2951-02-01 – Tales from the Service: The MacNeil Troglodyte

Nojus here. Duncan has been busy this week seeing to the packing of our effects for transfer to the destroyer Aurel Martikainen, which will take us to our next posting. We still do not know what ship we are being taken to, though we will likely know by next you are reading this text feed, since we should be aboard by then. As I write this introduction, we are in the closing days of January, and Maribel has still not been seriously invaded by the Incarnation.

This may seem to be a very obvious thing to observe, but many military observers here in Maribel have reported that the period of greatest danger for this invasion lasted until the end of January. This month, many of the ships occupying drydock berths here have been launched, permitting other damaged vessels to enter those same docks. Additionally, Fifth Fleet has been extensively reinforced in the last five weeks.

Though military secrecy prevents me from listing the classes or names of any ships recently returned to service or added to Fifth Fleet’s roster, I have seen some signs of tensions relaxing. Patrols in the outer system are no longer being run with token forces, and though there have been a few Tyrant raids, they have gotten nowhere near the inner system, and have been of no more than four cruisers each. True, these groups can do some economic damage if not countered quickly, but they are no threat to Fifth Fleet or the civilian population.

The past month has seen the Incarnation engage in some smaller-scale invasions, such as those on the small-population worlds of the Mazkiel system and the Mere Abram system. Though these invasions are human tragedies in their own right, none of these attacks have impacted a world with a population over fifteen thousand, and none have resulted in a major battle. About half the impacted populations of these worlds took offered evacuations; the other half decided to remain with their holdings and brave occupation.

I take this slow-down as good news; the longer “Nate” waits to attack Maribel or try to break into Farthing’s Chain, the stronger Confederated Navy forces will be to oppose them. From everything we know, there’s no way they can build warships fast enough and ship them across the Gap fast enough to compete with both the shipyards of the Core World and the flood of ships the Navy has pulled out of reserve.

That doesn’t mean this conflict is over, only that I think it’s time for the people of Maribel to breathe a sigh of relief.

Leonard Silver dove to the ground when two laser pulses painted smoking scorch-marks on the crumbling wall behind him. There was, in reality, no benefit to hitting the deck when one came under fire from soldiers armed with laser rifles, but it did at least give him a moment to verify that he had in fact not been hit. A Frontier Defense Army veteran he’d once met in a bar had told him that when you were hit by a laser, you didn’t always feel it right away, especially if it was a mortal wound; men could be drilled through the heart or the head and still dive for cover, often dying before their faces hit the dirt.

Fortunately for Leonard, he was still breathing when he buried his face in the rough dirt, and a quick check verified that he hadn’t had any parts of himself shot away. Rolling over, he stared up at the two scorch-marks and estimated how far the closer one had been from taking a chunk out of his upper arm before scuttling toward his spider-hole. If he could get back into the building’s still-intact basement before the Incarnation soldiers reached his position, they’d probably leave him alone.

Early in the occupation of MacNeil’s End, the Nate occupiers hadn’t been so willing to leave a trail; they’d followed tracks down into basements and caves with no apparent sense of danger. That hadn’t lasted more than a few weeks; the planet’s population had only partially evacuated, and even after a mass weapons-roundup operation, there were probably two to three times more weapons on the planet than there were disgruntled civilians to use them. Patrols had started vanishing, which both increased the number of unaccounted-for weapons and also taught the unwelcome invaders the value of caution.

Leonard, though, didn’t have a weapon of any kind. He wasn’t cut out to be a plucky resistance fighter skulking in the hills or leading patrols into basement ambushes. He had been a groundcar salesman in the planet’s only spaceport city, the closest thing to a metropolis one could find on a world like MacNeil’s End. He’d been out delivering two utility tracks to a farming town when the invasion had started, and watched the troopships ride blue fire down to Dobrilo Downs from barely a dozen kilometers away. Now, he was a troglodyte who emerged from the ruins of that shattered village only to scavenge for food and the necessities of life, and to avoid the patrols.

As Leonard, still shaking from his brush with laser-administered death, slid into the half-buried window which let into his basement warren, he blinked rapidly to speed his eyes’ adjustment to the dark. He had a small generator and plenty of electric lights, but left it all off most of the time, especially when he wasn’t around. The less he could do to draw attention to himself, the better. The Nates didn’t really care about most of the population one way or the other; they’d only taken those with farming experience to their military-camp plantations, and those, despite working long hours, were at least rumored to enjoy clean water, two plentiful meals every day, and a few technological amenities that most of the population hadn’t had since the satellite net had gone down.

The cool barrel of some sort of weapon pressed into the side of Leonard’s head the moment he came to a stop at the bottom of the scree-ramp below his entrance. He let out a little yelp, but had the good sense not to move, and to keep his hands very still.

A beam of light flashed in front of his eyes, then vanished in an instant. “Local. No implant.” A gruff voice announced, and several other voiced muttered their relief. “Check him.”

Rough hands hauled Leonard to his knees and patted him down. He struggled against the restraints as they found his canteen and the handful of military-issue food bars he’d found in the old FDA base over the hill.

“Hey, relax.” This voice was calm and comforting, and the woman it belonged to stooped down in front of Leonard. She was carrying a long-barreled cartridge rifle, but the eyes in her dirt-smudged face were kind. She looked young, but so had the FDA boys to Leonard’s eyes when they’d marched into the fight. “We’ll leave your food alone. They’re just making sure you’re not armed.”

“I’m not.” Leonard shook his head. “I don’t want trouble. Not from Nate, not from partisans.”

One of the men tossed the food-bars down in front of Leonard’s knees. “This is FDA-issue. How did you get it?”

“Give him a break, Meyers.” The woman’s eyes flashed. “The military left their stuff all over.”

The other man holding Leonard down released his hold. “Not so much as a knife on him.”

“You’ve gotta get out of here.” Leonard scooped up his food-bars and stood up. “There was a patrol right behind me. If they find you here-”

“We’ll take care of them.” The man behind Leonard, Meyers, chuckled. “Relax.”

Leonard opened his mouth to protest further, but closed it again when he saw two more armed men sifting through the crates into which he’d placed the treasure which made this underground life somewhat livable. One of the homes in the now-smashed village had contained a library of hundreds of paper books, and he’d collected as many as he could find before the rain destroyed them, and carefully dried them out. Reading adventure novels by the light of a pen-light and eating scavenged rations was hardly a dignified way to ride out the planet’s occupation, but Leonard didn’t intend to go anywhere, at least until he ran out of reading material.

The woman took Leonard by the arm and led him over to an unoccupied corner. “What’s your name?”

“Silver.” Leonard swallowed and looked about for where the men had dropped his canteen. “Leonard Silver.”

“Well, Leonard. I’m Christina. I’d like to make you a deal.” The woman glanced around. “This place is perfect for us. Did you know from the roof you can see right down to the road from Nate’s main landing field to the plantation at Zientek’s Run?”

Leonard had indeed noticed the excellent view down to the old highway, and had noted the regular traffic on that route. “I didn’t know that’s where all those groundcars were going.”

“We want to watch them. And possibly be a little more active than just watching.” Christina winked. “But if you’re still here, that would be dangerous for you.”

Leonard sighed and looked down. “You’re going to turn me out. Make me find somewhere else.” He’d never manage to move all his crates of books all by himself, of course, and he could hardly do anything to oppose at least five armed partisans.

“Well, yes, if you agree.” Christina shrugged. “But here’s my part of the deal. If you agree to help us get set up here and show us how you’ve been moving around this area un-noticed, I can get you off MacNeil’s.”

“Off MacNeil’s?” Leonard frowned. “How? There are ships-”

Christina loosened her tattered overcoat, and Leonard saw that the jumpsuit she wore beneath it was almost clean and entirely new, as if it had been fabbed last week. “We just got here. The runner who’s coming to bring the rest of our kit the day after tomorrow has a spare berth or two in the back of his little ship. You show us around, and you can be on that ship when it leaves.”

Leonard considered this for a long moment. Of course he would have left MacNeil’s in the evacuation if he hadn’t been caught so close to Nate’s landing site and trapped behind their lines. Was it really so easy? Could he really be off the world so soon after so many months of eking out this troglodyte life under occupation?

Shaking himself, he knew there could be only one answer. “Fair deal on one condition.” Some of his old salesman’s bravado reasserted itself.

Christina arched one eyebrow, inviting him to name his terms.

Leonard pointed to the back of his little warren. “I’ll need one crate of books for the journey.”

“Done.” Christina smiled and stuck out a hand to shake on the deal, which Leonard gladly grasped. “I’ll introduce you to everybody.”

2951-01-25 – Tales from the Service: Ramrio’s Raw Memory

This will be the last section of Ramiro W.’s account which we use here; the rest is fairly uneventful. I still have not been able to confirm if his description matches that of the xeno-sapients of the Grand Journey, the likeliest origin point for this trio of diplomats.

In more somber news, this embed team has been told to prepare to transfer to another vessel within the fleet. While we have enjoyed our time aboard Saint-Lô, and the hospitality of Captain Liao, it seems that there have been discussions between Cosmic Background and the Fifth Fleet press office about getting us closer to the action and capable of providing more direct reporting of smaller engagements, where such is reasonably safe.

I have no news as of yet what vessel we will be transferring to.

Ramiro didn’t see much of the alien passengers in the two remaining days it took to travel to the edge of the Maribel system grav shadow. The trio seemed to have no consistent circadian rhythym, retiring to their cabins for what seemed to be sleep for anywhere from two to twelve standard hours at a time, sometimes after having only just emerged a few hours prior.

Often, Ramiro noticed Larson waiting on them, ferrying food and drink into the cabins, fetching belongings from the hold, and so on, and he tended to notice their activity increasing when he was in the cockpit or in his own cabin. Though neither she nor they said anything, he began to suspect that he had offended the diplomats somehow by his brief conversation with Rhila. For the thousandth time, he wished Livia were aboard, if only because she knew far better how to heal any social divide than he did.

When a buzzing chime in the cockpit told Ramiro that the jump limit was just ahead, he closed the message he’d been writing to Livia on one of the side monitors and checked the security feeds. Larson and one of the diplomats – Ghalr, he thought – were in the lounge, and the other two were not anywhere on the feeds, meaning they were in the cabins.

Killing the chime with one hand and reaching for the intercom with the other, Ramiro cleared his throat. “Be advised, we will initiate Himura transit in ten standard minutes. I recommend retiring to your berths until transit is complete.”

There was, of course, absolutely nothing that moving all the passengers to their cabins would do to improve the safety of a star drive maneuver, but Ramiro knew the calming effect of what he’d deemed to be “sensible nonsense” on the minds of most passengers. The main effect would be to keep passengers away from any bow-facing viewpanels, where they might see coruscating energy arcs as the Himura unit burrowed a tunnel through several layers of folded space toward a point six and a half light-years distant. Invariably, passengers who demanded to watch the star drive in action always concluded that something was wrong. Ramiro couldn’t blame them; even after using Jen Daley’s Himura drive thousands of times, the visual effect of arcing energy and a yawning inferno of darkness one saw out the cockpit canopy still scared him a little bit.

Just to be safe, Ramiro flipped the switches that close the metal shutters over all the ship’s viewpanels save his own. He didn’t particularly want to watch the jump, but the shutters didn’t open quickly enough for him to see anything dead ahead immediately afterward. He hated flying blind, even in an interstellar void where theoretically, the chance of passing even within sensor distance of anything bigger than dust was quadrillions to one.

A moment later, as Ramiro was double-checking the values displayed in the navcomputer’s jump solution against the configuration of the Himura drive, Ramiro heard the deck plating in the gangway behind him rattle slightly. This wouldn’t be Captain Larson, who had an uncanny ability to walk up the loose plating of that inclined corridor without making any sound, so it could only be one of the trio from beyond the Gap. Of the three, Ramiro knew which he had money on. “Do you need something that can’t wait a few minutes, Miss Rhila?”

The footsteps stopped, and there was a long silence. Ramiro didn’t bother turning around, but he did glance at the security feeds to verify his guess, and to see that everyone else had taken his advice and vanished into the cabins. Rhila was standing about three paces down the gangway, an obviously perplexed, and thus entirely feigned, expression on her golden face.

“I need nothing.” Rhila took another cautious step forward. “But I wish to ask something which our good minder cannot hear.”

Ramiro shrugged, but continued his checking. “Try to make me to work against the Confed, and diplomat or not, I might put you out the airlock.”

“Your tone is light, so you do not think that is what I have to request.” Rhila crept up until she was standing in that spot Livia had always liked to stand when she wanted to talk while he was working at the controls, the little space on the deck just behind his chair. “Nor do I have reason to fear your threat.”

Ramiro paused, scowling. He preferred to think this analysis was not quite true. He’d never put anyone out the airlock, of course, but he had taken life before to protect someone he cared about. Surely he could take life again to save far more than one woman with an over-optimistic view of her own persuasive powers.

Rhila’s broken-glass laughter suggested that once again, she’d read his thoughts from his microscopic behavior. How she’d done it from behind him, he didn’t even try to figure out. “You have taken a life, yes. I marked that on you before, as did Ghalr. He bade us avoid you. An ambassador should not be too acquainted with dealers of death.”

“That explains a few things.” Ramiro checked the last row of values and then finally spun his chair around. “But it doesn’t explain why you’re up here anyway.”

“I am perhaps less risk-averse than most.” Rhila’s ruby eyes narrowed. “You took a life in a situation you deem justified. A life you have not mourned, and for which you do not expect to pay any price, even if it is known. I must know what the circumstances of this were.”

Ramiro nodded slowly. The image of that Ladeonist insurgent falling in a black heap to the muddy dirt on Bettendorf had been there every time he’d closed his eyes for weeks after that near-fiasco. He’d put it mostly out of his mind when they’d come coreward to work freight and passengers out of Maribel, but after Livia’s departure, it had begun to bother him again.

“It yet fascinates that having what we see revealed to you, even this, is no great discomfort.” Rhila held out one hand with two forefingers extended, then slowly raised it to touch her forehead in a strangely benedictory manner. “Your company would be highly prized in our worlds. Few of any species, even our own, are so at ease around those with the art.”

“Knowing everything can get damned lonely, can’t it?” Ramiro smiled and shrugged. “I’m surprised you haven’t already figured out the date and the world it happened on.”

Rhila shook her head. “It is not these cold facts which hold value.”

Ramiro sighed. “I’ll keep the details to myself, then. It was when I was first working with Liv. She-”

“This ‘Liv’ is your missing mate?”

Ramiro nodded hesitantly. He didn’t particularly want to explain the concepts of courtship leading to marriage to this creature for whom relationships seemed to be a factual matter, started or ended with simple statements of intent. “She had this idea where we’d trick an insurgent group into paying us, then get them all captured and keep what they paid for. It didn’t go the way she planned, and there was shooting.” Ramiro winced, then corrected himself. “No, that’s not quite right. I started the shooting. I killed their leader to stop him from taking Liv, then our friends mopped up the rest.” Ramiro patted the gun in his hip holster, the same one he’d carried on Bettendorf.

Rhila nodded, neither benediction nor condemnation in her sparkling eyes. “You double crossed these combatants.”

“They were terrorists, really. Criminals styling themselves as soldiers. I still won’t sit here and tell you that what we did was right. I agreed to do something questionable, and I am still paying for that.”

“I thank you for your honesty.” Rhila bowed her head slightly. “I will trouble you no further.” With that, she turned to head back down the gangway.

“It’s really no trouble.” Ramiro had said this to his passengers many times, but this time he meant it. Rhila should have scared him, but she didn’t; there was, he decided, something about her that reminded him of Livia, despite all the more obvious differences.

Rhila half-turned, a polite smile splitting her face. For once, it was Ramiro who saw the little mannerisms – the slight creasing of the skin at the edges of her gemstone-bright eyes, the slight tensing of her limbs. It wasn’t his trouble, he saw now, which she had been worried about. “Perhaps in time I might learn to live so close to truth as you do.” She nodded. “But not today.”

2951-01-18 – Tales from the Service: Ramrio’s Admirer 

This week, we continue with the account sent in by Ramiro W. of his role in moving diplomats from the Sagittarius Frontier toward the Core Worlds. Independent reports suggest, as we mentioned last week, that the trio is, if genuine, a delegation from the polity known as the Grand Journey, which is rumored to have little reason to like the Incarnation despite evidence of significant past technological exchange between them. 

Ramiro’s account at this stage gives me reasons for skepticism, but I will present it as it was given to me; the fact that it was approved by Naval Intelligence for publication should not be used as evidence of its veracity. They have permitted false accounts to be published before, though the worst examples of this were thankfully in other publications. 

“Tell me something, Skipper.” Captain Marie Larson sipped whiskey from one of the glasses which she’d collected from her three polymer-averse charges and meticulously cleaned. The alien delegation had retired to their cabin more than an hour previously, leaving Ramiro and his only human passenger alone. “When I asked Naval Intelligence to recommend a light-duty ship to take those three toward the Core, why did they recommend you? You’ve never worked a steady government job in your life.” 

Ramiro delayed answering by taking a long drink of his own whiskey. He had guessed from the moment he’d first met Larson that they’d been put into touch by Naval Intelligence, and that had to have something to do with his connection to Livia. Learning that her new friends possessed some degree of official sanction had been a relief to him, but also a source of anxiety; he had no desire to be drawn into the cloak-and-dagger world of intelligence and counter-intelligence. 

Larson picked up on Ramiro’s hesitation quickly. “Eh, I know how it is. They tell you not to talk about even the silliest things.” 

Ramiro shrugged. “I can say it came as a surprise to me, too. I wasn’t asking anyone for official work.” 

“You must have a friend on the inside, then.” Larson nodded. “Though I knew from my first look at her that Jen Daley was perfect for our needs.” 

“How so?” Ramiro loved his ship, and had from his own first look at her, but she was hardly an ideal diplomatic transport. She’d been designed to move small, sensitive cargoes a few tons at a time, both in external cargo pods and in her internal, pressurized cargo bay, where enroute inspections could be performed. The ship only had passenger cabins because Livia had done most of the legwork to design a total refit of the crew deck.  

“Survey’s flagship is in Maribel. It could have gotten those three where they’re going a lot faster, and a lot more comfortably.” Larson pointed vaguely toward the bulkhead separating the lounge from the cabins. “They insisted on a civilian ride. I had to talk them down from booking second-class berths aboard one of the regular passenger liners.” 

Ramiro winced; in normal times, the big passenger lines that terminated at Maribel were quite comfortable ways to travel between worlds, but ever since Maribel had come under threat, most of them had double-booked every outbound cabin up to the absolute maximum of the atmospherics, turning the once-luxurious liners into noisome, overcrowded, clamorous hulks. There had been riots aboard one of them recently when the main food-fab system broke down, and only the first-class passengers were permitted to enter crew spaces to use the crew’s food-fab system, leaving everyone else to consume un-adulterated nutrient slurry. 

“You weren’t just a name on the list, mind you.” Larson watched Ramiro carefully. “I asked which independent ships and crews we could rely on, and they sent me to you directly. Intelligence never does that. They’ve always got a list.” 

“Someone thinks they owed me a favor.” Ramiro chose his words very carefully. “I have my suspicions who, but I’ll keep them to myself. I haven’t done any of their black-ops work, if that’s what you’re trying to get at.” 

Larson smiled humorlessly. “That’s just what a BCI minder would say.” She drained the rest of her whiskey and set the glass down on a table near her chair. “I don’t know what the spooks want with my friends over there, but-” 

“Captain Larson, neither do I.” Ramiro hoped breaking the ancient spacer custom of never calling anyone by the rank “Captain” out in the void except the ship’s commander, but he knew Larson, with her background in the Navy and in Survey, would take notice. “If BCI is keeping tabs on you, it’s not through me.” 

Larson sunk back into her chair, though she was clearly unsatisfied. “All right, all right. But you can be sure-” 

“Pardon.” A soft, raspy voice, like silk dragged across broken glass, interrupted. Ramiro turned to see the female diplomat peeking into the lounge. “Rest has eluded me. Would I be permitted to join you?” 

“Of course, Rhila.” Ramiro gestured to one of the other chairs, shooting an annoyed look at Larson. He’d have heard the cabin door hiss open, had it not been for the woman’s badgering and suspicion. “I apologize, the bunks in my cabins are far from the Reach’s best.” 

Rhila walked across the room and sat down, her even gait and floor-length garment made the motion look more like gliding than any natural motion. “The bedding is quite adequate.” She waved a golden hand which seemed to have either too many joints, or too few bones, then folded her hands in her lap. “Have I interrupted?” 

“Not anything important." Ramiro again spoke before Larson, though this time Larson opened her mouth too late to interject. “We were just trying to figure out which of our mutual friends recommended me and my ship.” 

“Ah.” Rhila blinked slowly, those blank, polished-ruby eyes vanishing under golden lids and then reappearing. “I had assumed it was your woman.” 

Ramiro had been raising his glass to his lips, and nearly spilled it in surprise. “What?” 

Larson, though somewhat less surprised than Ramiro at the alien’s deduction, nevertheless looked alarmed. “His woman?” 

“Or perhaps, she was your woman, and no longer.” Rhila pointed one long finger at Ramiro. “After all, she is not aboard.” 

Ramiro stared hard at the alien. Was this a bluff? Was Rhila helping Larson probe his Intelligence contacts? If not, then how had this creature come to so accurate a conclusion so quickly? He certainly was not at liberty to tell a diplomat from a foreign power what Livia was doing any more than he could tell Larson, even if he wanted to. 

After a long moment, the thought that these golden-skinned xenos might be telepathic entered his mind. Telepathy wasn’t real, of course; it was the stuff of salacious tales of explorers meeting buxom alien princesses on the deep frontiers. Even if an alien creature could detect the neural impulses in a human brain, how could it possibly learn to interpret them fast enough to be of any use? 

“I tried to explain to him earlier.” Larson held up her hands in defeat. “And he’s still surprised.” With a sigh, she stood and placed her glass in the cleaner. “I’m going to my cabin. We’ll talk tomorrow, Skipper.” 

Rhila’s blank eyes followed Larson out, then returned to fix on Ramiro. A smile – one that seemed less practiced than before, and more natural – tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Do not fear, Captain. I cannot read your thoughts. Such things are beyond our art.” 

Ramiro set his whiskey down. “Then how?” 

“We see many of the things you have trained yourself not to see. Small things that are familiar, and expected, which change only slightly.” Rhila held up her hand. “Look here. A being might go mad cataloging all of the things which one might learn from observing the momentary motion of one hand.” 

“A being who’s not you.” Ramiro nodded; he was beginning to understand, because he’d learned something about the art of reading and manipulating people from Livia. Were these diplomats nothing more than superhuman con-artists? What could that mean for whatever negotiations they were planning to undertake? 

Rhila’s eyes sparkled, and she emitted a broken-glass sound that Ramiro interpreted as laughter. “Maybe even I, someday. But not for a long time.” She leaned forward in her chair. “You fear us, now that I have revealed our art?” 

Ramiro shrugged. “A bit, I guess. You’re probably the third most worrying thing I’ve chatted with in this lounge.” 

“And the most terrifying of all was the woman.” Rhila nodded. “The space she once occupied has not healed.” 

Ramiro nodded; there was no point denying this. He missed Livia terribly, and missed her all the more every time her sporadic, halting messages came in. 

“I admit I find you a most interesting creature, Captain.” Rhila stood and stepped into the middle of the lounge. As she did, Ramiro wondered for a moment how he could have ever seen youth in her, until he realized that with the knowledge of reading subtle tells probably also came the capability of broadcasting them consciously. This being carried the experience of many human lifetimes, even if she might yet be young by the standards of her own kind. 

“I’m not for hire as a specimen.” Ramiro caught himself comparing the subtle curves of the xeno’s body to those of a human woman, as much as her robe-like garments allowed. After an instant’s self-recrimination, he realized that her posture had changed to one that would register for humans as sexually provocative. Was she trying to solicit him? Despite the general humanoid nature of their kind, the idea filled Ramiro with horror. What could such a liaison mean for her role as a negotiator with the Confederated Worlds? What would it mean for Livia, if she ever returned, if he had a cheap fling with an alien diplomat? 

“Ah, so then she is not gone forever.” Rhila walked past Ramiro toward the lounge door, seeming somewhat disappointed. “Do not let me dishonor what you already have.” 

2951-01-11 – Tales from the Service: Ramiro’s Sagittarian Diplomats

As soon as Ramiro announced on the ship’s intercom that the passengers could move about freely, he heard hatches hissing down the gangway as his passengers did precisely that. The hatch behind him was open, and he heard low, hissing voices drift from the cabins into the ship’s lounge, where they subsided into a susurrating background hum.

No doubt, the trio of xenos were conversing in their own language; Ramiro made no attempt to listen in with the microphone pickups. Their business wasn’t his. He was responsible for delivering them to their destination, not for picking up assorted gossip, and he’d long ago learned his lesson when it came to being inquisitive with the cargo, human or otherwise. The less he poked his nose into the business of his customers, the less they poked into his, and the less there was for anyone to dislike.

“Captain, a moment?”

“Eh?” Ramiro didn’t startle easily these days, so he didn’t jump much at the sudden voice of Captain Larson, the aliens’ Naval Survey Auxiliary minder, who was apparently standing directly behind him. “I’ve got quite a few moments.” He turned his crash-padded chair around until he was facing Larson. How she’d ascended the rattling gangway up from the corridor to the cockpit without making any noise was a mystery to be solved later.

“You came highly recommended, Captain, but I must warn you about the appearance of my charges.” Larson held up a hand, as if to establish a barrier between Ramiro and the trio down in the lounge. “They will doubtless dispense with their cowls now that we are off the station.”

“Whatever they look like, Miss Larson, I’ve handled worse.” Ramiro shrugged. It was, by his lights, quite true. After that last cruise with Livia aboard, when she’d forced him to help her supposed friend escape to Cyclone, he doubted there was much in the galaxy worth getting agitated about.

“That is just what I wanted to warn you about.” Larson shook her head. “The are not precisely, ah, ugly, by human standards. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

Ramiro folded his arms and waited for Larson to come to the point. If she was worried about him fraternizing in an unapproved manner with these visitors from beyond the Gap, then his desire to keep his connections with Livia hidden from his attempts to acquire official transport contracts had succeeded beyond anything he could have hoped for.

“They are diplomats.” Larson raised one eyebrow. “Experienced ones. Don’t forget that, no matter what impression suggest.”

Ramiro shrugged. “I’d guessed they were, to be coming this far.”

Larson scowled, clearly unhappy about how the conversation was going.

Ramiro wondered what it was that she was trying to communicate; all he could conclude so far was that the trio below would remind him of children or baby animals, and that he was not to treat them as such.

Before Larson could back up and try again, a device on her belt chimed. Leveling one finger at Ramiro in a way that she certainly intended to be meaningful, she turned and hurried back down the gangway. This time, her boots rattled the floor panels the way Ramiro expected.

Turning back to the controls, Ramiro double-checked the course he’d put into the computer, checking it against the Maribel system authority’s range of approved outbound vectors. The Navy and the system authority had gotten into the habit of changing the inbound and outbound rules every few days, doubtless out of some misplaced hopes of improving the defensibility of the system if it were suddenly attacked. If he drifted outside the range of approved vectors, he could expect to be overhauled, searched, and fined, regardless of Larson’s credentials.

Once he was satisfied as to the permissibility of Jen Daley’s course, Ramiro locked the controls and headed down the gangway. Low voices filtered out of the lounge, mostly raspy and unintelligible. Among the voices, he heard the clinking of glass, which could only be from the glassware that was supposed to be locked in the liquor cabinet. Shaking his head, he rounded the corner. “Excuse me, but wasn’t that-”

The rest of Ramiro’s chiding died unspoken in his throat. The trio of aliens stood around Captain Larson, each holding a whiskey-glass full of some sort of syrupy golden beverage. As Larson had indicated, they’d dispensed with their heavy robes, and were wearing instead garments of darkly shimmering, silk-like cloth which clung to their slim bodies and revealed every wiry muscle in their weirdly-jointed limbs.

It was the faces of the xenos, though, which had caught Ramiro off-guard. The moment he stepped into the lounge, three pairs of reddish-brown eyes like ruby cabochons set in golden faces fixed on him. Those eyes, set into such serene, human faces, made the trio more alien than any coldly mechanical Angel or squid-like, invertebrate Reacher. The impression Larson had given Ramiro that he should expect the creatures to look childlike was validated, but only for an instant; the creatures reminded him more of elfin idols come to life.

“We apologize for invading the storage unit.” One of the creatures stepped forward and bowed slightly. It was, Ramiro decided, probably female, its voice significantly higher than that of the one who’d spoken to him before, but still raspy, and its movements inexpressibly feminine. “It was a necessity.”

“There’s something in the polymer of the disposable cups that they don’t like.” Larson shrugged. She was drinking out of one of these. “I brought plenty of proper glass, but they found yours first.”

Ramiro, regaining composure, shrugged. “Just… put them in the cleaner when you’re done. The cabinet is locked because of the liquor, not the glasses.”

The female’s mouth tugged upwards into a hesitant smile, and Ramiro knew by how foreign the expression was to that round, golden face that smiling was something they’d learned to do to reassure humans. “We would not invade such supplies without asking.”

“I appreciate that.” Ramiro, realizing he was still standing in the door, took two more steps into the lounge.

Larson raised her cup toward the slightly taller being nearest her. “Captain, this is Ambassador Ghalr. His associates are Orulh and Rhila.” She gestured in turn to the other standing near her, and the female who’d moved toward Ramiro.

“Pleased to make your acquaintances.” Ramiro bowed his head slightly, once again missing Livia’s presence; con artist or no, she had been so much better than he at putting passengers at ease. “Do you still need to access your cargo?”

Ghalr nodded, then raised his glass and drained the liquid inside with one smooth, silent motion. “If convenient, Captain.”

“Come with me.” Ramiro led the ambassador aft to the hexagonal chamber behind the lounge, which on one side led to the boarding ramp, on another to the umbilical airlock, and on a third led into the engine room. Stooping, he tapped his uniform cuff against the hatch in the floor, then stood aside as it opened and slid away to reveal a ladder descending into the dimly lit cargo bay.

Turning to the ambassador, Ramiro indicated the ladder. “Can you manage this climb?”

The golden-skinned diplomat answered only by setting his feet on the first rung and descending with no difficulty. For such a senior person, Ramiro couldn’t decide how old Ghalr was; there was no spring of youth in his movements, but nor was there any of the hesitation of age.

At the bottom, Ghalr stood aside to let Ramiro descend and lead him to the netting-encased pile where the port stevedores had stored the diplomats’ belongings. Ramiro pulled back the netting waited as Ghalr checked the labels on several containers before opening one and surveying the contents. Only now did he notice that the containers were metal-walled, rather than the more common, lighter, cheaper polymer.

Without so much as reaching into the box, Ghalr replaced the lid and stood aside. “I am satisfied. We may return.”

Frowning, Ramiro led the way back to the ladder and let the diplomat ascend. He didn’t particularly care what was in the box, but why did the diplomat need to look at it, if it wasn’t needed?

Though I am not satisfied of the veracity of this rumor, it is being told here at Maribel that a delegation of diplomats from the Sagittarius Arm power known as the Grand Journey passed through the system a month or so ago. That would line up acceptably with Ramiro’s story, if true, and would provide a possible identity for the strange creatures he reports ferrying into Farthing’s Chain.

What is publicly known about this alien faction is limited: their ships share technological similarities with Incarnation warships, suggesting technological interchange between the two when the precursors of the Incarnation reached Sagittarius, and the Reachers supposedly speak of the Grand Journey in very positive terms. Some reports suggest this faction is multi-species, but most indicate that it is no threat to the Incarnation. Contact with the Grand Journey was first made by the Lost Squadrons, though it seems this first contact was hesitant at best.