I don’t know whether I was happy to see Belgrano at that juncture or not. Seeing him meant that I would be relentlessly prodded into continuing my mission, even though my insides felt like they had been scooped out. However, it was nice to see someone who could be relied upon to keep my secret safe.
Of course, I neglected to consider something and he quickly reminded me of it.
“Taking you back here required medical staff to know the truth. Doctor Beauchamp and her team are attending to another patient, but they have been asking questions,” Belgrano said, eyeing the medical droid. “You asserted you weren’t ‘that’ poisoned. The simple truth is you lost consciousness. Your body began to overheat and was on the verge of liquifying your organs. It was only by Splorxx’s grace that we got you back here in time to save your life.”
The medical droid nodded its head and formed a smiley face display on its external screen.
“Even a trace of that poison can prove fatal,” the droid chimed in. “It is lucky for you that the Drezian security officers brought you back so quickly, Ms. Reinhardt. You were only two minutes away from permanent expiration.”
Shocked, I stared back at both of them.
“And Minister Anu’ra?” I asked.
“Dead. Quite dead,” the medical droid answered before Belgrano could. “They’ve already thrown his corpse in the Burial Swamp north of the capital.”
This was yet another of those Drezian eccentricities I learned about only on the fly. They believed that the Burial Swamp was the original location for their earliest ancestors. By returning corpses to the Burial Swamp, they believed that the dead’s souls would be reunited with their ancestors and help guide the spawning of future generations. Whether their souls were merged, the various life forms combined with high levels of acidity in that swamp, meant that their bodies would decompose and become one with this cradle of life. Though it didn’t make all that much sense to me, I can say I found the concept moving in its own way. However, when you considered how many putrefying Drezian corpses would be in there at any one time, the whole concept became much more disturbing.
“It was a proper funeral,” Belgrano added, displaying annoyance at the medical droid. “And Broodmother Byt’hula and Emperor Grez’a send their best to you, or rather they’ve sent their best to Ambassador Hunley and…”
“Yes yes yes,” I responded. “Can… Can I?” I asked, motioning for Belgrano to come closer.
He obliged, slowly coming over to me and lowering his head to my bed.
“What do we do about those who know?” I whispered.
“Strictly speaking, medical staff have stringent confidentiality regulations,” Belgrano reminded me. I suppose I knew that. “And they have managed to keep this all under control thus far.”
“But will they continue to?” I asked.
Belgrano shrugged and sighed.
“We don’t have to keep it going much longer, thankfully.”
“It will be longer than you think,” the medical droid chimed in again. “Humans underestimate these things.”
Filled with fury, Belgrano snapped his head around at the droid.
“Don’t you have anything else you could be doing?” he asked.
“No, not really,” the droid responded. “I could power down for a moment if you would li…”
“Yes. Please power down, thank you,” Belgrano growled.
“Very good, sir. Please say the deactivation code.”
Belgrano squinted as he tried to remember.
“B-E-L-9-2-1-G. Mark,” he said, his voice palpably uncertain.
The droid’s lights all went off and it slumped in place, standing right in the way of one of the paths nurses would take to attend to me while I was unconscious. Belgrano’s face returned to a more ordinary demeanor and coloration.
“There. Now, if we can get the treaty done in the next few days, then we can undertake the process of truing up Ambassador Hunley’s death with the treaty process. As of right now, I am hopeful that we can have you out of this role and back to your ordinary assigned duties when…”
“What do you mean, ‘truing up’?” I asked.
I’d seen a number of condescending looks before, but never one like the one he gave me at that moment. It was as though not only had my last comment been stupid, but that everything I’d ever said in my entire life had been utter idiocy.
“At some point people need to know that Ambassador Hunley is dead. We can’t keep this ruse going forever. At the appropriate time, we’ll fake her death and that will be that. I’ve already decided that we will simply have her shuttle malfunction and crash into a nearby star, or something similar.”
“But what about Popov’s body?”
“Quite simple. We put his body in with hers and blow up the shuttle at the same time,” Belgrano said.
“Again, this will only be important once we announce the treaty is signed,” Belgrano declared pompously as he moved to turn the medical droid back on. “One more thing, you have roughly 5,182 messages to get through once you get back to the Ambassador’s office.”
I had one of those moments where approximately seven different thoughts collided in my brain at the same time. Barely able to form a sentence, I managed to blurt something out to Belgrano before he stepped out the door.
“But… the… what about…” I spluttered.
“The doctor?” he replied, cutting off my nonsense. He didn’t even turn around to acknowledge my babble.
“She’ll be here to check you out shortly,” Belgrano said. “Once she certifies you for work, you need to go straight to the office, in the Ambassador’s encounter suit of course.”
As it turned out “shortly” meant the better part of an hour. Lingering effects from the poison roiled me as I waited. I noticed occasional warm water sensations trickle down different parts of my body. Sometimes my legs. Sometimes my arms. Sometimes, weirdly, my chest. I kept taking my own pulse as if doing so would tell me I was dying or not. At some point, Dr. Beauchamp stepped in. She was a petite woman, at most 1.5 meters tall. She had braided blue-grey hair and heavily-wrinkled face. Based on her face, I wondered just how old she was. Given that she also used robotic legs in order to help her walk, she must have been ancient. I knew that she was one of the single most well-regarded doctors in the entire Diplomatic Corps, however.
“Fiona?” she asked in a wispy voice as she stepped forward. I nodded anxiously at her. “I’m Dr. Beauchamp.”
“Pleasure to meet you.”
She stood at my bedside and reviewed the medical data on her holographic display.
“Good news!” she smiled. “It looks like you can leave!”
“Oh, thank Splorxx!” I exclaimed.
“Just try not to let that happen to you again. The damage might not have fully healed. If you take another sip of either the Kargrez or Lug’relb again, that’ll be the end of you right then and there. Do you understand?” she asked, leaning forward into my face. Her breath smelled oddly sterile, like her mouth was coated in some kind of medical cleaning solution.
“You’re… not going to comment on…” I began, but she started shaking her head immediately.
“I’ve been in the Diplomatic Corps for seventy-five years. Do you have any idea how many strange things I’ve seen in that time?” she asked, stomping one of her robotic limbs on the ground.
Chuckling, I shrugged.
“I can only imagine.”
“No, you have to guess, Fiona,” she insisted.
“Oh. Um, at least fifty?”
“Some six-hundred sixty-seven peculiar things, so, yes, that is at least fifty,” she coughed. “I’ve made a personal list of every one of them, but with only enough detail I can remember. The oddities of serving Earth are the only thing that keep me going at this point. Everything else is so damn boring. If you do anything else interesting, let me know. Impersonating an important ambassador is probably difficult to top.”
Beauchamp then began unplugging my various monitoring devices or, for those without plugs, she just waved her hand over them and the authorization chip in her hand. I wish I knew what even a handful of the devices hooked up to me were. She made clear the purpose of one of them, however.
“By the way, your neural pathways are cluttered with all kinds of useless memories. What do you spend your time thinking about?” she asked, tilting her head so far to the side I thought she might break her own neck.
I was flabbergasted at the question.
“The NPAM 61f goes through an unconscious patient’s brain to give us the information we would need if they were awake,” she declared, pointing at this nondescript block-shaped device. “There were so many useless memories bouncing around your brain that we had the hardest time making sense of it.”
That all would have been insulting if I was slightly less cowed by the whole situation. Being berated by a legend of Diplomatic Corps medicine was actually more thrilling than it was humiliating.
“My prior position was as a liaison on Quarmarq,” I began. “I…”
“Liaisons?! LIAISONS?!” she screamed. “That explains everything! I’ve never met a liaison who had a single interesting thing to say!”
“Hey!” I protested.
“Go on. Say something interesting. I bet you can’t do it!”
“I’ve been impersonating the most prominent Earthican ambassador for…”
“That’s not related to your prior position as a liaison!” she scolded me, whipping her arm like it was a vine. “Tell me anything remotely stimulating about your chosen field.”
Being put on the spot like that, I couldn’t think of anything. It’s a simple fact that none of my prior escapades had been all that interesting. With a guilty glance, I sat there silently.
“You proved my point. This isn’t personal, merely factual. There’s never been a liaison who has done anything of significance in those positions. That’s why I want you back at it impersonating Ambassador Hunley as soon as possible,” she said. “And possible is now. Get back at it now!”
Back in the encounter suit, I strode across the atrium to Ambassador Hunley’s office and drew cheers from all of those staff members walking through or lounging in it. This included a very nervous Chef Vittorio, who stood alongside Belgrano. I wondered just how badly Belgrano had been treating him. Belgrano’s prior insinuations that he might have to kill Vittorio just as he had killed Popov worried me. I couldn’t help but worry about Doctor Beauchamp.
I decided to wave from my office’s door and bow repeatedly at their endless applause. Recognizing that it wouldn’t be possible to simply slink into Hunley’s office without a speech, I quickly concocted one that would hopefully be innocuous enough. I almost forgot to drop into Hunley’s deeper octave since I had gone some time without using it.
“I’m very touched by the concern shown by all of you,” I said, booming over the applause with the encounter suit’s speaker system. “Neither disease nor poison will stop my work on this treaty. With your continued support, we’ll get this done and all of our friends and family on Earth will be better for it. Now, back to work, all of you! If a little poison won’t slow me down, maybe that can be an example!”
As intended, that drew enough laughter to give me cover to slink into Hunley’s office and return to work. Apparently, while I had been unconscious, Belgrano had arranged for the office’s cleaning. Based on the meticulous work, it had been done by droids. Not a drop of Popov’s blood was anywhere to be seen.
I only wished he had done something to clean up the message backlog I faced. I don’t know what I honestly expected. A prominent ambassador on the verge of a treaty negotiation was going to get thousands of messages in a week’s time. Going through it all was a mess regardless. I couldn’t bring myself to check messages from her husband and children back home on Earth. That would have been far too heartbreaking. Instead I just sent along some automated reply about how busy my work was and so on.
A bit more worrying were the series of “CONFIDENTIAL” messages sent from Interstellar Secretary Habib Bin Tawal, all sent in the prior few hours. The written communiques weren’t all that urgent, but then there was the encrypted recorded message that played last.
“I received a message from Section Chief Belgrano that you have recovered, InshaSplorxx,” Habib began the message. “I hope you’re back at your full strength. I’ll be seeing you soon. President Supreme Zhou has ordered me to attend final treaty negotiations. My ship will be making the jump shortly. I have to tell you, a number of provisions will need renegotiation.”
That wasn’t actually the end of the message, but that’s all I remembered hearing because my mind went blank at that point. I tapped my wrist communicator almost immediately.
“Yes?” Belgrano answered.
“This is Ambassador Hunley,” I said. “We have a problem.”