Trang sample chapters


"Trang is a clever return to the social sci-fi of yesteryear."—The New Podler Review of Books.

Award-winning writer Mary Sisson brings you the tale of Philippe Trang, the first human diplomat assigned to a mysterious alien station. Haunted by a recent mission that went very wrong, Trang realizes that not everyone on Earth would like his mission to succeed—and the aliens have some nefarious agendas of their own. As he tries desperately to keep everyone from killing each other (not to mention him), strange forces threaten to destroy his very mind! If you like character-driven stories that feature a blend of drama, tragedy, comedy, and action—such as the works of Joss Whedon or Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels—and you don't mind some really bad language, read Trang today!


Chapter 1

August 31, 2113

It was the greatest event in the history of the space program—quite possibly in the history of Earth. It marked the dawn of the Golden Age of Space, a time when space captured the popular imagination like never before. It was a seminal moment, the kind of watershed event that changes everything afterward.

But to Wouter Hoopen, general manager of the Titan station, it was just another fuck-up. Another embarrassing, stupid little fuck-up by his station, which was embarrassing him enough as it was.

As Wouter would later note in his own, very private defense, the timing could not have been worse. He found out about it just as he got back from a weeklong trip to a Space Authority conference on Earth—a conference that was supposed to be a break, a rest from the claustrophobia of the station and the stress of seeing the same damned people every damned day.

And instead of a vacation, all he had gotten had been variations of the question, What, exactly—? What, exactly, was the Titan station for? What, exactly, could scientists do there that would ever justify its cost? What, exactly, was its purpose?

Why were people even asking these questions? For God’s sake, there used to be enthusiasm for space exploration, thanks to a charismatic, popular, and now, alas, quite deceased prime minister who spearheaded the construction of the Titan station some 20 years before. And now Wouter was left managing an aging station with a budget set by a gaggle of bean counters in Beijing who didn’t have to live on it and certainly weren’t going to die on it if they didn’t allot quite enough money for maintenance.

Even among the spacers—and this was where Wouter really felt the knife in his back—fervor for the Titan station had waned. His reception at the conference had been positively chilly. The planetary scientists were saying that actually being on Saturn’s moon was less helpful than one might imagine. Astronomers interested in deep space saw no advantage to the station whatsoever. Nothing living had been found, so the life-science types weren’t even at the conference, having long ago decided that space travel just sucked up their funding.

The only solid support came from the Malthusians and other catastrophiles, who continued to insist that the dwindling growth of Earth’s population, along with the ever-decreasing levels of pollution emitted by increasingly environmentally friendly industrial technologies, would someday, somehow render the planet uninhabitable. Needless to say, their opinion was hardly mainstream. And when your most ardent backers were wearing “Accept Suicide” buttons, you had a problem.

Wouter had cashed in every favor and used every connection he had to become manager of Titan Station specifically because he had wanted to stand out from the crowd. Being on Titan, having actually been in space, seemed like the perfect antidote to what he had to admit was an all-too-mediocre resumé as a Space Authority middle manager. But if Titan was mothballed, then what would he do? Given how far the station’s star had fallen, he’d likely wind up back on a cubicle farm, laboring in obscurity until his necessarily modest retirement.

Worse yet, if there was some kind of disaster—no, he couldn’t even think about that. Even if he survived, he would be a pariah, a deathwatch. There would be investigations, and Wouter was certain that those unimaginative bean counters in Beijing would prove surprisingly creative when it came to shifting blame to the station’s general manager.

The best-case scenario was this: Things would eke along, with Wouter the head of this marginally useful, greatly resented, shabby little station.

Dear God. There was no escaping it. He would never be promoted again.

Wouter had reached this conclusion during his trip back to Titan station, so he was in a very black mood indeed when he arrived. The first thing he was told when he stepped off the ship was that someone had lost a research satellite. At that point he was just about ready to take a calming stroll outside without his suit, or—and this was always the advantage of being general manager—to make someone else take one.

Instead, he chewed out everyone on the station and demanded a frantic investigation into the satellite’s whereabouts.

Not that it helped. The satellite, which was doing radio mapping—a project one astronomer at the conference called “typical of the make-work the Space Authority cooks up in its pathetic efforts to justify the existence of that boondoggle”—had vanished. There was no trace of wreckage. There was nothing odd about the satellite’s transmissions or trajectory before it disappeared. It was just gone.

Wouter’s resulting tantrum was sufficiently dramatic that his staff was still diligently looking for the satellite five days later. It was a lucky thing that they were, because when the satellite reappeared in exactly the same place where they lost it, its trajectory was totally off. Given the busyness of space around Saturn, it probably would have smashed into something if they hadn’t found it as quickly as they had. Wouter’s people tried to fix the satellite’s trajectory remotely, but it had apparently been damaged and was transmitting something that made the computer crash, so they cut off communications and sent out a retriever.

Using a retriever satellite was always tricky—you had to match trajectories and deploy the grapplers without damaging the target too much, all via remote control—but Wouter’s techs proved up to the job and brought in the research satellite intact.

And after that great save, did Wouter get one iota of appreciation from the Space Authority? Of course not. Instead, he was ordered to ship that satellite right back to Beijing, where people who were so very much smarter than he was could figure out what went wrong.

The station still had its records, though, so Wouter sent the incident data to everyone’s file, just to see if his people couldn’t show up those smug SA bastards a little.

They didn’t disappoint. The next day, when Wouter entered the grubby cafeteria, he saw two of his techs laughing over some of the data.

“What’s so funny?” Wouter asked, sitting gingerly in one of the chairs. It had been fashionable, and perhaps even comfortable, when it had been installed 20 years before.

“Oh, see, it’s like a joke,” said the first tech, Manuel.

“It’s a computer joke—a computer-language joke,” said Edmary, the other. “See this?”

He pointed at some data on his scroll.

Wouter recognized it. “That’s what the satellite was broadcasting when it reappeared,” he said.

“Yeah, someone was goofing,” said Edmary.

“It explains why the computer went haywire,” said Manuel.

“I think it does,” Edmary agreed.

“What is it?” asked Wouter, feeling slightly excluded, which made him feel slightly annoyed.

“Oh, well—I mean, don’t get mad, we didn’t put it in here,” said Manuel. “But sometimes programmers will write to each other in computer language. It’s kind of like a secret code or something.”

“Yeah, like if I need to borrow money, I might send Manuel here a little note that says, ‘This unit has insufficient power and requires a temporary influx of power from another unit with a surplus,’” said Edmary.

Manuel made a quick flip of his palm, clearly rejecting the request. Edmary put his hand to his heart in mock-hurt, and then continued.

“You’d write it in code, you know, just like a computer would send out a request on the network. It’s a little joke. But you have to be careful where you send that kind of stuff, because if it goes to the computer and not to Manuel, the computer might actually try to follow the orders.”

He pointed at the scroll again. “See, this message is in the same language the satellite uses to communicate with the station computer, which is why it caused problems. Somehow it wound up where it didn’t belong.”

“What does it say?” Wouter asked.

“This is like what you might write somebody new—like a girl or something—somebody who you wanted to meet. Like, this line is, ‘This unit requires information from other units.’ And that line is, like, an approval code—that means, you know, that the unit is cleared.”

“Friendly, basically,” said Manuel. “Trustworthy.”

“Right, it’s like, ‘Tell me about yourself, I’m a nice guy,’” Edmary continued. “And then, this is a request for the other unit to transmit the contents of its databases, and that’s a priority code.”

Manuel smiled. “Someone wanted to meet someone really badly.”

Wouter frowned deeply. If Beijing found out about this, would they figure out a way to blame him somehow?

“We are totally not the ones who did this,” said Edmary to Wouter.

“Maybe a little green man is looking for love,” said Manuel, with a laugh.

Manuel’s joke stuck in Wouter’s mind as he lay in his lumpy bed later that evening. It was crazy, of course, but what if a—?

No—he couldn’t even think it without hearing, “Typical of the make-work the Space Authority cooks up in its pathetic efforts to justify the existence of that boondoggle.”

But if he found life, intelligent life, wouldn’t that actually justify the existence of his station? In moments of budgetary desperation Wouter had toyed with the idea of passing off some of Titan’s more bizarre crystalline structures as a form of life. Imagine if he found the real thing?

Think of what it would mean for Earth.

Think of what it would mean for Titan station.

Think of what it would mean for his career!

Think of the funding!

The key, Wouter decided, would be to figure out a way to investigate without anyone knowing what he was doing.

He could look at where that satellite had vanished. That would look good to any outsider—maybe there was some odd feature at that point in space that would be of scientific interest. He could send another satellite there—one of the ones that took video images of the rings, maybe. God knows, no one in the SA would care if one of the viewfinder satellites went offline for an hour or twelve: The general public thought the images they sent back were pretty, but scientifically, they weren’t worth much.

So the next shift, he asked his staff to send one of the viewfinders to the coordinates where the radio telescope had vanished and reappeared.

They did.

And it disappeared.

Wouter sent his report to Beijing with mixed emotions—they could roast him for losing a second satellite, but on the other hand, it was intriguing, wasn’t it? He had his staff look through old satellite trajectories, and other satellites had passed through those coordinates as recently as four months ago without any incident. None of the telescopes picked up anything strange there, and his staff reviewed four months of observational data without finding anything of note. He sent the results of their research on to Beijing, hoping that it would help guide their bean-counting minds toward the “intriguing” and away from the “wasteful” school of thought.

But the viewfinder got back to Wouter before Beijing did, reappearing 46 hours after it vanished. Again, its trajectory had obviously been interrupted. The staff sent a retriever after it, not risking communication this time. The retrieval into the satellite bay went off without a hitch, as did the automated quarantined download of the viewfinder’s data. Wouter and several of his staffers gathered around the one working screen in his office to see what the satellite had seen.

The image was clear, but at the moment of disappearance there was what looked like a jump in the star field. A circle of light appeared and vanished at the periphery of the image, which became distorted for a moment as the viewfinder compensated for a sudden change in light levels.

Then, a small, white, oval object appeared. It sped up to the viewfinder quickly, making Wouter wonder if it was an asteroid shooting past.

But then it slowed. The object hovered in the image, only a few meters away from the satellite.

“What’s that?” asked a staffer.

Act skeptical, thought Wouter, suppressing a smile. “Let’s not get excited—it could be a hoax,” he said.

It wasn’t a hoax, he knew it, and he clasped his hands in his lap to conceal his excitement. I’ll be able to write my own ticket! he thought.

The oval paced the viewfinder for a bit, matching its trajectory. There were no markings on its surface, and no indication of any sort of door or window. There was, however, a little dimple in the center of the oval.

After a few moments, a tail snaked out of it, seeming to feel its way through space toward the viewfinder.

Suddenly the station’s breach alarm went off, making one of his staffers scream and nearly scaring Wouter out of his seat.

He would later think it odd that he didn’t have the same initial reaction that everyone on Earth seemed to have—he didn’t wrongly assume his station was under alien attack. Instead, he foolishly wondered for a moment if the alarm was coming from the soundless video. Then, as he scrambled to seal his environmental suit, the chilling thought occurred to him: I’m too late.My station’s fallen apart.

Once everyone was sealed up, he found the frantic staffer who had set off the alarm. There had been no breach, thank God, but the staffer had seen something on the viewfinder satellite, something that had left him gibbering.

Wouter looked through the window at the satellite bay, which had sealed and was now pumping out the toxic Titan atmosphere.

He saw it then, sitting on the outside of the satellite, nestled next to the camera aperture.

Later investigation would reveal that that same camera had prevented Wouter’s techs from spotting it during the retrieval. They had instructed the retriever to approach the viewfinder from behind, so as not to damage the camera, and from that angle the camera itself had blocked their view of the thing.

That thing was a large cluster of round purple lumps, a bit like the inside of a pomegranate or a bizarre and fatal tumor.

Wouter ordered the area sealed off completely, sent a missive to Beijing, and ordered a decontamination of the rest of the station before allowing his staff to unseal their suits.

Then he went back to his office and watched the video. He saw in fast-forward what the rest of Earth would watch in detail, over and over and over again, in the months and years to come. He saw the other ovals and their tails as they looped around the satellite and pulled it through space. He saw the appearance on the edge of the screen of a structure that grew larger and larger until it swallowed up the view. He saw the strange things—creatures? robots?—that examined and worked on the satellite in an open bay on the structure’s side. He saw the left hand of the image replaced by a white field, while the right half showed the ovals reattaching to the satellite and hauling it away. He saw the ring of light marking the spot where the ovals detached and let the satellite float away, and then the sudden appearance of Saturn, with its familiar rings and moons.

And he saw the equally dramatic change in the white side of the screen as the viewfinder approached the ring. There, in the middle of an unchanging field of white, was a round, growing spot of black.

A hole.


Chapter 2

May 27, 2118

Philippe Trang stood outside the door, frozen.

A sound had caught his attention, riveting him to the floor.

Bzz-bzz. Bzzz-bzzz-bzzz. Bzzz-bzz-mbzz.

It was coming from behind the door.

It’s not flies, Philippe thought to himself. It can’t possibly be flies.

He could feel the panic rising all the same. He took a moment to control himself, to suppress all emotion, and then he pushed the button.

The door in front of him opened, and Philippe saw the gently lined face of the evening’s host, Chen Ming, head of the DiploCorps’ Beijing office.

Ming smiled with obvious warmth, and Philippe instinctively smiled back with what he hoped appeared to be equal warmth.

They greeted each other and shook hands; then Ming held onto Philippe’s hand as he escorted him into the apartment. The drone of conversation became punctuated by pleased exclamations. Everyone soon stopped talking, turning their well-coiffed heads to look at Philippe.

“The man of the hour!” announced Ming.

Philippe smiled and bowed slightly, realizing that he was going to be put on display immediately. Good thing I don’t need to go to the bathroom, he thought.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to present to you Philippe Trang,” Ming continued. His voice was not loud—he seemed far too elegant a man to raise it—but it carried throughout the spacious room.

“As you may have heard,” Ming said knowingly, eliciting smiles from the audience, “tomorrow Philippe will leave Earth and travel to the Titan station. From there, he will go through the portal and take up residence on the alien station.

“Philippe will lead the very first human diplomatic mission to an alien culture—or, more accurately, cultures, since there are fully seven alien species living on that station. Philippe will be the DiploCorps’ first representative ever—humanity’s first representative ever—to the aliens. What he is doing is unbelievably important. Without exaggeration, it is the most historic mission the DiploCorps has ever undertaken.”

Philippe gamely continued smiling. He hadn’t talked things over with Ming beforehand, so he wasn’t sure if he was going to be expected to say a few words.

“It is also something that has never been done before, and as a result, it has generated a great deal of concern,” Ming continued. His tone grew greatly concerned as well, and Philippe realized that Ming had, essentially, prepared a speech.

He stopped trying to organize his thoughts: He wouldn’t have to say a thing. Today, he was nothing more than a prop.

“Some of that concern is legitimate, and some, in my opinion, is the result of an unfortunate xenophobia. It is true, as some critics never tire of pointing out, that we’ve been exchanging messages with the aliens for five years, but there is so much that we don’t know—that we can’t know—just from exchanging video. We need somebody there—someone who can actually interact with the aliens, who can live among them and forge the kind of connections that could never be made from the safety of Beijing or Ottawa.

“I’m not claiming we know exactly what will happen—far from it. But while the road ahead is unmapped and full of pitfalls, given Philippe Trang’s remarkable record in the DiploCorps, I am confident that he will be able to navigate it.

“Congratulations, Philippe, and thank you,” said Ming, shaking Philippe’s hand again. “All of Earth is relying on you.”

Someone started applauding, and soon everyone joined in.

Philippe smiled and waved to the crowd, feeling vaguely sick.

It was his going-away party. Perhaps fittingly, it was a generic DiploCorps affair, held far away from any place that had any personal meaning for Philippe, and populated mainly by people he did not know. It was held in an apartment reliably suited to the typical needs of an upper-level DiploCorps officer, who would be required to throw several large parties a month: The living/dining/cocktail-party room was spacious but also featured several semi-private nooks, the better to foster those all-important one-on-one interactions.

The décor was lush without being vulgar—the deep red, almost burgundy walls with tan paper hangings rose up from an impressively immaculate white carpet. The wall hangings reflected what Philippe assumed was Ming’s own preference for traditional Chinese calligraphy, but even they obeyed the DiploCorps aesthetic—moderate in size and muted in color, they had been hung perfectly at a discreet distance from each other.

This was a room that, like its owner, whispered and did not shout. The same was true of the soft music in the background and, no doubt, of the expertly blended drinks available. Although Philippe had never met most of the people there, they, too, looked familiar—well-groomed, well-dressed, clearly well-off, yet not garish or ostentatious. Tasteful, tailored, and smooth.

Philippe took a deep breath. He knew this world well; he’d worked in it for years.

This shouldn’t be so tough, he told himself.

They were all there to meet him, of course. Well, not really to meet him—not in any genuine getting-to-know-you kind of way. He was a prop, and they were there to shake his hand and look at his face before he left Earth. Then they would be able to tell their friends, I met Philippe Trang once, the night before he left Earth. I shook his hand and looked him right in the eye. Isn’t it a pity?

Philippe shook his head to stop that train of thought—it would affect his smile, and he needed to smile convincingly now because the flurry of introductions was beginning. The guests were actually lining up, like they would at a wedding or a funeral, to receive the handshake that was due them.

It wasn’t hard. As Philippe expected, no one really wanted to talk to him. Some of them asked him how he was, but luckily they didn’t want a real answer.

Like any reasonably competent diplomat, Philippe was good with names. Still, under the circumstances, it did seem a little pointless to have to learn dozens of new ones. Here, for example, was the last person in the line of new acquaintances, the assistant undersecretary of technology trade standards for the Hong Kong office of the Commerce Division. Philippe couldn’t imagine why he would need to know her, even if she had, as he remarked, certainly traveled a long way.

“Well, I haven’t come as far as you have!” burbled the assistant undersecretary.

Her name was Ling Wei. She was plump and short, with a blunt bob that unfortunately emphasized the roundness of her features.

“All the way from Canada!” she exclaimed. “Is this your first time in Beijing? Have you been able to see much of the city?”

Philippe realized that, oddly enough, Wei actually seemed to want to make conversation.

And why not? he wondered. There was no one in line behind her, pushing her along. She was by herself, but she seemed genuinely friendly and sociable—with none of the scary stalker vibe he had occasionally gotten from people who recognized him on the street.

Plus, this was an opportunity to ease the topic of conversation away from himself. He really, really did not want to spend an entire evening dwelling on his own state.

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “I saw the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven—and of course the Great Wall. It’s all been fantastic.”

Wei tilted her head. “What do you think of Beijing itself? As a city?”

Philippe thought for a moment. “I guess the main surprise for me has been how big the Space Authority is here—I mean, I knew the headquarters are here, but. . . .”

“You can’t go two blocks without seeing the logo,” agreed Wei.

Philippe nodded. “I mean, the DiploCorps are headquartered in Ottawa, but that just means the offices are there. You don’t see people in the street wearing DiploCorps jackets and shirts—if those things even exist.”

Wei nodded. “Beijing is crazy about the Space Authority, especially these days. We’re always joking about that in Hong Kong—they should just change the city’s name to SA and be done with it.”

“That’s a good idea. You could pronounce it Sa,” said Philippe. “You know, ‘This weekend I’m going to Sa to, um—’”

“‘To watch the launch!’” Wei finished.

They laughed. The Space Authority seemed to launch something every few hours—the noise was surprisingly penetrating despite the required muffling. Even when Philippe had gone out of town to see the Great Wall, he had been distracted by a launch—not the noise that time, it couldn’t travel that far, but the blazing light trail in the sky that followed it, a reminder hanging in the heavens that his time on Earth was limited.

A waiter passed them with a tray full of some kind of savory pastry, and Wei almost leapt to stop him.

“You have to try one of these,” she said, gesturing at the pastries.

Philippe obeyed. The pastry turned out to be an excellent crab puff, with just the right mixture of crab, sauce, and pastry. Wei, Philippe quickly determined, was a fellow foodie, and she had taken a careful and thorough inventory of the appetizers available.

After that crab puff, he was more than willing to mine her knowledge of the other tasty bites available, and her judgment did not disappoint. For the first time, his smile felt natural, and he began to feel like this evening might not turn out to be an excruciating slog after all.

“You know, I guess I’m surprised that you’ve never been to Beijing before, given how much you must travel,” said Wei, after steering them to some delicious chicken feet.

“I’ve actually never been assigned to East Asia,” said Philippe. “I’ve spent most of my time in much more troubled places—non-Union countries and the like.”

“Well, um, excuse me?” said a voice behind Philippe.

He turned, smiling.

His smile promptly felt strained.

The woman standing there obviously was not a diplomat, or even an assistant undersecretary. Everything about her was a little too. She was a little too young and a little too thin. Her breasts were a little too large for her body, and her lips were a little too big for her face. She wore a little too much makeup, and her short dress was both a little too short and a little too tight. Her hair was a little too shiny, and her eyes were open a little too wide.

This woman was either a politician or, judging from her skirt length, a spouse. Either was virtually guaranteed to be a bother.

“Um,” she began. “Um, I couldn’t help but hear you mention the non-Union countries, and, um, I’m just wondering, what do they think about what you’re doing? Do they think it’s, um, dangerous?”

Of course they think it’s dangerous, thought Philippe. It is dangerous.

“Well,” he said, “the non-Union countries have largely decided to let the Union take the lead in Earth’s dealings with the aliens. The Union is the closest thing we have to an Earth government, after all.”

“But, um, before we were just, um, talkingto them,” said the woman. “And now, um, we’re sending somebody through the Titan portal to, um, actually see them.”

“We’ve been talking to them for five years,” said Philippe. “Presumably if they wanted to attack, they would have done so by now. The aliens have never even come through the portal, and they say they never will without a formal invitation. They’ve been consistently friendly and, as far as we can determine, truthful in their communications. I think that it’s natural at this point that we would explore the possibility of deepening our relationship with them.”

She looked at him, wide-eyed. Philippe couldn’t quite decide if her expression indicated actual fear or was merely the vestige of some cosmetic procedure. He really wasn’t in the mood to spend time justifying his mission at this late date to someone who clearly hadn’t bothered to educate herself on the subject, but he decided that a little additional reassurance couldn’t hurt.

“I mean, it’s not like there’s perfect unity among the Union countries, either. Of course, there’s a risk to going through the portal. But there’s also a risk to staying on opposite sides of the portal forever—if we don’t engage the aliens, if we don’t build a positive relationship with them now, then maybe there will be negative consequences down the line from that decision. I can speak only for myself, but I’m not afraid to do this.”

He smiled at her, in what he hoped was a reassuring fashion. But he was thinking, Whatever happens, I’ve seen worse right here on Earth.

“Well, I just don’t think that it’s fair,” she replied. “I mean, um, the Union is making these decisions that affect everybody, and, um, what are the non-Union countries supposed to do?”

Philippe looked about for Wei, if only as a reminder of better days, but the assistant undersecretary had cleared off, leaving him to his troubles.

“Who cares about the non-Union countries?” exclaimed a red-faced man who suddenly appeared by the wide-eyed woman’s side. “They don’t have the money, and they don’t have the clout—am I right, Trang?”

Philippe’s smile thinned. “Actually, the non-Union countries do have a say, through the United Nations, and two years ago they passed a resolution of support—”

“What’s the United Nations?” the woman asked the man, putting her arm around his thick waist. He looked like he was about 30 years older than she was—but Philippe was willing to bet that he had never been as good-looking.

The man waved his hand in the air, dismissively. “A useless relic.” He thrust the hand out to Philippe. “Tau Li. Beijing office. DiploCorps.”

Of course, thought Philippe as they shook hands, the suit. Li was wearing a perfectly tailored suit, a model of understated elegance. It seemed somehow not to fit.

“Philippe Trang. Nice to meet you.” Philippe said.

He waited for a moment, but Li didn’t offer to introduce his—wife? girlfriend? Hopefully not his daughter, considering where his hand was now. Whoever she was, she didn’t seem willing to introduce herself.

“So, you’re the wonder kid who gets to go meet the aliens tomorrow,” Li said. He waved his free hand in the air as he talked. “Through the portal, and to the alien station.”

In that instant, Philippe realized two things about Li: The man was profoundly drunk, and he was profoundly jealous. At this very moment, Li was wondering why, with his big mouth and his trophy girlfriend and his willingness to get sloshed at official functions, he wasn’t getting the kind of assignments that put him on the global news feed as the public face of the DiploCorps.

Schadenfreude wasn’t a noble emotion, Philippe knew. But it could be a useful one. He used that feeling of superiority to help him glide fully into the diplomatic frame of mind—confident, serene, benevolent.

“I’m very excited,” he said blandly, “especially about meeting the Communicator.”

Li opened his mouth, but quickly closed it. Philippe realized why when he heard Ming say, “I would be, too. Philippe, I’d like you to meet someone.”

Even Li has the sense not to mouth off in front of his boss, Philippe thought.

He turned to Ming, and all thoughts of Li vanished from his mind. Standing by Ming was Shridar Bhattacharjee.

Shridar Bhattacharjee?

Philippe did a double take, but there was no mistaking that friendly, bearded face, that long, slightly crooked nose, those large, chestnut-brown eyes. Shridar Bhattacharjee! Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize!

“This is Shridar Bhattacharjee,” said Ming, as though Philippe needed to be told.

“It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” Philippe managed to say, eagerly shaking the older man’s hand. The hand felt somewhat thin, and Philippe noticed that Shridar did seem somewhat frail—he had retired from the DiploCorps at least a decade before, and of course his remarkable work in Korea had taken place quite some time before that.

Shridar’s eyes were still lively, though. “It’s an honor to meet you,” he said, generously.

Philippe suddenly felt warm.

“Now, don’t you think,” brayed Li in Shridar’s general direction, “that someone like you should be the first diplomatic contact with the aliens?”

Shridar laughed and waved his hands. “Oh, no. I’m far too old. This is a job for a younger man.”

“But really,” Li klaxoned.

“The Space Authority was quite specific in their physical requirements,” said Ming, cutting Li off without the least visible trace of irritation. “And Philippe’s not exactly a child—how old are you?”

“Thirty-six,” said Philippe.

“And you’ve got a lot of experience in, shall we say, non-conventional situations,” Ming replied with a smile.

Philippe smiled back. “Well—don’t tell anyone I said this—but I think the DiploCorps’ attitude is, if somebody has to be eaten by a space monster, it should be somebody junior.”

Li exploded with laughter. His companion waited a moment, and then joined in with a nervous giggle.

Ming and Shridar didn’t laugh, however. Instead, the two older gentlemen exchanged a look of concern.

“About that: What do you think of your security arrangements?” Shridar asked. “Are you satisfied with your level of personal protection?”

Philippe paused for a moment. It seemed like a bizarre and tragic waste of possibly his only chance ever to speak with Shridar Bhattacharjee to be talking about the minutiae of his own life. Still, one had to be polite.

“I don’t—” Philippe almost said care, but that sounded a little too blunt, or perhaps a little too honest. “I don’t worry about that—like Ming said, I’ve been in any number of dangerous missions, and I’ve always felt like the Union Police had those sorts of matters well in hand.”

“But this isn’t likeany other mission,” said Ming.

“Well, of course,” Philippe agreed. “But I guess I feel like people who know a lot more about security than I do are taking care of that end of things. There’s not much I can do except leave them to do their jobs.”

Shridar and Ming exchanged another look.

“Ordinarily, I would agree,” said Shridar. “When the Union is, ah—”

“Unambivalent,” chimed in Ming.

“Unambivalent,” Shridar nodded. “When the mission is clear, then, of course, you would leave security to the Union Police. They’re the experts. But when things are like they are now—the mission is utterly open, there is no way to define success—then sometimes you don’t really get the support you need.”

“You may be pulling in one direction,” said Ming. “And there are factions in the Union that may be pulling in another. There is still, as I mentioned, a great deal of xenophobia, even among the upper echelons of the Union. It can complicate things.”

Philippe stared at the two older men, the noise of the party washing over him. What was there for him to say?

“It’s a bit like what happened to you with General Jesus in Guantánamo,” said Shridar. “When the larger direction of a mission is unclear, the staff on the ground tends to suffer.”

Philippe heard a gasp.

It was the woman. Her eyes were open even wider than before. Philippe was momentarily surprised that such a thing was possible.

You were at Guantánamo?” she asked.

Philippe stared at her for a moment.

Li let rip with another braying laugh. “Sweetheart, you are so dumb—it’s cute. Trang here was the hero of Guantánamo.”

The buzz of the conversation around them seemed to rise and cover Philippe’s head. Bzz-mbzz-bzzz. Bzzz-bzzz. Bzzz-bzzz. Bzzz-bzz-bzzzzzz.

“There were no heroes at Guantánamo,” he said.

Bzzz-bzzzz-bzzz. Bzzz-bzzz. Bzzz-bzzz. Bzzz-bzz-bzzzzzz. Bzzz-bzzz. Bzzzz.


Chapter 3

Philippe left the party as soon as he could—everyone knew he had a big day tomorrow, so aside from a few pitying looks shot his way by Shridar and Ming, no one acted like anything was amiss.

He entered his temporary residence and relished the quiet.

Solitude was what he needed now—solitude and time to prepare. He read farewell messages from his parents and several friends, and he deleted a message from Kathy without opening it. The staff had provided him with a packing box for any items he had brought to Beijing that were not approved for the mission, so he dutifully packed his personal belongings away and ordered them shipped to storage in Alberta with the rest of his things.

The next morning a car was there to pick him up. Space Authority headquarters was located on the outskirts of the city, and Philippe sat in the back and watched the car’s controls as it drove itself through the city. Beijing was reasonably quiet at this hour of the morning, although not entirely so. There were still people puttering about the sidewalks, opening up the shops where they wore and sold their Space Authority merchandise.

Looking at them, Philippe felt a pang of guilt. These people would be so happy to be going where he was going—it was every child’s dream. And yet he just felt numb.

The car drove him out of the city to the walls of the SA compound. Philippe opened his window and looked out at the facial scanner. Everyone said you didn’t have to do that, but he always did anyway, just like he always kept an eye on the car when it drove.

He arrived at the gate, which like always, read his transponder just fine despite the fact that he carried it in his pocket. Likewise the building knew who he was, and text lit up on the wall, directing him to Flight Preparation. He noted with amusement that he now ranked high enough to have personalized directions flash on the wall screens as he walked by, but not high enough to have an actual human being take him where he needed to go.

He entered a booth at Flight Preparation, where his flight suit was waiting. He pulled the baggy jumpsuit off the wall, wondering if he could wear it over his clothing, or if he needed to strip down to his underclothes, or at least take his shoes off.

“Hello! And welcome—” There was a short pause, just long enough for Philippe to recover from the shock of having a booming video of a person suddenly appear on the wall. “—Philippe Trang!” the video person continued, the mouth not matching the words and the voice a suddenly different pitch.

The person was obviously computer-generated: She looked vaguely Asian and vaguely female, but not so much so as to alienate any secret racists or misogynists.

Philippe watched the entire video, examining the jumpsuit’s hood as the video explained how to pull it over the head and create an airtight seal, and looking at the nozzle where he would be able to plug himself into an oxygen supply “in the unlikely event” that a meteor smashed into the ship or its engines exploded. There was a brief animation of the passenger and pilot pods ejecting from the ship and falling safely through Earth’s atmosphere to land with a gentle splash in the ocean. No animation explained what would happen if the pods fell right back onto Beijing.

There was also no word on whether you could wear your clothes under the suit. Philippe asked the allegedly interactive wall, but it would only replay bits of the video that he had just seen, so he finally walked out of his booth to see if he could find a real person. Luckily there were some guys—construction workers for the Titan station—in the main changing room, who told him that he could just throw the suit on over whatever he was wearing, shoes included. He thanked them and returned to his booth to suit up.

He came out and followed the construction workers to the ship. He lagged behind them because he was a little embarrassed—he’d gotten his own changing booth, and they had not. Worse, the arrows that lit up for them said “Ship this way,” while the ones that lit up for him said, “Welcome, Philippe Trang! This way to your ship.”

The arrows were easy enough to follow, though, and Philippe walked down a long corridor that ended at the doorway to the ship. He walked onboard and felt a disappointing sense of familiarity—the passenger cabin was small, holding only about 20 people, but if it weren’t for the suits people were wearing and the handholds sticking out of the walls and ceiling, he never would have known that he wasn’t on an airplane.

At least the seats looked big and comfortable. A light appeared above one of them as he passed by, and the words “Philippe Trang” popped up next to the light, so he stowed his bag in the overhead bin and sat down. Most of the passengers were burly young men, construction workers or maybe military. But in the chair next to him was a slim, middle-aged woman with straight black hair streaked with gray. She was reading, but she looked up from her scroll as he sat and gave him a warm smile.

She started. “Oh, hello, I saw you on the news,” she said. “You’re the diplomat.”

“Philippe Trang,” he said, putting out his hand. Hopefully anyone cleared to go to Titan wasn’t a stalker.

“Yoli Quintana,” she said, shaking it. She had a Spanish accent—she must be just old enough that it hadn’t been expurgated in her childhood—but she seemed very comfortable with English, so Philippe didn’t switch.

He buckled himself in—the restraints were definitely more substantial than you’d see on an airplane, with straps both over the shoulder and under the arms that attached across the chest and into the seat between his legs.

“Are you with the SA?” he asked Yoli, more as a conversation-starter than anything else. She certainly didn’t look like she was military or in construction.

“In a way,” she replied. “I am borrowed from Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago. I’m an astrophysicist.”

“Oh really?” asked Philippe. He tried to turn his body toward her to talk, but his restraints wouldn’t let him. He turned his head instead. “So they’re finally letting you guys go up?”

“Yes, finally. The SA has its own scientists on Titan, and I’m sure the military has people, too, but not a proper research team that can publish findings and the like. We received permission to send up people and equipment just six months ago—and I don’t mean just UC, I mean the whole consortium of astrophysics programs.” Yoli gave Philippe a sly look. “Of course, none of us get to go where you’re going to go.”

He shrugged as much as his restraints would allow. “I think I’m the first person to go through the portal who’s not carrying a weapon. But my hope is that once we establish good, open relations with the aliens, and everyone feels safe, then scientists like yourself can come through and look around. Who knows what you might discover?”

Yoli grinned, clearly delighted at the thought. “That would be amazing,” she said. “The Titan portal, you could work your whole life on that alone.”

“Not to mention all the other portals on the other side,” said Philippe. She nodded.

A couple of burly young men went past them and sat in the back of ship. It seemed like people were just being allowed to trickle on, which meant that it might be a while before the ship actually took off.

Philippe decided to take advantage of the time, not to mention the presence of an astrophysicist. “I have a question for you, since you actually know something about science, which I don’t. What are those things? Those portals? I keep asking, and people keep trying to explain it, but it just never makes any sense to me.”

Yoli’s smile became rueful. “It doesn’t make any sense to anybody,” she said. “We can’t even figure out how that camera works.”

Philippe chuckled. “I guess it’s not just us. If you ask the aliens what the portals are, they tell you that they’re a great mystery of the universe, or an invitation to fulfill destiny.”

“I’ve heard that they’re really religious.”

“Oh, they are,” said Philippe, nodding vigorously. “Do you know their history of the station?”

Yoli shook her head.

“According to the Builders, several hundred years ago there was this prophecy that a portal would open up that would take them someplace far, far away.”

Yoli nodded. “You are going really far, you know—outside the Milky Way.”

“Yeah, I was told that it’s not really in any galaxy.” Philippe paused. He hadn’t asked when he was briefed because he didn’t want to sound like an idiot, but chances were that Yoli worked with students, so she was probably used to stupid questions. And she seemed quite friendly.

He decided to ask. “Is that even possible? To not be in a galaxy?”

“Oh, yes, it is,” said Yoli. “There’s a lot of space between the galaxies. A galaxy is simply a gathering of stars and planets. You’re going into the space between the Milky Way and the Small Magellanic Cloud. It is like traveling to some isolated hotel between two cities—it’s not impossible, it’s just that there’s not much there other than the hotel. And it’s a really long way away.”

“OK,” said Philippe, feeling relieved on two levels—if she thought he was stupid for asking, she hid it well. “Anyway, the prophecy goes on that once they get to that place, they should build this station, and then other aliens would come and they would all be friends.”

Yoli looked surprised. “Really? It said all that? That was a good prophecy.”

“Well, that’s the official story,” said Philippe. “I suspect that there’s some historical revisionism going on: You know, like maybe what actually happened was this thing opened up, and no one was sure what to do about it, and then some Builder who had strong opinions about the matter came along saying, ‘I very conveniently found this prophecy!’ And that gave them some direction, and things just grew from there.”

The ship gave a lurch, and the same bland face and loud voice that startled Philippe in his changing booth popped up on the back of the chairs in front of them.

“Welcome to the Titan shuttle,” the face said. “Please fasten your restraints in preparation for takeoff. Please keep your restraints fastened until the alpha drive is engaged.”

“Have you done this before?” Yoli asked Philippe excitedly, stowing her scroll in her armrest.

“No,” he said.

“I haven’t, either. It’s fantastic!”

Philippe tried to mirror her enthusiasm, hoping it would ease the paralyzing nervousness he suddenly felt. “Yeah.”

“I know I sound like a little girl, but I can’t believe I’m finally going to Titan. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do—always, always. And I’m really excited about getting to meet someone like Wouter Hoopen. What vision he must have to do what he did five years ago! I really admire him.”

Philippe smiled tightly as the ship gave another series of shudders. He felt himself being tipped backward.

“We’re falling—what’s happening?” he yelped.

“They tilt the ship back for a vertical takeoff,” said Yoli, patting his arm.

They sat on their backs for several minutes, and then the deep rumbling and vibration started. Hearing it in Beijing was nothing compared to being on top of it. Philippe felt like his teeth were going to shatter to bits in his mouth.

In a moment, they had taken off—the shaking hadn’t eased any, and given the pressure Philippe was feeling, his crushed teeth were going to wind up right down his throat. He peeked over Yoli’s head out the window, and saw that they were passing through a cloud. After a few minutes that seemed like an eternity, the rumbling ceased, and the sky outside the window gradually got dark.

The ship seemed to stall, and all the pressure on Philippe’s body suddenly lifted. He felt his breakfast coming back up, but managed to remember the sick patch on his suit and slapped it in time. He tried not to think about meteors.

“In a minute, we will have alpha drive!” said Yoli. Philippe looked over at her: She was beaming, clearly thrilled by the entire experience.

There was another shudder, and then a high-pitched whine. “Alpha drive engaged,” said the bland video person. “Please feel free to move around the cabin and help yourself to the available refreshments or entertainment.”

Some of the passengers immediately unbuckled themselves and pulled themselves over to the refreshment center, but Philippe was in no mood to eat and decided to stay put. Yoli was looking out the window.

“So this alpha drive,” he said, reaching back in his mind to a long-forgotten science class. “Does it use alpha waves?”

“You mean alpha particles?” she asked, turning away from the window. “I don’t think so. The name’s just sort of a marketing thing—like the alpha dog, the alpha drive. It’s very macho.”

“It is an impressive engine, though. Didn’t it used to take months to get to Saturn?”

Years. It took the earliest satellites years to get there.”

“And now it takes a day,” Philippe said.

“We go fairly close to light speed,” said Yoli.

Philippe became puzzled, dimly remembering something he had perhaps seen once in a virtual entertainment or heard about in a class. “If we’re going at light speed, won’t everybody be really old when we finish our journey?”

Yoli smiled—at least she found his ignorance entertaining. “It’s not so fast. We will gain only a few minutes on people who haven’t made the trip. And if someone on Earth was observing us, we would look a little shorter right now than we did when we left, but we’ll get that back once we slow down.”

They chatted a bit more, and eventually both went back to their reading. Yoli fell asleep—she was still on Santiago time, apparently—but Philippe got hungry and unfastened his restraints. Moving about in zero gravity was tricky, but he was able to haul himself to the refreshment area without kicking anybody in the face. He ate, discussed soccer with some of the construction guys, puzzled out the toilet, went back to his seat, watched a movie, ate again, and was thoroughly bored by the time the video half-woman reappeared and woke Yoli up by telling everyone to strap back in.

Another sickening lurch and the high whine that Philippe had stopped hearing hours ago ceased, reclaiming his attention by its absence. The ship hit Titan’s thick atmosphere and shuddered its way through the orange haze. The pressure wasn’t nearly as bad this time, and of course there was nothing to see out the windows except for orange fog, so Philippe didn’t realize how close they were to landing until he felt a big thump and the video person told them they could remove their restraints.

I didn’t even have time to get frightened, he thought.

The other passengers started taking off their restraints and getting their things, so Philippe got up and got their bags out of the bin, handing Yoli’s to her. Then with a sudden pop! the door to the ship opened. Philippe went out, followed by Yoli, and walked down a long corridor that had attached itself to the side of their ship.

It was newer and cleaner, but it looked just like the corridor in Beijing that Philippe had walked down to get on the ship. The air smelled slightly musty, but other than that and the noticeable difference in gravity there was no indication that they were on another planet, a moon of Saturn, hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth, in an atmosphere of pure poison.

They reached the end of the corridor. Yoli saw some people she knew and went to greet them. Philippe was wondering where he should go when a young man approached him and said, “Philippe Trang? GM Hoopen is waiting. Follow me, sir.”

“Sure,” Philippe replied. “Is it OK for me to remove the space suit first?”

Philippe had not expected the question to be a stumper, but the man furrowed his brow and pondered it for a minute. “Yeah, OK,” he finally said. “I don’t think we’re going to be passing near any of the areas that are under construction.”

There wasn’t a changing area, so Philippe stood off to the side and pulled off his protective suit, rolling it up and stuffing it into his bag. He did his best to smooth and straighten his clothing without a mirror, running his hands over his hair. Then he grabbed his bag and followed the man.

The Titan station was white and spare, but crammed with people—despite repeated expansions, overcrowding was a constant problem. Back on Earth, an SA staffer had told Philippe that, while at the station, he would be sleeping in a wall cubby. The staffer, apparently expecting some objection, had made a point of noting that the cubby’s regular resident would be sleeping on the floor.

Even these finished sections of the station looked something like a construction zone—directional signs had been scrawled directly onto the walls. But there were also large, brass signs with arrows saying “General Manager’s Office,” and these they followed. Eventually they came to a door that bore another brass sign, “Wouter Hoopen: General Manager.”

Philippe’s guide opened the door, and Philippe walked in to what apparently was an outer office, with a well-appointed receptionist’s desk and chairs. Standing in the middle of the room was a middle-aged, sandy-haired man in a space suit whom Philippe recognized immediately as Wouter Hoopen. He was facing a considerably larger black-haired man in camouflage and a woman, also in camouflage, who was almost as broad as the larger man and several centimeters taller.

Philippe recognized her and stepped over. “Hi!” he said.

She looked at him, polite but puzzled. “Hello,” she replied, as one would to a too-friendly stranger.

Oh, crap, thought Philippe. Of course, her height and mahogany skin were identical. She had the same round nose and prominent cheekbones.

But she wasn’t the person he knew. Her black, curly hair was cropped short, and her left earlobe was distorted, as his soon would be. She was leaner, giving her face a more-pronounced heart shape, and her shoulders and arms were more muscular.

“I’m sorry,” he said, embarrassed. “I-I think I know one of your sisters.”

“Oh!” she said, unfazed. “Well, since you’re the ambassador, you probably know Kali—she’s a big peace activist, lives in Ottawa.”

“I know a human-rights activist in Ottawa named Kelly Pax,” said Philippe.

“Yeah, yeah, Kelly now. She was Kali when we were kids. The Pax names always confuse me.” She put out her hand. “I’m Shanti Pax. Mission commander.”

“Yes, yes, this is MC Pax,” said Hoopen. “And you must be Philippe Trang.”

Philippe nodded at the man while shaking Shanti’s hand.

“Yes, Philippe Trang, DiploCorps,” he said, disengaging his hand from Shanti’s iron grip.

Hoopen stuck out his hand, but Philippe was distracted by the logo stitched onto the front of Shanti’s camouflage shirt—a snarling jungle cat, with fangs bared. The detail of the mouth and teeth suggested blood. The large man next to her had the same logo on his shirt.

A chill ran up Philippe’s back, but he remembered himself. He looked at the sandy-haired man, smiled, and shook the proffered hand.

“I’m GM Hoopen,” said Hoopen. “I wanted to introduce you to your colleagues. MC Pax obviously will be in charge of your military escort and security. Her second, Pieter Strauss, would be here, but he’s overseeing the final outfitting of your living space on the alien station. And this is MO Dimas.”

The larger man looked slightly amused. “That means medical officer,” he said as he engulfed Philippe’s hand in one of his own. The backs of his hands were covered in black hair that ran up his powerfully muscled forearms. “In other words, I’m your doctor. And please call me George.”

“Yes, he’s your medical officer, a respected emergency-medicine specialist,” said Hoopen. “He also has a graduate degree in zoology.”

“Well, it was nice meeting you both, and I look forward to working with you,” Philippe said, keeping the strain out of his voice, and he hoped, his face. He turned to Hoopen. “Do you mind if we have a brief chat, in there?” He pointed toward the inner office.

“Not at all,” Hoopen said, and headed inside. Philippe waved at the other two with a smile, and then shut the door, leaving them in the outer office. He watched as Hoopen walked behind a sizable desk made of dark wood and laden with gadgets, and sat down. Behind him was an entire wall of large, expensive-looking monitors.

“What’s going on here?” Philippe asked sharply.

“What?” said Hoopen, raising an eyebrow. “You don’t want to work with a clone?”

His blunt use of the term surprised Philippe. “I don’t care about that,” he replied. “And you shouldn’t call them clones. It’s offensive. I don’t care that she’s one of the Pax sisters. I care that she’s one of the Special Forces.”

Hoopen gave him a surprised look and put his hands in the air. “You knew when you agreed to this assignment that you would be accompanied by an entourage of twenty soldiers—”

Soldiers. Not combat specialists. Not killers. I assumed that I would be working with soldiers. Peacekeepers.

Hoopen stared at him for a moment, and then gave a quick laugh. “The UP?” he asked. “You thought you were going through with the UP at your back? So if the aliens attack, you want the Yoopers to put them down with, what, sticky guns and poofballs?”

“The DiploCorps always works with the Union Police—” said Trang.

“Not this time—” said Hoopen.

“We always work with the Union Police because we can trust them to not make a situation worse. If we fail, and the UP fails, then and only then do the Sister You-Know-What-ers get to come in and kill everybody.”

“The SF has been on this from the beginning. They’ve been the ones outfitting your area of the station. They’ve been doing it for months.” Hoopen paused. “They haven’t killed anything or blown anything up yet.”

“Not yet. It’s the Special Forces. Give them time,” Philippe spat.

He was upset, and it was showing. He took a breath, willing himself to appear calm and logical.

“What’s going on here, Hoopen?” he continued, in a more reasonable tone of voice. “I come here thinking that we’re going to try to make friends with these people—”

“These aliens,” said Hoopen.

“—and I find that I’m going through with twenty homicidal maniacs and, what, a vivisectionist?”

“The Special Forces are the best-equipped, best-trained military force the Union has. Which means they are the best-equipped, best-trained military force the Earth has.”

“If you want somebody dead, they are the best,” said Philippe. “They are very good indeed at making people dead. So what are they doing here?”

Hoopen threw up his arms. “I didn’t ask!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t ask. It’s not my place to ask. I don’t understand why you’re asking.”

“You don’t—?” Philippe stared disbelievingly at Hoopen for a moment, and then realized that the man was telling the truth.

Hoopen genuinely did not understand why Philippe would object to taking a combat force on a diplomatic mission. Either he didn’t get the significance of it—which was possible, since he wasn’t DiploCorps, Union Police, or Special Forces—or he didn’t understand why Philippe should care.

Maybe if I try a different tack.

“Hoopen,” he said, confidentially. “Think about it. The Union knows what standard operating procedure is on a diplomatic mission. If they’re going to deviate from that—and trust me, this is a major deviation—they should have told me. Why didn’t they tell me? Why wasn’t I briefed on this?”

“Why do you ask so many questions? Who do you think you are?” Hoopen snapped back, unmoved. “You’re just a junior diplomat, and people far more senior than you or me have made up their minds. I’m not going up against that. It’s simple for me—the SF is going through the Titan portal.”

Philippe opened his mouth to reply.

“No, no, no,” said Hoopen, shaking his head and wagging a finger at Philippe as if he were a child. “The Union decided: It’s the SF. Period. They are going to provide protection to whichever diplomat goes through that portal. They didn’t tell you because it’s none of your business. There is nothing you can do about it; there is nothing I can do about it.”

Philippe opened his mouth again.

Before you make a fuss,” Hoopen interrupted, “just remember that there are a thousand others just like you. Maybe they’re not as well-connected, but they are just as qualified and just as eager. They are all happy to take your place. So for you, the choice is simple: You can be the diplomat who goes through the portal with the SF and lives on the alien station, or you can be the diplomat who goes back to Ottawa, and somebody else goes through that portal with the SF. It’s entirely up to you.”

Philippe stared at Hoopen. There would be no help here. Philippe could see right through the station manager: Hoopen was a fraud, fat and happy to be the little king of his little hill, and as long as his station was expanding and his budget was increasing, he would go along with anything the Union brass wanted.

Philippe began to feel the fury rising in him. Hoopen had him over a barrel, he was compromising the mission, and he just didn’t care. He couldn’t care because all was right in his little corner of the world, and his little bureaucratic mind could encompass nothing beyond that.

Yoli will be so disappointed, Philippe thought.

He couldn’t even look at the little man. He needed to think and think fast, and Hoopen was making him so angry that he couldn’t think at all. Philippe looked down at the floor, calming himself.

His eyes followed the elaborate pattern of the wood inlay there.

Parquet floors? he thought for a moment. Damn, this is a nice office.

He put it all out of his mind. He needed to think.

Hoopen was right about one thing: Philippe had only two choices, stay or leave.

Frame the problem that way, and Philippe knew immediately what he was going to do. He would be damned if he was going to leave this mission—Earth’s first diplomatic mission to the aliens—in the hands of hacks, fools, and maniacs. Shridar and Ming had been right—the Union was ambivalent, and there were probably strong forces who wanted to see the mission fail.

But Philippe wasn’t one of them: This mission mattered to him, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to succeed without someone on it who gave a damn and who knew what to do.

And he knew what to do. Hoopen was wrong about him: He wasn’t well-connected—his parents were farmers, for God’s sake. Whoever put him on the mission, it wasn’t someone who wanted it to fail. It was someone who knew damned well there weren’t a thousand others out there just like him.

Philippe looked up and glared at the little station manager.

“I’ll go. But you haven’t heard the last of this, Hoopen,” he said. He turned and walked out the door.

Shanti was still standing—ramrod straight—in the outer office.

“Hey,” she said. “George wants to give you your earplant.”

Philippe nodded stiffly, and followed her out the door. They walked in silence down the hall.

“So, ‘shanti’ means ‘peace,’ and ‘pax’ means ‘peace.’ What’s your real name?” he finally asked.

“My true name is Shanti Pax!” she sing-songed, and then laughed. “But my original name is Surpanakha—you haven’t heard of her. Minor Hindu demon. Kind of a puss, actually. Not cool like Kali.”

They walked along a little bit when Shanti suddenly opened a door and looked in. She waved Philippe in and shut the door behind him. Only then did he realize that she had led him into an empty office.

“I have to tell you something,” she said. “Hoopen’s a dick. And he forgot to soundproof his door.”

Philippe closed his eyes and touched his fingers to his forehead.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “How much did the doctor—”

“Oh, George took off the minute you guys went in, don’t worry. And you know, I’m OK with it—at least you have an original reason for not wanting to work with me.”

“I’m really, I’m so sorry,” stammered Philippe. “I just, I—”

“You don’t want to be sandbagged, I understand.” Shanti paused for a minute, thinking. “I know you think maybe we’re not on the same page here, but let me tell you something: The SF has done everything we can possibly do to ensure our safety on this mission. Everything.

“Even so, if the aliens turn out to be hostile, if they turn on us? There is no doubt in my mind that we are all dead. We built our area, but they built the station, and God only knows what they’ve built into it. Hoopen might tell you that your life depends on us, but the truth is, our lives depend on you and you doing your job. So we are not looking to start a fight.”

Philippe stared at her.

Shanti smiled and opened the door to the hall. “We’re not the Suicidal Fuckers, you know.”

They walked out. Philippe felt suddenly ashamed.

“I’m sorry I confused you with Kelly,” he said.

“Oh, that’s nothing! This training buddy of mine, she spotted Muireartach in Bangalore, and walked right up to her and grabbed her tit, like that—” Shanti made a twisting gesture with her hand. “Luckily she shouted, ‘Protect your package!’ just before she did it, so Muireartach realized it had to be someone military. Which is good, because they’re both pretty tough, and I like them both and would hate to see them fuck each other up. But you know what will bother people? That Sister Fucker bullshit. You’ll hear us call ourselves that, but you’re not in the SF, and it’s not a good idea for you to do it. You can ‘you-know-what’ around it all you fucking want, but you’ll still wake up with a slit throat.”

“OK,” said Philippe, thinking that there was not a phrase in that monologue that Kelly would have uttered, ever.

“So this earplant you’re getting?” Shanti continued. “It’s fancier but it goes in just like a regular earplant.”

“I’ve never had an earplant.”

“You’ve never—what?” Shanti stopped and turned to him. “Did you just say that you’ve never had an earplant?”

“Right.”

“You’ve never had an earplant.”

“I prefer not to have things implanted.”

“So—I’m sorry, I’m just having trouble processing this—so when you were in Sudan, and Kurdistan, and—. Shit. When you were in Guantánamo—?”

“They always recommend earplants, but this is the first assignment I’ve had where I’ve been required to get one,” Philippe explained. “I just carry a transponder on me.”

Shanti gave a brief, shocked laugh. “You just carry it on you? So when they grab you, they can just take it off you?

“Sometimes they cut off ears, too,” Philippe said quietly.

She grinned mischievously. “Oh, yeah, they do.”

Philippe’s stomach roiled. They started walking again and finally reached the infirmary. Shanti pushed open the door.

“But so you know? The earplant is just a communications device.” She slapped his shoulder as he walked through the doorway. “The transponder goes someplace else.”

 

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