Book 1: Seeing Red
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24 October 2114: the day that shocked the world.
Young diplomat Cory Wilson narrowly escapes death in the assassination of President Sirkonen. No one claims responsibility but there is no doubt that the attack is extraterrestrial.
Cory was meant to start work as a representative to Gamra, the alien organisation that governs the FTL transport network, but now his new job may well be scrapped in anger.
Worse, as Earth uses military force to stop any extraterrestrials coming or leaving, as 200,000 extraterrestrial humans are trapped on Earth, as the largest army in the galaxy prepares to free them by force, only Cory has the experience, language skills and contacts to solve the crime.
But he’s broke, out of a job and a long way from Earth.
The character Cory Wilson is also the main character in my middle grade novel The Far Horizon. In Ambassador, he’s 32 and he makes his own adventures.
Diplomats at Nations of Earth often joked that when politics sank into a lull, something was about to explode. The greater the sense of we’ve-got-it-all-sorted-out smugness, the bigger the bang.
I was certainly far too comfortable, if jet-lagged and keen to get to my hotel, when I met President Sirkonen in his office in Rotterdam that afternoon. Nice and easy. I had received my commission from gamra with all the final details such as what time I needed to be at the Exchange. And tickets, by themselves worth more than my annual Earthly salary. Now I only needed the president’s signature, and I would be off to my new job. Definitely too comfortable.
I had never been on first-name terms with the president, but while I sat there trying hard not to succumb to jet-lag, he chatted about my father, whom I had just visited, and who had finally retired from Lunar Base to his native New Zealand. Sirkonen opened the drawer of his desk and took something out, which he flipped across the gleaming wooden surface. I could do nothing but catch it. A datastick. I turned it over. The black plastic cover reflected the sunlight.
“What’s on it?”
“You might find it useful. Think of it as some… personal advice, from me to you. We’ll talk about it later, when you return for your first briefing.” He shut the drawer with a thud as if closing the subject.
This was highly irregular. “Mr President, can I ask—”
He shook his head, and offered me a drink–Finnish vodka, best in the world, he said. While he poured, his hands trembled.
I should have insisted that he tell me what was wrong, but who was I? An unimportant, sending-out-our-feelers type of diplomat, expendable and twenty years his junior. Not the type of person to draw attention to his problems–with alcohol or otherwise.
We made a toast. The heavy scent of the vodka did nothing to improve my alertness.
“Mr Wilson, when you come back in six month’s time, you must present your report to the general assembly. We need to know in detail what sort of regimes we’re dealing with.”
I didn’t understand why he spoke in such empty generalities; I wondered when he was going to open that folder on his desk and sign the contract. Nicha, my Coldi assistant, was waiting in the foyer. We had a whole heap of work to catch up on. I was annoyed that Sirkonen had changed our meeting time at the last minute–the original meeting had been scheduled for tomorrow morning.
Sirkonen stopped speaking.
I stared at him, realising with embarrassment that I’d been off with the fairies. Was I meant to have said something? Was I breaking rule number one of the diplomatic circle: never show any sign of sleep deprivation?
An attack of dizziness overtook me. My vision wavered, as if the world was painted on a silk flag that flapped in the wind and all the furniture was rimmed in a red aura. “Mr President, I’m—”
I just managed to put my vodka down. The glass hit the wood with a soft clunk, the only sound in the frozen silence.
There was a small sound from outside, a click.
As if stung, Sirkonen turned to the window; his eyes widened.
The president opened his mouth, but a sharp crack interrupted his words.
I didn’t think. I dived off the chair into the hollow of safety under the desk. The room exploded. Glass shattered, wood splintered. Something crashed on top of me.
The world went black.
* * *
Purple spots danced before my eyes. An alarm blared, woolly through the ringing in my ears.
What the fuck…?
Footsteps thudded in the foyer. The door burst open, crashed into the wall. People ran in. Many of them. Boots crunched over debris. The air exploded with voices.
“Mr President. Mr President?”
I squinted through half-closed eyes. I lay in a cocoon of semi-darkness, pinned down by something jagged that hurt my back, too heavy to push off. My head echoed with unfamiliar silence.
Somewhere in the room, someone groaned, a voice that wasn’t Nicha’s.
A man called out, “He’s over here. Get a doctor! Now!”
Replies blared through comm units.
I tried again, picturing the thought sensor patches in my brain. Nicha?
There was no reply, not even when I commanded the link to open completely. Yet Nicha had been waiting in the foyer. Well within the feeder’s range.
I lifted a hand to the back of my head. My fingertips met my scalp, spreading slick wetness in my hair. Blood–I could smell it.
Of course, I’d handed my feeder in before I came into the President’s office.
The president’s office… an explosion. Bloody hell.
“Sir?” A male voice, much closer.
The pressure on my back eased.
And then, “Help me get this off.”
The pressure lifted. I rolled onto my side, blinking against light that angled into the room from an unusual source. A large hole gaped in the wall where the window had been, the edges like jagged teeth of bricks and mortar. Through it, dusk-tinged clouds looked obscenely peaceful.
The room itself was a mess of glass, plaster and splintered wood.
A woman knelt by my side, in the uniform of the Nations of Earth forces, but with a red collar that said Special Operations. “Are you all right, sir?”
I sat up, rolling my tongue in my mouth. Dust crunched between my teeth.
“I… I think so.”
My head pounded. Blood dripped from a cutting board of slashes across my palms.
Shards of thick glass littered the carpet, the same shatter-proof security glass which was used in spacefaring vessels. Supposedly unbreakable.
There were also fragments of the vodka glass, wet stains of the vodka itself, mixed with plaster from the ceiling, paper, and books–those priceless four hundred year old volumes that had filled the shelves in the president’s office. And amongst all that mess copper-dark smears of blood–mine, I presumed.
The voice that drifted from the other side of the wrecked desk was weak, but unmistakably Sirkonen’s. “No, no, you don’t have to… I can…”
“I don’t think so, Mr President. You’re injured.”
The President was alive. I was alive. No idea what the hell had just happened, other than that I was simply alive, and glad of it.
The guard helped me to my feet and sat me down on the president’s sofa, my palms dripping blood on four hundred year old furniture.
I managed a weak, “My hands.” Looking at them made me feel sick; everything made me feel sick.
“We’ll get another ambulance out in a minute.”
“But…” I didn’t want an ambulance. I—
Panicked voices. “He’s losing consciousness!”
People ran across the room. Two paramedics in orange overalls wheeled in a stretcher.
Someone flung a towel in my lap, which I wound around my bleeding hands as best as I could. The embroidered Nations of Earth symbol ended up on the outside.
Emergency crew lifted President Sirkonen onto the stretcher, his shirt ripped and wet with blood. They covered him with a silver blanket and put a mask over his face. The president tried to wave it away, his movement feeble. His Scandinavian tanned skin had gone very pale.
“Keep still, Mr President. We’ll have you in the hospital very soon.”
Then they were out the door.
A different, male, guard sat down next to me. “You’re Mr Cory Wilson, Union delegate?”
I nodded. Normally I would have corrected him, gamra, not Union, but that seemed a trivial, pedantic issue right now. I might work for gamra, the organisation that governed the Exchange, the means of interstellar travel, but right now, I faced him as a fellow human, and without the input from my feeder I felt this even more keenly. Our president had been attacked, and my job… was another world, literally.
“I’m sorry, sir. I need to ask some questions. Did you see anything?”
“No, just the window exploded.” A feeling niggled in the back of my head. “I couldn’t see outside. There was a curtain.” It now lay mangled on the floor. Then I remembered. “Sirkonen saw something. Just before it hit.”
Was it even an explosion? There’d been no fire. Just wavering air, and a red aura surrounding everything. No, that was probably because I was exhausted, my brain still operating on New Zealand time.
I rubbed my face with the top of my wrist. “Where is Nicha?”
A puzzled look crossed the man’s face.
“My zhayma. He was waiting in the foyer.”
The frown deepened. “Uhm, sir, are you speaking Isla?”
I was, or wasn’t I? Eight years of full-time training in Coldi, and I was no longer sure. The wrong language had the habit of slipping out when I was off-guard and tired.
Someone else behind my back said, “There was a person in the foyer, sir. I couldn’t be sure about the gender.”
“Union?” the other guard asked. I had the feeling he would have liked to have used the derogatory word ethie, from Extra-Terrestrial Humanoid.
I said, “He’s my assistant. I need him here.”
A small silence, and then, “I’ll go and see, sir.”
“Thank you.” I leaned back on the couch.
I hadn’t liked that silence, not at all. Nicha was all right, wasn’t he? If not, I needed to get him to the Exchange immediately. Coldi bodies differed from ours in much more than their hair with iridescent highlights, purple, blue and green like a peacock, or their muscular build. While they could vary their body temperature, they reacted badly to hypothermia, meaning anything below forty Celsius. I imagined an emergency crew working on Nicha, giving him the wrong blood, not keeping him warm enough. The thought made me shiver. I had lived with Nicha for four years, spent most of my waking and sleeping hours with him as part of the zhayma concept. In the rigid hierarchical Coldi society, he was equal, my companion, the other half of my job, my pillar, my hand that reached out to the many peoples of gamra. He was the reason they would talk to me openly, my translator for those languages and customs I’d had no opportunity to learn. An interviewing journalist had asked me what a zhayma was, and I’d explained it was like being married, but without the sex, but it was more. For Coldi people, it was pathological; they did everything in pairs of two.
Why had I been so stupid to leave Nicha in the foyer or hand in my feeder?
President’s orders. Simple as that.
Uniformed personnel with guns crouched over the debris near the window. Red collars on their shirts betrayed that they all worked for Special Services and they, I remembered, were the spying division of the armed forces. Two of them sat on their knees, waving scanning chips over the debris. Damn expensive equipment that was, nanotechnology from the glory time before the wars. Way too expensive to produce these days.
Snatches of conversation drifted across the room.
“… like a bomb being thrown into the window.”
“… sure? He says Sirkonen saw something.”
“… have to get that on record…”
Where was Nicha?
I struggled to the edge of the couch. Tested my legs, and then rose carefully to tap one of the uniformed men on the back. The man turned. “Sit down please, sir.” He, too, wore the emblem of the Special Services Branch.
Another said, “Ambulance is on its way.”
“I’m sorry, I… I need to speak to my… assistant.” I was more careful with language this time. Coldi words upset too many people. “He’s in the foyer.”
“I know. He’s being interrogated.”
Interrogated? “I need to speak to him.”
“Not yet, sir.”
“You shouldn’t interrogate him until I speak to him.”
There was a flicker of hesitation on his face. Maybe he heard the anger I tried to keep from my voice.
“Sir, there has just been an attack on the President. We need to—”
“I understand, but Nicha Palayi falls exclusively under gamra law. If you wish to interrogate him, you can apply to your local gamra delegate, which happens to be me. Now I will grant that permission, because I understand that you need to speak to all possible witnesses, and I have no desire to withhold information. However, I want to see him first. I would also appreciate it if my feeder could be returned, and my security staff to be brought up here. They are at the security post downstairs.”
Goodness knew what those two young men had been subjected to, how bewildered and lost they must feel. They spoke some Isla, but with poor fluency.
The man snapped into a military salute. “Sir.” He turned on his heel and marched out of the room, no doubt to get a higher-ranked officer.
He didn’t return.
Two guards asked to search me. In my pocket, they found the datastick the president had given me. One guard turned it over; the black plastic surface reflected the light. “What’s on it?”
“I don’t know.” I wished to hell I knew.
“I’ll need to make a copy.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“The investigating team will need to study every object present in this room.”
“It’s most likely information pertaining to my job. I’ve had no opportunity to look at it. It might contain material sensitive to gamra interests.”
He raised his eyebrows, like he wanted to say The president has been attacked, isn’t that more important than extra-terrestrials?
“I assure you, sir, all material we collect is confidential.”
I nodded, by no means assured, but what could I do? Refuse and be treated as suspicious?
He took the datastick to a colleague at the door. Shit. Sirkonen had given this thing to me. Not to be pried at by Special Services.
He had been talking about Seymour Kershaw, my predecessor of sorts, who had disappeared at gamra headquarters in Barresh ten years ago. Now some idiot had made the story into a movie which accused the Coldi, the dominant ethnicity within those sections of the galaxy serviced by gamra, of killing him. I hoped the information wasn’t about Kershaw. The connection between it and the fictional allegations in the movie would be all too easy to make.
I could hear the questions from the press. Why didn’t these aliens allow Earth investigators to see for themselves what had happened to their ambassador? Why did they keep such tight control on their precious Exchange–so that smart humans couldn’t travel to other worlds and infect them with undesirable ideas, like democracy and religion?
And I could explain as much as I wanted: because gamra is familiar with the consequences of allowing different species to pursue their jurisdiction across interstellar space. It rarely ends well. Because you cannot translate law from one species to the other. And no one on Earth would listen to me.
Eight years of working with gamra, and I thought I was beginning to understand. Yet, the main thing I understood was that these people might be our biological cousins on the human family tree, separated by fifty thousand years, or more, of isolation, but their physiology and mental hardwiring differed so much from ours that Earth hadn’t even begun to understand.
I believed we desperately needed to set the incident aside and move on, because that’s what gamra did, drowning conflicts in bureaucracy, because it was the only way to keep the Exchange network functioning in peace.
I got the datastick back, and managed to work it into my pocket with the bloodied towel. Shit.