His love life, I presumed, was trying to suck his own cock until his fifth chin choked him unconscious. He looked like a bowl of dough that’d been left on the counter too long but an ambitious woman could rummage around under those folds while imagining herself elsewhere. His real problem was his stench. This experience, I could only describe as someone’s beloved pet goat left to perish of heatstroke in a diaper pail.
And he was standing at the podium.
From the worst seat in the conference hall, I willed myself to keep breathing.
Ambassador Aphelion was a man of great importance on a planet that, until this morning, I hadn’t known existed. I was the outlier, here, the underdog. He, like the rest of his cronies, could make—and break—fortunes on a word. Meanwhile, the most we could hope for perpetual economic servitude.
The ambassador stepped down, removing himself to a specially constructed divan.
My father approached the podium next.
He did so, like he wasn’t entirely sure he’d come to the right place.
My father’s name was John Fortescue. He looked like he’d come straight here after losing a battle with a comforter and, even better, he was drunk. He’d been hitting the bottle, hard, since the night we boarded that first ship and hadn’t let up since. Although, to be honest, I couldn’t remember a time he’d been sober. Which was problematic, as he also led this delegation.
My fate, literally our entire planet’s fate, was in his hands.
We were guests aboard the Endeavor, a constellation class exercise in beige. Beige said, murder is so gauche, an important message on a diplomatic vessel. The Endeavor was also the flagship of the Alliance, a loosely governed federation of planets that’d agreed to host us while we begged. Not help us, mind you; their policy of nonintervention meant that they’d watch us die and then publish a report or two on what might be done with a newly uninhabited planet.
No, there was only one man who could help us.
His name was Cassius Falco, and he wanted nothing more than to destroy us.
I studied him, as he studied each of us in turn. He looked like he’d been carved from marble, some sculptor’s fantasy of an avenging angel. His eyes were as dead as a statue’s, but lit with an unwholesome light. Unlike his stooge the ambassador, he wasn’t dripping in pearls. He needed none, to command the room. Even Captain Arcand, whose ship this was, seemed to fade into the background.
My father paused, blinked, and shuffled his papers.
“And so,” he continued, “we find ourselves in the unfortunate position of….”
Phoria Q4, our home planet, had a unified government. My father was Minister of Finance. He was describing the ravages of disease, or trying to. A disease for which we had no cure. The Alliance did, but we weren’t part of the Alliance. Which meant that we had one remaining choice: throwing ourselves on the mercy of our oldest, staunchest, and most terrifying enemy: the Circassian Empire.
My father cleared his throat, then cleared his throat again.
My sister, who’d been seated beside me, yawned.
I winced. Someone laughed. At this point, I decided, simply going home and waiting to die might be the most dignified option. Not that Rowan had to be ridiculous, to invite scorn. Not in this chamber. We’d been exiled to the nosebleed section, but honestly lucky to be included at all. To the Circassian delegation, our mere presence was…distasteful, to be polite. They might know, academically, that we allowed our women to do things but they didn’t want their noses rubbed in such barbarism. On Circassia, I happened to know, I wouldn’t even be able to enter a library.
As a member of the diplomatic corps in my own right, I knew full well what I was supposed to think about other cultures. I also knew that my boss, Ben, was front and center next to my father and I was more educated than both of them put together. I was undoubtedly better educated than Cassius Falco, too; what need could a man who razed entire planets for fun have for a book?
Rowan yawned again.
And that was when I felt a crawling sensation, and realized he was watching.
I didn’t turn; I refused to give him the satisfaction. Instead, I willed Rowan to at least cover her mouth while I reviewed what little I knew about this wantonly corrupt degenerate. Contact between Phoria Q4 and the Circassian Empire had been, until now, sporadic and limited to threats. We weren’t exactly overwhelmed with juicy details. He was proconsul, or governor, of someplace called Acra. Which was impressive, I supposed, but hardly justified the almost worship of his underlings.
Maybe they had no choice.
Falco, in his native tongue, meant cruel. He’d conquered six planets so far, which I presumed included Acra, and my father was currently in the process of handing him a seventh. Given that raping and pillaging across solar systems couldn’t be a quick process, I’d come into this first session of negotiations expecting a much older opponent. This walking nightmare, though, appeared at least to be younger than Ben. Even worse, he was—almost handsome.
“In conclusion,” my father finished, “I reiterate that…. I reiterate that without your help, proconsul, without the Circassian Empire’s help, our people will surely all perish.”
And then silence.
My father looked around.
Papers rustled. One of the uniformed Circassians coughed. They were all in black, save the ambassador. I didn’t understand what he was even doing, here; calling what we had with these fools diplomatic relations was like describing a trip inside an iron maiden as a date. Most of them, too, seemed to share the proconsul’s complete and utter boredom with the proceedings.
The ambassador burped and then looked down, surprised.
Cassius Falco arched a single, perfect eyebrow.
The ambassador paled.
Cassius Falco only seemed attractive, I told myself, due to the nature of comparison. And all men looked good in uniform—or at least better. Cassius Falco’s uniform was identical to that of his men, save for a small touch of gold. He was lounging slightly, like he was waiting to be served in some mildly disappointing club.
Finally, he spoke.
“Coria and Curia.” The proconsul’s gaze held my father’s, as he named our moons. This was the first time I’d heard his voice. His accent was impeccable, but…wrong, somehow. He sounded like a snake might sound, after the unluckiest sorcerer in the world granted him speech.
“Yes,” my father agreed.
In a ghastly flash of insight, I understood.
“Ripe for mining, and yet….” The proconsul made an elegant gesture.
I felt my throat constrict.
“We can do nothing with our moons,” my father said, “if we’re dead.”
The proconsul’s tone changed abruptly. “You can do nothing now.”
My father cringed back, as if struck.
I wondered if my boss wanted to rescue my father as badly as I did.
“For generations, you’ve refused even your closest neighbors the most minimal help. Instead, you—”
“We refused taxes!” My father mopped his brow.
“Taxes, which would’ve provided the help you now demand!”
“We’re not demanding anything, we’re….” My father trailed off, baffled again.
“Had Phoria Q4 accepted our help, when last approached, Coria and Curia would each be producing—and exporting—more than enough ore to fulfill your people’s needs. But—”
“We can’t mine them!”
The proconsul crossed his arms. “I know. You can’t provide for yourselves, because you have no funds. You have no funds, because you refuse to enter into any sort of partnership, which might produce them.” He paused. “Or are you in fact, after so much resistance, proposing to join us?”
My father’s eyes widened. “No!”
“You’ll enslave us!”
“I’ll enslave you, regardless!” Cassius Falco glared.
“We’re an independent people!”
“And this,” the proconsul snapped back, “is the price of freedom.”
“That we’re different doesn’t mean we deserve to die.”
“Perhaps.” The proconsul’s tone was dismissive. “But this is hardly my concern.”
Ben stood up. “Minister,” he began, “I think—”
My father stumbled.
Cassius Falco frowned. He turned to Ben. “This man is unwell.”
“Are you threatening him?”
“Of course not, I’m—”
My father doubled over in a fit of coughing. In an instant, Ben was at his side. The proconsul stood, too, and as he did so others began to rise. The mood in the room was quickly turning from disinterested to concerned to—something else. Ben glared at Cassius Falco, who glared right back.
“Where,” someone asked, “is your president?”
And that was when all hell broke loose.
My father grasped his chest, and crumpled into a heap. I screamed, and to be honest I don’t remember much after that. Cassius Falco lunged forward and Ben, who wasn’t even supposed to be armed, pulled out a disruptor and shot. The proconsul’s shoulder exploded in blood, and then a second and scarier disruptor was in his hand. Scattered shouts formed into a low, pulsing din.
Someone swung at me and I hit back, using the only move I knew.
The acrid stench of smoke filled the air.
I ducked as a chair flew over my head.
Through what’d been my desk until a few minutes ago, I saw my father lying motionless on the ground. I didn’t think he’d moved, since he’d fallen. Oh, god, what if he was dead?
And then I saw Ben.