My jaw just about hit the floor. I stumbled into a chair next to the couch and looked at her body again, hoping that somehow it would reanimate at any point. I even grasped one of her hands. It was cold as ice and there was no pulse.
“How… How did this happen?” I asked, my voice cracking.
“Too much Kargrez with Minister Anu’ra, I should think,” he said dryly. “Frankly, I’m amazed she made it this long. Well, that and some of the enemies she’s made.”
“You don’t think…” I began, but Belgrano shook his head.
“There’s no reason to think so. I did a quick toxicology scan with a medical droid. No sign of poison, other than Kargrez at least. That’s poison enough,” Belgrano grumbled. “I told her that it never fully processes through your system. It builds up, you see. Doctors confirmed this. Her liver was clogged up with it. You should see the scans from when she was alive.”
I noticed that her skin was a little yellow, but other than that I never would’ve guessed. My brain clogged up with dozens of different thoughts all at once, but the one I worried about the most was the very reason why I had been so excited to be stationed at the embassy.
“What will happen with the negotiations? She was…”
“Critical, yes,” Belgrano grumbled and began to pace. “And that was why…”
“But you can take her place, right?” I interrupted.
He flicked his head toward me and glared with contempt and my rudeness.
“But… why? Your experience and…”
“That’s not what matters,” he grumbled and approached me. “The Drezians had a special relationship with Ambassador Hunley and they only trusted her. They felt that she’d gone native and represented their interests over Earth’s. That’s not entirely wrong, either. Since we need this alliance desperately, this whole thing has been tolerated by Earth Government. Without her, we’re in trouble.”
“Just a moment ago, you said something about me taking her place. What was that?” I asked, hoping I’d misheard him. I was so traumatized by the whole thing that I wasn’t sure if it was a dream or a delusion or something else.
He paced back and forth, bouncing his right hand as though he was conducting a symphony. He was quiet. I think he was embarrassed about what he was going to say. Belgrano is a very serious man and what he would say was, well...
“I need you, rather Earth needs you, to impersonate Ambassador Hunley until these negotiations are concluded. It’s of the utmost importance that you do this and do it well.”
To say that I couldn’t believe what I just heard would be an understatement. I started laughing hysterically. I even pulled a muscle in my back from laughing.
“How could I possibly…” I began, but he stepped over toward me and leered.
“There are thirty-one women on this station and only one, that being you, is of the proper dimensions to wear the ambassador’s encounter suit,” he declared. “Don’t take that as my being lecherous because, like 37% of the diplomatic corps, I’m entirely asexual. It’s merely statistically true. The suit’s over there in the storage unit. Try it on if you don’t believe me.”
I wanted to dispute what he said, but I remembered that Ambassador Hunley had been almost exactly my height and everything else. Damn it all, how I wish that wasn’t true. I would’ve done just about anything to get out of that situation, but I kept glancing at the Ambassador’s corpse and I knew that there was no escape.
“If I knew what to do, I’d…”
“Ah, so you’ll do it,” Belgrano chirped. “I checked for the next several hours. There’s nothing you’d have to do in her place during that period. That’s good since you’ll have to go to a formal reception in the capital six hours from now. We can probably say something about your being taken ill to make it a short appearance. However, you won’t get away with not saying anything. You’ll have to learn how to talk like her, move like her, and all of that.”
“I’ve queued up several dozen of her speeches. Each are about a minute long since Drezians like it short. She was a very eloquent speaker at ceremonial events, which I always found surprising,” Belgrano said, letting out a small laugh. “That’ll give you a lot to work with. Be sure to emphasize her verbal tics, but not overdo them. It has to sound natural. Then, of course, there’s the more casual demeanor. That’s harder. You’ll mainly have to base that on the one meeting you had with her. I’ll try to work up something on that. After that, we can go over some of the Ambassador’s more, shall we say, discreet dealings. Hopefully those won’t come up in six hours.”
My ears perked up at the notion of “discreet dealings.” Whenever one hears something like that, you start letting your imagination wander. Even considering what that could entail made me feel like a vise was closing on me. I decided I needed to change the subject slightly to avoid completely panicking.
“What do we do about, well, that?” I asked, pointing at the corpse, which was already settling into one of the stages of mortis.
“A tricky point. Captain Konstantin Popov, security chief here, isn’t a trustworthy sort. Don’t mistake his friendly manner for him actually being a friend. It’d be nice if we could rely on him and his men, but they like being gossips. They also love sharing our secrets with the Drezians,” Belgrano said with disgust, his lips turning ever more inward. “They bring us information as well, but we’re never entirely sure what they gave up.”
“Who can we trust then?” I asked, exasperated.
“I didn’t mean to go on like that. I was simply stalling until I thought of an answer,” he said without even the slightest hint of humor. “Kitchen staff.”
“Kitchen staff. Loyal group and they don’t have any ambitions. They’re also, due to an oddity in the pay schedules, the best compensated members here,” Belgrano said ruefully. “Therefore, we should probably stick her corpse in the emergency rations freezer. Provided that there’s no crisis, no one we should worry about will find out. Not even the kitchen staff will go in there unless they really have to.”
Whether or not he actually had the situation under control, Belgrano’s ability to at least appear that he was in control made me feel better. I was almost scared of asking any other questions because it might make him realize he didn’t think of everything. I needed the illusion that things would be alright. Belgrano probably did, too.
“You’re in luck on one thing, by the way. She used the synthesizer in her suit to give a different voice, at least so far as the Drezians were concerned. It translates what you say into Drezian anyway,” Belgrano said as he moved toward the door. “I’ll be back shortly.”
“Where are you going?!” I asked in a panic, realizing I’d be left with the Ambassador’s rotting corpse.
“To arrange for security to be distracted when we hide the body. I’ve got to make sure Chef Vittorio knows not to open that emergency freezer. Start watching her speeches and work on getting her cadence, pronunciation, and the rest of it.”
With that, I was left with the Ambassador’s corpse’s esteemed company as I played her various speech recordings on the wall feed. Belgrano was right that Ambassador Hunley had a much more, well, appropriate formal speech delivery. I’d never noticed it before until I saw how she was in private. As I watched, I periodically got distracted by her increasingly more distorted corpse sitting there on the couch. To stop my eyes from wandering over, I draped her body in a blanket and returned to watching the recordings.
After a while, I tried imitating her speech cadence aloud. It was definitely good that I wouldn’t have to imitate her voice itself, or do the translations into Drezian. However, periodically I couldn’t believe that I was actually doing this. The whole situation was absurd. I, a low-ranking diplomatic service employee, being responsible for treaty negotiations with the Drezian Empire? Every five minutes or so, I’d get hit with this dread that I would bring about Earth’s destruction or negotiate and especially poor treaty.
The Treaty. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about what was under negotiation by Ambassador Hunley. Imitating her cadence would be far easier than pretending that I understood the terms and conditions of the treaty she had been drafting. I searched through her quarters and found the secured document tablet, a Verita78, that she had used. Apparently, she had left it entirely unsecured.
I spent at least an hour staring vacantly at the treaty terms. To say I had no idea what I was looking at wouldn’t be an exaggeration. I tried reading her notes on the issues, but they were keyed in Drezian, which I couldn’t make any sense of. Apparently, she enhanced her Drezian fluency by randomly sprinkling it into her day to day writing. Good for her, but bad for me.
As I tried to focus on my studies, the blanket on her corpse began to move. At first I thought it might be an illusion. Then the outline of a hand started lurching upward slowly. I tried to think of something else, but all I could imagine was her body succumbing to rigor mortis.
Finally, Belgrano returned, quickly closing the quarters’ door. He breathed deeply and then traipsed toward me.
“It took me a while to explain why this was all necessary to Chef Vittorio,” he sighed. “That makes it clear to me that we’ll have a hard time convincing others. Vittorio normally just rolls over. Our circle will be small.”
I must have given him a very worried look. I can only imagine what my face looked like. I know I felt cold and clammy.
“If you have a concern, Ms. Reinhardt, now is the time. Speak,” he said.
“How… how are we going to get her body into the freezer?”
“I’ll order a quick security exercise for the east campus and a lockdown for the atrium while that’s going on. That should give us the chance to make our way to the kitchen and the freezer. After that we’ll need to get you suited up and on to the Drezian reception.”
“But… I’m nowhere near ready,” I whimpered. “I…”
“This’ll be difficult, yes,” he interrupted and began pacing in front of me. “I think I’ll draw off some attention by saying something crude and impolite to Minister Anu’ra. We don’t have the best relationship so it won’t take much to set it off. That’ll give you a chance to intervene in a good-natured way and then we can show ourselves off while maintaining your good relationship with them and them being none the wiser until, well, the next time.”
“And when’s that?”
“We’re currently in their two most prized holy days. Egr’um and Erg’il. However, being that their days are roughly equal to one of our weeks, we have what we would consider the better part of 14 days of festivities where you, as ambassador, will have to make regular appearances.”
I suddenly felt ill.
“I don’t know that I have that in me,” I mumbled.
“Irrelevant. You have to do it.”
“How did she do it?” I asked and pointed back at her corpse.
“Stimulants. A pretty good amount of them at that. She had enough in her to kill a platoon of men, but strangely that wasn’t what killed her.”
“I see…” I said.
Belgrano walked over to her body and pulled off the blanket. He winced as he looked at the way her remains had begun to set into rigor mortis.
“We’d better get this underway now,” he said. He pressed his wrist communicator, which apparently had a direct feed into the Central Administrative Computer, or CAC. “CAC, initiate immediate security drill in the east campus. Duration: 1 hour. Lock down atrium. Duration: 1 hour. Engage.”
A shrill siren sounded out and the lights began flickering. I looked at the security monitor in the Ambassador’s quarters. Everyone in the atrium froze and waited for instructions.
“Security Drill. Security Drill. All internal security staff to East Campus. All internal security staff to East Campus,” the slow drawling computerized voice announced. “All other staff are to leave the atrium and return to your rooms at this time. All staff are to leave the atrium and return to your rooms at this time.”
Belgrano formed a quarter-smile, which was as close to happy as I had yet seen him. As I’d learn later, that’s as happy as he ever gets. Once the security monitor showed that the atrium was clear, Belgrano found a good enough storage container in the Ambassador’s closet that he tossed her body in. Just then, though, his communicator lit up.
“Yes?” he answered.
“What’s this about, Belgrano?” a gruff voice came over.
“Captain Popov,” he began nodding in my direction, “the Ambassador was displeased with your last response time. Very displeased. Let’s see if you can do better.”
“We were exactly within our normal range!” Popov angrily replied.
“Quite,” Belgrano riposted.
“I’m going to…” Popov began.
“Fighting this won’t do you any good, Captain Popov,” Belgrano interrupted. “It’s only by my good graces that your survive in that post. The Ambassador would’ve had you sacked months ago.”
A pause followed.
“Popov out,” the captain grumbled and the call ended.
Licking his upper lip, Belgrano sighed.
“Now, help me with the Ambassador’s remains,” he commanded. “We’ll observe what protocols we can with her.”
It was somewhat touching to hear that, but I didn’t have any response. I simply helped him transport the storage container, still unable to fully accept just what it was I was doing.