Fiction Science Fiction

Delicacy by Bren MacDibble

ON VERIDIDIAN, YOU GET USED TO SEEING STRANGE things. If you’re unlucky, it’s in your bathroom mirror first thing in the morning. Verididian moss has been known to take root overnight in the oddest places and it objects loudly to any attempts to move it. I thought I was beyond considering anything strange after fifteen years here. Then, one morning, my mirror made my heart miss a beat.

This isn’t a hideous tale of disfigurement, not at this point anyway. What I saw, reflected, was the hull of an Earth vessel passing over the light well of my bathroom. Strange, because I hadn’t seen one in five years. Stranger still, because I was the Consul-General of Verididian and I didn’t know a thing about it.

“Jeremy, you wretched sloth!” I screamed as I grabbed my ceremonial uniform from a hook, shoved my feet into my boots, and ran out into the tunnel. “Jeremy, you better have a damned good answer for this or I’ll send that rock you use for a head on a long vacation!”

I tried to regain some decorum. I had attracted a fair amount of attention from passersby. But decorum wasn’t easy since I was stumbling down the hall in my underwear, tall boots undone and flapping with every step. I stuffed a loose boob back into my bra and straightened my back. Human anatomy was a bit of a mystery to the locals and with all the eye-swivelling, I began to feel modest for my whole species.

“Jeremy!” I yelled as I charged round a bend in the tunnel. I thumped right into him and sent him and his component rocks rolling across the floor. “Oh Flurst!” I cried gripping my knee. For a little guy, he was solid.

As Jeremy gathered himself together, I spotted an invitation on the floor. Ranek’s—the Royal Advisor—scroll marked the top. I snatched it up and began to read as I pulled on my trousers and fastened my boots. “…to formally welcome Under-Consul Drummond at the arrivals hall tomorrow…”

I turned on the scattered rocks that were Jeremy. “Ranek summoned you to his office to collect this didn’t he?”

Jeremy’s head rock nodded.

“He summoned you yesterday and you’ve been delivering it ever since?”

Jeremy’s head nodded again.

I clenched my fists. “For Flurst’s sake, Jeremy! You have to learn to delegate!” Then remembering it paid to be precise, I added, “And NOT to another rock sloth!” I hobbled on down the tunnel, struggling into my jacket, and cursing Ranek’s attempt to keep me in the dark.

Still wrestling with fastenings and hair I joined the official greeting line in the arrivals hall.

As I watched Drummond duck the door-frame and disembark the vessel, I got that horrible drop in my stomach. I should’ve learnt my lesson by now. I’m no spring scrog. Anticipation fled and was quickly replaced by a healthy defensive paranoia. As far as Earth was concerned, no news was good news. And this young man looked like bad news. Shimmering pewter-colored hair, chocolate brown eyes and a fake tan contrasted just too beautifully with the electric blue of his consulate uniform. He looked…ambitious.

What on Earth did I do to deserve this…this damned human? Hmm, that sounded a little feral. We were playing for the same team after all. At one time I was probably just like him. I never dressed quite that well and I was never a man but I was once naïve enough to accept a posting to Verididian. Consul-General looked so good on my resume.

As far as Earth knew, I ran this colony without so much as a murmur of protest. We were quiet, insignificant and occasionally even paid our taxes. From the outside, we were the ideal colony, so what provoked them to send anyone, let alone Mr. Design-A-Baby? Were they trying to make the Verididians feel inferior? Earth had a lot to learn.

I moved forward with the rest of the welcoming committee at Scrog’s pace, she being the slowest life-form among us. Drummond let his gaze work nervously along the approaching line. His eyes rose, fell, and stumbled over the radically different profiles. He was surprised. Most humans were when they encountered Verididians for the first time. Footage of alien gastropods, or beings with multiple mouths on tips of tentacles, was easier to deal with than the real thing.

Drummond’s gaze stopped on me. His face relaxed a degree. I jerked my eyes towards the head of the line. Let him be smarter than roof moss. Well, Earth roof moss—Verididian moss has a vocabulary of 300 distinct sounds, easily translatable if listening to complaints about moisture levels and photosynthesis rates is something one finds interesting.

Drummond hesitated, looked down at Jabor the Scrog and then back to me. I got in an encouraging nod. Let him realize the consul-general is third in line for a reason. I shouldn’t be. This being a signed-up colony of Earth made me, technically, the head of state, the big cheese. Unfortunately, Verididians weren’t good with technicalities. They only considered things that were in their best interests. They weren’t one-eyed though, well, except the Cyclops. Clearly, they were one-eyed but they saw enough with that one eye to know when to ignore some upstart planet who insisted on naming them after a mythical beast from a culture that was, as far as they were concerned, still in diapers. No, the Verididians saw everything through however many eyes almighty Flurst blessed them with. Being a colony was good planetary status. Being colonized was something they tried to ignore.

Finally, Drummond saluted Jabor the Scrog. The air over her head, anyway. She was the figurehead of Verididian. The closest thing they had to a royal line.

“Under-Consul Drummond, reporting for duty, Sir!”

Not bad. Gender was entirely optional among Scrogs. A common mistake. A smile crept around the edge of Jabor’s single foot as the translator strapped to her body flashed. Why she bothered to smile, I’ll never know. Her species were surface-grazers. Their mouths were in completely the wrong position.

“In the name of Flurst, welcome to our humble planet,” Jabor’s translator warbled. “I am Jabor the 3579th and this is my advisor, Ranek the third.” Jabor waved an eyestalk at a tall hairy being encased in a black robe. He was to her left now we had ceased our slow march.

Ranek held the real power. He’d advised 987 Jabors. There were distinct problems associated with having monarchy with short life spans and advisors with incredibly long ones. Jabor maintained there was nothing like a good coronation to lift the spirits of her subjects. Having been to three, I was inclined to agree.

“Pleased to meet you,” Drummond said, studying Ranek’s face. Between the hair and the shadow cast by the robe, Ranek’s features were a mystery known only to him. His eyes were impossible to forget however, black glittering ovals that peered from a particularly dense patch of shadow. Stare at them long enough and you got the impression that they were actually laser sights zeroing in on you.

Ranek rumbled deeply. Drummond stepped eagerly down the line to me. His face seemed frozen in a ‘what-the-Hell-have-I-got-myself-into’ type expression. I extended a hand and shook his.

“Welcome, Under-Consul Drummond, I’m Consul-General Selina Jones. I look forward to showing you around after the formalities.” Drummond shook vigorously. In fact, he seemed unwilling to let go. He may have met the good, the bad, and the ugly but he had four more of the just plain weird to get through before this meet-the-dignitaries thing was complete.

I peeled my hand out of his and motioned him left to where a pair of identical Cyclops stood to attention, on the tips of their tentacles. “This is the chief of security and beside him, his captain.” Drummond looked at me, perhaps feeling I’d stopped short of producing their names. I gave a quick shake of my head. Didn’t he know the basics? Cyclops had no names. It would only cause confusion in a species that were identical.

“Ahhh, Sirs.” Drummond nodded to each of the Cyclops and moved on to staring at the next figure’s transparent abdomen bulging with eggs.

“The mayor of commerce, Jat At Noogan. Due any day now,” I said quietly as I noticed Drummond’s eyebrows beginning to wiggle in time with the squirming eggs. “Thirty-five at last count, wasn’t it Jat?” Jat chortled happily and rubbed her abdomen with a spiny foot.

“She’s expecting thirty-five?” Drummond breathed.

“They have excellent childcare here. Ten meals a day and food so fresh that the little tykes sometimes have trouble catching it.” Drummond looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. I moved on quickly to the next in line and indicated that he should shake the extended proboscis. “Beside her, the mayor of anti-commerce, Goosna Toi Vashla.”

Drummond nodded and smiled at the two remaining figures, then looked back at me expectantly. I smiled and nodded slowly. I hadn’t arranged this welcome. I had no idea of the program. Ranek summoned me along with everyone else. The mere fact that Ranek was interested enough in the poor boy’s arrival to throw him a welcome was a concern. How he intended to impress him was anyone’s guess. I sent Drummond subconscious messages to take deep breaths and be prepared for anything. But I doubted their effectiveness when I saw how high he leapt the moment the Verididian equivalent to a sound and light show started up.

* * *

“It was a holographic rendition of the Battle of Flavaar,” I tried to explain later as I led his trembling body into the horizontalator that would take us to my office. “It just happened to start with a bomb going off right where you were standing. You weren’t really expecting to be welcomed one minute and blown up the next? Ranek meant it as an honor.” It was possibly also a ‘this-is-how-we-treat-our-enemies-watch-yourself’ type threat, but Drummond would get to know Ranek and all his subtleties later.

Proving that fate has no sense of timing, I was alone with a nervous, young man. Opportunities like this just didn’t happen twenty years ago. Shamefully, I had no desire to take advantage of the situation. Or did I?

“Okay, Drummond, let’s cut to the bit where you tell me what you’re doing here.”

“Sir?”

Sir? He must really be on edge. That, or I’d let myself go more than I thought. “Are you here to report to Home Office?”

“If you want me to make reports back to HO, I will.”

“Look, HO don’t send men like you to places like Verididia for no reason. They send old battle-axes like me.”

“Sir?”

“Oh, for the love of Flurst! Spit it out!” I studied the kid. His physique looked like he spent every night connected to an electropulser. He looked like the kind of person who would think that was important. His confused stare might just be real. I shook my head and shrugged as I beckoned him out into the corridor. Stranger things had happened, especially here.

My door slid open. “Here we are, the Consulate. This is where we keep our finger on the pulse of Verididia.”

His eyes glanced over the battered furniture and disc files stacked on the floor and came to rest on the figure behind the desk. “Why is there a pile of r—”

“Shhh! He’s very sensitive and he’s been doing lots of overtime,” I whispered. “Jeremy, get us a drink.” The pile of rocks slowly unfurled into a vaguely human shape, leaned off the chair and dropped to the floor, head-rock first, remaking itself in reverse as it tumbled down. The head-rock became a foot-rock and the last rock off the chair became the head. Jeremy turned to face Drummond. As an afterthought, two rocks rattled up from his legs and attached themselves to his upper arms—biceps like Drummond. I rolled my eyes. “My assistant, Jeremy.”

“Oh…hello, Jeremy.”

Jeremy nodded stonily. Drummond stared at the new head-rock.

“He’s very thorough,” I said as Jeremy carefully placed a glass on the table.

Drummond cleared his throat. “HO have requested that I verify your last colonial status report. The request’s in the discs that arrived with me.”

“At last!” I leaned back in my chair. Verifying a status report was an important task given how far Verididia had strayed from its charter—the extent of which hadn’t necessarily been reported—but it still didn’t seem to warrant wasting a young officer, which is effectively what a trip to Verididian is.

Drummond ignored my smugness. “They seem concerned with the loss of contact with Reverend Barker and his missionaries.”

“They’re fine. I see them occasionally. They’ve set up a monastery in the mountains.”

Drummond smiled and relaxed. “So the word of God is flourishing?”

“Oh no, they belong to the church of Flurst now.”

“Flurst?”

“Local deity, nice chap. I’ll introduce you sometime.”

Jeremy put another glass on the table. Drummond moved to let Jeremy pass.

“Sir?” Drummond seemed confused.

“I thought you knew. Deities here show themselves and work miracles on a regular basis. It helps keep a faith going, when you see a bit of commitment from the deity. The Reverend held out for quite a while but eventually Flurst talked him round.”

Drummond still seemed confused. “Er…should I be taking notes? We’ll need more missionaries.”

“Not a good idea.” Jeremy took out a bottle and poured one drink. Then he trundled slowly around to the other side of the desk.

Drummond seemed distracted by him as he muttered, “But the Colonistic Charter…” Jeremy painstakingly poured another drink. Drummond stared, like some horrified efficiency specialist.

I smiled, sipped my drink, and felt the warmth slide down my throat. “Ice?” I asked innocently. Drummond looked at me and then at Jeremy. “It’s just down the hall.” I shrugged. “Jeremy doesn’t mind popping out to get some.”

Drummond coughed. “Er…no thanks.”

“Neat, huh? Brave man. It’s a local brew. Jeremy, could you hurry to the vessel and bring me the discs that arrived with Drummond?”

Drummond leapt up. “I’ll get them!”

“Nonsense.” I waved him back down. “You finish your drink.” Drummond sank helplessly back into his chair and watched Jeremy slowly curl into a ball and begin to roll towards the door. The slow rhythmic clunk…clunk…clunk, as he rolled, filled the room for a while. Then sounded down the corridor. Eventually, it began to fade. I sipped my drink, enjoying the miserable look on Drummond’s face. No one in his right mind would’ve asked for a posting to Verididia but I had a feeling this kid was convinced there was something in it for him. Something he was probably already regretting.

“Did you, er…choose Jeremy?” he asked.

“I had to have a Verididian assistant. Who better than someone who takes all day to run an errand?”

“All day? But…my files?”

“It’s taken you six months to get this far, what’s a few more hours? I’m sure you have the bulk of the request committed to memory. Why not tell me what you think we should report?”

“Well, I’m surprised the chief of security is a Cyclops. HO is not aware that an alien holds this post. I mean, if there were an uprising or an attack from the Baggian Empire, who defends Earth’s rights to Verididia?”

“Verididia signed-up willingly. There’s no uprising. Cyclops speak Cyclops. There’s a certain advantage in being able to communicate with one’s troops and they’re Baggian experts. Our human battalion is a terrible rabble, an embarrassment really. Most of them have gone quite feral. You can understand Earth’s desire not to waste elite forces here.”

“Ahh.”

That was an unsatisfied ‘ahh’ if I ever heard one.

Drummond frowned. “Also, what is anti-commerce?”

“Anti-commerce is the body that checks and balances commerce, a local system. Highly effective.”

Drummond took a hurried swig from his glass, his eyes bulged, and his skin turned pink. As the look of shock died down, he managed to mouth a fume-filled word. “How?”

“Well, we have many species on Verididia. Imagine for a moment, Earth, but instead of one dominant species, imagine cats, dogs, budgerigars, goldfish and trees all hold equal rights with humans. Now, the human wants to build a road to a nearby settlement to travel there faster and improve commerce. Naturally, the tree can’t see the point of traveling there at all, the goldfish would prefer a canal, the cats and dogs think you only need a nice grassy path and the budgerigar is livid since he already has that market sewn up. He flies there and back twice a day, in fact. Do you see how one species idea of commerce is not compatible with another? This is where anti-commerce comes in. They’d investigate any claims of commerce and realize that building a road would give humans an unfair advantage and cause serious detriment to generations of budgerigars, so they have the power to veto commerce.”

“I assumed that since this was a colony of Earth, human commerce would be desirable and anti-commerce pointless. I can’t imagine how anti-commerce will look in the report.”

“Neither can I.” I stopped and gave Drummond a hard look. It occurred to me that the report was just a means to an end. “You weren’t sent here just to report, were you? You were sent to bring Verididia into line with that damned Colonistic Charter.” His look told me everything. I wondered how far his powers to ‘assist’ me extended. As if reading my mind, his tone changed.

“As Consul-General of Verididia, are you in complete control of this planet?”

“To all intents and purposes, yes.”

“Yet, you bow to an inferior species? You do not have a military force at your disposal and this place seems unchanged since colonization.”

“Listen, this is a complex society…” I stopped. I could tell he wasn’t in the mood to listen. “Do you have the power to relieve me of my duties?”

“Yes, and from what I have seen so far, I feel it is imperative I do this immediately.”

“Damn, I almost believed you’d naively accepted this post. Jeremy will take you to your accommodation once he returns.” I stood up.

“Where are you going? You’re still employed by the consulate.”

“Yes, my last act as Consul-General was to approve my holiday application. Jeremy knows where to find me in an emergency.” I walked out. Judging by Drummond’s freshly-landed fish impersonation, the last thing he expected was to be in control only an hour after arriving. But I knew his type. We could spend weeks head-butting. To him I was just a tough old bird that’d been around the moon too many times. I held about as much sway as a re-hydrated pickled herring.

This way, he’d get to try some things from the Colonistic Charter and I wouldn’t have to stand around wincing every time he upset the delicate balance that had taken me fifteen long years to establish.

* * *

“It’s for the best,” I told myself as I collapsed into the snug at Notaki’s.

Notaki settled across the bench opposite. “For zhu we be making da best!”

I smiled at the swarthy velveteen multiped. I hardly understood a word Notaki said in his broken English but the sentiment was always clear. He was friendly. He was familiar and the food was good and the drinks free when Notaki joined the party.

I heard him before I saw him. His heavy clunk…clunk…clunk crept slowly through the hum of my thick melted mind and the hubbub of chatter from the creatures around me. My sub-conscious registered the noise without truly informing me. Finally, the clunks ground to a halt at my table and my brain kicked in with a ‘hello! This can’t be good!’

I was calming Goosna Toi Vashla. She’d taken it to heart when Drummond told her that anti-commerce was no longer desirable. She had her proboscis in one of Notaki’s more dubious concoctions. With one hand gripping Goosna’s snorting straw-like appendage, I turned to Jeremy. “Off duty?”

Jeremy reformed himself into a human shape but with only one long arm protruding from his forehead. In his fist he held out a note.

I waved him away. “I’m on holiday. Please redirect all my correspondence to Drummond.”

Jeremy’s foot-rock rolled out from under him and began to pound the floor impatiently. I stared at the now lopsided rock-sloth. “I think you’ve been working with me too long,” I said and took the note.

‘Return immediately. An envoy of Baggians will arrive in two hours including the first born son of their Leader. I am finding it extremely difficult to organize the catering and ceremonial details. Earth’s relationship with Baggi is at a crucial point. We MUST make a good impression. Acting Consul-General Drummond.’

“Acting indeed. Hmm, odd that we weren’t aware of the Baggians impending visit before now. Did Ranek know?” I asked, as if there was anything Ranek didn’t know. We may have our finger on the pulse but he had Verididia by the throat.

Jeremy reformed with arms in more human places and nodded.

“Why didn’t you organize the catering?”

Bicep-rocks rolled into place on Jeremy’s upper arms and he did a solid impression of Drummond gagging.

“He saw what Baggi eat? Wait until he sees what they look like. There’s not that much difference. Tell Drummond that if we fill their stomachs and present our dignitaries at an informal buffet, respect will be paid and they’ll go on.”

“That’s almost anti-commerce. Food given away,” Goosna wailed.

I felt sorry for the poor wretch and relaxed my grip. She gagged on the powerful drink. “Tell Drummond I’ll take care of everything and see him in two hours.” I turned back to poor Goosna and patted her shell. “There, there, nice diplomatic function coming up.”

It took me almost two hours to organize everyone and recalibrate Goosna’s orientation. She accompanied me, shuffling sideways, up to the function room near the transit point. As soon as I reached the corridor outside, I knew something was wrong. I had ordered the corridor to be lined with Cyclops. It was empty. If that wasn’t enough to make me nervous, the sight of Flurst filling the function room doorway with a flaming aura and lightning bolts did the job quite well. I let Goosna go and hurried forward.

She immediately shuffled into a wall and squealed. “Yeurk! Don’t leave me! I can’t look the way I want to go and I don’t want to go the way I’m looking!” I ran back, grabbed her shell, and dragged her forward through Flurst’s aura into the function room.

“I’m a patient and benevolent God, Selina, but this blasphemy is more than I can stand! I’m working up a plague or famine just dwelling on it.”

“Please Flurst, no famines today. I’ll sort it out.”

Drummond stood peering distastefully at the squirming buffet and there, behind the tables, in impressive rows, stood the might of the Cyclops military.

“Stay and appease the angry God,” I whispered to Goosna and hurried past the horde of muttering dignitaries, including Ranek, eyes glittering smugly beneath the hood of his dark robe, to Drummond. “I asked for the guard to be stationed outside,” I said, annoyance dripping from every carefully pronounced syllable.

“I felt it was important to impress upon the Baggi that Earth has a full contingent of troops stationed here,” Drummond said, casually continuing to examine the food.

There was no time for power games. The boy didn’t know what he was dealing with here. “They’ll take your show of strength as a threat. Get them out before it’s too late.”

“That’s ridiculous. Where have you been anyway? This food tastes good but it seems alive.” Drummond poked it.

“It is alive. That’s how they like it. It’s a delicacy. I had trouble with Goosna but I arranged everything that needed arranging. Now listen—”

Drummond looked over to where Goosna was waving appendages frantically at Flurst. “What’s she doing here? I made her redundant and get that unholy beast out of the doorway.”

“Listen to me. This is a civilized version of your basic food raid. Give the Baggi what they want and they’re a delight. Disrupt it and you’ve got about a 50/50 chance of leaving this room alive. Not that it’ll be a great life now you’ve upset Flurst, or afterlife for that matter.”

Drummond was still hooked on Flurst’s doorway tantrum. “But look at him. Look at the horns! He’s an abomination!”

“Horns? Flurst is a multi-species deity. He appears different to each species. A ‘created-in-their-own-image’ thing. If you see anything ugly about Flurst, you put it there. Except the flames and the lightning, they’re real but that’s your fault too.”

“Flurst has no place here. A colony of Earth is the realm of God.”

“Don’t quote the Charter at me! This is reality. Not some impossibly idealistic guide to universal domination. Flurst is a skilled diplomat but even he can’t save you once the Baggi see your offensive stance.”

“My what?” Finally, Drummond’s eyes focussed on me.

“Your intimidation tactics. Didn’t the chief of security explain?”

“He’s now deputy chief of security. I appointed one of the ‘rabble’, chief of security.”

“And?”

“He didn’t turn up.”

I gave Drummond my best ‘I-told-you-so’ look.

“Surely you’re exaggerating the Baggian reaction?”

A gong sounded and a sleek black vessel slid into view, in the arrivals hall beyond the function room windows. An impressive crotch rocket that someone with Drummond’s stylistic integrity couldn’t ignore. Drummond’s confidence swayed.

“Actually,” I said. “I have radically underplayed their reaction. That is the kind of person I am. Acknowledge panic on this planet and it will eat you alive. Behold the specter of our deaths. Permission to attempt to save our lives?” Drummond looked at me, back at the ship then to the other fidgeting dignitaries who were beginning to shuffle towards the exit. Nervous tension seeped through the room like toxic waste through a paper cup.

“Our lives are seriously in danger?” Drummond asked, beginning to pale.

“I suggest you make amends with Flurst quickly. Eternity is a long time not to be on speaking terms.”

“Then do something!”

“Yes, Sir!” I turned and ran to the tables. “Guards, weapons underneath tables immediately! Grab a tray! You are all undercover as waiters. Behave like waiters!” I ran and ushered the dignitaries away from the doorway. “Dignitaries, line up!” The row of dignitaries looked at me, then longingly at the exit, and settled for a line within sprinting distance.

“You have an extraordinarily suspicious amount of waiters,” Ranek’s voice sneered beneath his hood as he assumed his position, second in line.

“You could have stopped this anytime, Ranek. Don’t think I don’t know that.” I was speaking out of turn and Jabor swiveled an eyeball up to gauge Ranek’s reaction. His amused stance seemed only curious to her. It was maddening to me.

“Come now, Earth’s relations with Baggi have always been temperamental,” Ranek said through a smile I could hear even though I couldn’t see anything beneath the hood except glittering eyes, and they seemed to be glittering like a disco ball.

“How convenient,” I snapped. Swinging back to face Flurst, I contorted my face into a look of desperate humility. “Flurst, I humbly beg your forgiveness. Please do the rainbow thing. Do anything!”

Flurst looked away haughtily. “A personal apology.”

“Drummond!” I yelled, racing back to the fidgeting young man. I dragged him towards the dignitary line. “Apologize to Flurst.” I shoved Drummond around an oncoming tray-bearing Cyclops to his place in line. He grabbed a delicacy as he passed. He was probably a nervous eater.

“But…”

I narrowed my eyes. “Do it or enjoy your last meal!”

Drummond looked at the squirming morsel in his hand, popped it in his mouth, and winced as he muttered. “I believe an apology may be in order…”

The Baggi piled off their ship and hurried to the function room entrance. They were tiny creatures, reminiscent of a type of Earth mollusc but with a temperament as nasty as their smell. What had propelled them higher up the evolutionary chain was an almost symbiotic relationship with a tall reptilian creature that made up for all the Baggi lacked physically. These creatures strategically fanned out across the room, scowling and grunting, their Baggian masters perched high on their necks. Massive vortex-blasters were clutched in each reptile’s claws. Claws operated by not one tiny mind, but two—the perfect recipe for disaster.

The Dufoy of Baggi, their leader’s heir, was carried out of the vessel and down to Jabor at the head of the line.

Our waiters did an impressive job of circulating themselves. Too impressive. With military precision, they presented food to anyone who had a free hand, paw, proboscis or receptacle. Hardly surprising when waiters outnumbered guests ten to one. Their sudden rush from the room would have aroused suspicion. The choice was a show of hostility or hospitality. I just hoped I’d chosen the least dangerous.

Drummond munched nervously and mumbled beside me. Whatever he said worked as Flurst rose, glittering and showered the room with mock stars. Good show, Flurst. Keep the Baggi entertained and maybe they won’t notice our waiters. Poor Goosna inadvertently caused a further distraction as she bumped her way back down the corridor, squealing and scuttling in exactly the opposite direction to the one she intended.

I bowed to the Dufoy as he was carried past on a red cushion, looking for all the world like a shiny garlic-buttered escargot. Drummond muttered something about God being everywhere, causing Flurst to concentrate a burst of star showering on him. I looked sideways to check that Drummond was bowing correctly to the Dufoy.

I looked just in time to see Drummond plop the squirming Dufoy into his mouth. He winced, swallowed, and carried on mumbling to Flurst. “…not that being visible is a bad thing entirely…”

It was so sudden, and so incongruous to an attack, it took the Baggi by surprise. By the time they ordered their reptiles to arms, I had retrieved a weapon from under the table beside me and rammed it into Drummond’s stomach.

“Nobody move!” I yelled. Everyone moved. Trays flew up. Waiters dived under tables, scrambling for weapons. The Baggi grunted orders. Reptiles aimed vortex-blasters in every conceivable direction. Trays clattered to the floor. Food rained down. A thousand safety-locks clicked off. Finally, everyone froze. We had a Mexican stand-off of monumental proportions. All we needed was one Mexican’s toe or tentacle to slip, for the room to turn into an enormous meat grinder.

“What are you doing?” Drummond squealed, looking from me to the angry Baggi. Ranek sniggered and backed away.

“This is a hostage situation!” I screamed. “Everyone stay calm.”

The ever-faithful Jeremy began to erect himself into a stone wall in front of me.

“I’m on your side,” Drummond whined.

“That’s the problem,” I whispered. “Did you chew that last morsel?”

“No…you’re worried about eating habits? You just put Earth’s relations with the Baggi in serious jeopardy!”

“I think you had that covered when you swallowed their crown prince.”

“What?! They’re the little things?”

“If you want to avert all out war, you better get your fingers down your throat.”

“Jesus!” Drummond bent over, jabbing his fingers into his mouth, gagging hopelessly.

Flurst appeared, flames leaping from his head. “There he goes again! He should be taking MY name in vain!”

“Immortal Flurst, we’re having a little trouble,” I said through gritted teeth.

“Then you should pray to me.”

“I pray you would calm the Baggi and buy us a few minutes.”

Flurst lifted one eyebrow. “Will you send more missionaries?”

“Drummond has filled in the forms already.”

“Good, I do love a challenge.” Flurst floated above the Baggi and began some calm spiel about the evils of violence.

“Ranek, a moment of your time?” I called.

Ranek ambled over behind Jabor at a frustrating regal-pace.

“Why has Earth brought shame on us?” Jabor’s translator warbled.

“I’m sorry. The Baggi visit caught us off-guard.” I sent a hard stare to Ranek but gave up instantly. He was the hard-stare champion. “The reason Drummond swallowed the Dufoy isn’t important. The question is, what do we do now?” Drummond gagged and staggered in my grip.

“I suggest Verididia distance itself from Earth immediately. Declare our independence,” Ranek advised Jabor in that intense way 987 previous Jabors had found hard to resist.

“You must be delighted with the way things turned out,” I said. “If Earth is at war they won’t have time to worry about Verididia.”

Ranek’s eyes twinkled.

Drummond struggled and coughed. “Must hold Verididia. My report…Front line feasibility study!”

Front line? True agenda were materializing like uninvited guests at Notaki’s parties. I envied the food squirming away to find safe crevices. I rammed the heel of my hand between Drummond’s shoulder blades with all the force he Flurst-damned deserved. He looked stunned. I shrugged. “Trying to dislodge the Dufoy. Verididia wants independence or at least as much as it has enjoyed lately. Earth needs Verididia for its front line. The Baggi want the Dufoy back, a little bloodshed wouldn’t go astray either as far as they’re concerned. Drummond, think carefully how quickly this volatile situation developed and tell me what your feasibility study might show…if you live.”

“But…” Drummond looked up at Ranek’s piercing eyes and sighed. “Verididia is too unstable to support an effective front line offensive.”

“Excellent!” I nodded. “Now, say very loudly that you haven’t signed the requests for missionaries.”

Drummond screwed up his face. “What?”

“Do you trust me?”

Drummond studied me. “Do I have a choice?”

“No. Say it.”

“I have not authorized the missionary requests!”

“Louder!” I demanded.

“I have NOT authorized any missionary requests!” Drummond shouted.

I tossed my weapon to Ranek. “Kill him.”

Ranek caught the weapon and aimed. Drummond backed away, arms raised. He looked at me in disbelief, eyes pleading. Then his gaze switched to Ranek and absolute terror contorted his face. Ranek, ever-mindful of a good show and careful not to hurt the Dufoy, shot Drummond through the skull. The Baggi cheered as poor Drummond crumpled to the floor. Fragments of brain and bone merged with the flotsam scattered about the room. Ranek strode to Drummond’s corpse, tore open the stomach cavity with sharp claws and a great deal more ‘good show’ and rescued the Dufoy. He handed him back to his guardians with a flourish of blood-soaked claws while renouncing all of humanity. I sank to the floor behind my faithful wall and held my stomach, which had decided to mount a solo bid for escape.

In the silent aftermath, guests long departed, debris swept into heaps and stomachs contemplating equanimity, Drummond opened his eyes.

They stared at me incoherently for a moment. Then panic set in.

“You! You had me killed!”

“Yes.” I tried a reassuring smile. “Thanks to your sacrifice, the delicate status-quo of Verididia has been reinstated. All that remains is your feasibility study and the missionary requests.”

“You had me killed!” Drummond propped himself up on one elbow and looked about wildly as if contemplating making a dash for it. A rather late dash.

I nodded and spoke more slowly. “Yes. We’ve established that.”

“Is this Hell?”

“Oh lovely, so you expect to see me in Hell? Sorry, you’re still on Verididia. It’s not quite as bad…I think.”

“But Ranek shot me. I died.” Drummond felt his undamaged skull.

“It’s a miracle, isn’t it?” I winked.

Drummond frowned at me. “A miracle? Flurst?”

I nodded. “Good old Flurst.”

“But…I don’t even believe in Flurst!”

“Flurst isn’t one to let a little thing like disbelief or death come between him and fresh missionaries. He does love a challenge.”

“You’re crazy. You’re all crazy! Nothing makes sense on this Godforsaken planet!”

I gently pulled him upright and put my arm around his trembling shoulders. “I’m glad you’ve come to terms with that fact. You see, that, my friend, is the basis of all Verididian politics.”

— THE END —

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