I don’t mind telling you that the trip north was my dark night of the soul. Firth had been an echo, as convincing an imitation of a human being as I’d ever seen, and now my only companion—if you could call her that—was a voice in the cockpit of the field buggy. And I was letting her play me for the biggest sucker on the planet Citheron if she was nothing but a high tech gadget with a will to survive.
Suddenly those meteorite strikes were sounding a lot closer. But at least I would get to satisfy my curiosity because I had dodged all of them, and suddenly there it was—the PFK-480 sticking out of the crater wall like a silver plate.
I could tell that the ports were out of commission, so I made my presence known the old fashioned way, by knocking on the door. Well, there was one difference. I did my knocking with Firth’s signal gun.
The door slid open, but I didn’t like what I was hearing.
Then Serena spoke. “Lieutenant Bowman. Have you come to rescue me or to kill me?”
So casual, as if I had walked over from a party next door. She had green eyes, those cool green eyes of a Citherian. She also had a degaussing coil capable of erasing my brainwaves at the source. She was tall and willowy, almost ethereal, and those green eyes of hers seemed to light up the dim bridge of the 480.
I looked into those green eyes. “Let’s just say I’m looking out for number one, Serena. Is there a Daulian courtesy title I should use?”
“Under more formal circumstances,” she said, “Ambassador would be correct, but we seem to find ourselves in an informal situation. Won’t you come in?”
She had quite a place. I’ve been in a 440 and a 460, but I’d say the 480 is quite a step up in comfort and convenience.
She followed me with the degauzssng gun. “Where’s Commander Firth?
“He couldn’t make it,” I said. “Got too far from his power base. Now he’s a little gray cloud floating across the sector.”
I listened to the ceiling rattle under the impact of a meteor before asking why she was on the vessel.
“Lieutenant,” she said, “we have no contact beyond this meteor field, so I can be quite candid. I am the Daulian ambassador to the Gramlings.”
“I’ve never heard of a Daulian ambassador to the Gramlings.”
“That’s because I’m the first.”
“How did the Daulian parliament ever make up their minds to appoint one?”
I was watching her all the while for some little word or mannerism that would give her away, but every gesture, every look, every inflection of her voice, struck me as human—or Citherian at least. And those radiant green eyes, always green, gave away nothing. She looked amused. “They can set aside their differences and come to an agreement if the issue is important enough.”
“But the parliament still deadlocked over supporting our search when you went down.”
“They didn’t know I was aboard and, after all, this is still Daulia.”
“So earth intel decided to do all the heavy lifting, largely because they don’t want their 480 to fall into the wrong hands.”
“Which, as you can see, is no longer an issue.”
I didn’t have to look hard at the screens on the console have gone into a total meltdown. The controls are fused together.
“You did this?”
“While the others were reconnoitering.”
“Well, you know your stuff.”
“The only thing remaining intact is the voice channel. Scrambled, of course, and so of no use to the Holloi.”
“But what about you? What would the Holloi or the Gramlings gain from capturing you?”
“It won’t be the Gramlings.”
I heard a long whistle, its pitch lowering to a growl. The strike was distant. I never heard the impact.
“Why wouldn’t it be the Gramlings? They’ve been at war with Daulia for as long anyone can remember.”
She seemed to look down her nose at me. I thought I saw a glint of color change in her eyes, but it passed. “And that’s why I was up here on this secret mission,” she said. “It was a peace initiative between Daulia and the Gramlings. Our peoples are at peace for the first time in thirteen generations, or they will be as soon as I make my report to the parliament.”
“Leaving the Holloi out in the cold. Suddenly there’s a lot more than a 480 at stake. It’s the whole balance of power. That explains the echo. Earth intel wanted to be sure the deal went through, even if the real Serena Yuri didn’t go along with it for some reason. What really happened to that recon party?”
A small one broke up overhead. A shower of small stuff clattered onto the shell of the ship.
“I have no way of knowing,” Serena said. “I simply lost contact. Isn’t a meteor strike most likely?”
“But what if they were taken by the Holloi? If the Holloi are out there, we can’t just hunker down here and wait out the Sagitids. We’ll be sitting ducks, and I for one have no desire to spend the rest of my life—short as it will probably be—in the hands of the Holloi.”
Next: Episode 10–“A Decision for Both of Us”