I boarded Ambassador Hunley’s shuttle with Habib again to go off to the Imperial Palace. Belgrano decided that he would personally provide kitchen staff with all of the emergency rations they needed and he changed the code for the door to prevent anyone from breaking in with what had been Vittorio’s old code. I didn’t know when he would be done with that and ready to actually give Habib his various commands necessary to complete the mission.
Without commands coming through, Habib began mumbling nonsense inside of his suit. I couldn’t even make out exactly what he was saying. Only an occasional word broke through. I began listening very carefully because his voice got quieter.
“They’ll pay for this!” he shouted out of nowhere. I jolted, scared of what he might do next, but then he settled down again. Even though he calmed, I didn’t.
I decided not to waste any time before contacting Belgrano.
“Yes?” he answered.
“I think our subject might need another command. He’s been shorting out.”
“Shorting out? He’s mind-controlled, not a robot.”
“Whatever. He needs some more commands or I think it will start to wear off.”
“Hrm. That makes some sense. Not much, but some. Also, I’m not entirely sure what the command module is telling me, but I think that we only have a short while until the control unit wears out altogether,” he said.
My heart leapt into my throat.
“What?!” I screeched back.
“Indeed, my thoughts exactly. I looked into the device a bit more in what records are available. Apparently it’s an awful strain to harness a subject’s brain activity to that extent. In Drezians it would have worn out some time ago, but because humans are, to put it mildly, less advanced in the area of brain capacity, we…”
“I understand,” I cut him off. “Hopefully this ceremony isn’t too long.”
“Drezians don’t believe in wasting too much time, so you should probably be fine.”
I didn’t hear what command he gave Habib, but the Interstellar Secretary kept tapping his hands on his legs in what I am pretty sure was merely a repetition of the music Belgrano had played while he killed Vittorio. I was hoping that was the actual command he gave Habib and not something else. It occurred to me that he might actually need some of his Quarmarqian drugs to achieve the perfectly compliant state we had him in before, but sadly there weren’t any around.
By the time we arrived at the landing pad, his musical trance had worn off and I needed Belgrano to give him another set of commands to avoid another outburst like before. I couldn’t afford that in front of the Drezians.
Tog’un greeted me again with the usual contingent of security guards, all of whom were more heavily-armed than before. I tried to not read much into that. It could well have been that they wanted to avoid any last minute breaches that could endanger any dignitaries’ lives. I kept repressing the fact that Minister Anu’ra had been poisoned not that long before and that I was of course the one who did it. Thankfully, there was no indication that the Drezians suspected that. In fact, most rumors that were circulating suspected that it was merely another instance of untraceable court intrigue. What always made it untraceable was that there were so many overlapping rivalries that figuring out who the most likely suspect was proved nearly impossible. Similarly, far too many investigators were bribed to make a truly impartial examination of the facts possible.
In any case, after exchanging our ceremonial head flicks, Tog’un cleared his throat. He looked very proud of himself and, truth be told, it probably had some justification.
“Hun’drez, I am pleased to announce that the treaty terms are fully drawn-up and ready for signatures. My staff has examined the document in detail and is absolutely certain that every term in the treaty is how we negotiated it,” he declared, his neck craned upward. “It… Secretary Bin Tawal, is everything alright?”
Habib was wandering around in brief little bursts, each one reversing the one before it. Belgrano must have needed to keep up an almost constant string of commands at that point to keep the whole charade going. Habib then stopped and stiffly pivoted toward Tog’un, flicking his head somewhat wildly.
“My friends, I think my medical condition is acting up, if you’ll forgive me,” Habib said.
Tog’un looked at him with a questioning squint.
“I am so sorry to hear that, Secretary Bin Tawal,” he said dispassionately. “I assure you that this signing ceremony won’t take long so you can get back to your medical officials as soon as…”
“Good! Good! Splorxx bless you, my friend!” Habib interjected with an exaggerated bow, which of course wasn’t even proper protocol.
Tog’un’s mouth dropped open a bit in shock. Even some of the otherwise motionless Drezian guards stared at the faux pas. Belgrano sent me a message to my HUD that read simply, “Sorry, but it really can’t be helped right now. Get this over with quickly.”
“Ah, well. We should probably get on our way, shouldn’t we?” I suggested, pointing toward the palace.
“Yes, let us do that immediately…” Tog’un mumbled, almost visibly fuming. As we started walking, he pulled me close. “What’s the matter with him?”
I decided that an element of truth was probably a better call than a lie in this instance. Also, I needed something that might explain why he could inevitably start shouting things that would be highly embarrassing at best, and deadly to me at worst.
“The Interstellar Secretary is a noted consumer of certain, um, illicit materials from the Quarmarqians, if you take my meaning,” I said.
“Splorxx above!” Tog’un exclaimed in a loud whisper. “And he decided to choose now as a time for this?!”
“Addicts are addicts,” I chuckled. “I’ll try to keep him under control, but it’s not easy.”
“It would have been better, Hun’drez, if you had somehow kept him away altogether,” Tog’un said, looking over his shoulder at Habib, who was barely managing to walk in a straight line. “You’re sure that your president requires this man’s signature?”
I took some satisfaction in that Tog’un gave every indication that he believed what I was telling him.
“Oh, yes of course!” I laughed. “Supreme President Zhou doesn’t fully trust me, or so Secretary Bin Tawal told me himself. He’s nervous about political opinion back on Earth.”
“I hope the Broodmother doesn’t take too much offense at this man’s behavior,” Tog’un lamented.
That was certainly my hope, too. She obviously didn’t suffer fools gladly, as she repeatedly showed with Emperor Grez’a. I could only imagine what she might say toward a human she had only met once before, especially one whose presence she didn’t even think was necessary. After all, we were the beggars in this situation. Insulting our patron with… whatever it was that Habib was doing as he fought the mind control was less than ideal.
We were led into the Cyg’rol Chamber again, where there were several Drezian holographic tablets containing the treaty terms. They were fairly large things that had wobbly exterior meant to resemble wads of swamp muck. It was very charming how the Drezians paid constant homage to their less advanced past. All of these gestures to their earlier days made me sometimes forget that they had built space battlecruisers the size of Portugal that were capable of laying waste to a whole planet in the space of ten minutes.
A chorus of Drezian singers came out from the halls leading into the chamber. They wore gowns of synthetic dark green and blue algae that were layered together into a wavy pattern. On either side of the Broodmother’s entrance, they formed up in ranks of ten each. They inflated their throats and craned their necks skyward and let our a song of croaks, chirps, and some other sounds I’m not sure I can properly describe with human vocabulary to announce Dowager Broodmother Byt’hula’s arrival.
Out of the darkened entrance at the chamber’s center-rear, she stepped out slowly one foot at a time, aided by Emperor Grez’a and some others who I assume were lesser members of her brood. She wore an astonishing ceremonial garb consisting of an undulating sparkling metal crown, a sparkling cape of silvery algae, and a massive jewel covered amulet around her neck.
The Drezians in the room flopped on their backs in deference, which was a customary procedure I had not yet seen. Apparently, Belgrano hadn’t seen it either. Regardless, we both joined the other Drezians in laying on their backside. I discovered that one uncomfortable fact of the encounter suits in such a position is that all of the sweat and other moisture that built up on the front of the suit’s inside then dripped on you when you’re on your backside.
“Yes. Yes. Yes. That’s all very touching. Now let’s get on with this,” the Broodmother declared, her voicing crackling as she raised her volume. “Bring the treaty copies over here. I’m not going to walk all over the place in this nonsense!”
A squad of six guards rapidly complied with her order, carrying the table and the holographic projection tablets over to where she was standing near the end of the hall. She kept her eyes mostly on me and Habib, probably in no small part due to the fact Habib began listing like a ship to the left.
“Your man there, what was his name again? Bin’wal?” Byt’hula yelled from across the hall.
“Secretary Bin Tawal,” I corrected her, laughing.
“Is he not well? Or is he just being a Zer’fog again?”
Tog’un speedily hopped over to her and began whispering in her ear. She shook her head violently.
“A Zer’fog indeed. At least I won’t have to see him for long,” she growled loudly. “Ambassador, get over here. And your friend. And where are the damn cameras?! We need shots of this for every holographic projection in the galaxy!”
A few dozen attendants came waddling in from every corner of the hall, as did a series of Drezian camera droids, who could be counted on for precise and steady shots the way no organic being could be.
“Grez’a, your speech,” she coughed, nudging the Emperor.
Grez’a stepped forward and smiled at me.
“We are gathered here today to celebrate a treaty long in the making between Jin’Drezia and Earth,” Grez’a began. He had an unusually smooth delivery this time. I assume that the Dowager Broodmother had beat it into him over the last several hours. “This will bring our two peoples together in moist harmony under the divine Splorxx. Let our friends know that Earth and Jin’Drezia are joined as enemies.”
I had to bite my tongue to avoid laughing as the Broodmother’s face turned into the most hostile scowl I’ve ever seen in my entire life. She coughed and jabbed his leg nearest to her.
“Oh no!” he said, giggling nervously. “I meant, let our enemies know that Earth and Jin’Drezia are joined as friends.”
“Vog’waz you are Vog’waz you’ll always be,” the Broodmother sighed, but the polite squishy applause of the Drezians around her meant that Grez’a probably couldn’t hear it. The way he slinked back to his position next to his mother made it clear that he knew how she felt, though. “Now, your turn, Ambassador.”
While I stepped forward, I saw that Habib was listing even more heavily and Belgrano sent me a message to my HUD again. “Make this quick. VERY QUICK.”
“On behalf of Earthicans everywhere, I want to express my thanks for all that the generous Drezian people have done for us as we march along together in moist harmony,” I said rapidly and then stepped back into place.
Belgrano sent a very brief message to me. “Perfect.” Dowager Broodmother Byt’hula was a little surprised, but also didn’t mind. After all, she wanted to be out of there as quickly as possible and so did we.
“Now, we will sign the documents,” Byt’hula declared. Her attendants scrolled each of the treaty copies to the signature page. “In moist harmony!” she bellowed, placing her right hand on each of the treaty tablets, which scanned her print in and let out a celebratory screech each time it accepted her handprint. “Grez’a, you’re next.”
The Emperor wasn’t quite as quick as his mother as he was unsure about how to lay his hand down. The court giggled at him, Byt’hula excluded. I need not describe how she perceived it all. Once he was done, Belgrano sent a picture to my HUD of Ambassador Hunley’s signature, accompanied by a message of “Get this done quickly. I think we only have a few minutes at best.”
I grabbed the laser pen they gave me and did the best I could to imitate her signature on each copy and then handed the pen to Habib, who simply stared at the pen. I tapped my foot impatiently.
“Where… am…” he began saying before he jolted, presumably from Belgrano’s frenzied commands. “My dear Hunley, a thousand upon a thousand apologies. I will… sign. Yes, sign.”
Everyone around us looked at Habib intensely confused. They didn’t stop staring when his awkward, listing gait meandered to the treaty tablets. Belgrano sent me a quick message, “I did all I could. Now we moisten ourselves and pray to Splorxx.”
I was too nervous to pray. Habib signed the first of the six tablets without much difficulty. The second, third, and fourth went similarly without a hitch. At the fifth tablet, he stalled for a moment. I gulped, but couldn’t get my own spit down my throat. He signed exceedingly slowly, but finished it nonetheless. The Drezians around me, the Broodmother included, all radiated either apprehension or suspicion at Habib’s strange behavior. I dreaded when he arrived at the sixth and final tablet. He stalled for what must have been ten seconds and then started actually scrolling through the terms for a moment. We were doomed, or at least so I thought. Then his left arm stiffened and scrolled back down to the signature line where he inscribed his name and put the pen down.
My heart was still beating so hard that it felt like it would burst through my chest. I couldn’t believe we had actually done it.
Byt’hula cleared her throat loudly and looked at the camera droids to make her announcement.
“The treaty is concluded. Jin’Drezia and Earth are now solemnly joined in moist harmony,” she declared. Amazingly, that was all she had to say and then the camera droids took off.
All of us stood around without any idea what it was we were supposed to do next. Byt’hula, perturbed by this, slammed her foot on the ground.
“We’re done here! Go! Go!” she commanded. “Not you, Ambassador. Or that Zer’fog. You two stay. All of the rest of you, guards as well, out! And close the doors. This will be a private audience.”
I didn’t have any idea what this was all about, but all of the other Drezians didn’t dare defy her order, especially when she had just achieved a longstanding goal of hers despite considerable opposition within the court. I didn’t see much of it myself because she had bottled it up so well. While the last Drezians left, I could only imagine that she wanted to speak with me candidly or to offer some finality about the treaty. Finality certainly would have been welcome since the rushed and awkward ceremony didn’t feel quite right.
What followed was something very different, however.
Once the doors closed and the remaining Drezians were gone, she let out a heavy sigh.
“Now, there are some things I wanted to talk to you about, Ms. Reinhardt.”