Belgrano decided it would be best to leave me alone for a while to research some other matters that Ambassador Hunley had let for me. He also had his own duties to attend to, including, where possible, throwing confusing evidence in Captain Popov’s direction.
I decided it would be a good idea to study the Drezian governmental hierarchy a lot more so that they wouldn’t catch me off guard as they had at the last reception. That had been an exceedingly awkward affair and I didn’t want that to happen again. However, I found that most of the Drezian titles were some form of untranslatable Drezian honorific. That is to say that if we tried to translate them that it would be far longer than any title I could reasonably be expected to remember. Worse yet, their faces, I’m sorry to say, were largely forgettable. Humans simply aren’t equipped to remember amphibian faces. The smooth contours and similar markings leave us without anything to truly make an impression with. I know that’s a horrid thing to say, especially about a race of creatures on whom we were relying for Earth’s survival.
This point was soon hammered home to me.
Ambassador Hunley’s main communications screen started blinking incessantly while I was attempting to study these Drezian officials, and the erstwhile Ambassador’s relations with them. I looked at the incoming ID. It was Interstellar Secretary Habib bin Tawal, who oversaw all of Earth’s ambassadors. He at one point could claim lineage to one of the wealthier Arab families from centuries ago, but now he was actually more Indian than Arab. Nonetheless, his family kept the name strong all of this time and he dressed accordingly.
I knew that it wouldn’t be feasible to ignore him forever. I decided that it would be the best course to actually answer the call. However, I had to make sure that I kept the same lie going with him that I had told Captain Popov and make sure that I didn’t tell Habib anything that would somehow or another make its way back to Popov and put me in an awkward position. Worse yet, I had no idea how she addressed him. I decided it would be most prudent to act drunk. It was in keeping with Ambassador Hunley’s nature. That could excuse a lot of things. Or at least I hoped it would.
Swallowing my fears, I quickly slapped the button and his signal came through on the screen loud and clear. He was dressed in a traditional white turban with a green robe over his body. I noticed that he’d changed his facial hair slightly and had gone with a goatee and somewhat longer sideburns as opposed to the full beard that had marked most of his career.
“My dear friend,” he announced himself. “You are in an encounter suit in your office?”
“Yes, Habib. Illness. Very dangerous if I… step out of this thing,” I forced a drunken hiccup.
He developed a deep scowl on his face.
“Insha’Splorxx, if that is the case,” he said, both disappointed and angry as best as I could tell. “I needed to discuss with you more about Clause 37.”
I hadn’t the slightest idea what he was talking about. He might as well as have been speaking Drezian without a translator. I knew I should familiarize myself with the treaty terms, but as before I couldn’t make the least sense out of them.
“Where did we leave things last?” I said, acting as though my intoxication was causing my head to droop away.
“My dear Hunley, we discussed this for many hours and I…”
“It’s been a long day,” I interrupted. “Now, what was it that you found objectionable?”
Shaking his head, he seemed to ignore my antics.
“The breeding grounds in Russia. Now, we’re prepared to make some concessions, but the fact that they want all of European Russia, the Urals, and the habitable range of Siberia is simply… Splorxx be merciful, that would require the relocation of some one hundred and eighty million people. All so they could grow some… bugs? Do I have that right?”
Something about this issue had appeared in one of the documents I’d skimmed over. This was one of those where I could actually understand what Ambassador Hunley had written. “What happens to the Russians is of little consequence. The best thing they could do at this point is be an insect breeding field for the Drezians.” I won’t pretend I understood how they arrived at Russia being the desired location. I’ll only assume that it had something to do with the desirability of the Russian ecosystem for the harvesting of disgusting large insects. I hoped that was Ambassador Hunley’s rationale, in any case.
“Oh Splorxx, Habib! We’re talking about their primary food sources. All they’re asking is that we establish a colony for them to make sure that their supplies can’t be cut off as easily as they could be now.”
“My dear Hunley,” he said, his thick lips twitching in disbelief, “their request is awfully…”
“Do we need their protection or not?” I interrupted. I slurred my words in such an exaggerated fashion that I was worried I’d given the whole ruse away.
“We do,” Habib meekly conceded. “So let me move onto the next issue if I may. We…”
“Is the Russian issue settled?”
“Let’s say that it is. You have our permission to concede the terms regarding the homo sapien incubator program for all first born males.”
This, however, was a term of the treaty I hadn’t realized was on the table. It didn’t seem like it could possibly be a real concession by the Earthican government. It couldn’t possibly be accepted by the people in the next round of elections, could it? On the other hand, as we all had come to realize, without Drezian protection, Earth would soon be ruthlessly plundered by those other aliens who had discovered our weaknesses. After all, our planetary defenses couldn’t be relied upon to even protect us from errant asteroids. A concerted attack by one of the more powerful spacefaring races would overwhelm what little we had for ships and fixed defenses. In the face of that, handing over the first born males of each family as Drezian egg incubators seemed perfectly reasonable. I did, however, have questions.
“I had one question about that, however, Habib. What will we do to offset that population loss? I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately,” I said, trying to avoid the indications of total horror that raced through my mind.
“It’ll just encourage families to get their first pregnancy out of the way early,” Habib said, shrugging his shoulders. “In some ways, it will be like the early millennia for our people when we would have several children because a number wouldn’t make it. My pardons for being crude about this, but this is simply a guarantee that the first child won’t make it. At least it won’t be a responsibility for the human families to support.”
I could only figure that, by that, Habib meant that they would be transported to one of Jin’Drezia’s moons for this breeding program. This did, however, make me wonder what exactly the Drezians planned by making us their incubators. I was unaware that they had difficulty finding appropriate breeding facilities for their people. I’d find out later that this was not entirely the case, but they had some greater ambitions that we were facilitating in exchange for their protection. To this moment, I don’t understand all of the treaty’s terms. It’s one of the lengthiest and most technically complex documents that humanity has ever undertaken. One has to wonder how it was that Ambassador Hunley negotiated almost the entirety of the document on her own. Of course, there was the simple fact that she had more or less conceded every point to the Drezians as far as I could tell.
“Oh, thank Splorxx! I was worried that you hadn’t found a solution,” I said in a forced chuckle.
Habib furrowed his brow and his goatee distorted
“My dear Hunley, we’ve spoken of this so many times before,” he said.
At some point, I hoped I could figure out how to avoid blundering into these errors. The difficulty was that Ambassador Hunley was both very talkative and very knowledgeable. I could imitate the talkative aspect, but her depths of knowledge were inimitable.
“I’m sorry, Habib. I haven’t been sleeping well. This damned holiday period is running me ragged,” I said.
“Understood. It’s important that you keep pace with all of their ceremonies, though. You’re the only one they’ll let sign a treaty with us. Splorxx help us if anything should happen to you,” Habib said, putting his hand over his chest and bowing forward.
“I won’t let anything happen to me. I promise you that,” I declared.
“Be sure that you don’t, my dear Hunley. InshaSplorxx,” he said and the screen went blank.
As bad as that all was, things turned a good deal worse later. In the meantime, I managed to sneak in a brief shower in the Ambassador’s quarters. She had an older model shower module than I was used to, perhaps a SprinkFlash3i. When I stepped in, the computer declared itself.
“Good evening, Ambassador Hunley,” the smooth English accent came forward. “Which setting number would you like?”
I didn’t have any idea what that meant. That wasn’t how more current units worked, so I decided to just pick a number at random.
“Um, six I suppose,” I said.
“Ooooohhhh. Six,” the shower said. “Brace yourself!”
I sighed. I knew this wouldn’t be good. A soft siren blared three times. Water rumbled into the pipes and then paused for what seemed to be several seconds. I wondered what that was about. I didn’t wonder long, though. It poured forward at full heat and crushing pressure. My skin felt like it would be blown off into Jin’Drezia’s orbit. All of my nerves went numb. Then a thick, gelatinous layer of soap poured over me before being blasted off.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” I screamed, unable to move.
“Oh ho! You didn’t say the safe word!” the shower computer taunted me.
“Sa…” I began, but got a blast of water right down my mouth. “Safe word? Hint please?”
“Drezian religious phrase,” the shower said.
I tried to remember what I’d heard at the reception, but I couldn’t keep my mind under control as everything seemed to be racing away from me. My skin began to break under the shower’s blasts. I had to come up with something.
“Good Splorxx!” I blasted out.
“What was that, Ambassador?”
Of course, it was that one line in my prepared speech. I should have thought of it right away.
The shower blasts immediately stopped and I could actually begin to feel things again, which was worse. All of the pain hit me at once. I’d never felt anything like that before. Agony. Pure agony. My bones felt like they’d been pulverized.
“Cleaning complete,” the computerized voice said. “Until next time, Ambassador Hunley.”
Any trace of sweat or… anything that had been on me was gone. So there was at least that.
Slightly less than an hour later, Belgrano came back to the Ambassador’s office. By that time, I had essentially recovered from the shower. Part of me wanted to place an immediate order for a replacement unit. It would have been well with the Ambassador’s purview to do so, but I decided against it. Bringing the maintenance crews into the Ambassador’s office certainly opened up the possibility that they would discover something that they could pass along to others at that delicate time. I didn’t really know what it could possibly be, but the margin for error was so small that I didn’t want to risk it.
In any case, Belgrano had an especially grim look on his face and closed his eyes like he had a crushing headache. He probably did. I heard a loud pop when he shifted his jaw back and forth.
“Is everything alright?” I asked because he wasn’t speaking.
He snapped his head at me and glared.
“No. No it’s not ‘alright’,” he said, mocking me. “It’s not your fault, but it will be your problem.”
I both dreaded and eagerly anticipated what he would say next. Looking back on it, I have no idea why I was eager to hear it.
“What do you know of the group ‘Sticky Tongue’?” he asked.
Sticky Tongue is such a notorious Drezian crime syndicate that I believe nearly everyone on Earth must have heard of them. Even I knew a lot about them. They’d formed centuries ago under the leadership of the deposed former Dowager Broodmother Igh’ula initially as a terrorist organization to exact revenge upon her sister, who had seized the Drezian throne. As that spat faded into memory, they simply became involved in all manner of crime, especially extortion. The Sticky Tongue originally was meant to symbolize Igh’ula’s “sticky” claim to the throne, but over time it more meant the organization’s ability to nab vast amounts of money and power and cling to it, just as a Drezian tongue would to its prey. A bit of a clunky explanation, but it made as much sense as any syndicate’s name I’d ever heard.
“More than enough. Why the question?” I queried, hoping to extract a straight answer from Belgrano.
“This is terribly awkward,” he said, his fingers wiggling. “No sense in softening this. Ambassador Hunley was involved with the Sticky Tongue and now they’re requesting a meeting immediately to extract payment from you, or rather Ambassador Hunley.”
“P… Payment?! What did she offer? More importantly, what did they give her in the first place?!” I asked utterly bewildered by this statement. I had no concept of the idea that Ambassador Hunley had not only been a friend of the Drezian Imperial Brood, but also this sprawling network of seedy actors.
Belgrano shook his head.
“Ambassador Hunley always kept her less savory dealings out of my sight,” he said, flicking his wrist dismissively. “On occasion I would encounter some effect that one of them was having on an unrelated issue and I could piece it together. The point is, you’ll have to meet with them in two hours. Worse yet, the next reception is in four hours and it’s at a newly minted art museum showcasing Drezian holo-recordings from the war.”
“That sounds positively dreadful,” I riposted.
“It was something that Ambassador Hunley was quite excited about as a veteran of that war,” Belgrano scolded me.
“Oh. I’m sorry for mocking it then.”
“Your apology should be directed at Ambassador Hunley’s ghost.”
“If I knew where it was I’d…” I tried starting a joke to that effect, but it was clear that Belgrano would have none of it. Just his scalding glare was enough to silence me.
“When you are quite finished.”
“Now, this Sticky Tongue business. One of their agents contacted me because they said they couldn’t get ahold of you.”
“What? I haven’t received any calls except from the Interstellar Secretary.”
“And what did you tell him?”
“I don’t remember exactly. Basically to stop complaining about the treaty terms.”
“That should hold him for a bit. He was probably trying to get some more information out of you. Habib’s against this entire treaty. He thinks we should make a deal with the Yrtjel Confederacy instead,” Belgrano rolled his eyes. “Habib pretends like he wants this done, but he keeps poisoning the well.”
Suddenly the thrust of that conversation with Habib made more sense. He did seem to be probing for weaknesses now that I thought of it.
“Back to the point. The Sticky Tongue wants a meeting with you. They said something about your bill coming due,” Belgrano said with a distinctly ominous inflection.
“Hrm, yes. The Dowager Broodmother had made an arrangement some years ago with Ambassador Hunley to flush out some of the plotters in her own court. She didn’t want to involve any of her own family in it because she didn’t trust them, so she brought in an outsider. Ambassador Hunley took up the task with zeal. She made some kind of arrangement with the Sticky Tongue to this effect and simply told me that its terms were, and I quote, ‘things best left unsaid.’ I wasn’t inclined to question what she had done,” Belgrano said, his voice trailing off as he finished.
“But, how will I…?” I spluttered, but he raised his hand to cut me off.
“Spare your energy. I don’t know. And I can’t be there for you when you meet with them. I’m only a messenger to Ambassador Hunley when she seems to be ignoring their requests.”
My mind began picturing all sorts of things that could mean. All of the different possibilities as to what Ambassador Hunley could have agreed to flashed in my head. I shuddered to think what she might have already done. I’d never been involved in anything like this. I might have been on Quarmarq if I’d been in a higher post, but I never saw even a glimpse of those dealings. Any thought that Ambassador Hunley had done something damaging to Earth’s interests, however, was beyond me.
“This sounds like I should prepare as best I can,” I said.
“And I will try to create some distractions for you,” Belgrano assured me. “Just don’t be gone too long.”
He gave me the meeting coordinates that the Sticky Tongue had passed to him. I had never even heard of the location in question. It was a small settlement in the Fer’kig Swamp called Anhul’ganib, which actually translates pretty nicely into Endless Bog for us. It was an ominous enough name that I should have expected something like what I eventually saw, but I’m not sure anything could have reasonably prepared me for it.