Authors: Ann Aguirre
Tags: #Science fiction
I make no response as we climb into the blessedly heated cab. He doesn’t know as much about me as he supposes. I wonder what he’d say if he knew I almost threw everything away—my future with the Corp, my promise as a jumper—for a saxophone player.
Everything feels like it’s on a collision course. No matter what choice I make, somebody loses. In the old days I wouldn’t have cared. Fuck the lot of them; what did they ever do for me? I’d have gotten drunk, flashed my tits, and danced on a table. I’d have thought of nothing but my next jump. For Mary’s sake, these days, I even regret the trouble the exploding Skimmer will cause poor Squid.
There’s something to be said for a man who tunes into your moods like this. He wraps an arm around me and leans his head against mine. Sometimes I sense in him a deep-seated fear. It’s like he wants to hold me so tight I can’t get free, but conversely, he’s afraid of frightening me away with such visceral need.
We ride the rest of the way in silence. I feel a little queasy from the homebrew, or maybe it was the microorganisms in my tea. By the time we climb out in front of headquarters, I’m grateful for the shock of frosty air. Wickville seems farther away than the kilometers we traveled.
I’m not in the mood for love, but I’ll deal with that when the time comes. We’re questioned once by the automated security system. Luckily March remembers the pass codes. To my mind, modern life just offers too many numbers that we’re supposed to keep track of.
The place has been ransacked, well, as much as an impersonal, nearly empty room can be. I don’t
anything. Anyone who doesn’t realize that is dumb as a rock. Correction, March gave me back my PA, 245, which he found at the hostel where Velith took me.
She is literally all I own, and I keep her with me at all times now. Discovering that I’m dead broke makes her all the more valuable. Since she has perfect recall, she’ll make an ideal assistant for an ambassador who needs to get everything just right from customs to mealtime etiquette. Just last night, she asked me to get her a droid frame, so she can better serve in that capacity.
We’ve been assigned to executive quarters, so I have a san-shower in the suite, a vid station, and a customizable sleep unit. The only thing we don’t have is a wardrober, but the Corp was run by a bunch of skinflints. March has his own room on ten, but I don’t imagine he’ll be returning to it. He smiles at me and hangs his things next to my winter gear. It doesn’t take long to set the room to rights, given how little I have in here. Nothing seems to be missing.
Dina sits on my chest while trying to convince someone I’m part of an expensive rug she wants to sell. Vaguely I know this isn’t right. I’m not made of loose threads and badly woven s-wool. Am I? When I wake up, I find myself snuggled against March’s big body while Dina peers into my face. As always, I’m surprised that she smells of flowers.
March is awake now, and thankfully, he heaves over so I can crawl out of bed. Damn, I ache. Guess I’m not as young as I used to be . . . so I can’t fall out of the sky with equanimity. I wish Doc was here. He’d give me a shot of something and say,
You’re fine, Jax. Get out of my med bay.
Maybe she doesn’t think I notice the way she averts her eyes, but I do. In utter exhaustion I fell into bed in my skivvies last night. This morning, she’s caught me in a tank top and shorts, revealing my scars in all their glory. They’re never going to fade entirely. I don’t even want them to, so it’s just as well March can handle them. I’ll never go to a cosmetic surgeon and ask him to burn away the marks.
“Won it,” she answers. This means she hustled someone, the poor bastard. “In a magnificent hand of Pick Five. I spent the night going over it. I’m dog tired now, but she’ll run. And she’s ours. You can rename her when I handle ownership transfer. We’ll just have to pay license and filing fees.”
Since we showered last night, I don’t feel dirty pulling on a fresh jumpsuit, straight from bed. When you don’t have any hair to manage, it’s amazing how fast you can be ready. I just need to wash my face, clean my teeth, and I’ll be set.
She raises a brow at me, and I shrug. He can be unaccountably superstitious for an otherwise reasonable man. Then again, with eyes like his, it wouldn’t matter if he threw the bones before every flight.
Our station beeps, signaling we have a message. Through static and white solar lines, Keri says, “We’ve received ten gigs’ worth of genetic data, and it’s advanced Doc’s research by years. He arrived a week ago, and we’re—”
End message in a snowy gray blur. I suspect something must be the matter with the satellites near Lachion, or we wouldn’t consistently have this problem with messages. Or maybe she was about to say something we weren’t supposedto hear. Unfortunately, I have no ability to judge anymore.
If the Psychs can be trusted—which they can’t—I suffer from borderline paranoid dysfunction. I suspect
of treachery and subversive plots against me. But like the old adage goes:
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
Why, then, do they want to send a half-cracked nut like me off to Ithiss-Tor? That question begs for an answer, but I don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle just yet.
In under half an hour we present ourselves in conference room 7-J again. My hip still hurts, and I have my doubts about this whole endeavor, but when Tarn enters the room, I manage a smile. His expression alters subtly when he takes in my outfit.
March and Dina regard me in silence. I think about all the factors, and in the end, it comes down to one thing. It’s a job that gets me off this rock, at least for a little while. I’ll be jumping again, all expenses paid. Plus, I’ve never been one to back away from a challenge.
I don’t recognize the man who joins us then: medium height, brown hair, average features. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d say his face is some amalgamation of a thousand others I’ve seen, so relentlessly average that I’ve forgotten what he looks like as soon as my gaze shifts away.
I test this three or four times, bemused by it, so I’m distracted when Tarn says, “I believe you already know Velith. He’ll be accompanying you as your cultural liaison. I’m sure I don’t need to stress the importance of internalizing Ithtorian customs to prevent giving insult and destroying our nascent accords. And above all, please take care with your jumps, Sirantha. There may be raiders lurking in highly traveled hot spots.”
“Vel!” Though I know what lurks beneath the human skin, I can’t resist. I leap from my chair and startle him with a hug. I never had the chance to thank him. There’s no question; I wouldn’t be here if not for him.
I’m all but certain Vel isn’t in on it, whatever the Chancellor is plotting. What was the point of saving me if he only meant to take me to his homeworld and get me killed? Logically, it just doesn’t track, and Vel is all about things making sense.
“I wouldn’t touch that ‘vessel’ with a ten-foot pole,” she says, eyes narrowed. If her chin juts out, he’d better run. “We have our own ship, and I trust you’ll approve all necessary expenditures to equip it as the ambassador’s team sees fit.”
Before the veins in Tarn’s forehead explode, March puts in, “We prefer not to trust our fate to those inexperienced with long jump-flights.” Chalk one up for diplomacy. “However well-intentioned they may be. I hope you understand.”
I can’t believe this ambassador stuff works, even on the Chancellor. He’s the one who
me. But I suppose once you claim someone has power, you can’t decry it without making yourself look like a jackass.
If he expected me to be easily controlled, he didn’t pay enough attention to recent history. I don’t owe Chancellor Tarn a damn thing. He wants me to go to Ithiss-Tor and try to persuade the Bugs that it’s in their best interests to join galactic politics. And that means I work for the Conglomerate, a glorified bureaucrat.
Whether it’s best for Ithiss-Tor to join the party, I’m not sure. If they refuse, I’m positive the Conglomerate intends to make an example of them somehow, perhaps to frighten other non-tier worlds into towing the line. Tarn lost sight of one thing, however.
the ship we crashed a couple weeks ago
looked better on the inside than I expected, well, my luck has turned. This vessel looks like something out of old vids; it’s positively ancient. The outside promises a dirty, cramped interior, and I’m not disappointed when I clamber through the hatch.