The atrium was spooky with all of the staff gone and the only lights being the flashing security alarms. We made for the kitchens on the west end, Belgrano at the front and me at the back of the container. The only sounds, other than the periodic security beeps, were Belgrano’s footsteps and my own. I noticed he made almost no noise while my own clumsy steps sounded like a stumbling drunk.
The kitchen, shiny and chrome, was much better illuminated. Belgrano stopped, as though he was expecting something, or someone. He started turning his head from the right side, but before he could make it to the left, a fat man jumped out from behind one of the meat racks.
“Belgrano! Belgrano! Oh, thank Splorxx it’s you!” he shouted. His ample jowls jiggled and his thick grey mustache turned upward. “Oh, and this must be the lady Fiona Reinhardt.”
“It is,” Belgrano answered for me.
“Allow me,” he said, bowing at me. “I’m Chef Vittorio, Domenico Vittorio. If you want, there’s some leftover…”
“Not now, Vittorio,” Belgrano interjected. “The freezer, now.”
“Oh, yes! Of course. You know, I still can’t believe it. I’ve known the Ambassador since I came here. She was always my favorite customer! Somehow, she kept the weight off, though. I always wondered how…”
“Please, Vittorio,” Belgrano grumbled. “We’re all shocked. We’re all sad. The situation calls for this to be done fast. And the answer to the weight issue, as Ms. Reinhardt is aware, was stimulants.”
“Ah! Yes, of course!” Vittorio said, snapping his fingers. “Well, right this way!”
We followed him through the labyrinthine kitchen. I wondered how it was that a newer facility could be built this badly. I swear that we took at least three turns for every one we needed to take. We finally happened across the neon blue door labeled “Reserve Freezer.”
“Alright, open it, Vittorio,” Belgrano commanded.
The corpulent chef obliged and pressed the necessary access code. The door shot open and I saw a whole slew of frozen ration cubes. Belgrano had been right. This was a last resort. I’d had those ration cubes on Quarmarq when there was a temporary strike that cut off our shipments for a month. I’ve never vomited so many times in my life. Then again, that could be because they hadn’t been properly stored.
“Alright, we’ll just set her in here. She should keep in good condition for a few weeks,” Belgrano said dryly.
“I’ll put some tarps over, just in case anyone else takes a quick look,” Vittorio said.
We put her container in the very rear of the freezer, which was quite cold indeed. I could feel my ears hardening up and my eyes frosting over. Apparently the emergency rations needed to be maintained at -10C to avoid immediately putrefying. Belgrano and Vittorio were unfazed by it. Vittorio because of his ample blubber and Belgrano because, well, he probably just didn’t care.
Once we were done, we stood at the freezer door. As Vittorio was about to close the door, I objected.
“Shouldn’t we say a few words? For protocol’s sake?” I asked.
“Oh, very good!” Vittorio blubbered.
“Yes,” Belgrano limply acknowledged. “I’ve thought of a few things. Feel free to add on once I’m done.”
Vittorio and I both nodded our heads and then we all folded our hands in front of us.
“Ambassador Veronica Hunley was one of Earth’s most able servants,” Belgrano began. “Graduating from both the Kerry Diplomatic Academy and the Lunar Military School, she possessed qualifications that few other Earthicans could hope to match. She served us in war, starting as a private and ultimately reaching the rank of major in our 71st Shock Army. She covered herself with distinction and glory in battle, including here on Jin’Drezia. For her service, the Drezians insisted that she be made ambassador. She served in that post with great skill for these past twelve years, running a good and efficient embassy.”
He stopped speaking
“Is that all, Belgrano?” Vittorio asked with a judgmental tone.
Belgrano breathed deeply and quickly glanced at both of us.
“And she was one of my closest friends and I’ll miss her dearly,” he said quickly. His voice tripped over those words. I could swear I even saw a tear form in his eyes, but then it disappeared. It was as though he sucked it back in through force of will. “There. Anything from either of you?”
Vittorio wiggled his body and threw out his hands toward the back of the freezer.
“Oh, Ambassador! This is so cruel! You’re gone years and years before your time! I’d hoped to make you a triple layer Gadiziano Ferran cake for your next birthday!” he cried. “If Splorxx is kind, you’re having it right now. Sleep well, my friend!”
The chef then crossed his arms and bowed several times.
“Hrm. Indeed,” Belgrano said. “Ms. Reinhardt. Any words from you?”
I was at an absolute loss for anything to say. I decided that the only course of action was to just start talking and hope I could say something eloquent, or at least not inappropriate.
“I only spoke to you once, Ambassador Hunley. You were very kind to me and you inspired me with your passion for your work. I hope that I can…” I paused as I considered saying out loud what I would have to do. The words were in my head, but my throat and mouth refused to speak them.
“Ms. Reinhardt, say what you were going to say,” Belgrano scolded me. “We’re on a tight schedule.”
“I hope that I can see through what you were trying to do for all Earthicans. I hope you won’t judge me for whatever I might do to dishonor your memory,” I said mournfully.
“Such sweet words! You’re such a conscientious young woman!” he blurted out.
Belgrano rolled his eyes at me and motioned for Vittorio to close the door. With a quick slam, the door shut tight and that was the end of it. Ambassador Hunley’s slightly putrefied remains would be unceremoniously kept with only our most unappetizing rations in a deep freeze for almost two weeks – and that was if all went well.
“Now, we have about 30 minutes before the drill concludes,” Belgrano said. “Time for you to try out speaking in that encounter suit. Vittorio, remember, not a word.”
“Understood,” Vittorio said and began to preen. “And I get a 7.2% raise for keeping my mouth shut.”
Belgrano shook his head.
“If and only if.”
I spent that 30 minutes trying out Ambassador Hunley’s encounter suit, especially with the voice synthesizer. When I tried giving a short speech, I noticed that Belgrano, sitting across from me in her office, frowned. I broke into a small panic. I thought I had been doing so well.
“What? What’s the matter?” I asked, boiling in the encounter suit.
“Step out for a moment,” he directed me.
Once I did, he pored over the voice synthesizer module.
“Somehow it’s not quite right,” he bemoaned. “I think your pitch is an octave too high. Your throat hasn’t been scarred with enough Kargrez yet. The synthesizer is adjusting things differently for you than it did for her.”
“Is that how that works?” I inquired.
“I’ll try it again and lower,” I laughed.
Belgrano met that joked with the iciest of glares.
“There’s nothing funny about this, Ms. Reinhardt. Drezians have exceptionally acute hearing. If you slip, they’ll figure out the ruse, rip you out of that suit, and eat you alive for the insult. They’re a very temperamental race.”
I nodded and went back in the encounter suit. Before speaking, I widened my throat, actually picturing how the Drezian throats moved when they spoke. It was oddly helpful even though somewhat unrelated. I could tell at once that the synthesizer was more receptive this time.
“I would like to thank the Broodmother, the Emperor, Minister Anu’ra, and… Is that good?” I said.
He nodded and sighed.
“That’s one hurdle down. Looks like it’s time for the drill to be over,” he grumbled. Indeed, the various warning lights and sounds died off. “Let’s make for the Ambassador’s shuttle. Yes, it’ll be a bit early, but it’s less time to keep up this charade in the embassy. I haven’t yet figured out how to deal with Captain Popov long-term.”
Luckily, her shuttle was docked in a small private bay behind her quarters. I didn’t need to cut through the atrium or anywhere else in disguise. That was a small comfort, though.
The shuttle’s autopilot carried Belgrano and me through the dense layer of red mist into a clearing where we could see the sprawling mass of undulating spires that comprised the capital, Ger’Drezia. I’d only seen holograms and pictures before. It was truly one of those cases where seeing it in person was something else altogether. It soon became inescapable to me that I would be alone with Belgrano amidst millions of Drezians under the false pretenses that I was their beloved Ambassador Hunley.
“Don’t think about it too much,” Belgrano said, doubtlessly sensing what I was feeling. Somehow, he actually came off as friendlier in that encounter suit, perhaps because I couldn’t see his face.
As we flew by, each of the undulating Drezian buildings were a different shade of the fluorescent colors than the ones before them, making the whole city appear as a beautiful flickering rainbow. Bulbous Drezian spacecraft zoomed from one part of the city to another and some upward into space and beyond. Being able to take off from the surface straight into space so quickly is something humans still don’t do remotely well, much less have we mastered it.
After a few minutes, we were hailed on the official communications channel. The display screen made clear that this was a Drezian transmission.
“They’ll expect you to announce yourself,” Belgrano said as his finger lay over the reception button. “Just remember that, depending of the dialect of the speaker, the translator might not pick up everything. Also, there are three familiar names different Drezians call you and you have to respond to all of them. Hun’drez, Bil’tog, and, least commonly, Ver’gol. They will almost certainly always address you as one of them, most likely Hun’drez. Are you ready?”
“Yes,” I answered with forced confidence. “Yes, I’m ready.”