Immediately after docking the shuttle behind Ambassador Hunley’s office, I met with a greatly upset Belgrano. First and foremost, he was actually most bothered by the nonsense that had transpired with the kitchen refrigerators, causing all of our primary rations to spoil in a short period of time. Evidently the temperature had shifted fully 20 degrees Celsius and the humidity controls had gone completely haywire. We had only a matter of 12 hours to resolve that issue before tapping into the emergency rations and almost certainly having others discover Hunley’s and Popov’s bodies there.
Chef Vittorio sent Belgrano panicked messages asking what to do once all remaining food was either consumed or expired. Belgrano kept replying, “Await instructions. Calm yourself.”
The funny thing about that was that Belgrano himself wasn’t calm about that situation, or the treaty negotiations. I have to say at this point that, after all we had done up to that time, I couldn’t believe that he was blanching at the treaty terms.
“Ms. Reinhardt, do you have any idea how serious this situation is?” he barked at me.
“I assume you’re going to tell me,” I replied, by this point irritated by the constant condescension.
“The entire purpose of this treaty was to protect Earth and humanity from annihilation by stronger powers. What Ambassador Hunley agreed to, and what you seem to be going along with, would achieve that peacefully and gladly by abject surrender!”
“I don’t see it that way,” I said, shrugging.
“You don’t?! How could you not? This is the end of the human species as we know it!”
“Well, yes, but if you look at it as just another stage of evolution it’s not so bad,” I laughed.
“Fuck!” he shouted. “Somehow your being in that suit made you sound like her. Exactly like her.”
“I thought that was the idea.”
Flustered, he put both of his hands on the top of his head and rubbed back and forth rapidly. His few strands of hair came flying out every which way. While he was doing this, he had commanded Habib to sit in the room’s far corner where he stared vacantly at us. I think Belgrano’s command to Habib had been something like, “Be comatose for a while.”
Belgrano himself paced back and forth, mumbling in Portuguese and pointing his right index finger up and down as though he was dictating his words to an assistant. His muttering became softer and softer. Eventually, he turned back toward me, his eyes and hair looking wild.
“There’s a simple matter of propriety here,” he said, his voice far calmer than his appearance. “Ending the human race on the say-so of a liaison posing as a dead ambassador and an embassy section chief is a step too far, Ms. Reinhardt. Think of the absurdity. You and I would be signing away three hundred thousand years of human evolution and human society for... what, exactly?”
“I always thought that the Diplomatic Corps emphasized that humanity is defined by our common ideas and values and not…”
“That’s all bullshit and you know it!” Belgrano interrupted, spittle flying from his mouth. “Nice little platitudes to make us feel better can’t possibly be what Earthicans are.”
“You seemed fairly willing to accept the other treaty terms, even handing over first born males as egg incubators for the Drezians. Why is this too far?”
He shook angrily at my saying that.
“You can’t be stupid enough not to see the difference. It’s one thing to do any number of desperate actions to save the human race. It’s another thing to just hand over the whole thing on a platter!” Belgrano screamed.
Obviously, that argument was going nowhere on that trajectory so I decided to try a different approach.
“Are you at least open to a logical argument on this?” I asked.
He took a deep breath and sighed.
“Very well, Ms. Reinhardt. Proceed,” he said, falling onto one of the chairs in the office.
“As I see it, there are two choices. One is that we pull out of this treaty negotiation, in which case the Drezians will be furious and there won’t even be the slightest chance we get their protection. Earth is attacked by one of these hostile races and humanity is destroyed. Maybe not entirely, but enough and our planet is plundered by whoever does that to us. The alternative is that we get the Drezians’ protection and are protected. We undergo these alterations as a race, but the payoff is that we actually achieve immortality. True immortality with a soul. Not this nonsense where our doctors keep saying they can get us up to 185 years old. Yes, there’s a steep price, but the reward is more than I can even explain.”
Belgrano actually did sit and listen politely. He even slicked his hair back against his head while listening to me, and he did so languidly. Once I was done, he strummed his fingers on his own knees several times. Reading his expression was impossible. I decided not to bother. Whatever he would decide was what it was and my speculation about it wouldn’t help at all.
“Hrm. I suppose it’s fair to say that, in our new forms, we would still continue on with current human culture despite being new lifeforms,” Belgrano mused out loud. “It’s not as though we will forget all of those who came before us. I must congratulate you, Ms. Reinhardt. That was exceptionally well-argued! I almost forgot that I was dealing with a liaison. As is customary to your branch of the service, you performed admirably. This is not me engaging in perfunctory courtesies, either. I mean every word of it.”
I actually blushed. Compliments from Belgrano were so rare that they were like some exotic flower that should be put in a climate-controlled exhibit and preserved for posterity.
“So you’re actually going to accept these terms whole-heartedly?” I asked.
“I will simply deal with it as I dealt with all other treaty terms so far. It’s an unfortunate situation and I certainly wouldn’t have chosen it myself, but there is that old Diplomatic Corps saying. ‘Even the best-prepared diplomacy will give you indigestion.’”
“Is that a real saying? I’d never heard it before.”
Belgrano’s eyes scanned back and forth and up to the tops of his sockets as though he was thoroughly fact-checking himself.
“That may actually be an alien saying that translated poorly. The actual origin is immaterial,” he said in a somewhat cheery demeanor, but that instantly collapsed when another thought came to mind. “What isn’t immaterial, however, is this business regarding the refrigeration of our rations.”
One of the strange things I found about that whole situation was that my brain wouldn’t let me accept just how dangerous that predicament was for me personally. Here we were facing the prospect that almost any moment the focus on the emergency rations freezer could turn up the bodies of Ambassador Hunley and Security Chief Popov. Any word that got out on that could bring down everything I had suffered for by that point. And that also made me realize that, any moment, some clue or piece of surveillance could reveal that I was behind Minister Anu’ra’s assassination. Why wasn’t I more panicked about all of that? Well, I suppose it’s because I couldn’t afford to be.
“Do we know what caused the failure in the primary systems?” I asked.
“No. However, I have my suspicions. The fact that both our primary systems failed as well as the secondary and tertiary systems strikes me as improbable. Kitchen maintenance droids should have caught that almost immediately before it all became a problem. We have momentary system failures all the time. It’s part of being in the Diplomatic Corps,” Belgrano said with an air of pride. It was almost as though our poorly-designed systems were a badger of honor. “Maintenance droids always fix the problems before they linger for long enough to be a crisis.”
“Come to think of it, on Quarmarq we always had any issue fixed in under three minutes,” I chimed in.
“And Quarmarq’s maintenance droids are a lower caliber than ours at the Jin’Drezia Embassy. I suspect sabotage with the most insidious motivation possible,” he angrily declared.
Shocked, I jolted upward in my seat.
“Sabotage? What motivation could there possibly be?”
“The most loathsome and unforgiveable frailty in our species: a guilty conscience,” Belgrano stated, his voice almost breaking from his contempt.
“But who here would have a guilty conscience and the means to… Oh no,” I whimpered once I realized what Belgrano had been getting at. “Vittorio.”
Belgrano nodded and sighed.
“I was trying to figure out why he would do what he’s doing now at this juncture. I think it comes down to his endemic passive aggression. He doesn’t want to just say what happened because, after all, he is party to much of it. Instead, he is trying to force the discovery of the bodies by other people. If you had served in this embassy for longer than the almost thirteen days you’ve been here, you’d know that this is standard Vittorio procedure.”
“Exposing the cover-ups of the deaths of key embassy officials?”
“Cute, Ms. Reinhardt, but no. Not recently, at any rate,” his voice trailed off and his eyes squinted. He then switched back to his ordinary level of attention. “Vittorio’s customary behavior is to gradually make an issue so uncomfortable to deal with that there is no escaping it. When he thought kitchen staff were being paid tier 4 embassy rates when this is a tier 1 embassy, he lowered his own cooking quality to something even worse than a tier 4 performance.”
“That’s why I want to invite him to have a special dinner in these quarters in the next couple of hours. A very special dinner. It needs to be very special, considering it will likely be the last meal he ever eats,” Belgrano quipped, amusing himself.
I wanted to protest that this was unnecessary, but I had already decided that the course we had gone down made this sort of thing inevitable. With what we were trying to achieve, any last minute attempts to undermine it actually felt like a personal betrayal to both me and the cause. I didn’t expect that I would ever be in a position where I would be able to feel that way, but there was no denying it now. I’m sure that almost anyone could understand why I was in that frame of mind. Ambassador Hunley would have felt the same way, I’m sure.
The dinner was in my quarters. Belgrano used the small cooking module to prepare some enhanced Feijoada, which he and Ambassador Hunley would share during especially long stretches of work at the embassy. It was probably the best-smelling thing I’d experienced in weeks. In fact, I realized that it was the only non-injection food I’d had since being on Quarmarq.
While Belgrano prepared the dinner, I received frequent communiques from Tog’un, notifying me that the treaty would probably be fully drawn up and ready for signing in as little as five Earthican hours. With the Drezian penchant for thorough revisions, I considered that an achievement to be envied. After all, they had to be comfortable with every word, comma, and a Drezian grammatical convention known as a Qul’rit, or roughly speaking a “throat puff.” I confess that I still don’t understand what that meant.
“Apparently Ambassador Hunley had run out of the Tilitep Spice infusers that my family was also so fond of for our Feijoada,” Belgrano bemoaned. “I had to use a Drezian spice instead.”
“Which one?” I asked, as though I would understand it.
“Something that Ambassador Hunley would refer to as ‘colon disintegrator,’” Belgrano said dryly as he labored over the module. “I hope it goes well with the ration pork she had in her freezer.”
That made me more than a little nervous. I didn’t want to be poisoned at this dinner, after all. Nonetheless, when he completed the infusions, the dish smelled wonderful, though I’m not sure how closely it resembled true Portuguese Feijoada. Belgrano must have felt much the same when he looked at it and drew in some wafts.
“It’s acceptable enough,” he said while filling three bowls.
He then scrolled through a holographic display of various classical music lists before settling on 25th Century Sao Paulo Brothel Erotic Jazz. I had guessed that Belgrano was nothing but class in hosting a dinner, but his choice confirmed it. I can’t imagine how he could have chosen a more fitting dinner selection. The raunchy saxophones especially made it perfect for a polite meal.
“And to think they thought this was bawdy back in the 25th Century,” Belgrano sighed and shook his head.
Just after he said that, the door notification sounded for Vittorio. I pressed the button to show him in and then swiftly pressed the hard lock setting on the door controls. I didn’t want to run any risk. Based on how Vittorio dressed, I wondered if he understood what fate he faced. He wore black for all parts of his outfit. When he stepped into a shadowy part of Ambassador Hunley’s office, I could only see his face and grey hair. He certainly bore a nervous demeanor and sweat beaded up on his forehead.
“Thank you so much for joining us for dinner, Vittorio,” Belgrano said in a sinister lilt. “I thought you might enjoy some Feijoada with Ms. Reinhardt and myself.”
His guarded demeanor fell away a bit when he smelled the air.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! That smells delicious, Belgrano,” he exclaimed. “Feijoada! Magnificent! Did you make it yourself?”
“Old family recipe from Brazil, with a few modifications because I didn’t seem to have all of the ingredients I needed, not in the Ambassador’s freezer at any rate,” Belgrano lamented and then gave Vittorio a suspicious glance. “I was going to ask you what you had available in the kitchen refrigeration units, but…”
He paused to watch Vittorio develop a heavier layer of sweat on his forehead. The chef was struck dumb. Belgrano decided to continue with Vittorio nervous.
“I suppose we did what we could with what we have, though. Please, let us sit,” Belgrano said.
Vittorio smiled nervously, his mustache contorting a little, but he quickly sat down at the end of the smooth black dining table closest to the door. He even glanced at the door a couple of times as the raunchy saxophone and slurring quantum-trombone reached a fever pitch in the background. Belgrano coughed several times to get Vittorio to refocus on the dinner.
“I’m so glad that you’re healed up, Ms. Reinhardt! So so so glad!” Vittorio stammered out. “Is that what this dinner’s about?”
“Belgrano and I just wanted to relax after a very difficult…” I began, but then Vittorio shrieked.
“Good Splorxx! Is that Interstellar Secretary Bin Tawal over there!” Vittorio screamed, pointing at Habib still staring vacantly.
Belgrano put a finger up to his mouth and tilted his head at Habib, who was still seated in the room’s far corner, though he had slouched back a bit so that he almost blended in with the artwork behind him. I think Belgrano was actually surprised that we had both forgotten Habib was there.
“Hrm. Yes, but that’s a long story, Vittorio,” Belgrano said calmly. That, however, didn’t seem to quiet Vittorio at all. “Let’s focus on dinner and we’ll get to that at some point, I promise.”
With that, Belgrano took the first spoonful and actually smiled a complete and unreserved grin. I almost felt like he must have been the sort of person who experiences happiness only when eating. That’s not the worst thing in the universe, I suppose.
“I promise you, Vittorio, it won’t hurt you,” Belgrano said.
With a trembling hand, which only got worse as he held his spoon tightly, he took a small amount of the beans and pork, which glowed a bit orange from the Drezian spices, and nibbled at them. His tense face instantly relaxed.
“Superb! Superb! Oh, Belgrano, this is something else!” Vittorio exclaimed, blowing a kiss toward Belgrano.
I took a spoonful myself and Vittorio was right. It really was a superb dish. I don’t know why, but it matched that Sao Paulo 25th Century Brothel Erotic Jazz very well. They were both the very embodiment of class and gentle understatement. That Drezian spice infusion was much tastier than I ever imagined. It actually made me even more excited about this eventual conversion into being soul-infused amphibians.
We ate relatively silently for a bit as I think we all were simply enjoying a wonderful meal. I know I especially enjoyed it because I hadn’t had a proper meal in so long. Vittorio made these almost inappropriate faces each time he took a bite. Directly across from him, Belgrano would glare up from his meal, his eyes turning hostile at Vittorio.
“Now I think it’s time we had a little chat, Vittorio,” Belgrano said, folding his hands in front of his face.
“Oh sure. What about?” Vittorio asked, his voice squeaking a bit.
“This business with the refrigeration units failing.”
“Terrible. Terrible. Terrible,” Vittorio mumbled. “I... uh… tried getting the maintenance droids to fix it, but they say we don’t have the parts.”
Belgrano raised a single eyebrow at that assertion.
“Our inventory as of three days ago said we did.”
Vittorio awkwardly shrugged and his forehead became even sweatier than it had before.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Vittorio said, dabbing his sweaty forehead with his sleeve. “All I know is…”
“It’s a strange thing that all of our back up systems for the refrigerators failed, Vittorio. You see, no other systems have been nearly that spotty,” Belgrano continued. “A primary failure, sure. Those happen. A secondary failure as well? Possible, but quite unlikely. The tertiary failure, however. That got my attention.”
“What’re… what’re you implying?” Vittorio asked.
Belgrano scratched above his eye and then leaned forward on the table even further.
“Who has access to those systems?” he inquired.
“Well, there’s the chief of security…”
“Right, and that’s me.”
“That’s also me.”
“Which is led by and staffed by droids and droids alone.”
“… and me,” Vittorio squeaked, his skin turning pallid. By this point I think he knew what was coming.
Belgrano smirked and nodded.
“That’s entirely correct. Do you know what I found when I looked at the security drone recordings?”
Vittorio slumped in his chair. I almost felt badly for him, except that I was genuinely angry that he could have scuttled everything I had tried to do. Still, I wanted to hear him out.
“Please, Vittorio. Tell me why you did this,” I implored him.
His eyes watered up and he rested his head in his hands.
“I can’t even… It was what Hunley told me weeks ago. About becoming a different species! Think of what that would mean for me! My whole life has been learning what humans like to eat. I would have to give up everything I know!” he whined.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I gasped, truly shocked by what nonsense Vittorio was spewing.
“No! It’s true! I wanted the Drezians to find out what you’d done. It’d scrap the treaty, right?”
“True to form, Vittorio, you picked probably the single clumsiest and ineffective way of doing it,” Belgrano growled. “You slovenly, stupid, meritless, loathsome, pitiable pile of filth.”
Vittorio first recoiled and then broke down sobbing. This enraged Belgrano, who tossed his bowl at Vittorio. The bowl shattered into at least a dozen pieces. Vittorio grunted and fell to the ground. Belgrano grabbed the meal preparation module, a heavy silver and red cube, and raised it over his head to bring it down on Vittorio. The chef managed to crawl away from the first blow, but stumbled into the chair where Habib was sitting in his comatose state. Vittorio curled into a ball and waited for Belgrano to deliver his blows.
Belgrano swung down. Vittorio’s backbone broke. Belgrano swung down again. Vittorio’s ribs broke. Belgrano swung down. Vittorio’s right arm broke. The chef unfurled from his ball position. He lay groaning and gasping for air as Belgrano stood over him with the cube in hand. I was somewhat torn at that point because I felt genuinely bad for Vittorio, but also I wanted him to suffer for trying to undermine me. Because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted, I just sat there and watched it happen.
“One last question, Vittorio. Did you really like my Feijoada? Or was that just another lie?” Belgrano seethed.
Vittorio coughed and spat up little specks of blood.
“It… was a little bland,” the chef wheezed.
“I’ll keep that in mind for next time,” Belgrano sighed and dropped the module on Vittorio’s head. The chef’s head crunched and splattered. Strings of blood and brain hit Habib’s pants, but of course he didn’t mind. Belgrano’s enraged face quickly phased back to his more sanguine demeanor. “Right. Now I think we’ll just clean all of this up ourselves and…”
“What will you do about Vittorio and the kitchen staff? Surely they’ll notice he’s gone,” I reminded him.
“Very true, Ms. Reinhardt. Hrm…” he mumbled. “Embassy staff would have seen him entering this office so… Hrm.”
“Maybe announce that he’s been put on immediate leave because of the security breaches regarding the…”
“Ah, yes!” Belgrano chirped. “Very good. Hold on,” he said, pressing his wrist communicator. “Your attention please. Your attention please. Chef Domenico Vittorio has been placed on immediate administrative leave for security breaches regarding our ration refrigeration units. Beginning now, all kitchen staff must report directly to Section Chief Belgrano. That is all.”
As for cleaning up the mess, I had a fine idea. I grabbed the mind control module for Habib and flicked it to the specific command setting.
“Clean up Vittorio’s body and put it in the bathroom,” I said.
Habib snapped out of his comatose mode and got to work. I was amazed at how quickly he got it done. He also used the clothing purifiers in the bathroom to clean up the mess on his own clothes. I was a little worried that he took that much liberty on a specific command, but it didn’t worry me enough to have me change my plans.
“Now, Ms. Reinhardt,” Belgrano began, “You only have to get that treaty signed and… that’s all. We’ll be done.”
Those words made it all sound so easy… But it wouldn’t be quite as simple as that.