“Minister Anu’ra, I think we are almost…" I started saying, realizing that the reception was about to begin.
“Quite right you are, Ambassador,” he acknowledged. “This part isn’t the main reason I’m here, but it has to be done.”
I nodded at him in awkward acknowledgement.
“What’s your main reason for being here, then?” I chuckled.
“Your concessions to us in the treaty aren’t anywhere near sufficient for what we’re risking on your behalf,” he swiftly replied, his joyful tone turning into a sour and bitter expression. “This Rus’sia you’re giving us for our food cultivation, it’s not enough.”
The fact that relocating some 150 million people over an area as large as Russia was not enough shocked me. Given Hunley’s friendly demeanor vis-à-vis the Drezians, I dared not pretend that this was outrageous. Instead, I decided to be accommodative. After all, if things went according to plan, this wouldn’t be relevant anyway. Thinking of that, however, made my gut ache. I found Anu’ra, even in my relatively brief discussions, to be an entirely earnest servant of his people and the Broodmother. I couldn’t fault him. His stance made sense given his people’s position.
“There’s the reception after the dedication,” I said. “There should be plenty of time to discuss it all there. I’ve been giving it some thinking, too. Russia, after all, isn’t our most fertile land. About 70% of it is useless after all.”
“Precisely,” Anu’ra said, sticking one of his fingers against my encounter suit. “This is something the others haven’t understood. I know you’ve been negotiating for your own government, but you have to understand our position.”
“I definitely do,” I replied, grabbing his slimy finger in a grasp of friendship. “I completely sympathize.”
Whether that came off as sincere or not, Anu’ra seemed satisfied enough and we went out of the museum to its splendid entrance, which had statues of both prominent humans and Drezians. I would find out later that the whole museum had been built and programmed in only the space of 12 human hours by the advanced Drezian construction and propaganda robots. Funnily enough, their robots resembled what we would consider humanoid forms, just as ours did. I found out later that this was because there was an extinct race of mammalians that they had worked to death. They later based all of their robots on this servant race. Whether that made me worried about how they viewed Earth was immaterial. I understood our position well enough. If the Drezians looked at us and viewed us a subservient race, so be it.
We jointly walked out in front of the museum to deliver our separate addresses. At that moment I realized something that I had completely eluded me until that moment. Belgrano and I had never agreed upon a speech for Ambassador Hunley to deliver. Worse yet, I was supposed to go first. I froze.
“Ambassador,” Anu’ra said, “this is your moment.”
I shook my head and motioned for him to step forward. I realized that I had done it awkwardly. I hadn’t given it a second thought as to whether this matched Hunley’s movements. Being that rattled had impaired my judgment. I had expected Belgrano’s messages to come across my HUD at any moment, but instead there was nothing. Truly, I was alone.
“I couldn’t hope to match your words,” I said, chuckling in a self-deprecating manner. “Please, give your speech first. I don’t want to ruin it for you.”
Anu’ra’s pupils contracted and his face stiffened. There was no doubt in my mind that he thought something was off. Nonetheless, he stepped forward to do his part in the ceremony. I should mention that this was a fairly large crowd of well-dressed Drezians, wearing various neon bits of clothing and representing the very cream of Drezian society. I’m certain that Ambassador Hunley knew a good number of them from her almost incalculable social engagements over fully twelve years as ambassador, but I would be lying if I could say I recognized any of them. To obscure this problem, I waved my hand vaguely at the audience and nodded at certain directions where the Drezians seemed most interested in my presence.
Anu’ra’s speech was brief. This was a problem for me, because I didn’t have enough time, certainly not under that pressure, to develop a good speech. With my brain as addled as it was on stimulants, I would say it was a miracle I could put anything together at all. As for remembering her favorite phrases and the like, I can’t say that I did a particularly good job of preparing anything. Instead, I decided to take a novel approach to the entire predicament.
Once Anu’ra concluded, he motioned me forward to give my speech. He appeared more reserved than he had earlier, as if I had a disease. I didn’t need to be told that he had doubts as to my authenticity. Worse yet, I was sure that as I became more apprehensive my illusion would wear off even more and I would regress to my own idiosyncrasies instead of Ambassador Hunley’s.
I stood silently before this august crowd of prominent Drezians for probably about fifteen seconds. Then, inspiration hit me.
“You know, I had a prepared speech for what we’re celebrating here today, but Splorxx be praised, I have something better,” I said, drawing cheers from the crowd.
“Hun’drez!” many of them chanted.
“I first wanted to thank you for this. Earthicans everywhere will be honored to be so celebrated on Drezian soil,” I declared. “I was moved to tears. Oh, I haven’t felt this way in so long. Truly, Earth is humbled that you would hold us in this regard.”
I turned and looked at Anu’ra, whose pupils dilated a bit more. I took this to be a signal of approval, whether that was warranted or not.
“Not every Earthican understands just what it means to turn to Jin’Drezia for protection, but I do. I do! If all Earthicans knew that we would be blessed with such glorious moist harmony with your great people, I’m sure they would feel as passionately as I do that this treaty must be made,” I boomed, with sweeping hand motions matching what I had seen in recordings of Ambassador Hunley. “It’s my greatest honor to offer Earth’s loyal service to Jin’Drezia. Our moist harmony will be the moistest and the most harmonious.”
After a very short pause, probably caused by some glitch in my encounter suit’s translation software, the crowd of Drezians erupted in their squishing applause and roaring croaks. I don’t know what I channeled there. Perhaps some residual memory from Ambassador Hunley had sunk through the suit and into my brain. It’s not as absurd as it sounds, given how the brain implants work.
Anu’ra approved of the speech, although his pace of applause was slower and his eyes locked squarely on me. I was scared to look back at him as his pupils narrowed. I don’t know precisely what that meant and I don’t suppose I ever will.
Regardless, we then went to the reception where there was a big bowl of Kargrez sitting in the middle of the museum. Even though I knew that this had killed Ambassador Hunley shortly after her meeting with Anu’ra two days previously, I also realized that I had to play the role as though I was the ever-exuberant Hunley, especially regarding Kargrez, and take my fill. With a giant shell-shaped cup, I took the very first scoop out of the bowl. As my hand left, I released a cartridge of the poison into the bowl because I didn’t know when else I would have the chance. I wasn’t sure if I had caught any of it myself or not. That alone made me worry, much less the consequences of what would follow.
“To this great new era! Splorxx bless us all!” I said as I poured the drink into my suit’s hydration tube. Drinking it wasn’t really a choice with how that tube worked. It piped straight into my esophagus. Apparently the encounter suit’s designers assumed that anything you put in that tube was meant to go into your stomach and liver. Not an unfair assumption, but they certainly hadn’t anticipated an incident like this.
I felt the Kargrez’s impacts almost immediately. That warm feeling from earlier radiated all over my body, but there was something else. It was much warmer. Luckily, I knew that this poison in small amounts wouldn’t be deadly to humans. I just needed to keep my composure long enough for Anu’ra to take his own drink.
And that he did. He ran his shell through the Kargrez, taking in a massive amount of the purple drink. Several others joined him. I only barely recalled their names from the Drezian governmental hierarchy charts I’d studied earlier. Their precise names weren’t very important to me at the time and they would soon matter even less than that, if all went well.
Anu’ra raised his shell skyward and proposed a toast.
“To this moistest of harmonies with Hun’drez and her people!” he declared.
My heart almost stopped as I saw him and his aides swig the entirety of their cups into their massive mouths. I had to take another drink myself, which made my entire body feel as though it was burning. The poison, as it turned out, was quite fast-acting.
Since I had consumed it first, I started stumbling before the others. Minister Anu’ra reached out his slimy hand toward me as though he hoped to stabilize my wobbling gait. However, instead of stabilizing me, he himself began losing his grip on the floor. His hind legs kicked out and he dropped his cane. His eyes became disjointed and his lips quivered as he gasped for air.
He and his aides all began screaming, as did I. This was not affected on my part. I was in horrid pain, even though my body was better-equipped to handle it than theirs. I fell to the ground and began spasming. Once again, this was not an affectation, but rather a true sign of gross discomfort. Anu’ra fell to the ground, his skin beginning to tighten into odd little patches. The same happened to his aides. The others, who had not yet taken a drink, looked on in horror. All of them called for help. I can’t remember exactly what they said, except that one of them asked to call our embassy in order to get me proper medical care.
Anu’ra, writing on the ground, faced toward me. He coughed and sputtered, thick juicy fluids spilling out of his mouth on the floor. His pupils contracted at me and he extended his hand, pointing a finger at my face. I wondered if this was an accusation. Perhaps in his last moments he’d figured me out. Instead, I realized then and now, it was a plea for help. I grabbed on to him, even as my own strength diminished.
“Hun’drez,” he said, “you… must… finish….”
Whatever it was he wanted me to finish, he didn’t finish his sentence to tell me. He and the others all gurgled in wretched pain. I, for my own part, screamed in agony. It truly did feel as though my insides were on fire. Luckily, the encounter suit’s cooling systems softened the blow somewhat. My screaming continued long after the others fell silent.
All of the Drezians surrounding us shouted into their communicators and called for help. Many of those watching refused to believe this could be happening, especially during the holy day of Erg’um. I would have felt worse about the horror I’d inflicted that moment if I wasn’t fighting for life myself. I could feel the effects of the poison dispersing around my body, causing strange pains and warm sensations everywhere. My vision became tinted in a reddish color and everything blurred. All I knew before I lost consciousness was that Minister Anu’ra and five of his aides were dead. One, who had barely touched her drink, was badly injured and was barely holding on.
Just as several Drezians approached me, I lost all consciousness while I was being carried off. From what I understood, I was being taken back to the embassy because those were the only medical staff on the planet that could address my needs. And those were dire needs.
Waking up in the embassy’s surgical center was something I hadn’t ever anticipated. It was as blinding white a room as I had ever seen in my life. I could barely see anything with my bleary eyes. I noticed a medical droid standing over me, taking constant measurements. Its round black head and bright red eyes, each in the shape of a simple cross, were more than slightly frightening. Its eyes flashed an even brighter red when it noticed that I had come around.
“Consciousness restored. Systems normalizing,” the medical droid announced in its clangy voice. “Would you like anything? Perhaps your favorite drink? A lemonade is what our records show.”
It was only then that I realized I had been taken out of Ambassador Hunley’s encounter suit, again, and that I had been identified. Still, with as horrible as I felt working off the prior day’s poisoning, this didn’t surprise me the way it should have. There must have been some kind of medication that they pumped into me. I didn’t feel worried in the slightest by the situation.
“Lemonade should be fine,” I said. “Pardon me, but what day is it?”
“The date is D.D. Flin 8.912/3,”the medical droid said as a spout shot out of its boxy abdomen to spray into a glass. I want to say that this lemonade was one of lemonade’s ordinary colors. It wasn’t yellow or pink. Rather it was this bizarre green color. “Or December 9th. Is that satisfactory?”
This was when I almost passed out again. I actually started laughing. There was not a chance I could have been out that many days, was there? It must have been a cruel joke. Awkwardly, the medical droid began laughing along with a tinny chuckle that was immensely unnerving.
“Ah. Human date jokes? Is December 9th a funny date to you? An anniversary of something?” the droid asked.
At this point, I ceased laughing as so did the droid. I shot my head over in all directions. Nothing about my surroundings calmed me down. I noticed a pair of gloves in the chair next to me. These were certainly Belgrano’s. He wasn’t anywhere to be found. Neither were there human medical staff in sight.
“Was… I was I out for almost a week?” I asked.
“Six days, 13 hours, and 51 minutes since your arrival,” the droid’s metallic voice replied.
“Good Splorxx!” I shouted.
“Indeed, Splorxx is good, Ms. Reinhardt. You are alive and recovered,” it said with perfunctory courtesy. Its bedside manner, to put it mildly, could use some improvement.
“How could that be true? I wasn’t even that poisoned,” I said.
The medical droid began projecting a diagram showing what had happened. Just then, though, Belgrano re-entered the room.
“I can explain that, Ms. Reinhardt,” Belgrano’s voice carried from around the corner as he emerged before me. “And we don’t have much time until you’re needed again.”