© 2000 by Kate Halleron
THE LAST DELEGATION
The green crescent of the planet Karga shed a dingy light through the dome that passed for sky on Tarsi as Kate Murphy was rudely escorted into the Audience of His Supremacy the Tarsidate. At this hour of the night, and in answer to the Emperor of Tarsi and Karga’s terse summons, Kate had donned only her third-best sari, finding a perverse pleasure in the fact that on this world this simple cotton gown could buy His Supremacy’s platinum throne.
“This had better be good,” she greeted the tall ebony figure draped across the throne.
“I assure you the matter is urgent, Ambassador,” the Tarsidate said. Except for the deep-red plumage that adorned his head and shoulders, and the linked metal rings that formed his tunic, he reminded Kate of some ancient sculpture from old Africa on her native Earth.
“Urgent,” Kate said dryly, “when you’ve refused me audience for six months. I’m growing very tired of these games, Your Supremacy.”
“As am I, Ambassador,” the Tarsidate replied. “Perhaps your Galactic League will not be so pleased with you as they once were.”
This bit of conceit was astounding. Kate’s slanted green eyes flashed. “How dare you?” she spluttered.
“I dare as I please,” His Supremacy said, tapping the ends of his long fingers together. “Perhaps this League is not so powerful as it claims, else its representatives would not be so ineffectual.”
“I will not bear insults,” Kate said, turning on her heel. As she pushed past the Tarsidate’s armed guards, her gaze met the dark eyes of a human male who stood at the rear of the Audience, surrounded by Imperial Guards and several uniformed members of the Galactic League’s three spacefaring races - Xian, Ronuen, and human. He seemed to tower over his guards, although he was in fact no taller than Kate was herself. “Mitch,” Kate whispered.
The man stepped forward, bowing over Kate’s hand. “I apologize for dragging you from your bed,” he said, “but we are in need of a translator. My sparse Tarsid will not suffice, and it seems that His Supremacy speaks no Standard.”
“So he says,” Kate harrumphed. “I wouldn’t put anything past the wily old bird.”
Mitch quirked an eyebrow. “Which is why you are being so careful what you say in front of him, of course.”
Kate clasped his hand tightly. “You spoiled my exit,” she chided.
“I love you,” Mitch said in Cantonese.
They were both amused by the look of surprise that quickly passed across the Tarsidate’s face. “I love you, too,” Kate answered in the same language.
The Tarsidate gestured impatiently. “Perhaps, Ambassador, you would care to ask the Commander of the Galactic Fleet why he has chosen to honor us with his presence. And his warships.” The Tarsidate’s tone was biting, but,
“He’s not surprised,” Kate remarked in Cantonese after translating the Tarsidate’s question.
“No reason why he should be,” Mitch said, “since half a dozen Tarsid ships attacked a Xian outpost a month ago. Perhaps his Supremacy has an explanation.”
“The explanation is simple,” the Tarsidate said. “Our sister world of Karga is in rebellion against the throne. Our peacekeeping forces have been long disappearing, along with our ships and supplies. The ships that attacked your outpost were obviously manned by Kargal rebels. They fear the power of a Tarsi/League alliance. You have no idea what steps I have had to take to assure the Ambassador’s safety.”
“Why wasn’t I told this?” Kate demanded.
“The internal affairs of the Tarsid Empire are none of your concern, Ambassador,” the Tarsidate responded.
“The League would not have sent me into the middle of a civil war,” Kate remonstrated.
The Tarsidate waved this off with a gesture of his elegant hand. “You should realize, Ambassador, that I myself did not know that the rebels had widened their operations until you informed me of it moments ago.”
“You’re a liar, Your Supremacy,” Kate said.
The Tarsidate’s face grew cold and still. “You play a dangerous game, Ambassador. Let us hope you have the power to win it.”
“Kindly inform His Supremacy,” Mitch interrupted, “that the Commander of the Galactic Fleet requires the presence of the Ambassador of the Galactic League aboard his flagship in order to hear her report.”
“The Ambassador is most welcome to deliver her report any time she wishes,” the Tarsidate responded, “anywhere on Tarsi.”
“If His Supremacy will allow,” Mitch said, “but the Ambassador’s previous reports have somehow gone astray. We wish to prevent further failures of communication.”
The Tarsidate hesitated; there was no question that the Commander had the force to back up his requests. “Very well, Ambassador,” His Supremacy acquiesced, “you may go, but be aware that you are no longer under the protection of the Tarsidate.”
“Thank you, Your Supremacy,” she said, and stalked from the Audience, the Fleet Commander and his company moving swiftly in her wake.
The Marco Polo’s shuttle lifted off at last. Mitch leaned over and kissed Kate warmly. “Kate, my lovely bride, you are more beautiful every time I see you.”
“I’m more wrinkled every time you see me,” she corrected.
Mitch examined her face with mock seriousness. “I see not a single wrinkle,” he said. “So, how close was that?”
“Not very close, I think. He seemed glad to be rid of me; it’s mutual.”
“I perceive that you seem unhappy with this assignment. Or was that some new form of diplomacy?”
“I’m tired, Mitch,” she said. “I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall since I arrived, and the Tarsidate hasn’t spoken to me for six months.”
“That is no way to treat an Ambassador of the League, especially one he himself requested.”
“It’s a puzzle,” Kate said. “A treaty would benefit that barren rock; Tarsi has some of the richest mineral deposits in the galaxy, but they have to squeeze their water from the rocks, and hydroponics barely supports them. And they’re ruled by a petty tyrant who would make Machiavelli proud. I’d rebel, too.”
Mitch fingered the silvery scar that outlined Kate’s left cheekbone. “You bear no grudge against the Xia,” he observed.
Kate put her hand to her face, and laughed weakly. “I guess I’d rather be shot at than bored.”
The shuttle leveled, and Mitch unstrapped himself. Kate followed suit, and accompanied him to the shuttle cockpit.
“How long to dock, Lieutenant?” Mitch asked of the Xian helmsman.
“About five minutes, Sir,” the lieutenant replied, all three of his hands busy with the console.
“Request Commodore Jameson to meet us,” Mitch ordered.
“Alicia’s here?” Kate asked.
Mitch smiled. “Who better to command my flagship than my former Captain?”
Kate sighed. “My, that’s been a long time. Too long.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The Captain of the Marco Polo was a tall Negroid woman who, fleetingly, reminded Kate of the Tarsid she had just left behind. Kate greeted her with a warm embrace, feeling every one of the forty years since they had last met. “Any trouble, Commander?” the Commodore asked.
“Much less than we anticipated,” Mitch replied. “The Ambassador has a new method for dealing with recalcitrant Emperors.”
Alicia smiled. “Ambassador Murphy always has been known for her unorthodox methods.”
“Stop that, you two,” Kate laughed. “Alicia, I can’t tell you how good it is to see you again.”
“It’s good to see you, too, Kate,” the Commodore replied. “Perhaps we will have an opportunity to catch up later. Commander,” she addressed Mitch, “the Cousteau and the Magellan have arrived in your absence, and the Xeyru, the Gront, and the Armstrong will rendezvous in two days.”
Kate whistled. “Six starships? Isn’t that a little excessive?”
Mitch’s Asian features were grave. “This is the first time that an officially recognized planetary government has knowingly attacked the League; we’re trying to head off an interstellar war.”
“So you don’t buy that story about a rebellion, either,” Kate said.
“What rebellion?” Alicia asked.
Mitch apprised her of the situation. “Just what do you know about Karga?” he asked Kate.
“Very little,” Kate replied. “The Tarsidate controls all Tarsi’s transportation and communication; I haven’t been allowed off-planet since I arrived, and I don’t believe the newscasts. There’s been no mention of a rebellion, whatever the real case.”
“The Tarsidate has a lot to answer for,” Mitch said grimly. “Of course, we will investigate Karga, but I think this trail is going to lead us right back to His Supremacy.”
“How much threat can there be, Mitch?” Kate asked. “The Tarsid have only the most rudimentary stardrive; it must have taken them a year just to reach that outpost. One starship would have them outgunned, much less six; the only weapons I’ve seen are the Tarsidate’s guards’ hand lasers.”
“Which can kill just as readily as a particle beam,” Mitch pointed out. “While the threat to the League may be minor, we do not know what sort of game the Tarsidate is playing; we have much more freedom of action now that you are safe.”
“You brought six starships for me?” Kate asked.
“Kate,” Alicia said, “you’re one of the most important personages in the League. Half of it owes it membership to your diplomatic skills; you’re much too valuable to lose. The Tarsidate requested you personally; I don’t understand why he let you go so easily. Was your life ever threatened while you were on Tarsi?”
Kate thought deeply. “No. Not at all. I felt like a prize bird, and I was bored to distraction, but never in danger. I’ve been there before; I would know.”
“Commodore,” Mitch addressed Alicia, “radio Karga. See if you can find someone with some authority. I do not care if it is a rebel; find someone to talk to. In the meantime, I am off-duty, the Ambassador was roused from her bed and could use some rest,” he smiled, “and I have not seen my wife for five years. Do not disturb us except for emergencies.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Mitch fingered Kate’s long hair. “The last time I saw you,” he said, “your hair was dark and scattered with light like the stars; now it is like the silver light of Earth’s moon.” He kissed the lock he held in his hand.
“You should have seen me a year ago, I was almost a redhead.” Kate snuggled closer.
“How did that happen?”
“The only thing Tarsi is rich in is minerals - I had to start distilling my water. Iron deposits, I think.”
Mitch chuckled warmly. “I wish I had seen it.”
Kate laid her head on his chest. “Mitch?”
“Hm?” he said languidly.
“Do you ever think we might have made a mistake?”
“What do you mean?”
“How long have we been married?”
“Forty-two years and a few months,” he replied.
“And how much of that time have we actually been together?”
“Four hundred and twelve days, including today.”
Kate chuckled. “I should have known you would keep count.”
“Each day is precious,” Mitch replied. “So what was the question?”
Kate knit her brows. “I wonder - maybe we should have settled down and acted like normal people.”
Mitch kissed the top of her head. “We both made that decision years before we met, my love. It was never an option for us. Our only choice was whether we would take the four hundred and twelve days. I do not think we made the wrong choice.”
Kate sighed and made no reply.
“I have been thinking about retiring,” Mitch said.
Kate sat up abruptly. “What?” she blurted.
Mitch laughed. “See? You do not think we made the wrong choice, either.”
Kate laughed, too. “I guess not,” she admitted. “You’re not really thinking of retiring, are you?”
“Not yet. In about ten years, I think. One hundred years old seems a nice round number - and still young enough to enjoy it. I thought we would adopt a child or two; there are still plenty of orphans in the galaxy.”
Kate sighed and lay down beside him. “That sounds wonderful. I guess I’m not really ready to quit yet, either, but I have been thinking about family. And home.”
“The galaxy is your home,” Mitch told her. “There is no place you can go where you are not welcome.” He kissed her warmly, then reached for his uniform and began to dress. “I must return to my command, my love,” he explained. “Get some sleep. I will call you if you are needed.”
Alone again but feeling a great warmth, Kate fell into a contented sleep.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The planet Karga shone green and beautiful through the shuttle port, in stark opposition to its companion. Tarsi looked even more inhospitable from space than it had from below - a big yellow rock, only a third the size of its binary mate. Kate thought she could see the glint from the domes that made life barely possible on the planet’s surface. From this distance, she found an almost mystic sense of perspective, contrasted by the three starships that orbited this system.
Kate pulled her gaze from the vastness that lurked outside the port. The Ronuen linguist who had helped rescue her from Tarsi was going over a final briefing before the delegation’s arrival on Karga. “The Kargal language is very similar to Tarsid,” Lt. Parma’s large furry hands, four-fingered, made broad gestures in the air as she spoke, “so neither of us should have any trouble.” Kate smiled grimly to herself; apparently the Tarsidate was not the only one who could pretend ignorance. She wondered if this crewwoman also spoke Cantonese. “Our contact speaks Tarsid, and the Commander’s been studying, so there should be little problem communicating.”
Mitch strode down the aisle. “You are wanted up front, Lieutenant,” he said to the Ronuen. “Our friend down below is giving final instructions for descent.”
“Yes, Sir,” Lt. Parma released her straps and padded swiftly down the aisle.
Mitch took the empty seat next to Kate. “I still do not want you here.”
“Mitch,” Kate said, “we already had this argument. I won. I’m Ambassador to Tarsi and Karga, and it’s time I fulfilled the other half of my duties. You have no authority over a member of the Diplomatic Service.”
Mitch grimaced; Kate had never seen him so pained. “I am not asking as Commander of the Fleet. I am asking as your husband. We just got you out of danger; do not rush back in.”
“You’d abort this mission just to protect your wife?”
Kate was silent for a long moment, and felt the bump as the shuttle entered Karga’s atmosphere. “Mitch, I can’t. I can’t run out on my responsibilities any more than you could. It’s not any less dangerous for you than for me. And I’ve survived assassination attempts before.”
He fingered the scar on her face. “I will not ask again,” he promised. “It is just that I would hate to lose you.”
She reached up and clasped his hand. “I have no intention of dying.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The landing on Karga was more difficult than one would have at first imagined. A fine webbing covered most of the planet’s land surface at a uniform height of three hundred meters, and it required expert guidance to avoid entangling the shuttle in the stuff. They set down at what was obviously a spaceport, albeit a small one; the docks were filled with ships of Tarsid design, but which had apparently seen little use. No one met them; for a planet supposedly at war, security seemed remarkably lax.
A warm wind gently ruffled Kate’s hair as she stepped from the shuttle. The webbing which had so complicated their descent was barely visible against the pale green sky, and Kate could clearly see the bluish clouds that floated high above her head. The woods that surrounded the landing field gave off a fragrance both spicy and sweet, and compared to Tarsi, Kate felt that she had stepped into paradise. She had orders to remain at the center of the dozen officers who escorted her, or more properly, they had orders to protect her; it amounted to the same thing. The delegation made its way along the paved path through the trees, weapons ready. This would be a fine place for an ambush, and Mitch did not trust the quiet. A large animal, doe-faced, sniffed at the party from the shelter of the underbrush, then dashed away through the trees.
The group emerged from the woods into a small city nestled between gentle blue hills. The Kargal, who closely resembled the Tarsid, scurried about their business, whatever that might be, amidst the most astounding architecture Kate had ever seen in her sixty years of spacefaring. The city seemed to be carved from crystal that glinted and shone in the yellow sunlight of afternoon. Towers and spires rose impossibly high against the sky, seemingly supported by air alone. A group of twenty or so Kargal approached the Commander’s party, waving their hands in greeting.
“Welcome,” the foremost member of the group greeted them in Tarsid. “I am Daeved Tket. I believe I have already spoken with some of you.”
“I am Mitchell Yeng, Commander of the Galactic Fleet,” Mitch said, bowing from the waist, “and this is Katharine Murphy, Ambassador of the Galactic League to Karga and Tarsi.” He briefly introduced the other members of the contact team, and “Are you the leader here?” he asked.
Daeved laughed, a full, rich sound, and it occurred to Kate that she had heard no laughter the entire time she had been on Tarsi. The members of the welcoming party were surprisingly invariable; on Tarsi she had noted a wide range of plumage coloration, but every member of this group bore yellow plumage, except for two or three whose feather-tips were brightly colored. “For your purposes, I suppose I am,” Daeved replied. “We have no rulers, but I am sure I can answer most of your questions. Ambassador Murphy,” he turned to Kate, “we are very happy that you have managed to visit us at last. Come, let me show you our hospitality.”
Daeved and his party turned toward one of the nearby crystal buildings, but Mitch did not move. “We were told that Karga is in rebellion.”
Daeved laughed again. “I suppose you could say that,” he chuckled, “but I assure you, Commander, that you are quite safe among us.” He held out his long black hands. “See? We carry no weapons; we have no longer any use for them. Come, I will tell you what you wish to know.”
The tall elegant form turned once again, and the now enlarged band followed him up the path. The Kargal made quite a dazzling sight themselves, wearing sari-like garments not unlike Kate’s own, but intricately woven and shining with a peculiar light. They chattered among themselves freely, their voices as bright as their clothing, and Kate found herself smiling, feeling the weight of oppression that had so burdened her on Tarsi lifted from her shoulders. She glanced at Mitch, but his face was peculiarly somber.
Daeved led them to an airy chamber in one of the crystal palaces. Large cushions littered the floor, and the Kargal directed the visitors to seat themselves. The Ronuen members of the party remained standing, as Ronuen anatomy does not bend in the right places for sitting, but the Xia and the humans found the arrangements extremely comfortable. Most of the members of the welcoming party seated themselves nearby, in rapt attention with gleeful expressions on their dark faces.
“Your arrival is quite an occasion for my students and me,” Daeved said. “I hope you don’t mind if they hang on your every word; they are eager for the opportunity to meet people from other civilizations.”
Kate responded, “Not at all. It’s infinitely more pleasant than my previous experience in your system.”
Daeved’s face turned grave. “Ah, yes. Tarsi. Very unpleasant for you, especially under the present circumstances.”
“And what circumstances are those?” Mitch asked.
“Very little happens on Tarsi of which we are not aware,” Daeved explained, “and perhaps the reverse is also true. The Tarsidate was on all the newscasts today, claiming that we were responsible for the attack on your outpost. This is, of course, absurd. We have nothing to gain.”
“Who does gain?” Mitch asked.
“From an apparent attack on the League? Suffice it to say that the Tarsidate has tried for many years to conquer us, but we have refused to be governed.”
“You cannot refuse to be killed,” Mitch pointed out.
Daeved laughed again, which struck Kate as incongruous. “But we have, Commander. Perhaps a demonstration; do you carry lasers?”
“No,” Mitch replied.
Daeved chuckled. “If you would, then, Commander, look in the cabinet behind you, you will find my old service laser. Take it, please.”
Mitch did so, warily. He examined the handgun closely; it seemed in good repair and untampered with.
“Now,” Daeved instructed, “if you will fire the weapon at the walls or the ceiling, you might find the experience enlightening.”
“Are you sure?” Kate asked. It seemed such a strange thing to do.
Daeved nodded, and Mitch fired the gun in a brief burst over his head. Kate gasped, as did her companions - even Mitch - for rainbows of blue, red, green and colors Kate did not think she had seen before washed over the room; the crystal took the energy from the laser and broke it into harmless cascades of light.
“What is it?” Kate asked in wonder.
“There is a small creature native to our world that spins a silk that, we discovered a few years ago, attracts and refracts polarized energy. What advantage this gives the creature, we have yet to discover, but it benefits us greatly. The silk can be spun and woven into garments,” Daeved indicated the cloth he and his companions wore, “imbedded in glass, or twisted into ropes or nets. The webs that we finished erecting three years ago are fabricated from the same substance; an attack can be quite beautiful.”
“Yes,” Kate breathed, almost reverently. That a military defense could be such a thing of beauty. . .it inspired awe.
“Why have the Tarsidate’s ships and soldiers been disappearing, or was that a lie, too?” Mitch asked.
“No, on that score he told the truth, or perhaps as much as he is willing to admit. I am one of those soldiers; I defected to Karga ten years ago, and have since been leading the humble life of a teacher. These are my students.”
One of the students, yellow plumage tinged with blue, said, “I, too, was a soldier, more recently come from Tarsi. Life is better here,” he explained simply.
No one could argue; the truth of that statement was readily apparent.
“It is no wonder His Supremacy is frustrated,” Mitch said with some amusement. “You seem to have balked him very effectively.”
“For the present. The Tarsidate will probably find some way around our defenses eventually. The larger problem is that this fool’s preoccupation with conquest is a constant drain on his world’s very meager resources, and a much smaller drain on ours. The real tragedy is that many of us have family up there; we would be more than happy to trade or even give anything they need from us.”
“Have you told the Tarsidate this?” Kate asked.
“Several have tried. The last person to make the attempt came home in several pieces. I fear the Tarsidate will always remain a fool. But come now,” Daeved stood, “we would like you to dine with us, if such is possible for you.”
“I’m afraid most of your foods are toxic to humans,” Kate pointed out sadly, “and questionable for Xian and Ronuen. I’m afraid we must decline.”
“Perhaps you could bring your foodstuffs here,” Daeved suggested. “We would like to share more with you than politics.”
So it was done, with sincere apologies from the Commander to the two crewmembers left behind to guard the shuttle; first contacts are rare and not to be missed.
Kate was in heaven; candid and inquisitive in the extreme, the Kargal asked as many questions as they answered; no subject seemed taboo. While one student explained the workings of the webs and crystals to a Ronuen crewmember, another informed Kate of something which had long puzzled her - the Tarsid and the Kargal had no obvious sexes, yet seemed to reproduce sexually. She suspected that they were hermaphroditic, and this proved to be the case. Either or both partners to a mating could become pregnant, and both parents shared equally the responsibility of rearing children. As monogamy was a rarity, familial relationships were extensive and complicated.
“Are you not afraid that we might use this information against you?” Mitch asked of Daeved.
“Why should you? Even if you did, we would still defeat you.”
“You are terribly confident.”
“One cannot rule those who refuse to be ruled,” Daeved observed, and this truism was so often demonstrated that Mitch knew there was no argument against it. He wished the Kargal well.
At last the evening ended, and the weary party made its way back to the shuttle, of necessity refusing the Kargal offer of accommodations. The shuttle was cramped and uncomfortable, but secure. The Kargal had presented them with, among other things, a long length of their brightly colored cloth for Kate, and a large densely tied net of the same material.
“Commander,” the team’s Xian defense specialist offered, “if what they have told us it true, it’s possible this stuff would withstand a particle beam.” The experiment was duly performed and the ensuing blast of energy rewarded the party with the now familiar shower of lights.
In their cabin, Mitch observed, “You like it here, do you not?”
“Yes,” Kate agreed without reservation. “Don’t you?”
“If all is as it appears, it is very pleasant indeed. Unfortunately, I have long ceased to accept anything at face value.”
“As have I, Mitch,” Kate chided. “I’ve navigated more intrigue than you’ll ever see. I’ve also learned to trust my instincts.”
“And what do they tell you?”
“The same thing we’ve guessed all along; the Tarsidate’s dreams of conquest have been stalemated, and he’s trying to provoke the League to use its superior weapons to subdue the Karga.”
Mitch considered this for so long that Kate thought he had fallen asleep when he spoke. “You are probably right, my love. In which case, what do we do with His Supremacy?”
He was still pondering this question when he at last drifted off to sleep.
Kate found this feat much more difficult. Finally, she rose and wrapped the Kargal’s gift around herself, feeling like a child overeager with her new clothes. The cloth was silky against her skin, and long enough to necessitate wrapping several times around her small form. She left her husband sleeping soundly. She walked quietly out of the cabin and past rows of bunks filled with slumbering crewmen, wondering at how young and innocent the sleeping so often appeared.
A Xian lieutenant and the Ronuen linguist, Lt. Parma, were keeping watch in the shuttle cockpit. “All quiet?” Kate asked.
“You should be asleep, Ambassador,” the Xian observed, raising his triple set of eyes from the screens in front of him.
“I’m out of phase,” Kate explained. “I only woke up a few hours ago. I thought I might get some fresh air.”
“We’d rather you wouldn’t,” Lt. Parma explained. “We might mistake you for an intruder, or vice versa. We’ve had several false alarms already.”
“There’s some kind of large animal in these woods; they seem harmless, but when one strays into the perimeter, it plays havoc with the detectors. Unfortunately, by the time something comes into camera range, it could be too late.” One of the console screens emitted a small ‘blip!’ “There’s one now. I believe it’s your turn, Lieutenant.” The Xian stood, checking the particle gun in its holster.
“Why bother, if it’s harmless?” Kate asked.
“Because you should never take anything for granted,” the Xian replied, opening the hatch and exiting into the bright lights that surrounded the shuttle.
Kate monitored the lieutenant’s progress, watching his blip move out from the center of the screen. The intruder moved in a zigzag across the lower part of the screen, and was intercepted by the Xian. The intruder’s path suddenly changed, making a beeline toward the center of the screen, and Lt. Parma immediately sounded the shuttle’s alarms. Almost the instant she did so, the shuttle was rocked violently in its dock. The linguist leaped from her seat, opening the door in the bulkhead at the rear of the cockpit, but was halted by the roar of flames that spewed through the opening and filled the bunkroom behind it.
“Evacuate,” the Ronuen yelled, opening the hatch and shoving Kate through.
Kate fought her grip. “Mitch!” she screamed.
“Come on!” Lt. Parma yelled, persistently dragging Kate across the field. “It’s going to blow,” and the explosion hurled them both with hurricane force into the trees.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Kate screamed, and screamed, and screamed again. After a long time, she realized she was making no sound. She seemed to be missing the right side of her body; the left was a miasma of pain. After another long while, the pain focused itself into her left arm and shoulder, perhaps her ribs, too. As she made this diagnosis, she opened her eyes, but they gave no information; all she could see were rainbows.
“Kate,” she heard Daeved’s voice, although she could not see him. She wondered when he had begun calling her that - it seemed important. Her right hand was enclosed in his, warm and five-fingered like her own. This, too, seemed important, but she could not have said why.
“Kate,” Daeved repeated, moving into her field of vision. His head had been singed nearly bald, only emphasizing his resemblance to those African artworks. “Kate, you’ve been badly hurt.” This is inane, Kate thought, I know that, “but your people are coming for you. Can’t you do anything for them?” he fumed as Kate moaned quietly.
Another voice. “If our food is poison to them, then our medicines undoubtedly are. Her own people will have to save her; I can’t. The other one is hopeless in any case, I’m afraid.”
It seemed a pointless argument, and Kate escaped it by lapsing back into the darkness.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
She woke to find Alicia’s face gazing worriedly into her own, and for a moment she mistook that dark visage for Daeved’s. Kate was bandaged to the point of immobility. She tried to turn her head, and her hair, singed short, fell across her face. “How bad?” she asked.
Alicia brushed the hair back from Kate’s face, almost tenderly. “Third degree burns on the neck, left arm and shoulder. Broken clavicle, left ulna, right fibula, and several ribs.”
“Why am I alive?”
“That thing you were wearing evidently gave some protection from the flames, but you’d be dead anyway if your friend Daeved hadn’t found you as quickly as he did. The entire spaceport blew; it took the Kargal several hours to put it out.”
“What was it?”
“Incendiary device,” Alicia answered grimly. “Crude, but effective.”
“Have you caught him yet?” Kate asked, impatient with answers, impatient with questions. She clenched her right fist so hard she drove the nails into the palm.
“No,” Alicia bowed her head.
“I know who’s responsible.” Kate’s voice was cold and stony.
“Did you see?” Alicia asked, hopeful.
“No, but there’s only one candidate - the Tarsidate.”
Alicia exhaled harshly. “Kate, there’s no way. Nothing bigger than three or four meters can get through the web without guidance, and no ships left Tarsi after you did. There’s just no way. I’m sorry.”
“There is a way; you’ve missed it, is all,” Kate said doggedly. She opened her fist, crescent wounds glowing redly. “I have a free hand; humor me. Let me at all the ship’s records, the shuttle transmissions - you were monitoring, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” Alicia said. “It will keep you occupied, I suppose. You’ll have clearance.” She turned to go.
“Thank you, Commander,” Kate said.
Alicia stiffened, then strode from the room, tears glistening in her dark eyes.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It took Kate almost a month to find it, during which time Acting Commander Jameson turned all the Fleet’s resources to finding the culprit, to no avail. There were few clues, and even Kate’s initial discoveries seemed to indicate that Alicia was right, that the assassin was Kargal - a dim image had shown up on the shuttle tapes, a dark face on the edge of camera range, yellow-plumed. Enhancement had revealed nothing but shadows.
The Tarsidate sent a carefully worded note of condolence expressing outrage over Commander Yeng’s untimely death and the loss of the shuttle crew, none too subtly suggesting a suitable vengeance against the Kargal assassins. The note had little effect, except to further fuel Kate’s already flaming determination.
Finally, the larger picture yielded an answer. After weeks of scouring file tapes, detectors and visual scans, Kate had begun examining every rock and piece of debris that had filled the space between Tarsi and Karga. She called Alicia.
“I don’t believe you found that,” Alicia said. “A ship - it really is a ship,”
“No more than two-and-a-half meters long and even narrower - small enough to slip through the web, and it left the Tarsidate’s port only hours after I did.”
“It could be someone else,” Alicia argued, half-heartedly.
“Does it matter?” Kate asked. “Anyway, the Tarsidate controls all transportation, and since most of his soldiers defect once they reach Karga, I doubt he’d take the chance of sending someone.”
“But is it enough, Kate? We’re risking interstellar war if we’re wrong.”
“No, we’re risking war if I’m right,” Kate said. “I’m going after that murdering cockroach. Are you with me?”
“Yes,” Commander Jameson said without hesitation.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Kate wore a gun for the first time in her life. She half hoped she would not have to use it, and half hoped she would. It was not a pleasant sensation, but grimly satisfying. The trailing end of her strangely shimmering sari was draped over her cropped hair. She wore a long-sleeved undergarment of the same fabric; only her hands and already scarred face were bare. Under her uniform, Alicia wore similar protection.
For once, Kate had no trouble gaining audience with His Supremacy; it seemed that they, or at least Commander Jameson, were expected. Kate’s wounds were nearly healed, the once tormenting pain having settled to a tormenting itch, but not as strong as the itch to put a hole through that darkly grinning face.
“Ah, Ambassador, I am glad to see you recovering so nicely,” the Tarsidate greeted her, but he did not sound pleased at all. “And the new Commander at last honors us with her presence.”
“Dismiss your guards,” Kate ordered without preamble. “I don’t think you’ll want them to hear what we’ve come to say.”
“You wear arms in our presence solely due to the injury it would cause your dignity to relieve you of them, but you have no cause to strip me of my protection,” His Supremacy said stiffly.
“As you wish,” Kate said, a steel glint in her green eyes. “In the matter of the murder of Commander Mitchell Yeng and twelve officers of the Galactic Fleet: we’ve traced a one-man ship to Tarsi and we have identified Your Supremacy as the assassin.”
There was a stir among the guards, quickly silenced.
“Nonsense,” the Tarsidate argued. “Commander Yeng died at Kargal hands on Kargal soil, and the Ambassador, I should point out, was very fortunate to survive herself. You shouldn’t let your personal affinities cloud your judgment. Commander, I’m surprised to find you a party to this.”
Kate bounded up the dais to the throne and seized a handful of the Tarsidate’s mail tunic. “You killed my husband, you son of a bitch,” she hissed, a hiss echoed by the sound of half a dozen handlasers being pulled from half a dozen holsters. Kate blazed like an angel of retribution as the fire struck her, but did not loosen her grip. “If either of us die here,” she warned, “it’s interstellar war, and you know it, Your Supremacy.” The Tarsidate motioned his guards to put away their weapons, and Kate tightened her hold on his collar. “You’ve murdered the finest man who ever lived, and I’ll have satisfaction before I leave this room.”
“Commander.” the Tarsidate croaked, “are you going to stand there and allow this madwoman to make threats against my person?”
“Give her what she wants, or I’ll kill you myself,” Alicia replied. The guards stirred, but did not move.
“What. . .do. . .you. . .want?” the Tarsidate asked, choking more from fear than from the Ambassador’s hand at his throat.
She released her grip, shoving him away from her like something soiled. “What I came for in the first place. A treaty.”
“You’re offering League membership?” His Supremacy asked, disbelieving. “I, I don’t understand.”
“It’s either that or war. And as much as I would like to see you dead, it would only cause more killing. You sign that agreement, and the League will see to it that you never attack Karga again, and that you stop exploiting your own people. And the trade will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. Well?”
“I’ll sign.” His Supremacy fingered his throat. “This is a strange idea of justice.”
“I don’t want my husband to have died for no reason.” The Ambassador turned and left the Audience, her hand sweaty on the handle of the gun she had not had to use.