,” said Frankie.

They argued about that for a while. It was an old argument between them. Gabe would rather be quiet and precise than boisterous, loud, and sloppy. He preferred throwing stars to cannon fire. But Frankie liked to be loud.

Gabe strapped the twins into their double stroller once they were both laughing and happy. Each seat had a five-point harness, as though the stroller were secretly a space capsule.

“Time to go home,” he said. He didn't want to go. The afternoon had suddenly become the very end of Gabe and Frankie's shared summer. But it was still time.

BOOK: Ambassador
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