When we arrived back at the Embassy, there was a shift change between the different embassy staff sections. I hadn’t thought of it until then, but because of the longer Drezian sleep cycles, we needed to essentially keep a third of our staff in bed at any given time. It was more analogous to staffing a spaceship than an embassy. The Drezians’ longer cycles came from both a longer rotational period and, more importantly, simply having phenomenally more energy than a typical human. That fact was something that I envied as I was usually tired by just after noon on a normal day. I can see why Ambassador Hunley was so fascinated with them.
Back in her quarters, where for some reason I expected to still find her body on that couch, Belgrano quickly took off his encounter suit to reveal that he was shimmering in sweat. Embarrassed, he looked at me with evasive eyes. He began brushing it off with his hands as though it had been a rain storm.
“There must have been a problem with the temperature controls in my suit,” he weakly protested. “I’ll have to have Technical Services examine it at once!”
I chuckled to myself, but didn’t join him in taking off my suit. In part, because I realized something problematic.
“What happens when someone comes in here looking for Ambassador Hunley and they find me instead, out of the suit?” I asked.
Belgrano recomposed himself, slicking his hair back, largely with the sweat he had accumulated from our encounter with the Drezians. I was trying to put out of mind what the Broodmother had said to me about not trusting Belgrano. I figured that it was very likely her attempting at trying to manipulate me against Earthican interests. That was a fair assumption. Drezians loved confusing what they saw as weak-minded humans. They didn’t respect our intellects or are emotions.
“It so happens that I’ve thought of a solution. You’ll remain in that suit, nearly permanently,” Belgrano declared with callous indifference.
“At least excluding breaks for you to shower in your private quarters here. You have to avoid stinking through that suit, after all. I had forgotten that the Drezians can smell the little that escapes through the vents. I think the Broodmother already suspected you solely on account of that fact.”
“Sh… She did?” I squeaked. That was a truly horrifying thought. My mind raced about the next time I would be presented before the Broodmother and she would seek to unmask me in front of the whole Imperial Court. Or, perhaps worse still, she would unmask me before the Drezian intelligence services, who would love prying information out of me. “I’ll be sure to clean up better next time.”
“Quite. Now, I think that settles some of our problems,” Belgrano murmured. “I don’t think there are any more internal issues, except….”
Just then, his wrist communicator beeped.
“Yes?” he answered.
“Belgrano, where have you been?” Popov’s silky voice came over the communicator’s speaker.
“At the reception with Ambassador Hunley,” Belgrano replied. His voice didn’t sound worried, but a flop of sweat formed on his brow.
“You never told me how we did on that drill of yours.”
“I’ll examine the findings momentarily. There’s more important work than yours, Captain Popov.”
A brief interlude of static passed between Belgrano and Popov. I wasn’t sure what exactly Popov was waiting for.
“I don’t think so, Belgrano,” Popov said, his voice oozing with amusement. His words wrapped around Belgrano and squeezed. “I need to immediately discuss this issue with you and Ambassador Hunley. In her quarters would be best because it is of the utmost secrecy. It has to do with missing personnel.”
The look of panic, bone rattling panic, in Belgrano’s eyes was haunting. I don’t think I can ever forget it. I know that if I die soon, that look will be the last thing that flashes through my brain.
“Captain Popov, I don’t think now is a good time to…” Belgrano started, but was cut off.
“You just docked and are de-suiting I assume,” Popov said. “I think this is down-time for you, is it not?”
“Debriefing time, more accurately,” Belgrano scolded.
“Then I, as chief of embassy security, should be able to join you for this debrief,” Popov replied. Belgrano had been right about one thing. Popov had a strangely friendly voice that could make even very intrusive commands come off as perfectly ordinary. “I’m sure that my information could be very helpful.”
Belgrano gave away his surrender before he announced it. He knew he didn’t have any other good excuses ready.
“10 minutes in Ambassador Hunley’s quarters. Just you,” Belgrano said.
“Splendid. I’ll be there on the dot.”
Belgrano turned off his communicator altogether at that point. He ran his hand over his thin strands of sweat spackled hair and sucked his lips so far into his skull it looked like he suffered from a metabolic bone disease.
“Two problems. We need a good reason why the Ambassador is still in her encounter suit. Second, I’m sure he’ll be curious why he can’t find Fiona Reinhardt in her quarters from the security drill,” Belgrano said, worry becoming heavier on each word. “This is a mess.”
I pondered the possibilities for a moment and solved at least the first problem.
“We can say that the Drezians detected that I’d caught one of their viruses and that I’m wearing my suit, even inside the embassy, to keep it from spreading.”
Belgrano bobbed his head back and forth with his hands behind his hips. I would have had to be blind to not see that he was buckling under the stress. It was somewhat jarring to see him change so much from just hours before when he appeared invulnerable on that front.
“Gil’grot will be what we’re going with. You contracted it from a bad batch of Kargrez and we’re keeping you in your suit to avoid any further contamination. Can you repeat that for me?”
“I’ve got Gil’grot and I got it from a bad batch of Kargrez. I’m staying in the suit to avoid any further contamination.”
“Good. Now, as for your true identity, that’s harder. Popov knows you’re supposed to be here and so does your supervisor, Jacinda Hernandez. Explaining why you’re not at your post will take some careful explaining. I need you to tell Popov you’ve tasked Ms. Reinhardt with a special assignment. Say something about you reviewed her qualifications and decided that she should be given enhanced duties instead of just liaising with useless people back home.”
“Hey!” I objected. “I’d always wanted that liaison assignment!”
Belgrano jerked his head back in disbelief.
“Really? That’s pitiable. I’m sorry for you.”
I almost flared up at him, but decided that it would be best to move on.
“Is there a reason why we can’t just tell him the truth? That would make this all a lot easier,” I naively suggested in desperation.
“WHAT?!” Belgrano shouted, wheezing in shock. “With all of the informants the Drezians have in the embassy? Popov and his men leak like sieves!”
I realized I had forgotten that Belgrano had told me this all earlier and felt embarrassed that I had momentarily forgotten it.
“I’m sorry for mentioning it,” I said.
“You ought to be!”
That back and forth bantering went on for a while until the door buzzed and Popov demanded entry. We decided to each recompose ourselves. I took up at Ambassador Hunley’s desk and Belgrano pretended that he was talking about some technical provisions of something or other. Once I was satisfied that we were ready, I hit the button opening the door.
“Greetings, my dear friends!” a booming voice came through the doorway. “Hello hello!”
When I turned, I saw this portly man with thick silver hair and a robust grey beard dressed in an almost entirely black military uniform that looked like it would burst open due to his massive gut. I hadn’t actually seen what Popov looked like until that point, but he was about what I expected from his voice. Despite his large and lumbering figure, he had a nimble gait.
He bounced into the Ambassador’s office, strangely pleased with himself.
"Did you have a... Why are you still in your encounter suit?" he asked, rubbing his finger under his chin.
I decided that the best course of action was an aggressive response.
"Aw, you noticed!" I said, tilting my head down in a sheepish fashion.
"Pardon me, but this isn't a fashion thing, is it?" Popov asked, squinting.
"Fashionable if you've contracted Gil'Grot like I have."
His jaw popped open and he looked to Belgrano and then back to me.
"Gil'Grot? I don't think there's been a case of that in 50 years..."
"Officially, but Drezian record keeping is..." Belgrano tried interrupting, but was interrupted in turn.
"Very good. They have exceptionally fine records in all of the dealings I’ve had with them," Popov protested.
"When they want it to be," Belgrano scolded him.
Feeling the need to assert myself, I settled on a bolder approach for fending off Popov.
"Good Splorxx! The two of you shut up!” I yelled, half laughing and half angrily. “I know what the Drezian doctor told me. Let's move on. Now, Popov, what's this missing personnel issue?"
That display of aggressiveness seemed to contain Popov for at least a moment. He gave me a toothy smile, which made me realize he had those strange implanted teeth that supposedly are far more better at chewing. I have to say that it was hard for me to think of anything else after I saw them. Nonetheless, he decided to continue speaking, clearly unashamed of his peculiar dental decisions.
“Our newest staff member, a Ms. Fiona Reinhardt, has disappeared entirely with no one knowing where she is. Some staff I talked to suggested that she had gone into this office when they last saw her, or at least someone who looked like her.”
“About what time was that?” I asked.
“Hard to place exactly, but something like eight hours ago? Does that sound familiar? I don’t mean to accuse of course, but… um… the facts are the facts,” Popov said, leering at me in what was most assuredly an accusatory stance.
I looked to Belgrano, who nodded at me as though I was supposed to know what that meant. Only one obvious explanation came to me.
“Ms. Reinhardt has been given a special assignment related to these negotiations,” I said. My quick glance at Belgrano indicated that this was a satisfactory version.
“Special assignment?” Popov asked with palpable incredulity.
“Yes. That’s right,” I replied.
“If it wouldn’t be too much of an intrusion, I feel that it would make sense for the chief of embassy security to know about something like that,” he said behind a friendly smile. “Could you humor me on that?”
“Is Ms. Reinhardt on assignment somewhere in our facility here and we’ve just lost track of her?”
“No, she’s in the Drezian capital.”
“Erm hrm,” Popov grumbled. “And with the Drezians or one of our detachments there.”
“With the Drezians,” I replied carefully.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.”
“Ambassador, it’s extremely important that I know the dispositions of all personnel coming and going from this embassy. What if she tries coming in through some side entrance to deliver information and I don’t know that she’s making espionage drops at those locations? I might make the mistake of shooting her and then where would we be? You see, Ambassador, this is really about protecting you and your initiatives.”
His insistence had a creepy component to it. It was hard to accept that these suggestions were to be taken at face value. He clearly had some kind of scheme and I couldn’t tell at all what it was. Belgrano may have known, or at least he pretended like he did, and decided to confront Popov on his line of inquisition. Stepping forward, he had to crane his neck up to face the captain directly.
“Captain, these matters are highly confidential. It’s not appropriate for your staff to pry into matters that are between the Ambassador and Earth government,” Belgrano scolded Popov.
“Pardon me, Belgrano. I didn’t realize that this would venture into the realm of impropriety,” Popov said with oppressive sarcasm. “I’m afraid I have to insist, though.”
His insistence froze Belgrano, who had exhausted his maneuvers. I took the initiative and stood, walking up to him in my encounter suit even though my legs wobbled from anxiety.
“Captain Popov, I think that I might not have given your staff the raises it deserved at last review. Remind me, what was the increase?” I asked, pretending like I knew the answer.
His left eyebrow rose high into his forehead and he stroked his beard. Behind me, Belgrano sighed and began grumbling under his breath.
“I believe it was 7.2% for the whole staff, officers and men alike,” Popov replied, his eyes rolling around as though they were scanning his brain for the information.
“Good Splorxx! What an oversight on my part!” I feigned surprise. “The officers especially have been worthy of more than that. Why, with your discretion alone, you’re proving that you are entitled to more like, oh, 20%? Belgrano, do you agree?”
Both Popov and I turned to look at Belgrano, who was in some state of shock over what he had just heard.
“In part,” he mumbled.
“Ah yes, the part regarding the 20%. Good!” I said and turned back. “So, an additional 12.8% to top you off for your discretion. Does that sound reasonable?”
Popov squinted at me in silence for several seconds. He glanced toward Belgrano and then back to me.
“Who am I to turn down such a generous offer for my fellow officers? I accept, albeit reluctantly,” he said, overly dramatically pushing his hand into his chest as though the whole arrangement hurt his sense of honor.
“Of course,” I said. “Now, be off. I’ve got other things to do.”
He smirked, saluted, turned around, and left, all in slow and fluid movements. Once Popov exited, Belgrano slumped to the ground and began breathing deeply. I wanted to engage him and figure out what he thought, but I could see he needed some time to himself. Even for him it had been too much. I felt much the same. I couldn’t grasp how completely isolating this ruse was. There was no one to turn to, except Belgrano, and I felt no comfort from that.
“This is unfortunate,” Belgrano said at last, mumbling through his hand.
“Yes, that’s what I said.”
“What do you mean?”
“We have a problem within.”
“Really? I thought… I mean, he seemed reasonable to me.”
“If by reasonable, you mean he is sane and pursues his own self-interest, then yes,” Belgrano grumbled.
“Isn’t that enough?” I chuckled.
“You tried to buy his loyalty through bribery. Sensible and deplorable though it may be, it’s also ineffective in this case. The Drezians always outbid anything we offer.”
“Are you telling me that the chief of our embassy security is being bribed by our host planet?” I gasped.
“Of course. That’s standard procedure in almost all our embassies. It’s not a problem so long as they don’t give up much of importance to the host nations. The trouble with Popov is that he’s very responsive to the Drezians and gives them detailed and copious information. I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s a problem here.”
“Oh Splorxx! Oh Splorxx, no!” I gasped.
Belgrano rose back up and straightened his uniform as I began to panic. I won’t pretend it was anything else. Complete and total panic. I had never understood how it was that someone could soil themselves from fear until that point.
“Yes, quite,” he sighed. “We won’t have long before he blackmails us again.”
I realized at that point that this was only going to get worse and quickly. After all, I hadn’t even made it through a tenth of the Drezian holidays.