Ambassador Hunley’s personal shuttle wasn’t an option for my travel to the Endless Bog. The Drezian government would have doubtlessly detected it and we were unsure that the Dowager Broodmother, Emperor Grez’a, or Minister Anu’ra were aware of Hunley’s arrangement with the Sticky Tongue. If they weren’t, as I’m sure was the case, and I was discovered speaking to them, the reprisals could be truly something difficult to comprehend. A general feeling of betrayal directed at Earth would have been cataclysmic.
Instead, the Sticky Tongue sent us an ordinary merchant freighter that I boarded under great secrecy. It was a three noduled vessel, with green armor and rainbow-colored windows. Any ship that looked like that was hard to imagine as a freighter, but the Drezians had different standards as to what was an attractive vessel; far higher standards.
Belgrano had cautioned me to not seem surprised by anything that I found or saw. As Ambassador Hunley had dealt with the Sticky Tongue for many years, anything that I appeared unfamiliar with could be seen as highly suspicious. I couldn’t think of anything that I actually knew about this organization beyond the high-level rumors, however. Therefore, absolutely everything would appear as novel to me. I was trying to think of what I could possibly do to avoid appearing bewildered by what I would see.
Inside the Drezian freighter, I found the first test of my ability to pretend I knew what I was doing. It was unlike any vessel I’d ever been in before. Tubes of water connected the various segments of the ship so that the Drezians could rapidly swim from one deck of the ship to another and one compartment to another. The ship’s bottom nodule, by far the largest, was a maximally organized space that could be accessed from above only by one of those water tunnels while it was in flight. This made absolutely no sense to me and I tried to pretend that I’d seen it hundreds of times by that point.
More confusing was the ship’s bridge. Once I was escorted there by a group of Sticky Tongue underlings, I tried to absorb what I saw quickly. It looked like a pond we’d find on Earth, with the ship’s crew resting on giant lily pads on a body of crystal blue water. I wondered how it was that I was supposed it sit on one of those pads comfortably. I decided that the best decision was to simply move quickly and situate myself before they could say anything about my hesitance.
I awkwardly plunged down onto the pad, almost capsizing before righting myself. The Drezians around me all chortled at my expense.
“Off your game, are you Bil’trog?” the dark yellow Drezian directly across from me snidely commented. His record was thankfully in the database that my HUD drew from. The damn thing didn’t work most of the time, but I was lucky that it worked in that circumstance. It was Mol’Pigad, current patriarch, and therefore second in command, of the crime syndicate. He had an impressive crest of warts, a sign of strong male virility. “I see. I see. You’re nervous. Good that’s for us. Nervous you should be, zu’krog jeg’tol.”
Based on how the translations were coming in, I realized that the Sticky Tongue, or at least its leadership, came from the southern Gitr’og continent. Garbled grammar and words I couldn’t understand at all.
“Oh, good Splorxx! I’m not nervous,” I protested. “I’m just exhausted because I have better things to do than deal with you Vog’waz.”
Each of the Drezians around me perked up and their pupil slits narrowed angrily. Some of them even had their coloration change a bit to brighter, almost certainly angrier, colors.
“You Pel’ugon!” Mol’Pigad shot back. “No position you’re in to call us wod’vig nog’hurab!”
Sweat began pouring from my forehead and back. This language issue was going to be a bigger issue than I realized. Trying to pretend like I understood what they were saying at all would be bad enough. If they made some kind of specific reference that I needed to understand, though, I was probably doomed.
“We’ve been over this before,” I sighed. “Nothing you can say worries me.”
“Get when we do to the boss, feel you will hi’grot differently,” he said. “Things can we reveal to Byt’hula scrap the treaty.”
That caused me to have an electric shock sensation ripple through my body. Just then, I also received a message from Belgrano that appeared on my HUD. “One caution, they probably have information that could be used to undermine our position with the Emperor and the Dowager Broodmother. Try not to anger them. If they release it, that could be the end of everything we’ve worked for.”
I almost laughed at the situation. It was absurd, all of it. I almost wondered if Belgrano had kept this from me until I was already away so that I would fail. However, failing wouldn’t help Belgrano, unless he had motivations I didn’t understand. There was always the strong possibility that I was going insane and not perceiving things properly.
Because I couldn’t figure out any way of correcting the conversation thus far without risking making matters worse, the ride to the Sticky Tongue hideout passed without another word being said. Well, at least not any words I could understand. The Drezians belched and croaked a variety of indecipherable Gitr’ogian phrases at each other and my translator ceased even trying to translate. It simply said, instead, “Unintelligible Babble. Translation impossible. Please reboot software once translatable conversation commences.”
When we arrived, I was shown down this bizarre labyrinthine series of muddy tunnels that were also equipped with some of the most sophisticated equipment I’d ever seen in my life. Various holographic projectors being employed by Sticky Tongue henchmen for communication, matter converters for converting Drezian slime into transparent aluminum for their spaceships, and all manner of defensive turrets in case their hideout was ever under attack. While my understanding was that the Drezian government tolerated the Stick Tongue’s existence to a point, it was always considered a possibility that the Dowager Broodmother would one day decide to kill them all. Having met her, this seemed more than likely.
Once we reached the bottom of the base, I was escorted into a dark room that resembled an abandoned throne room. This made some sense. Since the Sticky Tongue had been founded by a rival claimant for the title of Broodmother, it only would follow that they would have at one point presented themselves as some kind of royal family. At the back of the room, a grotesquely fat neon orange Drezian sat on all four legs swallowing heaps of screeching bugs. Based on how Mol’Pigad bowed before it, I could only assume that this was the Sticky Tongue Matriarch.
When I stood before her, her eyes narrowed and then widened, her mouth dropping open. I did the ordinary Drezian salutation that I would give to the Emperor or the Dowager Broodmother. The Matriarch chortled at this, probably flattered.
“Did you when start thinking much so of me?” she chuckled, her slimy skin jiggling with her laughs.
“It’s just easier to give everyone the same greeting,” I responded. “When you get to my age…”
“Than less half my age, Hun’drez!” she belched.
I desperately wanted to correct her especially atrocious grammar. That was always one of our favorite pastimes in the Diplomatic Corps Academy. When you are as pedantic as we are, correcting grammar and malapropisms is a constant. While other aspects of our work can be conducted quite incompetently, our adherence to our own style guidelines is impeccable and without peer in any of the governmental services.
“I also don’t age well,” I said bitterly.
“But remember do you agreement our information regarding our and assistance bol’kog?”
My throat began to roil. Their bizarre and broken way of speaking was too much. Laughs built up in my stomach and wanted to surge out of my mouth.
“You’re going to have to be more specific than that,” I joked.
She looked at me highly suspiciously. I didn’t know what she was thinking, but she kept looking back and forth with her son, Mol’Pigad.
“Think I should you know what agreement our was.”
“Negotiating this treaty has made me realize the importance of precise language,” I scolded her. “You need to tell me exactly what it was that I was supposed to deliver for you.”
Mol’Pigad hopped up to his mother’s side and began whispering in her ear. Her eyes narrowed to the point that all I could see were her irregular green irises.
“Stupid being you are,” she gurgled. “Qog’ril don’t kaq’rek with us.”
Having not the slightest idea what that meant, I could see that being bold was the only way to throw them off balance.
“Don’t even think about threatening me. Should anything happen to me, yes, Earth will be without a valuable friend. However, I’m sure the Byt’hula and Grez’a wouldn’t think much of you if you killed me here. They’re not inclined to believe what you say about any of this and you know it,” I said, swelling with disdain. I almost offended myself with the disrespect I was showing them.
The Matriarch’s entire expression changed in an instant. As I would soon find out, her extraordinarily broken grammar was a ruse. She only used it because the other members of the Sticky Tongue were blithering idiots. Her entire spawn, as the Drezians would say, must have had “weak membranes” when they were being hatched.
“Others, out!” she commanded. “Bil’trog, stay you!”
The others quickly followed her instructions, hopping out and closing the thick door behind them.
“Very well, Ambassador. Very well,” she said, her voice suddenly far more refined than it had been. “I see that you’re striking a much more aggressive stance these days. I should’ve figured that you wouldn’t bend so easily once we came down to it.”
“I’m glad you realize that,” I said. I almost made a note that she finally spoke in comprehensible grammar again. “Now, what is it that you want and I want to make sure exactly what favor you’re calling in. This is important. We can have no understanding. I don’t want you coming to me later and saying that I still owe you a favor for something you’ve already cashed in.”
She grabbed another wad of Drezian insects with her slippery hand and shoved them into her mouth, swallowing them whole. One of them was a particularly screechy bug that echoed up her throat as she tried to speak again. Swallowing harder, she managed to silence it.
“You’re being difficult, but very well. Four years ago, you needed to give Byt’hula a favor to offset that whole business with the egg clutches in breeding pool 719.3r. You came to me for information on First Treasurer Nog’rel, who she never liked anyway. What we gave you wasn’t easy to come by,” she said, making a violent gesture. “Before handing it over, you promised that we could call on you for any favor in the future.”
Asking for any more information on Ambassador Hunley’s dealings with the Sticky Tongue was a risky proposition. I almost didn’t want to know. If I learned just enough to know just how little I knew, I worried it would put me in a position where my ruse would be more easily discovered. Keeping the conversation on more friendly territory, general statements that almost anyone could say, was my committed strategy. I’d decided that I would hold to it until my luck ran out.
“I don’t think I ever said ‘any’ favor,” I said, forcing a dismissive chuckle.
The Matriarch reached over to her right and swiped her hand through a holographic display that projected a recording of Ambassador Hunley, in her encounter suit speaking to the Matriarch and her son.
“Thank Splorxx you came through for us! I think this will convince the Dowager Broodmother to open up a bit,” Ambassador Hunley said, accompanied by effusive hand motions. I realized that in the future I would have to match it in my future encounters or they might begin to realize that something was amiss. “And feel free to ask me for any favor. Any favor at all. I truly do mean anything.”
The Matriarch tilted her head at me and menacingly inflated her throat pouch. In truth, I was terrified by her. Of all of the Drezians I had met by that point, she was the most likely to actually be a threat to my life. I was sure of that. She struck me as the sort of creature who would be happy to kill me first and navigate the consequences of it later.
“I’ll grant you that, Matriarch. I simply recalled that I had made some other promises that I took more seriously. And I…”
“Now I’m going to give you our order. You must agree to do this within one of your human days, without fail.”
“And if I fail?”
“We’ll disintegrate you and leave your ashes to float in the vacuum of space. Disintegration is painful and, when it’s completed, no one will ever know what happened to you. No body. No confirmation. No ceremony.”
“I see…” I mumbled.
“Now, the order,” the Matriarch quickly followed up. “I need you to poison Minister Anu’ra.”
I gasped. Any number of requests could have shocked me, but that was a bit too much.
“To death?” I asked, just to see if I misunderstood the order.
Her own jaw popped open.
“Y… Yes!” she said outrage. “What’s wrong with you? What else do we poison for? Just to make him a little sick?”
“That can have its own purposes,” I joked.
She slapped her hands on the metal slab in front of her.
“You’ll kill Minister Anu’ra for us and you’ll do it within the next twenty-four of your human hours!”
“What has he done to…”
“Don’t be a fool with me! Splorxx didn’t make humans this stupid! He’s planning to destroy us as soon as your treaty’s signed. Make sure he doesn’t make it that long.”
And that was essentially the end of my first venture into the Endless Bog. I was tranquilized shortly after that, apparently. I don’t remember a thing about it. If you have ever had it happen, it’s a bit like sitting in bed waiting to go to sleep. You don’t remember the moment you went to sleep and similarly you don’t remember being knocked out from the tranquilizer dart. The next thing I remember was being back in Ambassador Hunley’s office, staring at my communications screen with information about Minister Anu’ra. I didn’t know what I had been looking for. It must have made sense to me at the time. Then I realized something else…
My helmet was off. In fact, my whole encounter suit was off. I panicked as I couldn’t find it next to me. The office door wasn’t open at least. All of this was a mystery. I began worrying that I’d given the whole operation away.
I searched the office, looking for any indication of what I’d done or how I had gotten there. I also looked for any sign that Belgrano might be lurking in some dark corner. He wasn’t in the office, nor in the adjoining storage room. I even checked the bedroom. No sign of Belgrano, or anyone else. I even checked the private shuttle bay off the rear of Hunley’s wing of the embassy. Again, nothing seemed out of place.
Unnerved by it all, I decided that I would have to sit in the bathroom to get my head back together. It was the one room where I could be sure that I wouldn’t be bothered, after all. This wasn’t to be the case, however. There, sprawled on the bathroom floor, I found Belgrano. He appeared motionless in his officer’s uniform, not unlike how I’d seen Ambassador Hunley. I immediately considered all of the different problems that I’d have to confront if I was to dispose of Belgrano’s body as well. I freely admit that I had no productive thoughts along those lines.
Then, he jolted awake. He quickly recoiled back into the bathroom’s far corner. I swear that he moved like a spider on the ground trying to avoid being squished. He recovered quickly, though. Within seconds, he stood and straightened his shirt as though nothing had happened.
“I see you’re awake, Ms. Reinhardt,” Belgrano said, slicking some stray strands of hair back down on his head. “Good. We don’t have terribly much time until your event at the museum dedication.”
I didn’t realize that I even had such an even on my schedule and I was terribly exhausted besides. I might have heard something about it earlier, but my mind was so scrambled by that point that I couldn’t make much sense of anything.
“Why is my suit off?” I asked.
“That does deserve and explanation,” Belgrano said. “But I’m not inclined to tell you.”
“Are you serious?!”
“No. I felt humor would be the best way to soften the blow.”
“They dumped you on the main loading bay in a crate. I decided to take personal charge of the situation and had to create yet another security drill to distract everyone. Remind me to revisit that issue in a moment. In any case, I dragged you here in your suit, which is heavier than I realized. Then I noticed you were choking on vomit in your suit as the tranquilizer ran its course. I needed to get you out of there. Because the suit is so heavy, I exhausted myself and just collapsed in the bathroom here.”
That all seemed to make sense, except I didn’t even want to know how long I had been out of commission.
“And what was that one issue you needed to revisit?” I asked.
“Before I get to that, your suit is being washed. You don’t want to go around with it in the state it was in, I assure you,” he looked at me with a judgmental glare. “Now, the issue is….”
His wrist communicator began beeping. I saw the text on the screen saying “Captain Konstantin Popov.” Belgrano’s eyes widened and his skin went grey.
“Yes?” Belgrano asked, almost dropping the “s” out of fear.
“Belgrano, I need to present my findings at once. I’m heading down to the Ambassador’s office right now.”
“I’ll join you th…”
“I know you’re there right now Belgrano,” Popov said. “Don’t try to deceive me.”
“Technically speaking, joining you here doesn’t mean that I’m not already here.”
“Damn it, Belgrano!” Popov yelled. “I’ll be there shortly.”
Belgrano turned off his communicator and sighed.
“I think he’s onto the ruse,” Belgrano said. “I’m not sure how to play this one. Do you have any suggestions?”