The Verindi were pasty-colored and hairless but otherwise humanoid. The Empire had never been able to form an alliance with them, either political or for commerce. Not even for exchange of cultures. No one knew why.
Failure stymied the diplomatic corps and it was decided to try a different approach. The Empire needed all the allies it could get in the fight against the Andromedans. Technology-wise, the Verindi were on par with the Empire and had a substantial territory of their own that spanned two Sectors.
“Remind me why we’re doing this and not one of the diplomatic ships?” grumbled Fleet Admiral Verel, as he stood on the teleport platform, tugging at the high, stiff collar of the dress uniform that seemed intent on strangling him.
Standing tall, resplendent in his black dress uniform with gold accents and a chest glistening with a colorful array of ribbons, medals and commendations, he was as impressive as the Empire needed him to be. Chell was similarly decorated. He was a tall hero-type, muscular in an ancient statue kind of way and could have made a good propaganda tool if the right people cast their eyes in his direction. Though he would be horrified at any such suggestion.
Captain Chell held back a sigh. Sometimes the Admiral could be like a petulant child when dealing with formalities. “You know why, sir. They weren’t able to get anywhere with the Verindi. Fleet HQ thought they might be impressed with someone more forceful and has a reputation.”
“I wouldn’t think a reputation for killing people would be high on a list of diplomatic skills.”
“You’re seen as a hero of the Empire, sir.”
Verel snorted in derision at the term.
Chell rolled his eyes. “Well if you will insist on delivering a dozen planets from enemy occupation and holding the line at Turcotta Prime, you have to pay a price.” The Empire had called on one of their most decorated Admirals, hoping his reputation would make the difference a faceless diplomat would not.
“I feel naked. I need a gun.” One of the conditions for the meeting was that both parties be unarmed.
“Sir, you know we can’t be armed.”
“Even a knife would make me feel better.”
Chell eyed him suspiciously. “Sir? You don’t have one hidden somewhere, do you?”
“Of course not.”
“They will probably use sweepers to check, just like we will.” His eyes swept the Admiral from grizzled head to booted toe, looking for telltale signs. There were none, but with concealing technology these days, that might not mean anything.
“I told you, I don’t.” He paused briefly before giving a long resigned sigh. “But I did consider it. Briefly.”
“I’m proud of you, sir.”
“Are you patronizing me, Captain?” There was a hard edge in his voice.
“I wouldn’t dare, sir.”
Two senior officers and Ensign Mirren joined them on the teleport pad and Verel nodded at their acknowledgements. “Ensign, are you ready?”
She squared her shoulders, her chin lifted. “Yes, sir.”
Chell regarded her with approval.
The diplomatic party arranged themselves on the teleport disks and the transforming energies outlined them, erasing their forms until nothing remained. On the planet below, they were redrawn, full formed in an instant, in the middle of a clear field.
In Science Lab Four, Adrian rubbed bleary red eyes and took a dee p breath. He closed the accelerating unit, sliding the panel into place with a click.
It was hard to concentrate knowing Kali was on her first assignment for the Admiral. He tried to convince himself there was nothing to worry about. It wasn’t a combat situation. The Verindi were supposedly frustrating and mysterious but hardly dangerous.
“Day-dreaming, Stannis, or is your vaunted brain stumped?” No one else sounded quite as annoyingly grating as Kegan.
Adrian’s back stiffened and a twinge of pain nagged at him, but he remained silent. Working with Kali these past weeks, helped him to realize it was easier to maintain his temper if he ignored Kegan, rather than trying to respond with a scathing remark.
Ture, the military Comp Tech seconded from Research Division, gave Kegan a dirty glare. Unknown to the Tech Commander, Ture had admired Adrian’s work for years and counted himself one of his biggest fans, though he was discreet in his admiration.
Everyone took their cues from the Tech Commander’s attitude and few were willing to take the heat of being on his bad side, especially if it meant a black mark on their records. They all treated Adrian with professional detachment and did not interfere in Kegan’s verbal abuse.
Ture was a lanky uncommunicative man, except when talking about computers or new technology. There was a naiveté about him when he was enthusiastic about something. He said to Adrian, “Sir, I’m ready to test it when you are.”
“Connect the leads.”
Ture picked up two clear optical cables and slotted them into place.
Professor Boudreaux sat behind a computer, bright anticipation in her eyes. The others were standing in a semi-circle around a raised center platform.
“Ready, sir.” Ture stepped back and Adrian flicked a switch. Energy hummed through the machine, lighting it up with an intense golden glow.
The excitement was palpable.
“Professor, if you would…”
Boudreaux pressed several keys. A fist-sized sphere sitting on a cradle rose slowly above the platform. The sphere was dirt brown and had various marks written in red. It rotated slowly as it hung above the table.
Adrian angled a parabolic signal dish towards it. “Shields.”
With a few more entered commands on the control panel, a sheet of energy surrounded the sphere on all sides. Everyone unconsciously leaned forward.
The red button glinted invitingly, almost begging to be used. How appropriate that it would be the color of danger. Adrian pressed it and looked up, his eyes hooded in dark thoughts, waiting for something he dreaded.
When had the advancement of science become something that made him ill?
All knowledge is useful. But for whom?
Nothing dared to break the silence as he imagined the waves of energy reaching out hungrily. The surface of the sphere wrinkled and all breaths drew in at once.
Boudreaux’s face was rapt with attention.
A loud screech made them wince as the dirt brown sphere imploded, sucking its surface into itself as if there was a creature eating it from the inside. A second later, the globe shattered in a thunderous blast. The lab shuddered, objects toppled and some crashed to the floor. Shattered
pieces hit the shield and sizzled into nothingness.
For a moment, they stood in stunned silence, and then they burst into lightning cracks of applause and people clapped each other on the back and cheered.
At first, no one approached their lead scientist; it was as if Adrian was an island in the middle of the crowd.
Ture gave Kegan a defiant look, and boldly stepped up to his idol. He stuck out his hand, saying loudly, “Congratulations, sir. We couldn’t have done this without you.”
Shocked silence drowned out the merriment, a long moment when no one dared breathe or move, and then one by one, they all surrounded Adrian, congratulating him for a successful test and for work that would enhance their careers.
It should have been a moment of triumph, with Kegan fuming on the sidelines, but Adrian’s face was stony.
A clear field. No Verindi in sight. Only a flat, barren expanse of cr acked rocks baking under the blazing double sun. Heat rose in rippling waves, and if you squinted, there was a mirage of a domed city in the distance.
“Where are they?” asked Chell, choking out a question as he covered his mouth and nose. Everyone was coughing, some waving away swirls of dust and dirt.
Laughlin, a tanned man with ears that stuck out, asked, “Are we sure these are the right coordinates?” He looked around dubiously. Being the Chief Negotiator, he was familiar with all kinds of diplomatic scenarios—not having the other party show up being one, and gross incompetence hampering his work being another.
Tapping on his palm locator, Chell answered, “These were the figures we were provided with.”
“We’ll wait,” said the Admiral, shielding his eyes to look off in the distance.
Kali opened up her psi perceptions and a torrent of impressions flooded her mind. They were being watched. She had a strong impression of curiosity.
They are here, she projected to the Admiral.
He glanced over at her, not making it too obvious, a question in his eyes.
Verel lifted his head to the burnt-orange sky. A pyramid-shaped ship dropped out of the glare of the sun, its sides glinting. “There they are.”
The others looked up, shielding their eyes. “A bit obvious isn’t it?” asked the other senior officer, Ouyang.
The ship descended, blowing out gusts of air downwards, creating a churning cloud of dust and dirt as it slowed and landed near them. Large doors swung outwards and a ridged ramp slid down, hitting the chalky rock surface with a thump and throwing up a violent puff of dust.
Five figures, all the same height and wearing dark green and brown uniforms with black double straps crisscrossed over their chests, came down the ramp towards them.
The Trykor officers arranged themselves behind the Admiral on either side and waited.
The Verindi moved with stately precision, as if they were gliding. The two parties stood facing each other for a few seconds, waiting and assessing. The middle Verindi, an older man with sharply searching gray eyes that looked as if they could pierce the soul, stood forward and bowed. “You are Fleet Admiral Verel?” The voice was melodic, careful.
The Admiral nodded in acknowledgement. “You are First Ambassador Kell-al?”
Kali felt a slight ripple of anticipation and something else. Her eyes half-closed as she concentrated harder. It was an undercurrent, an expectation of disappointment. Not surprising considering the lack of progress in previous negotiations. The anticipation was a welcome sign.
The Ambassador nodded once. “These are your officers?”
“This is my First Officer, Captain Chell. Third Officer, Commander Ouyang, Chief Negotiator, Sub-Commander Laughlin and Negotiator Mirren.”
“Do you consider them impressive?” The melodic voice was smooth on the ears. Verel hesitated. “They are my officers.”
“Indeed,” Ambassador Kell-al said grimly.
There was a pause, which stretched into an awkward silence.
They had reached a junction and picked the wrong turn. But what was wrong? Kali reached deeper, trying to find something to help them understand.
The Admiral cleared his throat and gestured politely to the people behind the Ambassador. “And these are?”
The Ambassador looked at him gravely and nodded once before making introductions. Kali sensed a lightening of mood as this happened.
Taking this to be an encouraging sign, Verel said, “I would like to extend—”
Admiral, let the Ambassador take the lead. We need to study how he approaches a conversation.
Verel thought quickly and smoothly made the transition without a break. “—the good wishes of the Empire to your people. I understand negotiations have not gone well in the past and I must admit that I am no diplomat. Is there something I can do to facilitate these negotiations?”
“You wish an alliance with us?”
“I believe it would be in our best interests. As you know—”
Admiral, let the Ambassador take the lead. There was a positive shift when you asked his input. Now it is moving the other way.
“—the Andromedans are a threat. Have your people been attacked?”
That wasn’t what Kali meant but the Ambassador seemed to appreciate the question.
Kell-al rubbed his hands together. “We have had numerous incursions along our border. I imagine you have had the same experience?”
“Yes. That is why we are proposing an alliance.”
Another long silence followed. Verel wondered if the Ambassador was considering the proposal but there was no change in expression on the Verindi faces.
Kali sensed the Verindi were waiting for something. Going back quickly over the conversation and the impressions she received from them, a vague pattern suggested itself. It could just be the normal flow of conversation, or it could be something important.
Admiral, repeat your last sentence but formed as a question.
She saw the Admiral turn his head slightly towards her before he asked, “Would your people consider an alliance to be beneficial in meeting this common threat?”
The Ambassador smiled. “Would you do the honor of walking with me?”
Admiral, continue framing questions rather than making statements. He appears to react positively to that.
Verel nodded. “I would be honored Ambassador.” He extended his hand. “If you would lead the way?”
The two men moved off, their heads bent towards each other in conversation.
Kali touched her ear and the small receiver unit she inserted before they left the ship.
She heard the Ambassador ask, “You are a decorated Admiral among your people?”
“Trinkets. They mean little on the field.” The Admiral walked with his hands clasped behind his back. Sweat beaded on his brow and he wiped the back of his hand over his forehead. This was hot enough work already without two suns beating down on them. He glanced at the man beside him. The Ambassador moved with fluid steps, sliding his feet along the ground. Verel asked, “Empire diplomats have approached your people for an alliance before?”
This was acknowledged with a single nod. “Many times. You wish to know why they’ve never succeeded?”
“Was it the approach?”
Kali suppressed an amused smile at the Admiral’s directness. She was sure career diplomats would have all sorts of criticisms about this conversation, but the Ambassador was responding quite positively now, something no diplomat had ever achieved before. It was a simple thing, but not one noticed by those who considered themselves in the stronger position. In the meantime, with Kali’s suggestions, Captain Chell and the two Commanders struck up conversations with the remaining Verindi party.
She heard the Ambassador’s response.
“It was the lack of reciprocal conversation. Have you been involved in diplomatic missions before?” The man didn’t seem to sweat or be bothered by the heat. His face was animated and his gestures expressive, a marked contrast to his earlier reticence.
“Involved yes. Directly, no. I have experienced negotiators for this type of task. Would you prefer speaking to one of them?”
“You are doing quite well.” He rubbed his hands together. “Would you like to ask me a question?”
Admiral, he is ready.
“What do you think of the proposal of an alliance?”
“As you said, we have a common enemy. An alliance would benefit both our Empires. I will accept tentatively and you can send your negotiators to work out the finer details?” He held out his hand and the Admiral grasped it firmly.
“It’s a deal.”
At the end of the day, after the triumphant test of the Neutron Wave accelerator unit, people filed out, happy smiles still on their faces. Adrian entered test notes on the computer, preparing for the next phase.
“Don’t think this changes anything, Stannis,” snarled Kegan. “You’re still a traitor and you will get what’s coming to you.”
Adrian allowed the words to pass by, refusing to acknowledge Kegan’s taunts.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, Stannis.” Kegan placed his hands on his hips.
A flash of irritation crossed Adrian’s face but there was no expression when he looked up. The detestable man was on one of his daily tirades. The constant threats, expressions of dominance and attempts to humiliate him were tiresome. He stared at Kegan, beginning a count of the minutes before it would be over.
“Adrian only listens to people he considers worth listening to. Isn’t that right?”
Adrian’s back tensed as Boudreaux came up behind him.
Kegan growled, “Stay out of this, Boudreaux.”
“And miss the entertainment?” She came closer, brushing her finger tips to Adrian’s back and smiling triumphantly when she felt him fight the impulse to flinch.
Adrian’s jaw clenched, and he felt like an animal trapped between two predators. His iron discipline evaporated every time Boudreaux came near. He hated his own weakness and wished he had never become involved with this woman. She was enticing, intelligent, witty and beautiful, in an icy statue way. It had blinded him to her other traits until it was too late.
“The others think you’re some kind of genius,” sneered Kegan. “They don’t know what you did. How many careers you ruined.”
“You fooled all of us,” said Boudreaux, “I didn’t think you had it in you.” The accusation was a shard of ice plunged into Adrian’s chest. His eyes tightened in a grimace and each breath seemed to choke him. “I…” He didn’t know why but he had an overwhelming need to say something.
“…warned you to walk away from the Project.”
Kegan’s eyes contained fire as he shouted, “You planned it from the beginning!” Grabbing Adrian by the collar, he pulled him up. “I think you are political.” He shoved him hard and Adrian stumbled back and would have fallen if Boudreaux hadn’t put her arms around him.
She said in cold warning, “Leave him alone, Kegan.”
There was a cruel smile on Kegan’s face. “I will tell the Admiral you’re a rebel sympathizer. Security Section will be very interested.” With a cackle, he left the room.
A band of tension squeezed Adrian’s chest. The Admiral might be able to protect him, but Security was another matter. Any whiff of rebel involvement, even unsubstantiated, would sink him faster than a rock in a shallow pond regardless of how useful he was. He looked down, startled that Boudreaux was still holding him. “You can let go.”
Boudreaux loosened her hold a little and keeping one arm lightly around him, stroked her hand down his body. Adrian breathed sharply through clenched teeth as the touch reached the inner curve of his hip. His head was light and old desires were coming back full force, along with a shudder of fear. “Stop,” he gasped.
“Make me,” she whispered into his ear, her breath tickling him and sending shivers down his body. It was too much like old times; he had to break away. Adrian pushed out against the arm imprisoning him but her caressing hand slid further down causing him to arch his back instinctively.
When they were like this, she was the fire to his ice, melting his reserve, tearing down his barriers.
“I can’t.” He resisted, tightening his muscles against the onslaught of sensations, but it only made it worse.
Sensing victory, she purred, “You always say that but we both know it doesn’t make any difference. On some level, you want this.” Suddenly she let him go and stepped back. Adrian blinked as if she had just slapped him. He sank down into the chair, his fists held tight, his body slanted forward, his eyes reflecting the remnants of desire and anger, at himself and her. His voice was taut, full of pain. “Get out.”
Boudreaux smirked. “I can do that to you anytime and there’s nothing you can do to fight it.” She leaned forward and her voice lowered. “What do you think your little Ensign is going to think about our little interlude? Has she asked about me yet?”
“I will go. But I am never far, not for you. You will never be able to escape me.” She laughed before she exited the room, leaving Adrian alone and tormented by his own weaknesses.
Tennyson contacted the Psychostrategist’s Guild, asking for their top operator. A single file was sent.
Charles Sester. Senior Psychostrategist. This man had a reputation. Like him, Sester got things done. A bit of a wildcard. Unconventional and ruthless, but it was offset by his brilliance. Just the right man for someone like Adrian Stannis. Someone to shake his confidence, to keep him offbalance and to twist him on a mental level.
He sent his approval of the operator and left instructions to his assistant to facilitate the man’s commission and his arrival on the Trykor.