Authors: Christine Pope
“We can afford a few more minutes’ rest — ”
“I’m good,” she broke in. “Maybe a little more of that water first?”
So he handed her the pouch and watched as she allowed herself the same measured sips that she had drunk before. Then she gave it back to him and waited as he secured it in the kit, while at the same time finishing off the last few bits of his bean-and-grain bar. The taste was unfamiliar, bland and slightly sweet, but he could tell it would give him the energy he needed.
And then, since he could sense that arguing for more rest time was useless, he stowed the half-empty water container in the bag containing their emergency supplies, and struck out northward again. With any luck, they would find some sort of hospitable spot to camp for the night.
Then again, their luck so far had been questionable at best.
s they began
to walk again, at first Alexa was cheered by the fact that their route seemed to be following a downhill course. Her over-stressed leg muscles had already begun to ache, and she didn’t want to think about the sore spot being rubbed into the back of one heel. Funny, if asked before this, she would have said her boots were very comfortable, and something she could have worn for hours with no problem. However, she probably would have been thinking about wearing them all day while in the comfort of the Gaian consulate on Eridani, or at worst while wandering through one of Teliir’s fashionable entertainment districts. Not quite the same thing as hiking over miles of rough terrain, with nary a path in sight.
Lirzhan walked on tirelessly, apparently immune to the damp heat and the rocky ground underfoot. As the afternoon sun beat down on her, she’d thought about removing her jacket, but all she wore underneath was a thin camisole of stretch fabric, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to be flashing that much flesh in front of the Zhore, alien or no. Oh, she knew there had never been even a whisper of a rumor that the Zhore had any interest in Gaians. Even so, the thought of exposing herself around Lirzhan made her uncomfortable. Besides, the sun was beginning to set off to their left, disappearing behind a range of mountains so rugged that it was obvious Mandala was a young world, in geological terms. In another hour or so, she’d be damn glad of the jacket that she currently was cursing as too warm.
Neither of them had said much since their hasty not-quite meal in the shade of that alien tree. Probably better that way; they needed to conserve their energy, and if they didn’t speak, then there was no chance of letting slip revelations better left unsaid. What had possessed her to make that comment about red meat being too expensive for her to eat growing up? Oh, it was true enough — only the rich could afford the luxury these days, and such a thing certainly wouldn’t be wasted on a foster child — but there was no need for her to blather on about it to the Zhore ambassador.
Back at the university on Gaia, a group of hard-partying students had started referring to her as “the Ice Queen,” an epithet that unfortunately followed her into the diplomatic corps, but she’d ignored them, just as she ignored everything that wasn’t a direct threat or a barrier to advancement. So what had happened to that frosty wall she’d built around herself? She shouldn’t have spoken so freely to Lirzhan.
Actually, being known as “the Ice Queen” had made it easier for her in one way. No one approached her or attempted any sort of advances. No one, that was, except Trin Elsen, an Eridani who’d either never heard of her nickname or didn’t care what her reputation might be. He’d done a fairly good job of melting her icy exterior…at least when they were alone.
Annoyed with herself, Alexa tried to focus on her surroundings. If it weren’t for being dropped here with inadequate gear and uncertain company, she might have been tempted to say Mandala was beautiful. She hadn’t had much experience with open spaces on Gaia, and of course any posting at an embassy would keep her at the heart of a city, but there was something oddly attractive about these wild, open spaces, about the stark beauty of the gray rocks thrusting upward and the strangely delicate trees that dotted the landscape. The air, too, tasted clean, untouched by technology. Up until now she hadn’t seen much of the allure in settling on empty, uninhabited planets, with none of the comforts of civilization. It was clear, though, that civilization had its own drawbacks.
Speaking of which…
Just who the hell
shot down their shuttle? As with all diplomatic flights, the details of her trip had been classified. No one outside the embassy’s immediate support staff knew when she was leaving, or which ship was transporting her. Obviously some strings had been pulled in certain channels, or Lirzhan would not have traveled with her, but he was also a diplomat, someone with high clearances. It wasn’t as if anyone outside their respective embassies would have known of their itinerary. She hadn’t even told Trin exactly where she was going, or when she planned to leave Eridani. All she’d told him was that she was being transferred, and that was that. No time for tears.
Well, not much, anyway.
She hadn’t bothered to keep the relationship a secret, because it would have been discovered anyway. Luckily, Trin worked in a non-sensitive area — he was a professor of sociology at the local university — and Gaians and Eridanis had been consorting almost as long as the two races had known one another. Perhaps her liaison with Trin had raised a few eyebrows among the more conservative members of the embassy’s staff, but since she was as transparent as possible about the whole thing, no one had commented, or attempted to advise her to break if off.
Unless, of course, her transfer to the Targus system had been an oblique way of telling her that she should be maintaining all her focus on her duties.
She frowned then, and narrowly missed stumbling over a rock just large enough to be troublesome. Amazing how Lirzhan appeared to glide over the rough landscape, his heavy robes never catching on anything, the dirt somehow seeming to slide right off the thick dark fabric’s surface. Nice trick, that.
“Ambassador,” she said.
He paused, the hood turning as he regarded her over his black-clad shoulder. “Surely there is no need for such formalities when it is only the two of us here.”
Fine. Feeling a little strange, she said, “Okay…Lirzhan.”
“Are you all right? Do you need to rest a bit?”
So solicitous. Frankly, she wasn’t used to anyone being all that concerned about her welfare. She shook her head. “No, I’m fine. It’s not as if we’re climbing or anything. It’s just….”
His voice…it sounded so very human. No trace of an accent at all, unlike the Eridanis and Stacians she’d known. His tones were smooth and rounded as those of a vid-caster, his command of Gaian idiom quite masterful. Then again, he was a diplomat. He must have studied such things in order to work effectively with humans.
Taking a breath, she replied, “I was thinking about the crash…how we ended up here. Yes, both our embassies knew of our flight, but it’s certainly not information that was widely disseminated.”
“Yes.” The briefest of pauses, and he added, “And drawing a ship from subspace…I had not thought such a thing was possible.”
“It isn’t,” she said flatly. “That is, I’ve never heard of it happening before this.”
“But your scientists are always working on such projects, are they not?”
Was she imagining things, or was that a note of accusation in the velvety timbre of his voice? “I wouldn’t know. That’s not my field.” And she sounded stiff even to herself. But what did he expect, that she would start blabbing about rumors of the technology she’d heard was coming out of the Consortium’s skunkworks?
“Of course.” The hood tilted up at the sky. “We should keep going.”
“What about your scientists?” she inquired as she scrambled after him, for he had assumed a brisk pace almost before his last words to her were out of his mouth.
He didn’t turn to look back at her. “What about them?”
“Surely you don’t think I’m naïve enough to believe that they don’t have their own projects going all the time?”
“No, I don’t think you are naïve at all. However, you know nothing of the Zhore if you suspect us of creating the sort of damaging technology that would drag a ship in flight out of subspace.”
“Well, whose fault is it that we know so little of the Zhore?”
This time he did pause, and stood staring down at her. Damn. He was so very tall, looming over her as the afternoon shadows began to lengthen around them. She didn’t lack for height herself — part of the reason she tended to choose low-heeled shoes — but she didn’t think she would even reach the Zhore’s chin.
If he had a chin, of course.
“We Zhore value our privacy, if that is what you mean,” he said smoothly. “It is true that we do not quite comprehend the Gaian tendency to broadcast every smallest detail about ourselves, whether it is of interest to anyone else or not.”
“So you don’t find us interesting?”
Something in his attitude shifted then, and although she could not see his face, somehow Alexa got the impression he was amused. “
of you are…quite interesting.”
Her cheeks heated with an unexpected flush. “Well, that’s a relief.”
His head lifted, and he turned away from her. “Do you hear that?”
He raised a hand, and so she closed her mouth around the next question she’d been about to ask, to inquire if it sounded dangerous. As she strained to hear what had caught his attention, she thought she detected a hint of something. An odd rushing noise.
“Water,” he said, the relief clear in his tone. “And in the direction we were heading. Come.”
He began to walk again, this time with a stride so brisk she felt almost as if she had to trot to keep up. Maybe she could have asked him to slow down, but doing so seemed to hint of weakness. Instead, she hurried after him, cursing the growing blister on her heel and wondering how far they had to go before they came upon the source of the mysterious sound.
Not quite a half-kilometer away, they descended into a shallow valley with a brisk stream cutting across its center. Here the ground was covered with a bluish grass-like vegetation, and trees clustered around the water, their thirsty roots soaking up the precious liquid. More chittering came from those trees, similar to what they had heard in the woods where they first landed, but it seemed to her that those avian creatures, whatever they might be, were not dangerous. Otherwise, they certainly would have attacked by now.
“We should make camp here for the night,” Lirzhan said. “Look, there is a sheltered spot amongst those boulders, and if the water is safe….”
“Let’s test it,” Alexa said at once. She was too tired to protest that they had at least another hour of daylight. Certainly they hadn’t come across any spots as hospitable as this one. The quiet little valley seemed like an ideal place to rest.
The Zhore nodded and took the water-testing kit from the emergency pack, then went over to the stream and dipped the clear plastic rod into it. Immediately the liquid inside turned blue, indicating that the water being tested contained safe levels of any heavy elements and no detectible pathogens or toxins. Of course, the risk on an alien world was that there might a microbe or unknown trace metal the test couldn’t identify. Even so, the kits did tend to be correct about ninety percent of the time.
Alexa wouldn’t let herself worry about that other ten percent. As it stood, the water they carried wouldn’t have been enough to sustain the two of them all the way to the science station, so between certain death via dehydration or a ten-percent chance of getting the Mandala equivalent of Montezuma’s Revenge, she would go for the latter option.
“Looks good,” she said.
He nodded and set the testing kit aside. “It would appear so. But let me drink first.”
She let out an uneasy laugh. “Really? How…chivalrous of you.”
A lift of the shoulders beneath the heavy robes. “I do not see it that way. I have a larger body mass than you. If there is something toxic in the water, I would most likely be able to process it better than you.”
There didn’t seem to be much an argument to counter that reasoning, so she only said, “All right,” and watched him dip his gloved hands into the water and bring few mouthfuls to the face hidden within his robes. A long, tense moment as he apparently swallowed and then evaluated the effects — if any — of the water he had just drunk, before he said,
“I am not noticing any adverse reactions. It appears to be safe. In fact, it tastes very good.”
That was all Alexa needed to hear. She came up beside him and knelt in the soft grayish sand at the stream’s edge, and scooped up some water for herself. It was cool against her skin, and nothing, not even the expensive Eridani wines Trin had shared with her, had ever tasted so good.
Once she had drunk enough to drive away the dry tickly sensation she’d been feeling in the back of her throat for the past few hours, she gathered up a few more handfuls and splashed them against her face. Any cosmetics she had been wearing would have been long gone by that point anyway, so she figured she might as well feel more or less clean.
“Better?” Lirzhan asked, once she was done with her ablutions.
“Much,” she replied. “There are little expandable bags somewhere in the emergency kit that we can use for water storage, but I suppose we might as well worry about that in the morning when we set out.”
“That is a good idea.” He got to his feet.
As much as Alexa felt like sticking her whole head in the water, to get rid of as much trail dust as possible, she knew that heading into the cooler nighttime hours with a headful of damp hair wasn’t a very good idea. So she pushed herself back to her feet and began to head toward the sheltered spot Lirzhan had suggested as their evening’s campsite. Her heel twinged, and she stumbled.
At once the Zhore was at her side, gloved fingers on her elbow. “What is wrong?”
She made an offhand wave. “Oh, nothing. I think I have a small blister. It will be fine once I sit down.”
“Let me look at it.”
“No, that’s really not necessary — ”
“But it is.” His voice was firm. “If you have a wound, it may become infected. It should be treated as soon as possible. There is a medical kit in the emergency bag, is there not?”
With an air of resignation, she limped over to the little cubbyhole between the two rocks. She eased herself down onto the ground, and watched as the Zhore dropped to his knees, then got out the first aid supplies. Nothing too elaborate, but there were bandages in various sizes, and antiseptic wipes, cold compresses, and a variety of analgesics and antibiotics, all of which were designed for Gaian constitutions. She had no idea whether Lirzhan would even be able to take any of them, should the need arise. The shuttle had been a Gaian craft, outfitted for Gaians, or, in a pinch, Eridanis, whose biology was very similar. Lirzhan had come on the ship at the last minute, with little accommodation for his being there. Then again, it was supposed to be a routine flight. None of this should have been an issue.