It’s not easy to tread lightly wearing steel-toed boots.
Sirantha Jax isn’t known for diplomatic finesse. As a “Jumper” who navigates ships through grimspace, she’s used to kicking ass first and taking names later—much later. Not exactly the obvious choice to sell the Conglomerate to the Ithtorians, a people whose opinions of humans are as hard as their exoskeletons.
And Ithiss-Tor council meetings aren’t the only place where Ambassador Jax needs to maneuver carefully. Her lover, March, is frozen in permanent “kill” mode, and his hair-trigger threatens to sabotage the talks—not to mention their relationship.
But Jax won’t give up on the man or the mission. With the Outskirts beleaguered by raiders, pirates, and the flesh-eating Morgut, an alliance with Ithiss-Tor may be humanity’s only hope. Which has Jax wondering why a notorious troublemaker like her was given the job…
The ship cuts through the atmosphere, taking us down.
Below, the spaceport waits, white as bone beneath the pallid sun. From its quiet appearance and weathered exterior, I can tell this is a relic of ancient times. Though the Ithtorians once explored the stars, they do so no longer. They retreated many turns ago and cut off all trade.
It’s my job to change all that.
The structure is shaped like a dome, which opens to admit us. I find that disconcerting, as if we’re being ingested. Our pilot has steady hands, but he’s not an artist like March. Nonetheless, we put down sooner than I’d like.
I’m not ready.
That doesn’t stop me from heading to the exit ramp. My personal crew will meet me there. The rest line up and salute as we pass. They’re mostly clansmen with a few ex-freighter crew who got stuck on Lachion before the war. I don’t know all their names and faces yet; I didn’t spend long enough on board.
We won’t be taking everyone from the Triumph on world. The Bugs would doubtless panic and think they were being invaded. It’s significant that they let us dock here at all. Baby steps before we take a giant leap for mankind.
I find Jael, Hit, Dina, March, and Vel waiting when I arrive. Jael is my bodyguard, and he frankly looks too pretty for the job, unless you stare him in the eyes. That’s when you realize there’s more to this merc than the surface suggests. We all have our secrets, but Jael’s might be the most dangerous. I can think of a dozen different consortiums that would love to get their hands on him and see if they can replicate him.
You see, he’s Bred, a surviving specimen of the Ideal Genome Project. Most of them went mad or died in utero. Damn few survived to adulthood, but Jael has managed to surmount unspeakable odds. And because Tarn pays him, he’s committed to my safety.
So is Constance. Long ago, she was just little silver sphere, owned by Mair Dahlgren, a simple PA unit. Now she’s so much more, and though I wouldn’t admit this to anyone else, she seems to be evolving. With each incarnation, she learns more, extrapolates more, and changes her primary function. Now she’s determined to be the perfect assistant, now that she’s embedded in an ambulatory frame.
At length, Constance finishes her inspection of me and says, “You look most appropriate, Sirantha Jax.”
Hit smothers a grin. She’s a pilot we picked up on Lachion during the last clan war, before they all swore fealty to Gunnar-Dahlgren. She’s tall, slim as a knife, with dusky skin and a pouf of dark, tight curls. She has eyes that shine like a night-hunting cat, and she’s so lethal she can kill somebody with just her pinky.
I’m not kidding about that.
During our last mission, I found out she has a poison hypo in her littlest finger. Hit isn’t someone I want to cross. At one point, she worked for Madame Kang on Gehenna, but when her house fell, her remaining girls scattered, not wanting to die in the coup. She wound up running freight with a merchantman and had the bad luck to be stranded on Lachion when things reached critical mass. Luckily, she’s taken a liking to Dina, and seems committed to our side.
Dina is our ship’s mechanic and gunnery specialist. With those skills, you expect her to be tough as nails, but she’s pretty too with her heart-shaped face and green eyes. Just by looking at her, you’d never know she’s a princess in exile. She can never return to Tarnus. Her family is long gone; she’s the last of the royal line.
We didn’t get along at first. She blamed me for the loss of her last lover, Edaine. It wasn’t really my fault, but they didn’t have too many options when they came to break me out of the prison on Perlas Station. Edaine made her last jump saving me, and that’s a navigator’s lot.
Unless you’re like me. I’ve made so many jumps at this point that I’m not sure I believe burnout for myself anymore. Something always drags me back from the brink.
Or someone, like March.
I gaze at him for a few seconds. He doesn’t respond or glance my way. Ice blazes in his eyes like bits of amber. We’re all standing too close to him for our own good. As well as my pilot, he used to be my lover, and maybe he will be again. I have to hold onto that or everything else seems meaningless.
Well, almost everything. If I lose March over what he did on Lachion, I’ll still have Vel. The Ithtorian bounty hunter once tracked me across the galaxy; now I couldn’t ask for a better friend. In this mission, he’s our not-so-secret weapon. Unlike any delegation before us, we have an Ithtorian to guide us and prevent us from making catastrophic mistakes. If we succeed here, it will be because of Vel.
As I’ve been studying them, they’ve been checking me out. A few of them smirk at the sight of me in the ceremonial robe I swore I’d never wear. My jaw clenches.
Dina clears her throat. “We good to go?”
Tapping the exit panel, I answer, “Let’s do it.”
There’s a Bug escort waiting for us at the bottom of the ramp. They look militant, but not hostile. Vel deals with them and confirms they’re supposed to convey us to the formal reception. That gives me ample time to fret.
I’d say I have butterflies in my stomach, but with my luck, the Ithtorian delegate would overhear, and it would be mistranslated to mean I’ve eaten some sacred planetary flora. And then I’ll ruin everything before it’s begun.
Actually, that’s not fair. Since Vel functions as my translator, he’d never make such a mistake. That thought is just a manifestation of my fear something will go wrong.
I surreptitiously swipe my palms against the sides of the stupid gold robe. So far, so good, but I’d be lying if I claimed not to be nervous as hell. Never has so much weight rested on my shoulders.
Dina, Hit, Jael and March stand at my back, a silent honor guard. Doc stayed on board the ship with Rose to work on some data he received from Keri on Lachion. Vel stands on one side of me, ready to interpret. On my left I have Constance, who looks almost prim in her black suit. I hope I don’t make any terrible mistakes here.
The chamber where the Ithtorian council has received us defies my expectations regarding alien aesthetic sensibilities. Instead of inert furnishings or fabric on the floors, everything appears to be…alive. Chairs are dense, cultivated shrubberies with petal-soft leaves; I run my fingers along the ‘arm’ and enjoy a purely sensual shiver.
I’ve never stood inside a room that felt like a living entity before, but I’m conscious of a gentle pulse all around us, almost like a heartbeat. So much greenery, splashed with crimson, cream, apricot, azure. It’s intoxicating.
With some effort, I pull my attention back to the Ithtorian councilman. His markings are different from Vel’s, brighter and more varied. Slashes of yellow and orange cross his thorax, but I’m not sure what it means, whether it’s a natural display or an artificial one that bespeaks status. I make a mental note to ask Vel.
Though I can’t yet tell by physical appearance, Sharis is male. Vel explained Ithtorian naming conventions to me, so I understand that the prefix “Il” means “son of” whereas “Ib” means “daughter of.” They trace their lineage through the maternal, so whoever laid their egg provides the family name. Thus, Vel is the son of a politician named Nok.
Sharis Il-Wan is speaking now, his gestures strange and measured. I watch his mandible, but I can’t read him as I do Vel. The bounty hunter who first stalked me and then saved my life, more times than I can count at this point, considers for a moment before he begins the translation.
“Sharis bids you welcome to Ithiss-Tor,” Vel says. “And hopes you are cognizant of the honor, for they have not permitted an outworld ship to dock in two hundred turns.”
Though I’ve practiced for this occasion, I feel my hands trembling as I construct a proper response. “The Conglomerate is honored by your hospitality and looks forward to shaping a new accord between our people.”
As Vel relays my words, I fret over them. Is what I said enough? Too much? Doubt ferments inside me like tainted wine. Fortunately, I don’t have to wait long for Il-Wan’s response.
“Well-spoken,” Sharis says, via Vel’s translation. “It would gratify me if you would consent to accompany me to the banquet hall. We have researched your preferences and are confident you will find a number of palatable dishes.”
I’m not sure whether he means me specifically or humanity in general. Nevertheless, I nod. “It would be my pleasure.”
Sharis leads the way along a bio-engineered hallway. As best I can tell, the entire building is alive, and it’s been sculpted to its current dimensions. Movement catches my eye and I just catch a tiny creature scuttling back into the wall. I pause long enough to take stock, realizing that the structure is hollow, more like a honeycomb than any building I’ve ever seen.
“It’s taking care of maintenance,” Vel reminds me.
I remember then: he told me about them during our long cram sessions aboard the Lachion ship. The Ithtorians have developed a part organic, part machine intelligence that’s constantly improving and renovating their surroundings behind the scenes. I’d be a little suspicious of such a convenience, waiting for the little bugs turn on the big ones, but then I’m always looking out for a knife in the back.
Behind us, my entourage follows in neat pairs: Vel and Constance, Dina and Hit, Jael and March. My lover worries me. He’s not the man I fell in love with anymore; there’s darkness and a coldness in him that burns like ice pressed too long against naked skin. I can’t touch him without sparking some brutal retaliation… it’s like his nerves are wound too tight.
There’s precious little gentleness left in him. All that remains is the cold, competent killer. Perhaps I should be grateful he came back to me at all. He could have walked away, taken up his old life as a merc without ever looking back. Earlier, he said he remembered loving me, but he couldn’t feel it anymore.
That hurts in ways I can’t allow myself to think about. Once I get past this initial contact, I’ll let myself consider the problem. Try to find a solution. But I can’t fret about personal matters right now. I was serious when I said I meant to give this ambassador thing my all, no matter how much the Syndicate—and my mother—wants me to fail.
I still have a hard time crediting the truth. My mother runs the Syndicate, the single largest organized crime collective in the galaxy: bookmaking and gambling, loansharking, prostitution, chem, weapons, murder for hire, extortion, protection rackets, smuggling of goods and slaves—nothing is too dirty for her, as long as it promises to make a buck. Worse, she’s not above fomenting an interstellar conflict to improve her bottom line.
Vel and Constance give me courage with their proximity. The Ithtorian councilman looks neither left, nor right as we pass through a series of latticed archways, and then into a wide, almost cavernous chamber filled with Bugs. It’s insulting; I shouldn’t think of them that way, but I can’t help it. As long as I don’t speak the designation out loud, we should be golden.
At first, they all look alike to me, but as Sharis speaks and Vel listens, preparing to translate, I notice differences in eye placement and width of mandible. Some have colors on the tips of their claws, and others wear stripes on their thorax. Constance leans forward and begins imparting information about their social status, based on the placement and hue of their markings.
With Constance’s help, I locate the female Ithtorian who’s in charge of …well, pretty much everything. She’s tall and lean, even for an Ithtorian, and her claws are tipped with red. She also wears six xanthric stripes in a diagonal across her thorax. There’s nobody else on planet with those stripes; they’re akin to a general’s bars, except the Ithorian’s uniform has been permanently integrated into her chitin.
Vel tells me her title translates best as Grand Administrator, but I get the feeling that designation doesn’t encompass the nuances of her real power. She’s surrounded by an entourage of lower ranking Ithtorians; they ring her in a half-circle, either for protection or sycophantic purposes. Possibly some enterprising males combine the two. In human terms, she’s along the lines of a chancellor, but she can’t veto the council after they voted to hear us out. That has to rankle.
From across the room, Grand Administrator Otlili Ib-Ekei returns my regard. I wouldn’t call her look warm either. By the cant of her mandible, she belongs to—or sympathizes with—the opposition party. Vel warned me about our enemies on the ship. The Opposition Party—OP—would like nothing more than to enslave the whole delegation and send us to work in a barbaric prison facility reserved for violent criminals and the incurably insane. Based on past interactions, Ithtorians reckon humanity as both the former and the latter.
Well, it doesn’t matter what they think. If I fail here, the Morgut will grow in strength and audacity. A shiver rolls through me, remembering the carnage on Emry Station. That little girl spent countless hours, entombed in their webs. If the eggs had hatched, they would have sucked all the nutrients from her living body and left her a withered husk. The worst part? Mature Morgut are worse.
A touch on my shoulder draws my gaze, pulling me out of reverie. “Vel is ready to begin,” Constance tells me.
The bounty confirms with an abbreviated nod, another human gesture that sits oddly on him in his natural form. “Sharis bids you welcome to the feast convened in your honor. The most important members of the Ithtorian government have been invited to share this auspicious occasion, which marks a new chapter in Ithtorian – human diplomacy. We are confident you will be pleased with both the menu and entertainment, as our human preferences committee has devoted many hours to the planning.”
Boiled down? Hi, welcome to our world. Enjoy the food and the show.When they wheel out a table that has to be six meters long if it’s a centimeter, full of strange, scary dishes—the contents of several which appear to be writhing—I decide that might be easier said than done.