Shards Of Loyalty

Embassy Book Three

ONE

Close Encounter

There are several important things to know about wearing a formal suit in free-fall. If you wear a tie, use a tie clip and wear it ten centimeters lower than fashion dictates, otherwise the end of your tie floats up and gets in your face. Rock climbing shoes are preferred over dress shoes. They provide better grip, don’t have sharp corners, and won’t leave black marks when pushing off of floors, walls, or ceilings. Formal jackets will bunch up into your armpits unless a skilled tailor applies some modifications borrowed from corset design. And it should go without saying that pants are preferred to skirts.

I had all of that, including the skilled tailor, but it didn’t do anything for the nausea. It still threatened to cripple me every time I floated in microgravity. I was determined to make it through this trip without puking, no Promethazine injections or Dramamine pills. It was a matter of personal pride. And this would probably be my last chance to get it right.

But I still kept a barf bag tucked in the back of my waistband.

Fay, lying on her back next to me as we pulled two Gs, turned her head and flashed a bright grin. “Almost there, Ambassador!” she yelled as the roar of the engines began to taper off. Her halo of ebony curls decompressed as gravity relaxed its hold.I swallowed. The transition to weightlessness was hard, which made it only slightly worse than everything else about zero-G. I didn’t have anything to do but feel myself get lighter and keep my stomach from trying to climb up my throat. At least my security detail was kind enough to try to distract me.

Angelo, on the other side of me, said “No one’s going to hold back this time.” I suspect he said it with a determined smile, but I didn’t turn to look. It would’ve made my head swim.

It was humbling to have two highly trained soldiers who put my personal safety above my own. Fay and Angelo were good people to be around, both professionally and personally, and I was glad they were on my side if things went to hell.

The G-counter on the wall hit zero and a buzzer sounded.

Fay and Angelo were up before I could swallow. Fay made a fist with her first and pinkie fingers pointing at what had been the ceiling, but was now just another wall. We were developing tactical hand signals for zero-gravity combat and she had told us where our team’s “down” was and that we should to orient to it. The attackers had tended to keep their “down” the same as it had been when we were under acceleration. Fay’s hope was that using a different orientation might confuse them.

Fay and Angelo were both stronger, more agile, and unencumbered by corset-like suits, so they helped me face in the right direction. We paused to listen for a moment and heard the attacking team move toward us through the maze of beams and partitions.

Fay didn’t hesitate, just pushed off and flew to our left. Angelo waited for me to follow, which I did, more or less. As I flew unguided through the air, I felt his hand on my ankle refining my trajectory.

Ahead I saw Fay grab a beam as she passed, using it as a pivot. She brought her feet forward, turned a corner, and let go, disappearing behind a partition. She didn’t even glance to see if we were following. She knew.

Fay Kibebe’s given name was Titi, which was fine where she grew up in Addis Ababa but had caused regrettable tittering among some of the more juvenile English speakers during role call. After a year of trying to find a less troublesome nickname, someone noticed she moved like a fairy in zero-G, and the name stuck.

Angelo Guinto was no angel, but he had been the middleweight boxing champion in the Philippine navy. His shaved head, stocky build, and conservative movements made him the opposite of Fay but no less nimble in flight. He gave me a gentle push in the back, right at my center of gravity so I wouldn’t start spinning. “Keep moving,” he muttered, reminding me of my primary instruction. It all boiled down to basic physics: objects in motion tended to stay in motion. Once you stopped, you were a sitting—or floating—duck. Close-quarters combat in microgravity was about keeping your own velocity high while reducing that of your enemy.

I caught the beam and swung around the corner after Fay. I managed to remember to pull in my legs to rotate faster, but I let go late and bounced off a partition, killing much of my momentum and sending me tumbling.

Behind me Angelo grabbed the concealed handle on the back of my jacket, sewn there just for such use, arrested my spin, and hauled me along after him.

All of this upset my inner ear, which registered its displeasure with my esophagus. I headed off the complaints before they went any further. Last time I missed the barf bag in zero-G, they made me clean the entire craft by myself.

“Tallyho!” yelled Fay, out of sight ahead. She had sighted the enemy and decided it was time to break silence. This this was Fay, it also told us she was up to something.

A second later she came flying from between two partitions, on a collision course. She had one arm in front of her, like Superman. Recognizing the gesture, I made a loop out of my arm, and felt Angelo pull in close behind me. It was a bit intimate for a second, but the three of us had gotten used to a lot of physical contact through our training. It was the only way to be effective in free-fall. Our practice had nearly turned us into a gymnastics troupe. At least they were gymnasts; I was more like a piece of gymnastics equipment.

My heart raced. Fay was trying a maneuver we’d only done successfully in practice. More often than not, we ended up in a floating tangle. But if this was to be my last flight, she’d see that it was worth talking about. She slid her arm into mine and the three of us spun. “Move forward,” she murmured as the three of us turned, Angelo and I providing mass for her pivot. When Fay was facing the way she had come from, she let go and flew feet first at more than twice her previous velocity, directly toward the head of a startled soldier who had just come around the corner.

The momentum exchange left Angelo and I spinning, drifting toward the back wall. Angelo timed it so pushing me forward would push him backward into the wall, where he could get stable again.

His aim was good, but my reactions were poor. I bounced off a bulkhead and grabbed a passing handhold to stop myself until I decided which way was forward. Which was pretty much the opposite of what I was supposed to do.

I caught a glimpse of someone’s legs, one of the attackers, a few meters away as they passed an intersection, headed aft. I heard two bodies colliding not far away. Fay let out a yell in that direction. Angelo let out another one in the opposite direction. They were trying to draw the enemy to them. Away from me.

I pushed off and swung around the corner, headed away from both of them. Right into the path of another attacker.

It was pure luck that I hit her legs with my feet, sending her spinning backwards. She bent and scrabbled for a handhold on me. I swept an arm to keep her away and then pushed off again. I wasn’t supposed to engage, just get clear. Fay or Angelo would be following behind to deal with her. Hopefully.

If Fay, Angelo, and I had each encountered one of the opposition, that meant there were two left. It was five against three. It wasn’t wasn’t fair, but what fun would that be, for either side?

It only took me a few seconds to find the last two. They were between me and freedom. I managed to grab a handhold to keep from sailing right into their grasp.

We squared off, upside down to each other. They weren’t inclined to move, and there was no way I could get past both of them. I was just a diplomat, while they were trained soldiers. Just above their heads a timer counted down. Twelve seconds.

I stood my ground. There was nowhere else to go. I considered my chances. They knew I wasn’t much of a physical danger, but I knew they didn’t dare use too much force on me. Then again, they knew several dozen ways to non-lethally subdue me.

The timer counted down the seconds, and I tried not to give into defeat. I was breathing fast and my stomach was looking for an exit.

At six seconds their expressions changed.

“It’s all yours, Ambassador!” Fay yelled as she came past me like a missile aimed at the guard on my left. Angelo followed, below and to my right. Wrapped around his legs was the soldier I’d encountered earlier.

The opposition scrambled to dodge three hundred kilograms of approaching people.

I kicked out and pushed off awkwardly, sailing across the gap, my aim not particularly good.

Five soldiers struggled to restrain each other. My shoulder hit the edge of a partition and someone brushed my ankle but couldn’t find a grip. I grabbed the threshold and pulled myself through.

The timer hit zero and a buzzer sounded.

I turned to see Fay and Angelo disengage from the attackers who had overwhelmed them. Fay gave a whoop; Angelo laughed. I gave a broad grin. I didn’t think my stomach would let me cheer until gravity returned. One of the opposition applauded our accomplishment, shaking his head. The other two were less happy about their failure but were too busy untangling themselves to complain. Back in the maze someone asked, “Did he make it?”

“He made it!” yelled Fay.

“Aww.”

A chime sounded, and our celebration ended. Gravity was coming back. Angelo pushed himself to me and placed a hand on my ankle, orienting me so I’d be prone as gravity returned. Fay was distracted by something outside the window.

The chime repeated and gravity started to return as our zero-G training jet pulled out of its last dive and the floor started to come at us. G-Force One flew thirty parabolas on a standard two-hour training flight simulating a minute of weightlessness on each parabola. After climbing steeply, it essentially threw its passengers into the air at the top, flying around us as we fell and catching us at the bottom so it could do it again. The ECOOSec forces trained at least once a week on G-Force One. I used my privilege as acting Earth Ambassador (while I still had it) to come along and try to conquer some of my issues with weightlessness. Fay and Angelo were happy to put up with me, giving me a lot of useful training.

Fay was not happy at the moment. The smile had gone and her face was drawn as she pivoted on a handhold, letting the returning gravity point her feet the right way. “Benjamin, what is that?” she asked.

I’d never seen the blood go out of someone’s face before. Fay’s dark skin had gone ash, her eyes wide in the glittering light outside the window. I thought it must be the typical hazy sun over the ocean until I realized the sun was on the other side of the plane.

Gravity was increasing as I pushed off the floor and stumbled to the window. The engines strained as they pulled us out of the dive that kept us from plummeting into the Pacific a hundred kilometers west of San Francisco. Angelo tagged along behind, keeping an eye on me. I had a knee that was technically still healing, and he was more sensitive about it than I was.

I grabbed a handle by the window just to catch my balance, but what I saw made me hold tight.

There was another sun. Not as bright, but growing steadily, already painful to look at.

Shading the glare with my free hand, I could see shockwaves rippling off of it. It was much closer than the sun; it was ripping through the atmosphere. It wasn’t drifting to the right or left. It was heading right toward us. And it was bigger than anything I’d ever seen move.

A klaxon blared inside of G-Force One and the world tilted as we made an evasive maneuver. How we could evade anything that size, I didn’t know.

I held on to both handholds, trying to keep the enormous thing in sight, burning it into my retinas. It was brighter than the sun now and still growing. The jet’s engines strained beyond anything I’d heard before, and the fuselage made an ominous creaking as we continued the hard turn.

I closed my eyes, but it wasn’t enough. I burrowed my face in my arm and could still feel its heat. Beneath the howling of the engines and the popping of the fuselage, someone was praying.

And then the heat faded. I carefully pulled my arm away from my face and blinked away the purple spots.

The second sun wasn’t gone—it was on the other side of the sky and diminishing.

I collapsed to the floor with relief, drenched in fresh sweat. The worst was over.

Then the pilot came over the PA and asked us to strap in and brace for the shockwave.

TWO

A Visitor

I did eventually puke on that flight, but it was from the violent turbulence caused by the shockwave, not microgravity, so I didn’t count it against myself. We lost power in one engine and flight control in the rudder but stayed in the sky due in equal parts to our top notch pilots and G-Force One’s reinforced fuselage. We limped back to The Embassy, and forty-five minutes later we landed smoothly at Starport One’s main runway. Everyone on board took the time to shake the hands of the flight crew, who looked more relieved than we were. I gave Fay and Angelo the rest of the morning off; I wouldn’t need them where I was headed.

Which was, of course, to a meeting. Because in an organization like ECOO (Pronounced “echo,” but spelled “Extraterrestrial Contact and Outreach Organization”), that’s how you stop airplanes from falling out of the sky.

And airplanes had fallen out of the sky, though I wasn’t sure how many. The fireball had passed directly over the busy flight corridor of the Bay Area, headed east, and plenty of flights had been closer than G-Force One. All air traffic in North America was in the process of being grounded. I saw an ominous plume of black smoke rising in the direction of Mount Diablo and another toward Fremont.

A car met me on the apron and sped me to Building Two, where The Embassy’s senior staff had collected for an emergency meeting. I would have loved a chance to shower off the panic sweat and put on some real shoes, but all I had time for was running my fingers through my hair and moving my tie clip up to its more fashionable spot.

I jogged to the big meeting room on the second floor and found it packed with people: the heads of every department and subdepartment, plus as many of their assistants as they could find room for. We should have gotten an auditorium.

The round form of Secretary-General Nicklas Selke was sitting at the head of the table, swabbing the sweat off his forehead with a sodden handkerchief. Behind him was a display of data being assembled by various specialists. Covering most of it was a map of the United States with a line running from San Francisco to just below New York City. There were also several numbers. Flights Missing: 46. Flights Confirmed Down: 19. Estimated Deaths: 4,185. Confirmed Deaths: 0.

That last number was because there hadn’t been time to confirm any dead yet, and first responders were saving the living, not counting the dead. Most of those numbers would certainly increase.

On the other end of the room was a collage of live video feeds showing smoking craters that used to be airliners and crowds of bloody, lacerated people getting first-aid. Most windows and skylights underneath the flight path had disintegrated, showering people with shards. It was all the worse because the bright light drew people to windows before shattering in their faces. The only reason ECOO buildings still had glass was because they were adjacent to Starport One and had been built to withstand sonic booms.

Secretary-General Selke was listening to a report from the Press Office, which seemed to be the primary source of the information on the wall. He glanced at me long enough to acknowledge my existence then swabbed his head again.

My role at any ECOO meeting was awkward. As the Earth Ambassador, I was the ultimate diplomatic head of Earth. But I was the Acting Earth Ambassador, and the Acting part made it delicate. I would have to give up the position when ECOO’s legislative branch, the Earth Nations Council, selected a permanent ambassador. They’d been trying to do so for six months, but they were finally in the home stretch. While I was technically the head diplomat in charge of extraterrestrial relations, everyone knew I was on my way out. The Secretary-General made it a point to regularly remind me to not do anything to cause trouble. Or do anything at all, really.

But the Earth Ambassador was supposed to preside over diplomatic crises like this, so there was an empty spot at the head of the table for me. Deputy Secretary-General Elena Zolotov was to my left. She had been doing double duty as my deputy ambassador since I had been promoted. The diplomatic section was still chronically understaffed, mostly because I wasn’t allowed to do anything about it.

I greeted her, sat, and closed my eyes to calm myself. The exertion of training and the terror of the flight home combined to make me a bit shaky. I placed my palms on the table, pressed them to it, and took a deep breath.

It didn’t work. I could still see afterimages burned into my retinas, and it brought everything back.

I opened my eyes and noticed a steaming cup of tea waiting for me, which was a surprise. My assistant had turned out to be even more temporary than my ambassadorship. He’d quit the day before. I tried not to take it personally; not everyone could deal well with Extras. I surveyed the room and found the likely culprit. Zoey Malloy was sitting at the far end of the conference table with the rest of the ECOOSec contingent. She was thriving in her new position as Security Strategist, though I still didn’t know what the title meant. She gave me a little smile and a nod of confidence. I returned it, discreetly. Now that she was no longer my subordinate, our relationship was public knowledge. But we tried to keep things professional at the office.

Rather than be a distraction, she was a huge aid to my focus. Or maybe my sense of direction. With her around, I always knew what ECOO was for and why I put up with endless meetings. It was about doing everything possible to keep Earth safe.

I sipped the tea and took a moment to appreciate that it was hot and strong but not bitter. Just the way I liked it. I took a minute to flip through my tablet, skim through what we knew so far. While the Press Office finished its report, the number of downed planes jumped by five. The estimated casualties by more than 1,500, as reports came in of an airliner cartwheeling through a housing development outside of Denver.

Selke turned to me. “Ambassador Taylor, I have the President of the United States on hold, waiting to address the nation. Why would Extras attack us like this?”

“I’ll need some more information. Who do we think is responsible? And what actually happened?” None of this was in the notes.

Such a clueless response didn’t engender confidence. I felt an exasperated sigh go around the room.

“You were very close to it, were you not?” asked Dr. Henri Savin, head of Research & Development.

“Too close,” I said. “All I saw was something very big, brighter than the sun, and traveling very fast. Mister Grolke, where did it come from?”

Bruno Grolke was the head of Orbital Surveillance and he had a stutter that he worked hard to suppress. He took over a wall display on the other end of the conference room and started putting images on it. “These are photos of the Aries mothership from early this morning, before it moved,” he said. The ship looked like the creation of a watchmaker who had become obsessed with shellfish. Its silvery, organic shape was covered with baroque detail well beyond what the camera could see. The scale on the bottom showed it was more than a kilometer across.

Grolke worked his way through what he knew. Aries was one of the forty-eight ships that had shown up with little explanation three years ago. They were all given temporary names based on the constellation they had first been observed in. It wasn’t until after we started talking with them that they would tell us what they wanted to be called. Aries still had its original name because we hadn’t communicated with them yet, but it looked like a serious conversation was overdue.

Early that morning the Aries ship, as big as a dozen aircraft carriers, had descended from high orbit to just twenty kilometers altitude. Moving at 70,000 kilometers per hour it had traveled from California to Virginia in three and a half minutes, searing a fiery gouge in the atmosphere, disrupting everything in its wake. Three hundred kilometers over the Atlantic, it had vanished.

“That seems more like a ship in distress than an attack. Did something knock it out of orbit?” I asked.

“I, uh, don’t think so,” Grolke said and paused to place some graphs and maps on the wall, showing the ship’s trajectory. “It accelerated smoothly and seemed to be fully in control the entire time. Once it reached approximately twenty-two kilometers above sea level, it maintained that altitude until its disappearance, despite the curvature of the Earth.”

“There’s also the choice of trajectory, Ambassador,” said Sir Hugo Rookwood, head of Security. He gestured to one of his people, who cleared her throat.

“It passed directly over ECOO headquarters—I mean directly over,” she said. “Like within meters of the center of the campus. And it was razor straight across the country, passing through the region where we traced those abnormalities.” She was referring to two small—well, we didn’t know what they were. They could have been ships, shuttles, probes, or simply garbage. They’d been small, less than a cubic meter, and we hadn’t been able to track them well. They’d broken off of the Aries ship and come down separately, somewhere in the central East Coast, three and four weeks ago.

“Sounds deliberate,” I admitted.

“Could they have been picking up their probes?” Elena Zolotov asked. Despite being assigned by Selke to keep an eye on me, Zolotov was an excellent junior ambassador. I knew; I’d done the job for a year and she was better than I had been. If she preferred diplomacy to politics, she could’ve had my job permanently.

A lot of looks passed around the room, but no one said anything until Dr. Savin threw up his hands and said, “Anything is possible,” in his viscous French accent. Several people, including me, suppressed groans. It had become his trademark phrase, thrown out whenever he was afraid to say “I don’t know.”

“Flying directly over our heads sounds like a message to me,” I said. “Were they broadcasting anything?”

After a pause, another specialist leaned forward. “Not that we could tell. The passage was incredibly energetic. The ball of plasma generated a ton of radio noise. Any broadcasts would need to be very powerful. But we’ll try analyzing the samples we have.”

The researcher next to her swallowed so loudly that everyone in the room looked at him. When he realized he was the subject of such attention, he looked even more scared.

“Well, there was a gamma-ray burst,” he said.

I muttered something vulgar. I’d been exposed to enough hard radiation for a lifetime. Several lifetimes, really. Enough that I opted for the pat-down when going through airport security. If we’d all been irradiated by the passage of that ship…

“How bad?” I asked.

The researcher swallowed again and poked at his tablet for a bit, but Dr. Savin was able to come up with an answer first. “Not large,” he said. “It was enough for the Gamma Ray Observatory to register, but less than ten millisievert for anyone on the ground. It coincided with the moment it disappeared.”

“If this isn’t a message, then what is it?” I asked the room in general. I got a few blank looks, and a few people broke off into private conversations. Others gave their attention to their tablets and mobiles. Sir Hugo took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“The President…” said Selke. His way of asking where I was going with this, so he could get on with his day.

There was tension at every meeting of ECOO heads since former Ambassador Ling had been caught plotting to nuke one of the Extra motherships. Her conspiracy had spiritually gutted the organization and we were all angry and scared. I’d managed to keep her plot from leading to fatal repercussions for Earth, but I’d gone well past my diplomatic authority to do so, and Secretary-General Selke still resented me for it. And of course, I resented him for resenting me.

Adding the current emergency on top of that tension pushed my politeness to the breaking point and I snapped. “Everyone here wants to know why this happened,” I barked at the Secretary-General. “If the President wants a solid answer, we can’t give him one. Not yet. It’s not like we can ask them. The perpetrators have disappeared.”

The room was silent as everyone held their breath.

Everyone but Bruno Grolke, who was looking at his tablet while uttering a sustained, “Uh…”

“Mister Grolke?” I prompted.

He spent a second double-checking something before putting new images up on the screen. “The ship’s back, I think,” he said. “Or maybe a copy. It’s in the same orbit where it was this morning.” The new images showed the intricate shell shape of the Aries ship with an overlay indicating it was a live view. A polar map showed it in its previous location in high orbit, evenly spaced between two of the other forty-seven ships.

“Is it the same ship or a new one?” Zolotov asked.

“I—I don’t know,” Grolke admitted. “It looks like the same one, at least superficially, but it might be a different ship of the same model.”

“If it’s the same one, where has it been for the last two hours?” someone muttered.

“Did we see it return?” Zolotov asked.

Grolke swallowed. “No, when it left we retargeted the satellite.”

Sir Hugo pinched the bridge of his nose and reddened a bit, but he didn’t say anything.

Grolke’s assistant showed him something on her tablet.

“Uh, sir! It’s launched a pair of small craft.”

“For god’s sake, don’t lose track of them this time,” Sir Hugo muttered, sliding his glasses back over his ears.

One was on a similar trajectory to the first two, descending somewhere on the East Coast. But the other one was going somewhere new. It headed straight for The Embassy.

THREE

Important Call

The ship—if it was indeed a ship—took form as it descended smoothly from the sky. No fiery plunge through the atmosphere this time. Video and audio were fed down from the landing field to the shelter under Building Two, a relic from when the facility was a Cold War military base. It resolved from a pinpoint to a stretched raindrop as it slowed above Starport One’s quiet runways. As it touched the concrete, there was a solid ping, like a sledgehammer striking steel.

The burnished copper tadpole stood on its tail, two meters high, half that at its widest. As we watched, it leaned forward and started to move. Behind me the Secretary-General was having a murmured conversation with the White House, who shared the video feed. Even though nonessential personnel had been evacuated, the bunker was packed with tense faces in quiet conversations.

The probe accelerated smoothly across the tarmac, heading toward the building we were huddled under.

As it approached, I had an argument via video conference with Sir Hugo in his bunker under Building Four. Sir Hugo kept asking me to categorize the severity of the threat, and I wouldn’t even commit to it being a threat. Extras were so powerful that you knew they didn’t want you dead by the simple fact that you were still alive.

But I understood Sir Hugo’s concern. This was a race we had never talked with. Our only baseline for predicting their behavior was the path of fiery death they had cut across the continent.This probe—or whatever it was—had behaved well all the way from its mothership. It slowed as it entered the atmosphere, passing without leaving a trail of destruction. I felt it wasn’t a threat. But how many lives should I bet on my feeling?

Microphones on the observation cameras amplified the sound as it moved across the airfield, a metallic clank of steel rolling across concrete. It didn’t appear to have any moving parts and I wasn’t even certain it was touching the ground. As it moved closer to the cameras, fine features became visible, echoing the design of the mothership. Mechanical shapes beneath an intricately detailed, translucent shell.

It came to a smooth stop about fifty meters from the back door to Building Two and pivoted in a slow circle, scanning the area.

A buzzing metallic voice came from it. “This is a communicator of the Central Colony. It is wished that communications are opened between us,” it said.

That provoked another meeting. Or, more accurately, an argument. The end result was ECOO’s most disposable diplomat (me) would go and talk to the Central Colony communicator, which had been sitting outside repeating itself for the hour it took for us to reach a consensus.

I stepped outside the back exit of Building Two with Fay and Angelo. More for emotional security than physical. I didn’t want to face it alone. First contact tended to be rough, and all signs said this would be rougher than most.

It was a sunny October day on San Francisco Bay which meant a brisk wind pulled the heat out of everything. Sirens echoed and Coast Guard helicopters rumbled in the distance as they worked search and rescue. To the west, the morning fog had burned back revealing the Golden Gate Bridge. To the east, beyond Mount Diablo, black smoke still poured into the sky. The normal buzz of the Embassy was missing as everyone had gone home or into shelters. An appropriately surreal setting for meeting a new Extra.

I strode across the cement apron toward the Central Colony communications device and stopped about five paces away. “I am Benjamin Taylor, Acting Earth Ambassador. We welcome you to our planet. Please respond if you hear and understand me.” I added that last bit since I had once talked to an Extra for half an hour before I realized that even though it spoke English perfectly, it couldn’t hear.

The communicator stood motionless on its narrow end, unaffected by the breeze. “We recognize your welcome, Benjamin Taylor, Acting Earth Ambassador.” It had a gender-neutral voice that hissed with distortion, like it was at the end of an old telephone or AM radio. “This is a communicator for the Central Colony. It is wished that communications are opened between us. You have a place where such communicators are collected. It is intended that this communicator be stationed there.”

I thought about this for a moment. They were talking about the Extraterrestrial Communications Room, E-Com, or what we colloquially called the Phone Room. It was where we kept the various communications devices that other Extras had sent us. It was the right place for it. But there were the events of the day to consider.

“It is gratifying to communicate with the Central Colony, and we look forward to building a positive relationship between our people,” I said, hating this part of diplomacy. I couldn’t just say “What the hell is wrong with you?” I had to use weasel words and passive voice. It was dangerous to make accusations. “Earlier today, a ship that we identify as belonging to the Central Colony caused a disruption to our planet. Its passage lead to the deaths of many people, injured many more, and caused significant damage. We seek an explanation for this disruption and assistance with remedying the damage.”

“Yes,” came the voice from the communicator in its reedy buzz. “A Central Colony ship used your planet’s atmosphere. We wish to communicate about that event and about the disruptions caused to Earth and Central Colony.”

“You understand that after today’s events we are concerned for our safety,” I said. “We need to be assured that this communicator is not a danger to us.”

“Your safety is a concern,” the voice said. “Our safety is also a concern. We hope that communication can reduce the concern for both.”

“That is my hope as well,” I said.

The conversation stopped dead. I stood there in silence for a minute, trying to focus on what was being said and not the disaster response going on around me. We were both here. We both had a problem that needed to be resolved, though I couldn’t guess what their problem was.

“I’ll speak plainly,” I said. “Is this Central Colony communicator a weapon of any kind?”

“No,” came the response. “This is a Central Colony communicator. It exists to communicate.”

It probably thought I was a bit stupid.

I looked around the deserted campus. “We could talk here,” I said.

“This is not the correct place for diplomatic communication,” the voice said.

“Excuse me for a moment, envoy,” I said and backed off a few steps to talk to my security detail. They were relaxed, but I didn’t read anything into that. They were trained to look relaxed.

“What do you think?” I asked them, quietly. There were right here, not watching on video. I trusted their judgement more than someone hiding in a bunker.

Angelo looked at his superior. Fay just said, “That’s above my pay grade.”

I would have passed the buck too, if I could have gotten away with it. I put a finger to my earpiece, more from habit than necessity. My microphone had been open the whole time. “Sir Hugo, I recommend we escort the communicator to the E-Com room.”

Sir Hugo told me to wait. My rock climbing shoes didn’t provide a lot of insulation from the chilly concrete, so I spent the time trying to discreetly bounce on my toes to keep my feet warm. After ten minutes, Sir Hugo came over my earpiece. “You are clear to take possession of the communicator and deliver it to E-Com,” he said.

Good enough for me. I thanked Sir Hugo and stepped back to the device.

“If you will have the communicator follow me, we will escort it to where we keep similar devices,” I said and started walking back to the building. Fay and Angelo parted to let it pass between them then followed behind.

As soon as I entered the building I saw part of the reason for the delay. Sir Hugo had posted guards at every doorway. It was startling to see the place where I worked every day turned into a high-security compound.

The elevator had plenty of room for just the three of us plus the device, but it felt a bit close. The machine emitted a gentle warmth and a pale interior light traced the curves of its fine embossing. It also ticked slowly, just loud enough to hear. It made me think of bombs. But bombs only ticked in movies. Probably.

When the elevator opened we were met by two more guards and Elena Zolotov. She was in her fifties, silver hair sweeping back from a broad forehead. Her presence was so large that I always forgot she was more than a head shorter than me. Despite her position as Deputy Secretary-General and watchdog for Selke, we had gotten along well the past six months. The administrative and legislative branch of ECOO didn’t interact directly with Extras, which tended to make their expectations unreasonable. Zolotov’s first-hand experience had trickled back to the rest of the policymakers, and was helping reign in some of their least clueful efforts. I’d hoped she would try for the ambassadorship but her ambition was aimed in a different direction. She ignored the extraterrestrial device and evaluated me. She wasn’t completely on board with bringing this thing into our midst, but she trusted my judgement for the moment.

There was no official process for inducting new phones. Most of them had been delivered, and we carted them ourselves down into the basement, where they were kept behind several layers of security. We didn’t want just anyone to talk (or gesture, or smell, or, occasionally, writhe) freely with Extra diplomats. The irony of letting an untrusted Extra gadget inside our inner sanctum was not lost on me.

None of the underground areas had been remodeled since it was built as an airbase in the 1950s. Scuffed linoleum floor, sterile fluorescent lights, and walls a nauseating green color that was supposed to be soothing. The Central Colonist operating this device probably wouldn’t notice how shabby it was—Extras never had a sense of Human aesthetics—but I was embarrassed anyway. I was also aware of every security camera in the hallway and the teams of ECOOSec specialists watching through them.

The two usual security guards outside the phone room weren’t happy and kept giving the extraterrestrial device covert looks. Their job was to make sure only the correct personnel accessed the area beyond. They had never even seen the inside of the phone room, much less a phone delivering itself.

“The security team will wait outside,” I told the group. This was so the Central Colonist on the other side of the device could recognize my authority, and to show that I trusted them enough to be alone with their communicator.

Fay raised an eyebrow a fraction. If we had trouble inside, none of them could get in without explosives. I gave her the tiniest shrug to say, “You know what kind of dumb stuff I do.” She narrowed her eyes, indicating she didn’t approve but wouldn’t argue openly.

I gave my fingerprint and PIN code to the security panel and the door clicked open. I held it open for the communicator, and Zolotov followed.

We went down the short dogleg hall that kept anyone from seeing in and repeated fingerprint and PIN on the final door. The room beyond was dim and moderately creepy. Sensors automatically lit the active phone station when calls came in, but now there were just footlights. Motion-activated lights in the ceiling came on as we moved into their range and turned off as we moved away. The weird jumble of a dozen other phones loomed in the dim light. Most of the room was unused, reserved for all the Extras who hadn’t contacted us yet. I doubted if we would ever use it all; a few Extras talked with us through our standard communication networks.

“Does the communicator have any particular needs? Electricity, energy, fuel, or a special environment we can provide?” I asked.

“No,” it buzzed. “The communicator design is perfected for self-contained, long-term use.” None of the other phones needed our support either, but we wanted to be good hosts.“Then feel free to station it in any free space,” I said, waving to the empty half of the room. “In the future, when you want our attention, just move or make a noise and the Ambassador will be summoned.”

The communicator explored the room for a bit before stopping in an empty space between the thing that looked like a melted jungle gym and the thing that looked like a giant fluorescent bird’s nest. It curled part of its tail under itself and seemed like it was there to stay.

Zolotov and I pulled over some chairs and I gave it a close look. Under the glare of the automatic spotlight, the feeling that it was built by a watchmaker faded. Its outer skin had a glittering opalescence, covered in fine trace work. Underneath there was a hint of shapes like fine gears and springs, but they were designs, not functional. Or at least not functional gears and springs. Shadows fluttered deep under its surface indicating some kind of physical process, but it wasn’t clockwork. It was an elegant piece of equipment.

The bulge I thought of as the head of the device was about at the same level as mine. “You can address me by my title, Ambassador, or my name, Benjamin Taylor. This is Acting Assistant Ambassador Elena Zolotov,” I said, with a gesture. “How should we address you?”

“We are the Central Colony. You are addressing us through our communicator,” it said. The room was acoustically insulated, reducing the already weak timbre of the voice, making it sound more like a kazoo.

I let out a sigh that I’d been holding in for a while. Even speaking English, it could take a lot of patience to understand Extras. And I was feeling a lot of pressures to find some answers.

I shot my cuffs, gathered my composure, and considered how we could expedite communication.

“What is your purpose here?” I asked. It was blunt, but few Extras stood on ceremony.

The tadpole head turned slightly, like it was focusing on my face. “We are here to communicate so we can reach an acceptable outcome.”

I blinked. Something I’d been missing fell into place and I flushed in embarrassment. I glanced at Zolotov to see if she caught it. She hadn’t.

“You’re not a communications device. You are a Central Colonist,” I said.

“We are both a communications device and Central Colonist,” it said in its expressionless buzz.

I thought about that. “I think we are having pronoun troubles,” I said. English didn’t have the right pronouns for many Extras, and no one at ECOO could agree on what to do about it. “The physical presence in this room, this is a living being, a citizen of the Central Colony, is that correct?” I asked.

“That is correct,” it replied. Zolotov put a hand to her mouth as she realized we’d been treating this person like an object.

“And your job is to communicate between Earth and the Central Colony,” I said. “Is that correct?”

There was a slight delay this time, the first time I’d noticed. “It is approximate. This communicator is a being that has built itself to communicate. The communicator communicates.”

We were teetering on the edge of tautology.

“We are gratified you are here, communicator,” I said, which was just filler while I tried to figure out what to say. “Could you define your duties more fully? For example, I am the Acting Ambassador for Earth, and my duties are to both communicate and negotiate with non-Earth entities on behalf of the planet.”

The communicator pulsed as things moved languidly underneath its translucent shell. “The communicator’s purpose is to ensure understanding between the diplomatic head of Earth and the facilitator of the Central Colony. The duties of communicator are to bidirectionally translate between Humans and the Central Colony facilitator.”

Zolotov leaned forward. “What are the duties of your facilitator?” she asked.

“The facilitator’s duties are similar but not identical to those of Ambassador Taylor. The facilitator’s purpose is to further relations between Humans of Earth and domain of the Central Colony.”

“Thank you for that explanation, communicator,” she said, leaning back, leaving the floor to me.“What can you tell us about the Central Colony?” I asked.

Communicator moved a bit, straightening. “The Central Colony is ancient and honored. We created ourselves to transcend the biological, so we could join together in harmonious purpose.”

That sounded like pure propaganda, but even propaganda was informative, as long as you recognized it.

Zolotov thought it was propaganda too. “What is your harmonious purpose?” she asked.

“We unite to optimize ourselves to the greatest benefit of the Central Colony,” it buzzed.

Zolotov and I exchanged a glance that showed what we both thought of the communicator’s circular logic. I was reluctant to delve too far into this pile of thin rhetoric.

“Thank you, communicator, for sharing your information. Do you have any questions for us?” I asked, laying diplomacy on with a trowel.

“A communicator only asks questions for clarification” it replied.

“Do you need anything clarified?” I asked.

“No.”

I took a breath and decided to get down to business. Weasel words were primed and ready. “Communicator, it appears that a Central Colony ship entered Earth’s atmosphere, passing directly over ECOO headquarters, and creating a line of destruction across the North American continent. It caused significant loss of life, injury, and damage. Do you have knowledge of this event?”

“The Central Colony is aware that the ship entered your atmosphere. Ambassador Benjamin Taylor has just told us of the damage and loss of life,” it said.

“Do you know why the ship entered our atmosphere?” I asked.

“Our spacecraft can generate energy from temperature differentials, such as caused by atmospheric friction. The ship used the energy created by passage through your atmosphere to transition between planetary systems. We avoid using the atmosphere of an inhabited planet unless there is an emergency.”

“What was the nature of the emergency aboard the ship?” I asked, trying to avoid any undiplomatic assumptions.

“There was no known emergency aboard the ship. When its energies were ample, it transitioned back to the Central Colony’s area of influence, and a new ship was dispatched to replace it.”

“If there was no emergency, why did the ship enter our atmosphere?” I asked.

The communicator paused long enough for me to wonder if it had heard. The subsurface glow changed its pattern. “I am only a communicator. This topic, as well as the damage you have caused us, should be discussed with a facilitator,” it said.

“What damage have we caused you?” Zolotov asked before I could reply.

The communicator pivoted to face her. “The facilitator believes it would best be discussed with the facilitator,” it said.

“We would welcome a visit from your facilitator at any time,” I said.

It turned back to me. “The current facilitator will not visit your planet,” it said. “If a meeting is to take place, you will meet aboard the local Central Colony ship.”

I sat back and exchanged looks with Zolotov.

“A meeting in space is difficult for us at the moment,” I said. ECOO only had one spacecraft capable of taking people to high orbit, and it was currently resting against the Brtl mothership where a tactical nuke had disabled its electronics six months ago. Research & Development had been working to get it back by remote control. There would probably be a rescue mission at some point—it contained too much research and development to abandon.

“But,” I added, “we will take every step to ensure the facilitator’s safety. They would be our privileged guest.”

“The facilitator is not confident that there is safety on Earth. We are willing to sacrifice additional communicators but not additional facilitators. If you are unable to travel with your own ship, we will provide a transport for you.”

I glanced at Zolotov and jerked my head toward the exit. She nodded.

“Please give us a moment to discuss this, communicator,” I said and stood.

“Yes,” it said simply.

We filed out of the Phone Room, down a crooked hallway and out another set of doors to the security desk. The security detail was relieved to see us. I gave them a thumbs-up and they gave us space to discuss the problems the Central Colony had posed.

“I don’t like it,” Zolotov said, arms crossed.

“Neither do I,” I said. “But we have to go. Or someone does. Thousands are dead and no one knows why. We can’t have them terrorizing our planet every time they feel slighted.”

She sighed. “With respect, I wish we had selected your replacement by now. This is a journey for a full, unencumbered ambassador.”

“I couldn’t agree more. But we have what we have. Even if a new ambassador was chosen tomorrow—”

“They likely will be,” she said.

“You think so?”

“Politicians are adept at appearing responsive in a crisis,” she said.

“Even if they did replace me, it would take days to bring them up to speed. I’m not sure we have that kind of time. And I don’t think the people of Earth are going to wait that long for an explanation.”

She gave a short nod. “Agreed, but I don’t want you on their transport,” she said. “They don’t trust our protection, and I don’t trust theirs.”

“Neither do I,” I admitted, realizing we had both come to the same conclusion: I had to be the one to go. As before, I was expendable. And I also was the only member of the diplomatic corps with experience aboard Extra ships.

That gave me a thought. “What if I could get up there without relying on them?” I asked.

Zolotov narrowed her eyes. “I still do not like it, but I hate it less. What are you thinking?”

FOUR

A Sudden Trip

It was not as simple as that. There had to be yet another meeting. Selke and Zolotov represented the diplomatic side while Sir Hugo and my old friend Mohit Bhandari represented the security side. I’d worked closely with Mohit since my first day at ECOO and he’d become a good friend. Now that he was Head of Personal Security, I didn’t see him as often, but I relied on him more.

Fay and Angelo were businesslike under the scrutiny of their superiors as they double-checked my gear for this excursion. The Secretary-General’s office provided lots of room.

The situation was clear. Earth had somehow picked a fight with the Central Colony, and someone needed to find out why, how, and what we could do about it. I had the ideal qualities for the mission, being both the primary diplomat for Earth and expendable. It didn’t seem wise to keep them waiting, so my travel arrangements were being expedited.

The communicator informed us that Earth representatives would be limited to a retinue of two. The Central Colonist facilitator would have two inhibitors (i.e. security guards), and so Fay and Angelo would come as their counterparts. It was what they had trained for.

At least that was what Sir Hugo wanted. Selke, on the other hand, argued that if we were on the verge of war with these new Extras, one more armed guard wasn’t going to help, and therefore Zolotov should go with me. Zolotov agreed on principal, though I could see she was nervous at the thought.

That was fair. I didn’t want to go either.

Zoey came in with a bag slung over her shoulder. “Energy bars and water, just in case. And bio bags, if they don’t have a bathroom,” she said. She dropped the bag on the conference table where Fay and Angelo were filling their slim backpacks with things like emergency oxygen supplies, first aid kits, and ammunition.

I looked at the time. “Okay, I’ve got to go. Is there a decision?” I asked.

Selke and Sir Hugo glared at each other.

“Here’s what I think,” I said, before they could get into it again. “I’m going into space, and I’d rather have people with me who are trained for it. So if it’s up to me—and it is—I’d rather have Fay and Angelo with me.”

I was getting a bit strident with my powers in the remaining days of my ambassadorship. But no one argued. They were happy for me to take the blame if it all went to hell.

I pulled out my mobile and called a number. While it rang, Zoey walked over to pin on my lapel camera. I gave her an artificially confident smile. She was ostensibly there as security strategist but was really there because her boyfriend was going off and doing something impulsive. Again. She returned the smile. It was just as fake as mine.

Two rings and the call picked up.

“Benjamin! I’m so glad you called.”

“Penelope, we’re ready for you,” I said.

Before I could hang up, the room darkened as her ship popped into place outside the second floor window. I’d tried to get her to appear on the landing field outside, or at least in front of doors, but she thought it was rude to make us walk all that distance. For the Dimples, nothing was ever further away than the next room. If it was, they simply moved the rooms.

Dimples were the one bright spot in the otherwise brief and checkered history of ECOO. They contacted us six months ago, right after the Brtl had stood down from their imminent attack. They had been impressed—there was no record of anyone having had a near miss with the Brtl. Either you got along well with them or your species was obliterated—nothing in between. But Earth had provoked the Brtl to the edge of disaster and then mollified them. It was remarkable, and the Dimples felt that was something worth cultivating.

They were adorable and nice and had been more forthcoming than any Extras to date. They were pastel: males teal and mint, females, peach and sunset. They were shaped like a beach-ball-sized onion that toddled around on five stubby legs. They had two round black eyes and what looked like a daisy coming out of the top of their heads, which they used to translate English. When they talked between themselves it sounded like giggling, and when they spoke English they used a juvenile voice and simple words.

In short, they were a children’s animation come to life, and the Press Office had ruthlessly exploited it. The organization’s image had been deeply tarnished after recent events, and Humanity’s fear of Extras had been growing. The huggable plush Dimples available in the gift shop went a long way to mending both reputations.

When we discovered there was no translatable name for their race, they gave us permission to hold a competition among the world’s school children to pick one. We didn’t think it through completely. After all the results were in and we threw out everything that was rude in any Earth language, the winning name was Dimple.

The Dimples loved the name, and their Ambassador asked for Earth’s schoolchildren to pick a name for her too. We revised the rules to give us a little more leeway, and the winner was Penelope, suggested by a nine-year-old Greek girl of the same name. The two Penelopes had even gotten to meet, making for some great photos. The Press Office was in love.

In addition to being adorable (they even smelled faintly sweet), they were great to work with. Despite their limited (but growing) vocabulary, they communicated openly and were always available. I’d had regular meetings with Penelope over the last several months. Because of my temporary status, they were considered casual, not formal. Cultural exchanges, not diplomatic meetings. It had gotten to the point where I considered her a friend, and I think it was reciprocated.

They had also offered to help us when it would foster good Human-Extra relations. Needing a safe ride to the Central Colony ship was the perfect time to take them up on their generosity.

The front wall of Penelope’s ship flicked off, revealing her happy form inside. Calling it a ship was perhaps inaccurate. While it could travel vast distances at incredible speeds, Dimples considered it an ordinary room. From the outside, it was a rounded pastel violet box about two meters on a side. Inside, it was a bit smaller, cushioned in white. I’d been in one before and I couldn’t quite stand up straight. It was their biggest model.

Ambassador Penelope raised her thick front leg and tapped lightly on the glass, and I went over and pulled the sash.

“Thank you for coming, Ambassador. I think we’re about ready to go,” I said.