I froze. My heart stopped. I couldn’t breathe.
This was the very thing I had feared since the moment Belgrano suggested the idea of my being an impostor for Ambassador Hunley. Strangely, though, Byt’hula’s eyes remained quite dilated, suggesting that she wasn’t upset about this situation.
“Come now, Ms. Reinhardt. Did you really think I would go that long without figuring this out?” she laughed.
Just then, Habib fell over on his side and wiggled back and forth. I assume that this was the moment when the implant finally wore out. Byt’hula barely paid him any mind and focused on me again. I was at a complete loss for words, but I decided to plow forward in any case.
“W… When did you…” I stammered.
“Oh, almost from the beginning. Something wasn’t quite right about the way you were presenting yourself as Ambassador Hunley, but I couldn’t figure it out. I only found out that it was you, Ms. Reinhardt, when Captain Popov told me his suspicions, even though he didn’t have hard proof, just before you and Belgr’ano killed him,” she chuckled and coughed. “I understand. Truly, I do. He was a threat to your scheme. I would’ve done the same. No harm done there. He was my best source in your embassy, though. Shame. Such a shame.”
We should’ve realized that Popov was likely sending that sort of information at the time, but I suppose Belgrano and I were in far too much of a hurry to think about it.
“Is this room secure right now?” I asked sheepishly.
“Oh my, yes!” she exclaimed, pulling out a blue glowing module from atop her back. “I activated a dampening field in here so we could speak candidly as soon as those Vog’waz filth got out.”
Even though she had determined I was an impostor all this time, I had no idea if she understood that she had deactivated the mind control device we had put in Habib. I assumed that this was the case since I couldn’t raise any communications of any kind in my HUD. Belgrano probably thought that I was just ignoring him.
“Aren’t you angry with us, or with me?” I asked.
“Over impersonating Ambassador Hunley? Oh, Splorxx, no!” she guffawed. “Mainly, I found it funny. I certainly didn’t consider her key to treaty negotiations with Earth. I would’ve accepted almost any representative. Grez’a wouldn’t have liked it as much, to be sure, but I would’ve told him what he had to do anyway. The people love Ambassador Hunley and I suppose your portraying her made that portion of the treaty easier for us, but… feh. We could’ve done without it.”
I can’t even begin to imagine how devastated I looked at this.
“So, everything I did was…”
“Oh, dearie dearie, no,” she said, placing one of her aged slimy hands on my encounter suit. “You did a fine enough job as Ambassador Hunley. I think I was the only one who noticed that you weren’t who you claimed to be, but that’s only because I have these keen old eyes and ears. And if some of them had known, well, Tog’un especially wouldn’t have cared for it. Minister Anu’ra, had he lived, would’ve also taken offense. Come to think of it, your performance saved me a lot of grief. And my poor son, oh his infatuation with Ambassador Hunley was something else altogether. If he knew she had died, his tiny little heart might break.”
“But we need to announce she’s dead at some point soon. I can’t keep this going forever,” I whimpered. I was having visions of having to somehow keep up the ruse for years, at least until the next change in Earth government when the appointed ambassadors would change over.
Just as Byt’hula was about to respond to my whining, Habib stood as straight as he had in a while and pointed at me. Since this couldn’t be Belgrano directing him, I knew that we were about to face the real Habib and he would remember all that he had seen, heard, and done.
“Reinhardt!” he yelled. “I can’t believe what you’ve put me through. And Hunley’s dead? I…”
The Broodmother glanced at him dismissively.
“Quiet, Zer’fog!” she barked. “I have better things to do than deal with you.”
“Do you even realize what she’s done?” Habib asked. “InshaSplorxx, she’ll be executed for insubordination and…”
“What part of quiet didn’t you understand?” the Broodmother interrupted again, her pupils narrowing with hostility. “This is the last warning you’ll get.”
Habib’s arm drooped and he started cackling. At that point I only wondered how Byt’hula would dispose of him and not if.
“I think not! I’ll contact Supreme President Zhou and let him know that…” he said, but a pinkish blur shot across my field of vision and crashed into his suit’s helmet.
That pink object, a tongue, came from the Dowager Broodmother herself. When she retracted it, I saw that the end of her tongue was hardened and spiked. It was also covered in blood, pieces of skull, and some small flecks of metal and glass it had punched through. Habib’s face had been completely punched in. It was now just a gaping bloody hole of flesh, crushed bone, and whatever else. Belatedly, his body fell to its knees and then over to the left.
“When I was younger I could’ve punched through the other side of his helmet,” the Broodmother scoffed. “Ms. Reinhardt, could you do me a favor and take off his encounter suit?”
I didn’t know where she was going with that, but I complied. It was a little difficult around his head since her tongue had smashed some of the latch controls, but I eventually managed it. When I was done, Byt’hula instructed me to stand aside from Habib’s crumpled corpse and skewered head.
The Broodmother opened her mouth and, like a catapult, her tongue lurched forward at blinding speed and skewered Habib’s body from one end to the other. I jolted back in horror. Then, just as quickly as her tongue had come out, she snapped it back in, Habib’s body with it. She belched a couple of times as she swallowed his corpse whole.
“Oh my. I won’t have to eat for a while,” she said, belching again. “I’d never had human before. I’ve had so many species, but never yours.”
While she talked about what she had done like it was nothing of import, I was standing absolutely awestruck by what I had just seen. She chuckled a bit.
“Before we were so rudely interrupted, you said you couldn’t keep pretending you were Ambassador Hunley forever?” she asked.
“Oh, well… I… “ I stuttered.
“Child, I’m not threatening you.”
“Thank Splorxx,” I breathed a sigh of relief. “But, yes, that’s correct. I can’t keep this going forever. We’ve had so many close calls as it is.”
“I assumed as much. We can arrange for some nonsense about how her shuttle was attacked by terrorists and what not. And that gives you an opportunity to clean up loose ends with Popov and whoever else,” she said. “I should think it will help explaining why this one is gone, too.”
I nodded stiffly, still unable to believe what I had seen. I had heard of various aliens being able to eat humans whole, and had even seen footage of it being done on certain planets. However, that was the first time I’d ever seen it in person and it was more than I could’ve imagined.
“If you’re worried about me ever telling anyone else about all of these secrets, don’t be, Ms. Reinhardt,” the Broodmother assured me. “I have kept far more damaging things to myself. I’ll keep doing it up until I’m thrown in the Burial Swamp like all of those poor fools I put there.”
“Aren’t you at least a little upset that we lied to you?” I asked.
“Oh no, not really. I was confused by why you and Belgr’ano thought it would have been the end of everything if you’d just told us Hunley was dead. Really, the first place you two went was impersonating a dead woman? Good Splorxx! You humans are fascinating. A little elderly advice to you, young one, when you decide you’ll do any means to an end, make sure the means are at least necessary first. Ha!”
I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt quite as humiliated as I did there. Naturally, my brain went to considering everything we had done stemming from Belgrano’s initial insistence that we couldn’t reveal that Hunley had died. I was depressed thinking about it.
“Also,” she continued, “I found it charming the extent to which you and Belgr’ano would go for this treaty. The desperation was endearing.”
“That must have looked pretty desperate,” I chuckled nervously.
“Most desperate thing I’ve ever seen and Grez’a is my son!” she cackled. “Speaking of Grez’a, I suppose I should tell you that it would mean everything to him if you would talk with him before you go. You’re probably going to do the shuttle what not with the Ambassador’s body and the rest soon. He would love to see her one more time. For some reason he really cares, Vog’waz that he is.”
Poor Grez’a. After all she had put him through it was nice to see her give this small consideration to the Emperor, but it made me sad that even this would probably only deepen his unhappiness. Nonetheless, I agreed. After that, as she was leaving, she turned and had one last thing to say for me.
“I’ll be sure to put in a good word for you with whoever your new ambassador is. I’ll have to make up some nonsense about how I met you, but that’s easy.”
I lit up. I realized what that could mean.
“Oh, thank you!”
“Please, don’t mention it,” she laughed, but then her face turned quite serious. “I mean that, don’t mention it or speak of it again. That’s our secret.”
Of course, I am putting this in my own records so it might not exactly be a secret the way she intended. I guess I’ll have to accept that I didn’t keep my word to her on that point.
However, I did keep my word to her regarding Grez’a. I met with him in the Emperor’s Throne Room, which was off in a Splorxxforsaken part of the Imperial Palace on the fourth floor facing toward the most aesthetically unpleasing part of the capital. The room itself was fancy enough with sleek multi-colored stonework and all manner of ceremonial decorations. Grez’a looked most proud of the various collections he had put up on the walls for decorations. Most notable were the war trophies from the Glygrat Dominion. I tried not to gawk at them quite so much since, apparently, Ambassador Hunley had helped him get them in the first place.
He was so happy to see me when I entered the room. He hopped in big lunges at me, slapping his sticky arms around my encounter suit. I swallowed my pride and gave him a big hug in return.
“We did it! We finally did it!” he squealed as we embraced.
“We did indeed,” I replied, patting his back.
“Come! I wanted you to have something,” he said excitedly. He bounced over to the right wall where he put the Glygrat Dominion treasures. He grabbed what was unmistakably a Glygratese command helmet, made of a dark purple Ritgo an Witaf metal alloy and laden with especially sophisticated communications equipment that I’ll never understand. He shoved it into my hands and I tried to avoid looking suspicious or uncertain of what it was. “I told myself that if we got this treaty signed I’d give you this as a present. Well, the treaty’s signed. Here’s the present!”
I was trying to make any sense of why he’d be giving me this. I couldn’t recall all of Hunley’s war record and there was always the considerable chance that there were parts that were missing. I decided a generic response would be best.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have…” I said, examining it from every angle. “I couldn’t possibly take this from you.”
He shook his head wildly from side to side. He obviously wasn’t going to have any of it.
“No no. I insist. You killed him after all and let me take the credit. Grez’a, assassin of the terrifying Captain General Mulgodar!” he laughed and then looked like he fought back a tear or two. “My biggest claim to fame was your doing and I’ll never forget that. I don’t want you to forget it, either. Please, take it.”
To give some idea about how well the fact that it had been Hunley and not Grez’a who killed Mulgodar, I had unflinchingly believed that it had been Grez’a the whole time. I never suspected for a moment that Hunley would have been the one to do it.
“Oh, I can’t say no if you’re insisting. It’d be far too rude,” I chuckled. “Thank you. I’ll be sure to put it up on the wall above my desk so I can always remember it.”
“Really? With everything else you have?” he asked, almost literally dripping in excitement.
“I can’t think of anything else I’d rather have up there,” I said proudly. “I can certainly bump down a few commendations from Supreme President Zhou.”
Grez’a clapped his hands together. Seeing him like that made the fact that I knew what would eventually come just that much worse. I decided that I had to leave him with something that would be able to carry him on once the news eventually hit.
“With what happened to Minister Anu’ra and my own close call, I realized that life is more unpredictable than we even saw in that war. I’ve tried to be a bit more thankful for what I’ve got in the time since that. No matter what happens in the future, I just wanted you to know that I’ve been very lucky to call you my friend.”
“Why… why are you saying that?” he asked, his eyes watering and his skin blanching. “You’re not poisoned again, are you?”
I almost wanted to tell him why because he was so pitiable to watch.
“Oh no, nothing like that,” I laughed heartily, slapping one hand down on his shoulder. “I just realized after I came out of that coma that I came close to not seeing you again.”
“Oh, Hun’drez!” he cried and hugged me again. “Don’t ever leave!”
When I finally departed for the embassy, I was almost crying myself. I don’t know everything that Ambassador Hunley and Emperor Grez’a had shared. It’s probably best now that I don’t.
Back at the embassy, Belgrano greeted me at Hunley’s office with a certain spring in his step. It turned out that this wasn’t about the treaty being signed, but that he was quite pleased with the fact that he had figured out another rationale for clearing the atrium so that he could get Hunley and Popov’s bodies back into Ambassador Hunley’s office. From there, it would be easy enough to load up the bodies, including Vittorio’s, and put the shuttle on autopilot for a fly around, and then blow it up with an implosion device Belgrano had apparently acquired from the Sticky Tongue.
His plan was a good one. A mandatory presentation at the embassy auditorium on what the treaty meant. He decided to task one of the liaison staff to put the presentation together and deliver it as well. I pity the poor soul we put up to do that. I can’t even remember their name and it wasn’t that long ago.
Once the atrium was completely abandoned, Belgrano and I made our way to the emergency rations freezer, which by now had its stock significantly reduced. Belgrano had handed the kitchen staff what they needed during meal time and let no one else in there. Apparently he decided to be generous with the portions to quiet any possible questions. Both Hunley’s and Popov’s bodies were just as we had left them, maybe with a tinge of freezer burn from being in there for over ten days or so at such cold temperatures. I tried to look away from their faces as we loaded them into a hover container. Belgrano, on the other hand, took some perverse satisfaction from looking at Popov’s smashed-in skull. I noticed a slight grin on his face when he looked at the erstwhile security chief.
When we got back to the office, we swung into the bathroom and picked up Vitorrio’s now putrefying remains. We slid the container into the shuttle, where it fit somewhat uncomfortably. With a bit of sadness, I put in Ambassador Hunley’s encounter suit. I’d grown to like that awful pile of junk after a while and I mourned the fact that it would soon be destroyed. Its demise was yet one more unpleasant compromise we had to make in this entire episode. For Habib, we just put in his encounter suit that I retrieved on the way out of the Imperial Palace.
“Very good,” Belgrano announced once he was comfortable with all of the arrangements. “I have programmed the flight plan as a visit to the Burial Swamp for Ambassador Hunley and the others to pay their respects to Minister Anu’ra, as is customary. After all, he was one of the Ambassador’s closest friends here, even if I couldn’t stand the man.”
“Should be fine,” I barely said above a whisper.
“Is something the matter, Ms. Reinhardt?” Belgrano asked.
“In a way, I’m… No, it’s nothing,” I mumbled.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you situated back in your proper post without any difficulty,” he declared. “And after that you deserve something better. It won’t happen immediately, but your reward is certain.”
After he placed the implosion device for a detonation in thirty minutes and sent the shuttle off on autopilot, we left Hunley’s office and met in his office instead. Contrary to what I would have expected, his office was actually one of the messiest I had ever seen with almost everything askew and laying about in random ways. What’s more, he didn’t look like he was the least embarrassed by it.
“Right,” he barked as he sat down on a pile of unwashed uniform components he stored on his chair. “Our official line is that you are here with me to debrief your special assignment on behalf of Ambassador Hunley. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I sighed.
“What? Did you expect something more creative than that?”
“No, but it’s very ordinary.”
“That’s right. We’re going back to things being ordinary, as ordinary as they can be under the new order we face with this treaty now.”
We sat mostly in silence for a while as we waited for the implosion device to detonate, but then he realized an oversight.
“I forgot to purge the atrium security recordings,” he groaned. He pulled up a holographic display that showed all of the cameras and waved his fingers through the parts that needed to be obliterated. “Actually, that’s too obvious. I’ll just delete everything in the archives from the past two weeks. That’s easier to explain than a few missing minutes.”
Just as he finished that exercise, he looked at his wrist communicator.
“And it should detonate in about…”
“ALERT! ALERT! Implosion detected!” the siren sounded. “ALERT! ALERT! Implosion detected!”
“Ah, there it is,” he smiled.
We heard a tumultuous scene in the atrium on the other side of the office door as the staff in the auditorium poured out to gossip and fret. Almost immediately, a Drezian broadcast cut into our system.
“We have just received word that Ambassador Hunley’s shuttle has been destroyed by an implosion device. All aboard are presumed dead. An investigation is forthcoming,” the gurgling Drezian voice said.
It wasn’t quite the end that I had expected when the whole episode had started, but it was what it was.