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The strange and powerful Magic Man has single-handedly conquered the Cyclopes planet. Now, in the second book in award-winning writer Mary Sisson's Trang series, Philippe Trang must prevent the Magic Man from destroying the aliens who the shape-shifter dominates but cannot begin to understand. Can he save the Cyclopes from extinction—one more time?


Chapter 1

March 2, 2119

It's all OK, Philippe Trang said to himself. Everything is OK. I just need to get my hands to stop shaking.

He stared at his trembling fingers, willing them to stop. They wouldn't.

He tried again.

They shook harder, beating a frantic rhythm against his thighs.

Philippe took a long breath in and let it out slowly.

How's my suit? he wondered.

He stood hunched over his hands. His back rested against the wall of the white corridor that led to his ship. His upper body was bent almost double, like a sudden wave of nausea had overtaken him in the hallway.

Standing like this isn't going to keep this suit neat!

He straightened his body.

He ran his hands over his navy-blue dress jacket. (Were they shaking now? He could feel a slight quiver where they pressed against him.) He bent down and smoothed out his pants. Then he realized that by bending over, he had necessitated another check of his jacket.

It was hard to look disheveled or tortured in a DiploCorps custom-tailored suit, but it wasn't impossible, so Philippe shook out the jacket again. Everything seemed to be lying properly.

After his interrogation, Philippe had carefully smoothed his black hair and eyebrows, and he gave them another check now with his steadying hands. He rubbed his face to bring a little color into it again—his complexion was perhaps too olive for him to become believably rosy-cheeked, but he was willing to try anything to look healthy. And Kelly Pax had complimented his looks earlier, so encouraging the circulation to his face had clearly done something.

He gave his hands a last, deliberate shake from the wrists. There, he thought, all better now.

He turned and walked to the ship. The hallway was white and sparse, exactly like every other hallway the Union's Space Authority had ever designed. It attached to the side of the spaceship just like a jetway on Earth would attach to the side of an airplane. Aside from the substantial looking seal where the hallway met the ship, and the lightness of Philippe's step, there was nothing to indicate that he was on Titan, a moon of Saturn, and not back on Earth.

He saw the open doorway to the ship and paused. The ship was small and laid out somewhat like an airplane, with an open cockpit for its two pilots in front of several rows of seats, divided by a center aisle, for the soldiers. His traveling companion would most likely be in the row directly behind the pilots.

The doorway was located between that row and the pilots' seats, meaning that Philippe was going to have all eyes on him the moment he entered. He smiled slightly before stepping in—hopefully not so much as to make him look manic, but just enough to make him look content. A quiet joy.

And then he blew it by tripping over the threshold of the ship and falling flat on his face.

"Fuck, Trang!"

That would be Shanti.

"Jesus fucking Christ, what did they do to you?"

He looked up, smiling. The massive mission commander loomed over him already—he had learned from nine months of living with the Union's Special Forces that large did not always equal slow.

This particular SFer was bristling with outrage and protectiveness and lethal training—no doubt primed to race back onto Titan station and crack a few skulls. Even the pilots, Cheep and Pinky, were out of their chairs.

That was bad. He needed them to sit back down. He needed—no, they needed—to stop wasting time. They all needed to go back through the portal, back to the station, back to the aliens. They needed to get to their jobs.

"I'm fine, really. I am fine," Philippe said, standing up quickly in what he hoped was the jaunty and energetic fashion of a man in the absolute bloom of health. "I just tripped."

Cheep and Pinky immediately sat back down, returning their attention to the panel filled with readouts in front of them. Philippe smiled, more genuinely now, as the door shut and sealed behind him. Shanti glared at him, her dark eyes in dubious slits, but when he gestured to the seats behind Pinky, who was the farthest from the door, she sat.

He sat down next to her, on the aisle. Philippe hoped that his presence between her and the door would act as a barrier—if only a psychological one—to her leaving.

"So, how was your stay?" he asked, buckling up.

"Not bad," Shanti replied, following his lead and buckling up herself. "I took apart the desk this time."

Philippe laughed—perhaps a little more than he should. Distraction was necessary, but it couldn't be obvious. He had to keep things light and pleasant. Then, even if the conversation went to the topic he wanted to avoid, everyone would stay relaxed and would remain reasonable.

If he did this right, no one would get upset—and he didn't want to upset his friends. They should be happy and calm. Everyone should be calm and reasonable.

Philippe took another look around the ship. The momentum was there now—Shanti and the pilots were all buckled up. They were going,traveling back to the aliens, not staying on Titan station to kick up some sort of unnecessary fuss.

"Did you find anything interesting?" he asked Shanti. "In the desk?"

"No, it was boring," she said. "No bugs or secret drawers or anything."

"Did you put it back together afterward?"

She smiled (good sign) and shook her head. He laughed again.

The ship tilted back, and they took off. Philippe exhaled, releasing tension in his shoulders he hadn't fully realized was there. They were on their way. The farther they got, the less likely it was that Shanti would return to Titan station.

Of course, she'd probably yell at Philippe instead, but there was no getting around that. Shanti Pax was forceful, as Philippe supposed was required of a Special Forces mission commander. You didn't rise to a command position in the Union's only lethal combat force without being the sort to charge ahead.

But charging ahead left your sides vulnerable, and Philippe Trang was a master at coming in sideways. Shanti might rant and rail to him whenever she wanted, but she already was too late.

She was too late, and she didn't even know it. Philippe smiled again. The DiploCorps had been right to make him Earth's first diplomat to the aliens: He was good at his job.

But not so good at space travel, he realized as they shed Titan's yellow atmosphere and the moon's gravity loosened its hold. Philippe hadn't remembered a sick patch, so he just swallowed hard and hoped for the best as he watched Saturn splay its rings out across the dark.

Shanti, demonstrating what was for her a remarkable level of restraint, waited until his struggle with nausea had been resolved in his favor before commencing her interrogation.

"Did you see Kali?" she asked.

"You mean Kelly? Yes," he replied. "You didn't call her Kali did you? I think conversations in quarantine are monitored."

Shanti shrugged. "She called me Syrup."

Philippe laughed. It was rude to call the Paxes clones—after all, no one else was expected to identify themselves by their method of conception—but that didn't change the fact that Shanti and Kelly were two of 52 genetically identical sisters, created illegally and raised as fighting machines as part of a madman's apocalyptic plot. Their rehabilitation had, as far as Philippe could tell, been a complete success. But others in the Union remained skeptical, and minor slipups like using the old war-goddess names could have ramifications.

Syrup had not been one of those names, however.

"That's what they called you? That's not very intimidating," he teased her.

She shrugged. "Neither is Surpanakha."

"It must have been nice to see your sister," Philippe remarked, deliberately pushing the conversation on to the subject.

But Shanti's reaction was not what he expected: She looked apprehensive. Before he was assigned to the alien station, Philippe had gotten to know Kelly Pax on Earth—she worked for a human-rights group, which sometimes brought her into contact with the DiploCorps. While he viewed Kelly more as a colleague than as a friend, he knew that the exact nature of his relationship with her was somewhat of a mystery to Shanti.

"Or, maybe it wasn't," he continued.

"No, no—it was . . . sort of," she stammered. "I just wasn't expecting her. She said that the girls were worried that maybe I wasn't being treated too well after, you know, everything that happened. They thought maybe the Union was mad at us for our role in all that."

All that. That's how they referred to it now. All that, or everything that happened.

Philippe nodded, returning his attention to managing the conversation. Bringing up Kelly had been a good move—even though the Paxes had hardly been a traditional family, Shanti could talk about her sisters for days, which would keep her off more-unpleasant topics.

He looked out the only windows, which were in front of the pilots, and saw the pulsing lights of the nuclear mines—they'd be deep into the defenses that littered the Earth side of the portal soon, which was good. Every meter forward made it less likely that they would turn back.

"Do you think Kelly could be UI?" Shanti asked.

"Kelly?" Philippe turned his attention away from the window, surprised out of his game. "Union Intelligence?"

He shook his head, disbelieving. "I'd be shocked. The organization she works for has been pretty aggressive in exposing some of the sleazier deals the Union has struck with poorer countries. I can think of at least two or three instances when they probably embarrassed Union Intelligence very badly. Why do you think she's UI?"

"Oh, I dunno," said Shanti, relaxing. "Just paranoid, I guess. I only knew her as a kid. And Kelly was—well, I know she's your friend, but when we were little, she was always kind of an ass-licker. She wouldn't have any part in taking out the Old Man. She abstained."

Philippe shook his head again. "I just can't see it," he said. "Kelly's the type of person who gets bitterly disappointed when the Union fails to live up to its ideals, and that's not the type of person who joins the UI. Maybe she'd do it if she was convinced that Earth's very existence was at stake—maybe. As for not taking part in the execution of your father, she may just have a genuine distaste for violence." Philippe looked slyly at Shanti. "Some people do."

"Hey, I do, too," she replied.

Cheep and Pinky started to laugh.

"I do!" she said. "Shut up!"

They shut up, but whether because their mission commander had issued an order or because they had begun navigating the minefield, Philippe couldn't say. The Special Forces were indeed special, with much looser command structure than the Union Police whom Philippe had worked with before. According to his research into the topic, this had to do with the SF's history: It was an outgrowth of what were once called commando units, which were small groups of highly trained soldiers who performed very dangerous raids. These special soldiers operated with a great deal more individual autonomy than the run-of-the-mill members of the armed forces.

"Well, I really enjoyed seeing Kelly," he said.

He truly had, although to be perfectly honest, his first thought on seeing her was, Wow, she's bloated. Being clones, both Paxes had started out with the same build and bone structure, but years at a desk job had made Kelly round-faced and soft where Shanti was angular and hard. Kelly's long hair had been braided into an updo that had seemed perfectly innocuous before but now struck Philippe as extravagant and overdone when compared to Shanti's short SF crop. Even their mahogany skin was subtly different in tone—Kelly seemed to have a slight undertone of gray, which Philippe hoped wasn't indicative of some sort of creeping cardiovascular disorder.

"She ask you about the patch-and-probe?" Shanti asked.

"She took a somewhat professional interest in my situation," he replied carefully.

"And did you tell her it was none of her fucking business, like you did me?"

Philippe sat for a moment in silence. So, here they were, on the topic at last. At least now they were well into the minefield, although he was going to have to tread lightly with Shanti, anyway—it would be difficult to turn the ship around, but it wouldn't be impossible, and she still might do it.

"I'm sorry I said that the patch-and-probe wasn't any of your business," he said. "I was being childish and repeating back to you what you had said to me, which I admit was inappropriate. Your situation is different from mine."

Shanti nodded, and Philippe knew the apology had been accepted. She was quick to anger, but equally quick to forgive.

"I am sorry you found out about the roster thing the way you did, though," she said.

Philippe gave a nervous laugh.

The roster was one of those traditions among the Special Forces that brought home to Philippe exactly why he had never joined it. When SFers were away on a mission, they drew up a list of those in the unit who were available for sex with everybody else also on the list.

It wasn't like Philippe had never had a casual sexual liaison, but the bloodlessness of the roster, the lack of any sort of romance or passion involved in the drawing up of a list, the idea of having sex with people as some sort of professional courtesywell, that was beyond him.

In addition, the vast majority of the SFers were men—there were only two women among Philippe's military guard. While the SFers unquestionably had a very open attitude toward male homosexual encounters, and the SF had stringent regulations designed to prevent people from being forced onto the roster, it was obvious to Philippe that there was pressure on the female SFers to sign on. He himself had seen an SFer ask Shanti to put herself on it, and the same fellow (Five-Eighths who, granted, was considered a shameless dog even by SF standards) had kicked a hole into one of the virtual entertainment booths after the unit's other woman, Baby, had taken herself off the roster to enter into an exclusive relationship with George, the unit's doctor.

Just before they left for Titan, Shanti had signed on to the roster. Philippe was willing to admit that if one looked at that decision dispassionately, it was probably a good sign, indicating she was healing emotionally from her recent divorce.

But it had been hard to look at the situation dispassionately when, on the morning before Philippe left to undergo a particularly intrusive form of interrogation, Five-Eighths had run into the mess hall and loudly announced that there was now a woman—or rather, a particular part of a woman's anatomy—on the roster. And it got even harder to be dispassionate when Five-Eighths had jumped on a table and, using the most vulgar language and gestures imaginable, had explained in explicit detail just how he planned to exercise his considerable libido on Shanti's various orifices.

So despite the fact that it was considered extremely rude for even an outsider to criticize someone's roster status, Philippe had dashed out of the mess hall, found Shanti in her office, and expressed his sincere disapproval of the entire situation. As luck would have it, he had arrived in Shanti's office just after she had discovered that he had agreed to undergo a patch-and-probe, a decision that she had considered remarkably ill-advised. The result had been an epic shouting match, followed by a silent and sullen ride to the Titan station.

And now they were riding back.

"You won't see Five when you get back, not for a couple of days, anyway," Shanti said.

Philippe blinked. The space the humans lived in on the Host station was not very large, so it was hard to avoid seeing anyone for any length of time. "Is he on leave?"

Shanti shook her head forcefully. "I fucking wish! You know they haven't given us back our leave. No, he got real sleepy after that display, and he went to take a nap in his cubicle."

She stared at Philippe for a moment, an eyebrow cocked.

"You know how unreliable his sleep cubby can be," she said. "It gets stuck shut all the time."

Philippe put his hand to his mouth. He had been told that you could fit two SFers into one sleep cubicle, but he wasn't sure how. "How long are you going to keep him in there?"

"It so happens that he's not on any kind of essential duty for the next couple of days," said Shanti. "So, I guess no one's going to miss him or figure out he's trapped in there for a while. It's a real shame, but accidents happen."

"Especially—" Philippe began.

"Especially when you fuck with me, yeah. Accidents happen a lot then." She smiled.

Philippe took a deep breath. He tried, hard, not to criticize the SF's ways, but sometimes. . . .

"Does he have water?" he asked.

"Oh, yes!" Shanti exclaimed. "He has lots and lots of water—he packed his cubicle full of water before he shut it up to nap. And he has lots and lots of ration bars. Unfortunately, he chose to pick up those ration bars from the infirmary and not the mess hall, so they're the kind you eat if you're constipated."

Philippe buried his face in his hands.

"His lonjons are going to get quite the workout," Shanti said, still smiling jovially. "George is really excited to see what's going to happen."

Philippe looked up. "And after all this is done, you're going to clean him up, and then you're going to have sex with him," he said in what he hoped was a lighthearted tone.

"That's our way!" she said, fortunately amused. "But quit changing the topic. You've got to tell me about that patch-and-probe."

Damn it, thought Philippe.

"Oh, yes," he said. "Well, as I told Kelly, there was an observer there, a retired civilian judge."

"Good."

"And the whole thing was really not that big a deal. The drugs are delivered by patch, and they made me feel a little slow, but it wasn't unpleasant in the least. There's no actual probe, of course—they use a normal brain scanner, you know, a headrest with a hood over the face. You lie down; it's very comfortable. Between the hood and the drugs, it's a wonder I didn't fall asleep. They should really just call it a 'patch-and-scan.' Patch-and-probe sounds so intrusive."

Shanti gave him a dirty look.

"What?" Philippe asked.

She shook her head. "Nothing."

"Of course, they just asked me the same questions as always."

"See, that's what I don't understand," Shanti said. "They keep asking you what happened—George and I gave them good surveillance, they know what happened. Do they not believe it? Is it because you tried to go to the Host planet without getting permission first? Because I went with you, and they quit asking me about it a while back."

Philippe sighed. "Well, I think for them the issue is that I didn't tell anyone about my nightmares and visions of the Host messiah."

Shanti snorted dismissively. "They're upset that you didn't tell them you were hallucinating Creepy? You thought you were insane—they have to realize that you wouldn't want to tell anybody that."

Philippe suppressed a smile. Shanti had been considerably less understanding about that decision when she had first found out about it.

"What bothers them was that—OK, you know that at first, I was on the Host station, and I was seeing Kre-Pi-Twa-Ki-Tik-Nao in my dreams and then when I was awake. And that's when I thought I was losing my mind," he explained. "But when I took my vacation on Earth, I stopped seeing him. And then when I got back to the station, I started to see him again, but by then, I knew that your second in command had seen him, too."

"Yeah, so?"

"Well, when I started seeing Kre-Pi-Twa-Ki-Tik-Nao again, I knew I wasn't insane. I wasn't stressed out, I was sleeping, and Patch had seen him. At that point, I knew he was something real. And I didn't tell anyone then—and that's what bothers the Union. I knew that I and at least one SFer—an SFer with command responsibilities, no less—were being influenced by an alien in some telepathic sort of way, and I didn't say anything about it. And you know, upon reflection, I probably should have."

Shanti thought for a moment. "Why didn't you?"

"Well, that's what this interrogation was about. And you know, apparently the reason I didn't tell anyone was the mission."

"The mission?"

"I didn't want anything to interfere with the mission—establishing good relations with the aliens. I didn't want anything to be wrong with me, because then I couldn't do my part."

She nodded.

"It was interesting to find that out. Really, you know, the patch-and-probe is more like a therapy session than anything else—it gives you a lot of insight. I think it really could be good for people."

Shanti snorted. "Good for people? Trang, if you were SF, they couldn't do a patch-and-probe on you. Not under these circumstances. Same if you were in any Union country. And most of the non-Union countries."

"I know," Philippe said.

"And I hope that Kelly explained to you why her group thinks no one should ever undergo a patch-and-probe. Never ever."

"She did," he said, "rather at length. And you know, I, of all people, appreciate that technology can be abused."

"Especially the patch-and-probe," said Shanti. "You basically get ass-raped in the brain."

She looked perfectly serious, so Philippe tried not to laugh. She just needs reassurance.

"That's not what it was like," he said. "I wasn't emotionally brutalized by some sadist, and no one was placing false memories to incriminate me—it just wasn't that big a deal."

"How would you fucking know?" Shanti exclaimed. "If they planted false memories, how would you know?"

Philippe sighed. She could be so dramatic. "What memories would they plant? It's not like I got a patch-and-probe and now I'm suddenly confessing to molesting children or something horrible like that. And if that happened, you and the other SFers would say something, right? Plus they'd have to get around all the surveillance, including whatever alien surveillance there is on the station that we don't even know about. They can't get too creative. I'm safe."

Shanti shook her head. "Promise me you'll never agree to one again," she said.

"Don't worry," Philippe replied, sincerely hoping that she wouldn't.

He smiled at her for a moment, wondering when he could change the topic again.

He looked away, out the front window. The mines were gone; Saturn was gone. Instead they faced true darkness, the empty space between the Milky Way and the Small Magellanic Cloud. With his unaugmented vision, Philippe could barely make out the lights that marked the many Earth and alien reconnaissance satellites surrounding the Host station, as well as the occasional ring of lights surrounding the almost two dozen other portals that led here. The station itself was looming out there, somewhere, like a gigantic bicycle wheel with no rim, but it wasn't well-lit on the outside, and at the moment Philippe couldn't distinguish it.

"Oh, hey, we're through," he said. At this point, the lack of drama involved in traveling through the portals no longer unnerved him. You just went from here—a point near Saturn's moon Titan—to there—a point outside your own galaxy. It only took an instant, it didn't feel weird, and you didn't see a thing—you were just here, and then you were there.

But an instant contained an opportunity.

"So what did you do on Titan?" he asked Shanti. "They didn't bring you there just to dismantle their furniture, did they?"

She laughed, once again unthinkingly accepting his change of topic. "Well, it felt that way. But I had some business with the SF that you should know about: We're getting reinforcements."

Philippe blinked.

"Really?" he asked.

Shanti nodded. "We'll get about a dozen new SFers, probably in just a few hours."

Philippe felt an odd sensation, like he was slipping.

"How many?" he asked.

"Um." She thought for a moment. "Fourteen, exactly, including the new second."

Philippe felt the slipping sensation again. "Is that—did you feel something? Like turbulence?"

Shanti shook her head. "We're in space, Trang."

"What does—is the ship OK?"

"We no have problem here," said Pinky.

Philippe shook his head and blinked his eyes several times.

"Did you say that we were, um, getting a new second?" he asked.

"Yeah, her name's Princess," said Shanti. "This is her first time being a second, but I've known her a long time, and she's good."

Philippe stared at her for a moment, trying to follow the implications of what she was saying. With effort, he latched on to one.

"Patch isn't going to be your second anymore?"

"He will be," said Shanti. "I'll have two seconds. With a bigger unit, you need more supervisors to, you know, supervise."

"Patch and Princess—sounds like the names of a couple of cats," said Philippe.

"I guess."

"I'm glad Patch is staying," Philippe said. "I like Patch. He's good at heart."

"He's a nice guy," agreed Shanti.

"I like Patch. It's too bad that he named the aliens, though."

Shanti smiled. "Yeah, the Cyclopes. . . . "

"Cyclopes!" Philippe exclaimed, throwing his hands to his forehead.

"What is that, Cyclopes?" asked Pinky. "I have wondered."

"Like, magic creatures," Cheep replied.

Philippe stared at the back of Pinky's head for a moment. Pinky was that rare thing—rarest among those who worked for the Union: He had not grown up speaking Union English.

"Die Zyklopen," Philippe said. "Tsiklopy."

"Kiklopi?" Pinky asked, disbelieving. "Their eyes are four!"

"I know!" Philippe exclaimed.

"Patch is an—" Cheep's eye wandered back to Shanti, which interested Philippe. As casual as the Special Forces seemed, there were, as he had discovered to his chagrin, some lines that were not to be crossed.

And this is appeared to be one of them. "—not very well-educated person," Cheep finished.

"Patch meant to call them centaurs," said Philippe. "Kentavry. He got confused."

Pinky nodded. "They look like that. Why you no fix?"

Philippe sighed. "The Hosts won't let us. They say it makes too much work for the Swimmers."

"It doesn't matter," said Shanti, a touch defensively. "With the translators, they don't know what the hell we're calling them."

"That good," said Pinky.

Philippe smiled. "It is good."

Shanti shrugged. "Patch did his best. He isn't a diplomat."

"No," Philippe cheerfully agreed. "I don't think he'd have much success in the DiploCorps."

They jostled against something firm.

"OK, that wasn't me," Philippe said.

"We here!" exclaimed Pinky.

Philippe sat for a moment, uncomprehending. Shanti unfastened her safety harness and stood up.

"Oh," said Philippe, "we're here." Here, he thought. The alien station, built by the Hosts centuries before in the hopes that other aliens would someday find it. His newest home.

He quickly released himself from his seat and stood up. The ship reeled around him for a moment. Did that too quickly, he thought.

He grabbed the seat back to steady himself, which turned him toward Shanti. "Did you say fourteen new SFers will be coming onto the station?" he asked her.

"Yeah, fourteen." She gestured. He turned in the direction she was pointing and realized that the door of the ship was open to a white corridor.

Another clean, white, featureless corridor. The Union's Space Authority was not blessed with an overabundance of creative interior designers.

Philippe turned back to Shanti. "And one of them's a new second."

She raised an eyebrow at him.

He turned and walked to the corridor.

He stopped again. "When are all these new people coming?" he asked.

"Like I said, as soon as possible," Shanti replied from behind him. "Probably later today."

Philippe tripped over the threshold to the corridor, but he caught his hand on the wall and didn't fall this time. "A new second," he said.

"It's not a demotion for Patch," said Shanti.

"I like Patch," said Philippe.

"Trang, are you feeling OK?" she asked.

Philippe stopped and turned to face her. "So we have fourteen new SFers, including a new second, arriving on this station, most likely later today."

Shanti nodded slowly. "Yes," she said equally slowly.

Philippe turned around and started walking again, not entirely sure where he was headed. He tripped.

"Stupid doorsill," he muttered.

"Trang," Shanti's voice was tense, "the doorsill is two meters behind you."

"Everything's fine," he said, continuing to walk. "We just have fourteen new lethally trained Special Forces soldiers, including a new command staffer, arriving on this station, very shortly. On an alien station. On a diplomatic mission. So right now, or in just a little bit, they're on Titan—"

He spun around to tell Shanti something important, but he was surprised by how close the smooth, white floor had gotten. He was even more surprised when it hit him.


Chapter 2

Philippe woke up choking.

Something was smothering him from the inside, like a signal flare had gone off in his lungs. He gasped for breath and was surprised when he succeeded.

It was cold, whatever it was. Cold and sharp and choking and . . . minty?

"George, you asshole!" came Shanti's voice. "He was waking up! You didn't have to bomb the poor bastard."

"It's just aromatherapy," rumbled George.

"It's fucking chemical warfare, you fucking—"

But Philippe lost the thread of her invective when he began to sneeze. And cough. And gag. All at the same time, as every last speck of goo that had been resting harmlessly inside his sinuses began to flee whatever potent mix of menthol and vapor George had just pumped into his respiratory system.

Finally Philippe's spasms began to settle. He looked up, only to see a square box flying at him. He raised his hands to stop it, but another fit of coughing seized him and he was too late.

It landed in his lap with a gentle plop.

A box of tissues.

Philippe wiped his mouth and nose clear enough to take another breath in, and he managed, "We have to go back to Titan!" before another violent sneezing fit seized him.

"Why do we have to go back to Titan?" Shanti asked, the moment he resumed normal breathing.

Philippe sneezed again.

Why do we have to go back to Titan? he wondered.

He'd had a definite idea that going back was very important, but now he couldn't recollect why that was. Maybe it had just been a dream?

He thought about it for a minute, and another conviction seized him with equal force: Going back to Titan would be a real bother. It was silly to want to go back. It wasn't reasonable.

Indeed, it was so unreasonable that he couldn't even imagine why he had wanted to go back.

He had passed out and now he was having delusional impulses. Had he had a stroke or something?

Philippe took a look at George. The doctor didn't seem worried, and he probably would be worried if his patient was suffering from something serious, like a stroke.

Of course, Philippe recalled, George would probably be delighted if his patient was suffering from a really interesting stroke.

He looked around, wondering if something would either jog his memory, or more likely, confirm that his impulse to return to Titan had no basis in reality.

Unsurprisingly, he was in a bed in the infirmary. He noted with an unconscious pleasure that he was the only patient and that, aside from some scrolls and the sinus-blasting tool that George had just tossed on a counter, all the medical equipment and supplies were neatly tucked away in the white cabinets and drawers. Philippe had disturbing memories of seeing the infirmary in much greater chaos, with supplies thrown everywhere and dark fluids smeared across the floor, but things had been quiet lately for George—which was unusual, since it seemed like the typical SFer's reaction to quiet was to go do something incredibly risky.

He looked down and noticed a gray, square patch on his arm. It was about five centimeters across, with rounded corners, and it had an N written on it in a slightly lighter shade of gray.

"What's that?" he asked, pointing to it.

"That's what they didn't give you enough of," said George, furrowing his thick, black eyebrows. "It's neutralizer. I'm guessing they just followed the directions for an average SFer without taking into account your smaller mass, so they gave you too much dope. Then they assumed you'd metabolize it quicker than you did, so they didn't give you enough neutralizer.

"I know you're thinking, 'Wouldn't a good doctor adjust the dosage?' but keep in mind that good doctors don't do patch-and-probes."

"Don't neutralizers make your teeth fall out?" Philippe asked.

George smiled, while behind him, Shanti rolled her eyes. Philippe's suspicion of technology was another value he did not share with the Special Forces. "You'd have to use them for a really long time before they'd neutralize enough nutrients to give you scurvy or rickets," the doctor said. "I'll give you a multivitamin once this patch comes off, just to be on the safe side."

"That's great," said Shanti in a tone that indicated that the time for this nonsense was past. She put her hands on the bed and leaned close to Philippe's face. "Trang, why do you want us to go back to Titan?"

Philippe fruitlessly groped for an answer. The sliding sensation began again, more strongly than before.

This time, it felt like something was sliding into place, like a dislocated joint settling back into its socket.

"The new soldiers."

The words came out of Philippe's mouth almost of their own accord. The moment he heard them, he knew they were right.

Of course! The new soldiers! Another bunch of hyperactive combat specialists were coming to screw up his diplomatic mission. More large, violent soldiers who had been carefully trained to kill things, when what he needed were people who would not kill things, who would defuse situations instead of blowing the heck out of everything.

The Special Forces. That phrase had struck terror into Philippe's heart when he first discovered that his protective detail on the alien station would not be provided by the Union Police. It had confirmed a suspicion that not everyone in the Union brass wanted his mission to succeed, that even after years of remote communication, there was still on Earth a profound, almost primal fear of the aliens. Putting the Special Forces on the alien station instead of the Union Police had been a deliberate effort to sabotage diplomacy—and Philippe had spent his first few weeks on the station trying everything he could think of to get the SFers removed.

He had failed, although his mission had not. The SFers he had come with had, with training and many long conversations, adjusted, but new ones—oh, no. He was going to have to have a very long talk with each and every one of them before they came on board.

"I need to talk to them, like I did with you guys, to give them an idea of what to expect and how to behave on the station," he said.

Shanti nodded. "Yeah, train them to be all diplomatic and shit, that's a good idea," she said. Then she snapped her fingers. "But you don't have to! I mean, you already have!"

"How did I manage that?"

"Virtual you did it—a VY has already trained them."

Philippe closed his eyes and sighed. Her faith, her touching, childlike faith in technology. . . .

"And how do we know that the VY did a good job?" he asked.

Annoyance filled her voice. "I'm sure it was a standard VY. It got high marks for quality of information, I remember seeing that. So you think you can fucking relax about it?"

Philippe's eyes snapped open. The SF's chain of command might be amorphous, but one thing was clear: Philippe, being DiploCorps, was not in it. When it came to security, he'd learned to let the SF take the lead, but in any other field, Shanti had no right to boss him.

He stared at her for a moment. "High marks. From the people who need training, and who therefore are by definition unable to judge the quality of the information?"

Shanti's eyes narrowed. "You know, I think I liked you better when you were doped up."

"Of course you did. Please ask the Special Forces to send me a copy of the VY so that I can check and make sure he's not a virtual incompetent."

She opened her mouth to protest. Philippe prepared himself to parry when a flat, emotionless voice sounded in his ear. "You have an all-station meeting in thirty minutes," it said.

"My earplant just went off," he said, pointing at his left earlobe, which, like those of all the humans on the alien station, was distended by the hardware it contained. "I've got an all-station meeting in thirty minutes."

"Should you go?" asked Shanti, her annoyance instantly forgotten. "Are you well enough? We can send Baby if you're not feeling up to it."

"I'd rather go myself," said Philippe. He turned to George. "I feel fine now."

The doctor grabbed a scroll off the counter and unrolled it.

"Yeah, you should be OK," he said, after consulting its contents. "Hang on a second."

George fished something small out of a drawer and walked over to Philippe. He painlessly whipped off the old patch and slapped the new one on in one dexterous motion.

Philippe looked at the new patch. It was black, and it had a V on it made out of multicolored happy faces.

"Happy faces?" he asked George.

"That means placebo," Shanti said, smirking.

Philippe laughed, and then started to look around the room for his jacket. It had apparently been removed when he was out cold, leaving him in only his short-sleeved lonjons. He saw part of a dark blue wad sticking out from under the bed next to his.

"Is that my jacket?" he asked, pained.

"Oh, sorry," said Shanti, retrieving it and giving it a rough couple of shakes before tossing it to him. "We were in a hurry."

Philippe nodded, accepting that he would be leaving this suit jacket behind. He fished his gloves and hood out of the wrinkled jacket's pocket. Then he protested uselessly as Shanti and George insisted on putting them on for him, sliding the long gloves up his arms and pressing them against the sleeves of his lonjons to make a seal impregnable to any alien toxins than he might come across in the common area, and attaching the hood to the back of the lonjons' neck where he could pull it over his head and face if need be. Although he looked like he was wearing nothing more than some kind of wet suit, he was now outfitted in the most advanced armor the Union could provide.

He managed to stand up and walk without wobbling too excitingly, so he insisted on going to his room unaccompanied. There, he put on his other suit jacket and smoothed his hair once again. He walked out to go to his meeting feeling relaxed and just a tiny bit victorious.

Then he looked down and wondered why his hands were shaking.

He crammed them in his pockets and went on his way.

 

There had never been a shortage of meetings on the alien station.

During his time there, Philippe had met countless times with all nine of the different aliens species—

Scratch that. Or, allow it: It all depended on how one defined a meeting.

If only formal meetings, with schedules and agendas, counted, then Philippe had met countless times with only seven of the nine alien species.

After all, no one had formal meetings with the bizarre and dangerous shape-shifter that Patch had named the Magic Man. When Philippe wanted to talk to that particular alien, he just had to hope that their paths would cross. If luck was with him and they did run into each other, then Philippe had to hope even more fervently that Magic Man would not ignore him.

Even more elusive were the White Spiders. Running into them was not a challenge—they hung around everywhere in the station. But they did so in complete silence, utterly unresponsive to any invitation to discussion. Philippe's "meeting" with the White Spiders consisted of one conversation he had had with one White Spider. Once.

Still, with seven other highly social species on the station, there was never a shortage of meetings—informal chats, one-on-ones, formal summits, group sessions, and even press conferences. There were days when it felt like all Philippe did on the station was to attend meeting after meeting after meeting.

Which was not all that different from the life of a diplomat on Earth.

The all-station meetings, however, were something new, an experiment being conducted by the Hosts. These meetings, like Philippe's and Shanti's interrogations on Titan, were the result of a series of harrowing events that had taken place when the Cyclopes had attempted to conquer the Hosts' home world. The invasion had been stopped by the Magic Man, who had, in retaliation, conquered the Cyclopes planet—all by himself. To top things off, Kre-Pi-Twa-Ki-Tik-Nao, the reluctant Host messiah, had rematerialized after roughly 850 years spent in a kind of incorporeal half-life.

That had been quite a day.

Prior to the invasion, one of the Cyclopes' major complaints had been that, since the Hosts saw themselves as divinely ordained to run the station that they had built, they almost never accepted input from other species. That had, in fact, been a fairly accurate description of the Hosts' style of governance, although Philippe and nearly everyone else had assumed the complaint was merely a pretense to justify the Cyclopes attack.

After all, there was really no rational reason for the Cyclopes to go to war over the governance of the Host station: The Hosts were more than willing to leave alone any species that did not wish to join those on the station. They required other species to do the same. And there was no practical way for any species to reach another without passing through the portals—all of which led to the Host station—and alerting everyone else to their nefarious intent.

There was no reason to invade—unless a species was governed by paranoid, aggressive expansionists, which the Cyclopes apparently were. It had taken them a mere thirty years following the opening of the portal from the Cyclopes planet to the Host station to not only draw up an invasion scheme but also to develop a faster-than-light drive—a technical accomplishment no other species had ever gotten close to achieving—that would allow them reach the Host planet without using the portals.

Thanks to the Magic Man, the invasion had failed miserably. It had, however, sufficiently rattled the Hosts' complacency that they had rethought their methods of governance and had begun holding all-station meetings. The meetings were designed to discuss matters of importance to the station as a whole, and input from other species was, for the first time, welcomed and even occasionally implemented.

Not that the group Philippe now joined in the common area was entirely inclusive. The Cyclopes had no representatives there, ostensibly because they were now a subject people (although Philippe did not doubt that their attempted invasion of the Host planet had something to do with their exclusion). The Magic Man had been invited, both as the sole representative, and perhaps sole individual, of his own people and as the ruler of the Cyclopes. But he was not there—not as far as anyone could see, anyway. The Magic Man could break himself into tiny pieces and literally be two or a million places at once, so it was possible that he was attending the meeting in a form invisible to the naked eye. Given his usual disinterest in everything that went on at the station, however, chances were good that he was, in fact, absent.

The meeting was being held because of the absence of a third species: the Blobbos. The small aliens, who looked like slugs that had been bedecked with salt, had once run around the station in ornate protective vehicles. They were gone now, having retreated back to their home planet, following what they considered an inexcusable series of violent events. The question now before the group was how to best convince them to return.

So Philippe stood in an area that was marked off from the rest of the station by walls so low he could see over them. In contrast to the stark white of the Space Authority–built human living area, the walls and floor in the common area were brown and intriguingly soft, almost like they were constructed of membranes stretched over supports. The Hosts had designed their station's common area to accommodate the average alien, and the average alien was most certainly not bipedal. As a result, tables were low, spaces were open, and there was never any place to sit. This particular meeting place reminded Philippe of nothing so much as an especially large stall in a horse stable.

Leading the meeting was the Host liaison to the Blobbos. Hosts needed space: Even when they stood on all six legs, as this one was doing now, they came up to Philippe's chest, and they were roughly two meters long. This particular Host was especially red, almost crimson in color, in contrast with the more common dark-orange tones of Max and Moritz, the two Host liaisons to the humans. Like them, this Host had black markings adorning the sides of his segmented body that, Philippe had recently learned, indicated his status as a priest.

The expression on this Host's face—which was not really a face, more a combination of the way the Host held his body and adjusted his segments—was grim. The Blobbos had gone from refusing invitations to talk to not responding at all.

"Have they shared a specific set of demands since we last met?" asked a Pincushion. The alien, like all Pincushions, looked like a giant sea urchin. He wore orange and yellow "clothing"—clumps of some indeterminate substance worn on the ends of his purple spikes. New trends in Pincushion clothing were frequent and typically were a commentary on recent events of note. Baby usually had the scoop on the latest Pincushion fashions, and Philippe made a mental note to ask her about the new color combination.

"No," said the Host liaison to the Blobbos. "They have offered no communication since their departure. We know nothing more than we did before."

"It is nonsensical," said a Swimmer drone. "They disliked the Cyclopes' actions, but certainly the Cyclopes are no longer in a position to undertake such actions again."

Philippe clenched his teeth. Comments like that—along with the attitude that only the Cyclopes had done something wrong—drove him insane. Denial is truly a universal coping strategy, he thought darkly to himself.

He spoke. "When I was attacked by a Cyclops and my security experts killed my attacker, the Blobbos told me that they were unhappy with my people because of the killing, even though it was undertaken in self-defense. Perhaps they are dismayed by the Magic Man's response to the Cyclopes' attempted invasion of the Host planet."

God knows I was.

"Do you believe they are dismayed by his initial response, or do you believe they are dismayed by his current response?" asked a Snake Boy, writhing his long body as he spoke.

"Perhaps both," Philippe replied. "Perhaps they fear what he might do in the future."

"If the latter is true," said the Host, "and if they abstain from all communication, they will never know if their fears are realistic or if their fears are unrealistic. My people would like send communications on a regular basis through their portal to the Blobbos."

"I would caution against sending unsolicited communications," said the Snake Boy. "In the past, with my people, the appearance of unsolicited communications generated intense panic."

"I do know that," replied the Host. "Your people had never received an alien communication before, however. The Blobbos lived on this station for a long time. In addition, we mentioned that we might send communications to them, and they did not forbid it."

The discussion went back and forth. Everyone sounded calm, but then again, everyone always sounded calm: The translation devices saw to that.

They finally decided to have an unmanned communications probe sent through the Blobbos' portal on a regular, but not frequent, basis. The Hosts wanted to send the probe, but at Philippe's suggestion, the Swimmers took on that responsibility. The Swimmers—two cooperative aquatic species, whose small, brown remote-controlled drones roamed the station—had been entirely uninvolved in the invasion and takeover. In addition, they had a long history of providing generally accurate information to the station's residents, which might make the Blobbos more receptive to their overtures.

With the decision made, the meeting began to break up. Philippe was glad to see that a few White Spiders once again had hung around the meeting. Although they had said nothing, they had stayed fairly close, clinging to a nearby table with their long, white, feathery legs rather than hanging from the high ceiling. Philippe was certain they had listened in.

Philippe knew he was the only human on the station to have had a conversation with a White Spider, and he hadn't yet definitively eliminated the possibly that he was the only sentient being to have done so. Nonetheless, they seemed to be indicating more interest in the possibility of communicating with others, even if any actual communication lagged. The issue appeared to be cultural, not technical: The translation devices had worked fine during Philippe's friendly conversation with a White Spider. They simply chose not to talk.

"I should tell everyone before you leave: We are adding to our staff on this station today, so there will be new humans to meet," Philippe said.

"Are you reproducing?" asked the Pincushion.

"Um, no," said Philippe, trying not to look embarrassed. The Pincushions very casually and quite publicly engaged in group reproductive activity—although, Philippe reminded himself, it was really more of a group renewalactivity, in which Pincushions exchanged genetic material, a process that apparently did not give rise to little baby Pincushions. "These are mature humans, coming from Earth."

He took his leave of the other representatives and walked over to Ofay, one of the SFers who had been assigned to guard him.

"Do you know when the new soldiers are getting here?" he asked.

"No idea," said Ofay with a shrug.

"I was thinking of going to the café," Philippe mumbled as he slapped the com mike in his jacket collar. "Patch," he said, opening a channel to the second. "Patch, it's Trang. Do you know when the reinforcements are arriving?"

"They're here now, guy," Patch's voice sounded in Philippe's earplant.

"They're here?"

"Um, yeah, the ship just docked."

"Oh, fudge!" exclaimed Philippe.

Patch laughed. "Language, guy!"

Philippe hurried back home, but by the time he got there, the new soldiers had already gotten off the ship and dispersed. He spotted a couple of newcomers in the hallway and introduced himself, meeting a Pazzo and a Dick.

Then he heard an unfamiliar voice coming out of the open door to Shanti's office, so he stuck his head in.

Not bad, he thought.

Shanti was standing next to another woman. She was a little shorter than Shanti, but gave the impression of being taller. Philippe wondered briefly why that was—being SFers, each woman stood like her spine had been fused to a flagpole. Then he realized that, by SF standards, the new woman was slender. No doubt she was physically strong, but she lacked the burly, muscular build that typified most SFers, be they male or female. Her body, in contrast, was a smooth hourglass. She was almost—perhaps not by civilian standards, and her bulky uniform wasn't helping—but almost, very nearly, quite close to being willowy.

It had been a long time since Philippe had seen a woman like that.

Her head was almost touching Shanti's—they were both looking at the same scroll, deep in a discussion of schedules, which, Philippe realized, meant that he could look at them for a little longer without seeming to ogle.

The two faces complemented each other, each emphasizing the other's prettiness. The new woman had remarkable eyes—large, round, and black, surrounded by a thick fringe of lashes—but Shanti had good eyes, too—tilted in a way that could give her face a merry cast. Both had high cheekbones, although the new woman's face was more oval, while Shanti's was heart-shaped. Both had full mouths. Their noses were different, though: Shanti had a button, while the new woman's nose was decidedly Roman.

They would probably make a good recruiting poster, Philippe thought. Or a calendar.

Shanti looked up at him. "Hey," she said.

Philippe snapped out of his reverie. "Hi."

He turned to the new woman and smiled—experience had taught him that there was really no reason to expect Shanti to attend to social niceties like introducing people to each other. "Hello," he said, sticking his hand out. "I'm Philippe Trang of the DiploCorps."

"It's a pleasure," said the woman, taking his hand in her own and shaking it. "I'm Princess."

Her voice had that precise, clipped quality that once would have meant that she hailed from England. Nowadays, given how young she looked—Philippe would be surprised if she was twenty-five—her accent meant she was likely from South Asia. North Americans had defended their regional accents, but the British had taken their role as "Guardians of the Language" so seriously that they had pushed standard Union English with the standard Union accent down the throat of their schoolchildren with a maniacal vengeance. As a result, unless you were in a former Commonwealth state where schoolteachers clung to the old ways, you almost never heard the plethora of accents that were so common in old virtual entertainments—no dropped hs, no clenched teeth, no twittering tones.

Perhaps this standardization had improved communication and eradicated class and regional barriers the way its boosters claimed, but Philippe was hard-pressed to consider it progress. He liked Princess' accent. And her voice. And a number of other things about her.

He snapped himself back to the moment.

"So, you're Shanti's new second?" he asked.

A voice exploded into his earplant.

"Trang!" It was Sucre. "Trang! You've got to get out here now! I'm in the common area near the Cyclopes! You've got to get out here! One of them is down! A Cyclops is down!"

Philippe slapped his mike. "Sucre, I will be there as soon as possible. Tell George as well." He slapped it off.

He looked at Shanti, who had already dropped the scroll—she'd been commed in.

 "Go," she said.

"What is it?" asked Princess, following Shanti out.

"It's the Magic Man," said Shanti. "He's killed again."

 

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