We had to smuggle ourselves out of the embassy again because, after all, it would be unseemly for Earth’s ambassador to visit the very people assumed to be behind Minister Anu’ra’s death. We explained to Habib that it was because these were unofficial negotiations. He wasn’t nearly as suspicious of that as I thought he’d be. Maybe those Quarmarqian drugs had the unexpected effect of making him more agreeable than he otherwise would be.
However, in the cargo bay of the Drezian transport, Habib began to make a bit of a scene. We sat there, just Belgrano, Habib, and myself, along with four Drezians who were members of the Sticky Tongue. Belgrano had gotten them to agree to not discuss any of our prior business dealings with Habib. This wasn’t enough to prevent him from trying to break the awkward silence prevailing on our ship.
“And which ministry do you work for?” Habib asked. “I know that my dear Hunley talked with the late Minister Anu’ra frequently. Did you know him?”
Belgrano slowly shook his head back and forth. I had some fun guessing exactly what he might be thinking.
“We into him we brushed, time from to time,” one of them responded with their broken dialect. “Dyg’jurg occasions on many.”
Habib tapped me on the shoulder, his encounter suit’s metal clanging against mine.
“My dear Hunley, what’s the matter with how these things talk?” he asked, his voice loud enough that I was certain they could hear him.
“Gitr’og continental dialect. Our translators don’t pick it up quite properly,” I replied.
“Ah, very good!” he said to me before turning back toward them. “My good friends, you’ll have to forgive me. This translation unit isn’t very good. I’ll try my best, though.”
I was thankful that the Sticky Tongue was so gracious to me in this instance because I’d actually poisoned Minister Anu’ra. Belgrano had told me before boarding that they didn’t actually think it possible that I could pull that off. Their threats to expose Ambassador Hunley’s prior deeds were actually just to see if they could somehow convince me to do it. It had been an empty threat. Were we not in desperate need of their services, this would have made me furious. However, with President Zhou demanding that Habib’s signature be on the treaty in order to make it enforceable, I was glad that they felt they owed us this.
We were taken to a different location than where I had met the Matriarch previously. Instead of a deep and dark cavern, this was a sterile laboratory, and one far more sophisticated than anything I had ever seen before. It was coated entirely in a light green metal alloy and I couldn’t even begin to describe a number of the devices I saw. One particularly bloated Drezian manned a station with a series of tiny implants that looked like metal hookworms. Habib ran up to that station and gawked at the devices.
“Splorxx floating in space! What is all of this?!” he asked.
The fat Drezian lazily looked down at Habib and then up at Belgrano and me. He pointed a single fat finger at our Interstellar Secretary.
“The one is this?” the fat Drezian asked lethargically, wiping a white glob of crystallizing snot from its nostrils.
“The one whaaaaaHHHHHHHHH!” Habib screamed as the fat Drezian grabbed him and shoved one of the devices into his ear. It was over so quickly that I wasn’t even sure what I had seen.
The fat Drezian waddled over to a set of modules while Habib stood motionless. After fidgeting with the various modules, the fat Drezian seemed pleased with the one that he would ultimately hand to us. The modules were about the size of a grapefruit, black in color, shiny, and had a simplified display.
“Here,” he rumbled, placing it into my hand.
He began walking away before telling us anything about it.
“Excuse me!” I demanded. “How does it work?”
The fat Drezian rolled his eyes back and shrugged.
“Simple. Two functions. First, commands general. Second, commands specific,” he said, pointing at two settings delineated by a simple switch between the two.
“I don’t understand,” Belgrano huffed.
“I do!” I said, bursting with excitement.
“Do you really?!” he asked, exasperated.
I stepped forward without even acknowledging his question.
“Walk about aimlessly,” I said into the module.
Habib took a few halting steps at first, but then milled around the room like he was browsing in a shop. I giggled as this was exactly what I thought it would be. I flicked it to the second, more specific setting.
“Stop,” I commanded. Habib stopped in place, his right foot dangling in the air. “Now walk ten paces to your left.”
Less haltingly this time, he obeyed the command and walked ten paces to his left and then stopped. I nodded at Belgrano that I had this well in hand. I switched it back to the more generalized setting.
“Engage in mindless banter,” I commanded.
Habib perked up, I imagine because his subconscious was excited at the prospect of doing what he did best. Even through his encounter suit, he appeared rejuvenated.
“My dear friend, we haven’t looked into your proposal in much detail because we want to ensure that it gets all of the attention that it needs. InshaSplorxx, we’ll review it shortly and give it the fullest consideration!”
“That’s… perfect,” Belgrano gasped.
The fat Drezian shrugged and waddled back to his seat near the mind control receptors. Belgrano held out his hand for the command module and I decided to let him have it. It was hard to tell exactly what he was thinking in his encounter suit. Then I saw him shake with excitement. He flicked the switch to the more specific setting.
“Repeat what President Zhou said regarding the treaty negotiations on Jin’Drezia,” Belgrano said.
Habib perked up again. He did a smooth, sweeping bow in the direction of absolutely nothing and made motions like he was straightening his robes, even though he was just brushing against his encounter suit. The fat Drezian eyed this all with palpable disdain. He didn’t have to say a word for me to see what he was thinking.
“Mr. Supreme President, I leave in five minutes for Jin’Drezia. Do you have any final commands?” he asked.
Then he hopped 180 degrees and faced toward his prior position. He folded his hands and squared his shoulders. I can only imagine that he was making some exaggerated expression, a fierce scowl perhaps, to imitate Supreme President Zhou.
“You can only sign a treaty with those terms in it, Habib. I won’t accept anything else from you. If you come back with what that useless whore Hunley has given away, I’ll make it my mission to destroy you and your family. I will hunt you down as long as I live.”
Belgrano and I glanced at each other while the fat Drezian yawned at our little escapade.
“Satisfied?” he asked.
“Oh yes!” I replied. “My compliments to the Matriarch!”
“Thank you,” her surly voice came over some speakers I couldn’t even see.
When we returned to the embassy, Belgrano used his authority to call yet another security drill to buy us time to shuffle Habib into Ambassador Hunley’s office without being seen. Belgrano assured me that he would alter the security footage records so that we didn’t have another Popov incident.
Meanwhile, we continued to calibrate our puppet. It was a far more enjoyable process than it has any right being. Over time, he began having a shorter warm-up phase between the commands he was given and his execution of those commands. It might have had something to do with his drugs wearing off. Fewer obstacles in the way to his neural receptors made the commands that much clearer.
When Belgrano tested out more specific commands, I decided to look into just how this technology worked. I wondered how it was that even a general command could be interpreted with the precision it was and turned into some kind of useful function. The Drezians had apparently mastered an art years ago, about seven centuries earlier, whereby a small implant could take an external command and send it through the victim’s brain in such a way as to trigger all of the necessary related signals. For the victim, they were never actually completely made unaware of their own actions. In fact, apparently it was more like they were a helpless observer being forced to carry out commands other than their own.
Reading that made me realize that our gambit with Habib had a bigger consequence.
With only a short time until the next summons with the Broodmother, I poked Belgrano on the shoulder.
“Yes?” he asked. He was clearly distracted on determining what command he would try next.
“Can I speak with you privately?”
“What for? Habib is entirely incapable of understanding anything we’re saying right now. It’s not like he’ll remember it.”
“That’s…. not entirely true.”
Belgrano slowly turned to face me, his eyes bulging.
“Stay right there,” Belgrano commanded into the module. Habib, as requested, sat politely on a chair with his hands folded.
Belgrano and I went back into the bathroom to discuss what I’d found outside of Habib’s hearing. I explained to Belgrano everything that I’d learned and he refused to accept it. He was fairly rude about it, too.
“Ms. Reinhardt, don’t you think that if I was going to hatch a plan like this that I would’ve looked into any such possibility?” he spat.
“I think you were misled. I don’t blame you for not realizing that…”
“I’ve never dealt with a more insolent…” he mumbled while pulling out his secretive communicator that he kept on the inside of one of his boots. It was clearly of Drezian design, being so globular and made of Drezian alloys. “This is Belgrano.”
A brief pause followed.
“What is it? You’d better not be asking for anything else!” the Sticky Tongue Matriarch snapped back over the communicator.
“Only a factual inquiry,” Belgrano grumbled. “Do the hosts of these devices hear and see while they’re being controlled? More importantly, do they remember it all?”
“What a stupid question!” the Matriarch guffawed. Belgrano smirked at me with scathing hostility. “Of course they do!”
Belgrano’s head quickly snapped back to his communicator while I chuckled. His smirk collapsed into a scowl.
“What?! That wasn’t what we discussed!” he protested.
“No, it wasn’t because I thought you… Didn’t you ever read about what the forbidden art entailed?” the Matriarch gurgled over the speaker.
After a pause and a guilty glance in my direction, Belgrano sighed in response.
“Very well. Now you know.”
The communicator cut out at that point. I couldn’t believe how happy I was to see him humiliated like that. He didn’t even seem annoyed at the fact this amused me. I assume that he was genuinely mad at himself for missing this key fact and having been corrected on it so harshly. He looked like he might have a stroke.
“Ms. Reinhardt,” he began through gritted teeth, “I owe you an apology.”
“Think nothing of it,” I beamed. “I think I got all that I wanted out of it.”
He shook his head and grasped at his temples with both hands.
“Then this means that we’ll have to get rid of Secretary Bin Tawal once the treaty is signed…” he groaned.
I wanted to pretend that shocked me, but it certainly didn’t by that point. Nothing could have shocked me by that point in the entire affair.
“How?” I asked.
“I don’t know…” he mumbled. “I’ll have to think of something. Maybe the…”
“No!” Belgrano shot back. “Just because sticking bodies in the emergency ration freezer has been our answer so far doesn’t mean it’s our answer for everything! Although…”
We then heard a thud from back in the office. I ran cold, and not only because Ambassador Hunley’s encounter suit’s cooling system was beginning to malfunction. Luckily, Habib had only tumbled out of the chair and was just lying harmlessly on the ground.
“The implant must have punctured his middle ear,” Belgrano sighed. “His internal sense of balance isn’t what it was anymore.”
I looked at Habib and ran my hand across his eyes. They sort of followed, but in a creepy way, like they were being controlled from elsewhere. His mouth popped open and it looked like he was about to speak on his own.
“Sit back up on the chair next to you,” Belgrano ordered. Habib sprang to his feet and again placed himself politely on the chair, folding his hands. Sure enough, he began tilting to his right little by little. Belgrano decided to try something. “Don’t let yourself slouching off like that. Rebalance yourself.”
I had my doubts as to whether that command would work, but, sure enough, it did. Habib routinely tilted back to the left to stay in place. Whether that was a long-term solution or not, Belgrano didn’t care.
“I assume you’re going to be back here,” I said.
“That I must,” Belgrano replied. “After all, it wouldn’t do to have me walking around giving commands to the Secretary of Interstellar Affairs, would it?”
“Do you think you can make him more presentable? The Broodmother isn’t easily fooled by much,” I said.
Belgrano preened, straightening his uniform again and making sure his hair was slicked back tight against his head.
“Ms. Reinhardt, I’ve dealt with Secretary Bin Tawal for almost twenty years in some capacity or another. I think I can do a perfectly fine job telling him what to say.”
With Belgrano’s assurances, I boarded my shuttle with Habib in his puppet form. At least having him in his dark burgundy encounter suit meant I wouldn’t have to look directly at those strange detached eyes of his. I could swear he was calling for help through them. I tried to put it out of mind at any rate. Meeting Brood Mother Byt’hula and Emperor Grez’a at the palace again meant I would have to have my wits about me and I couldn’t run the risk of being distracted by his petrified face.
When we arrived at the palace again, we were greeted by an honor guard just as I had been earlier, but of course Minister Anu’ra had been replaced by a different dignitary. This was a skinny Drezian, so skinny he didn’t even have the customary Drezian jowls that were so prominent for their attraction rituals. He did, however, have a bright magenta skin with neon blue dots all over his head. He waddled forward on two legs and did the customary Drezian greeting. I’d almost forgotten about it until that moment because of my long incapacitation. I think I did it right.
“Splorxx be praised and praised high as glorious flight across the sky,” he boomed lyrically. It was some Drezian poem I apparently should have known, but I’d never heard it before. “Hun’drez, we feared the worst. The reports from your Doctor Beauchamp were never very optimistic until you made the turn a short while ago. Are you feeling like yourself again?”
Even after he spoke, I still couldn’t identify who this was. I waited for Belgrano to send me something, but he must have been distracted. It was probably because he was fixated with getting his commands right for Habib.
“Oh, Splorxx be praised, indeed!” I responded familiarly. I then pointed to Habib to my right. “I bring a special guest who’d like to introduce himself.”
There was an awkward pause where everyone from myself to this still unnamed senior Drezian to his two dozen guards just stared at Habib. I was terrified that somehow Belgrano had decided that he didn’t need to pay attention or that something may have happened to him. Another few silent seconds passed before Habib’s encounter suit moved.
“A thousand apologies, my dear friends!” he said at last. “I was trying to understand my HUD. I am Secretary of Interstellar Affairs Habib Bin Tawal. I am here to conclude treaty negotiations with our good friends! We are good friends, are we not? We could do better, though. What is your name?”
Whatever command Belgrano had given Habib there, it worked beautifully. The skinny senior Drezian did the respectful head flick again and stepped toward Habib, standing only a foot away.
“Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe we’ve spoken before, Secretary Bin Tawal,” the Drezian said.
“Apologies upon apologies, may Splorxx forgive me!” Habib said with a gracious bow. “But, I talk with so many and I’m getting old.”
The skinny Drezian squinted suspiciously at Habib and glanced at me, but he quickly snapped back to Habib.
“I am Tog’un, Minister for Lesser Alliances and formerly First Broodling to the Broodmother,” he declared. “Hun’drez, you could have told your superior here all of this before coming here.”
One simple rule that I had internalized about Ambassador Hunley was that she would never flinch in the face of a criticism like that.
“You’re right! I could have told him, but, you know me, I didn’t,” he chuckled. Tog’un just glared back silently at me. None of his guards laughed, either. “Well, that’s over and done with,” I continued. “Shall we?”
I walked to Tog’un’s right and Habib walked at his left. Since Habib’s puppet gait wasn’t quite fast enough to keep up with Tog’un and me, I decided to limp along, pretending that recovering from the Lug’relb and sapped my energy. Even suspicious Drezians wouldn’t doubt that since Lug’relb had a reputation on Jin’Drezia along the same lines cyanide does on Earth. The idea that anyone could survive it was unthinkable, even to an inquisitive mind like Tog’un.
However, I stopped walking altogether when I got another message from Belgrano. It read, “Kitchen storage unit failures. All primary food rations contaminated. Turning to emergency rations. I’ll try to buy us some time.” My heart must have stopped beating for a full five seconds.
“Hun’drez, is there something wrong?” Tog’un asked, turning his head back at me.
“Oh, um, nothing! I was just getting lost in some old memories from the war,” I said nervously, even forgetting to speak in the lower octave.
Tog’un only nodded slightly and we began walking again. He seemed too clever not to make some note of my awkwardness. I decided that the only thing I could do at that point was trust Belgrano to somehow juggle the responsibilities of mind controlling the third most powerful man in Earthican government while also protecting our horrible secret.
I had more than enough to worry about as we entered the Old Cyg’rol Chamber.