It was a horrible night outside – driving rain lashed against the floor-to-ceiling window, and occasional lightning flashes lit up the sky. Cold winter nights like these are some of my favourites of the year – to observe, you understand, not to be caught outside in. To sit inside, with the heating turned up and a good book or game to play, is one of life’s great pleasures.
Tonight, I’d pulled my favourite armchair right up to the window to get the full effect, and brought along a hardback copy of local author Charles Hugo’s Oblivion Calling. I’d found both in the antiques shop/art gallery that took up the four floors below my top-floor flat.
From the window I could see along the well-lit street below, and to where it ended in the grand Plaza Victory. Another lightning flash illuminated some of the more distant taller structures of Nabucco, the gleaming skyscrapers of the financial district neatly framing the classical architecture of the royal palace, the Calderon.
As I looked back down at Oblivion Calling, I realised I had read the same line three times now. I gently closed the novel, and resigned to staring out at the view, at least for a while.
I don’t know how long I had been sitting like that, watching the cars glide down the street, and sympathising with the very occasional pedestrian unfortunate enough to have been caught out in the rain when I heard the comm going off behind me. Dumbly, I actually stared across the room at it in disbelief that someone would call this late, before crossing the room and acknowledging the transmission. ‘Private call, Major. Do you wish to accept?’ the device asked aloud. I paused for a second. ‘Go ahead, put it through.’
‘James, is that you? Are you there?’ I shouldn’t have been surprised after all.
‘Ambassador? What can I do for you?’
‘Oh, thank god. Look, I’m sorry it’s so late in the day, but can you come in?’
‘Of course, has something happened?’
‘Well… I’d prefer not to say over a channel, private or no. It’s an urgent matter, suffice to say.’
‘As you say, ambassador. I’ll be at the embassy shortly.’
‘Ah – no, I’m not at the embassy, I have returned to my residence for the night. (Haven’t we all, I thought.) I trust you know the address?’
‘145 Ocean Father?’ I heard a gasp from the other end of the line.
‘Yes, that’s it. I will see you soon?’
‘As soon as possible, sir.’
‘Very good, very good. Oh, and please take a taxi here.’
‘And please use the side entrance when you arrive. And please, hurry.’
‘Sir, are you in danger?’
‘Ah, no – not presently. As I say, I would prefer to discuss the, ahem, situation in person.’
‘As you say.’ I closed the channel and slid the comm into a side pocket before Ambassador Logan could add any more requirements to my terms of visitation.
Many alarm bells were ringing, that goes without saying. A discreet call well after ‘office hours’, the fact that whatever was happening couldn’t wait until morning, his evasive manner on the call itself… it all pointed to something unsavoury. I drew my pistol from my shoulder holster – enough close calls have taught me to keep it within arm’s reach at all times – and checked it. The charge was still bright green, indicating the highest level of power, though I was expecting as much. Aside from two sessions with the new model down at the training centre, I hadn’t had cause to use it, let alone in anger. Still, it’s good to check these things.
I also took the opportunity to change clothes into something closer to my usual work attire; in this instance, I pulled on a black jumper and dark fatigues with my trusty boots. For good measure, I also grabbed a longer-length raincoat, flipping the collar up.
As I headed for the door, I glanced in the mirror and noted I looked a lot like the lead from the ancient noir films Kevin liked to watch. I caught myself. That Kevin had liked to watch. That bit of news had been sudden, receiving a comm message from his widow, Eleanor, last week. The door locked itself behind me and I headed down the stairs, navigating the stacks of books and treasures on or near each stairwell. As far as anyone could tell, Kevin had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and been stabbed as his assailant fled the scene of a robbery. And this was in London, of all places. That his killer hadn’t been caught within two days made it into the international news. As far as I’ve heard, and it’s admittedly difficult to get same-day news on Empar, even though they’re a prospective associate of the Expansion, they still haven’t caught whoever it was.
I waited inside the front door until I saw a taxi coming, the bright light along its bonnet indicating it was unoccupied. When I did so, I sprinted through the storm towards it. With no one else unfortunate enough to be on the pavement, the taxi slid horizontally up onto it as I waved frantically in its direction. Seeking to be out of the rain as quickly as possible, I launched myself across the back seat of the taxi so hard I smacked into the door on the far side.
The door slid back into place and the driverless taxi’s AI invited me to state my destination, sliding back into the sparse traffic as I did so. I watched the gallery and street slide away behind us as the taxi picked its way across town. To my surprise, having never used this taxi company before, the AI engaged me in brief, though polite conversation, on a couple of attempts. ‘Terrible weather, isn’t it?’ and a couple of questions about Nabuccan Stars, the capital city’s favourite sports team featured, before curiosity got the better of me. ‘Forgive me,’ I began, ‘but I don’t believe I’ve ever had a taxi on this world engage me in conversation before.’
‘If you are uncomfortable, sir, I will continue the journey in silence until we reach your destination.’ I suddenly had horrific flashbacks to trips on shuttles and ships with certain senior officers. ‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘I’m just curious.’
Outside, we emerged onto the wide Ocean View boulevard, and I thought one of the lightning flashes illuminated the ambassador’s residence down below us, but the distance was too great to be certain. Either way, we had to be about halfway there. ‘This is an experimental program at present, the Oberland Taxi Company are working in conjunction with Nabucco State University to model a more accurate and responsive AI that can be used across various public institutions.’
‘I see – so you ask questions to get the best range of public opinion?’
‘Correct, questions about the weather on especially remarkable days, or sports on most days of the standard calendar, trigger a wide range of discourse.’
‘Perhaps with the natives. I take it you don’t get many conversations about football?’
‘Correct, archival evidence and conversations with passengers indicate it is only the twenty-third most popular sport currently played in the city, though it is known to be popular among the representatives of the Human Expansion based on Empar.’
‘Extremely popular, I would say.’ I had a sudden thought. ‘You mentioned this is an experiment being run by the local university, if I had some more questions about the program, who should I contact there?’
‘The project is presently being headed up by Professor Andrew Blakeham of the Advanced Robotics department, and Professor Cartmel Bowe of the Culture and Society department. Both are keen to receive feedback from the public on the program.’
‘Thank you, I’ll be sure to get in contact. Now, I believe we’re close?’
‘Indeed, at present speeds we will arrive at your destination in thirty-one seconds precisely.’
Thirty seconds later, the taxi again slid onto a deserted stretch of pavement. I thanked the AI driver and rounded the fee up to ten dinars. It wasn’t until I was back out in the oppressive weather that I realised I’d tipped a driverless taxi. I didn’t know whether to feel annoyed at myself or impressed that the AI here was clearly coming on leaps and bounds.
Even by the poor overall illumination, I could tell that the ambassador and I would need to have some serious words, if not have the Diplomatic Protection detail work over the whole place. I’d only been here once before, making a flying visit just after I’d arrived on Empar five months ago. On that occasion I’d at least had the courtesy of being greeted at the front door. This time, it took me a good twenty seconds to locate the ‘tradesman’s entrance’ the ambassador hoped for me to use.
I hammered against the heavy wooden door until it swung inwards, and I dashed inside without waiting for the invitation. To my surprise, as I wiped my eyes I saw I had been admitted by Ambassador Logan himself. He clearly wasn’t in the mood to wait.
‘Finally, you’re here.’ He gulped. ‘Come on, let’s go through to the study.’
‘Woah, hold on a moment.’ I paused to slide out of my raincoat, which afforded me a decent look at the ambassador. His usually immaculate silver hair was rumpled, and I could see his knuckles popped white around his wine glass. Distantly, I could hear the sound of classical music being played somewhere further back in the residence, much too loud. ‘Oh, don’t mind about the coat, bring it with you.’ He turned and moved off without waiting for a reply.
‘Ambassador, it’s soaking, it’ll wreck the carpet!’ I called after him. ‘Damn it,’ I muttered, and folded the coat over vertically, so that the sodden exterior was on the inside, and made to follow the ambassador. From the way he was moving, I didn’t think it was his first glass of wine either.
From the service corridor that lay behind the door I’d come through, we passed through a small kitchen, up a short flight of stairs into another undecorated corridor, and from there, finally, into the grand central staircase I remembered, with its ornate decoration and ancestral portraits. As I’d recalled, the study was on the top floor, affording several opportunities to admire the ostentatiousness of the residence.
The ambassador fumbled with the lock for a moment – it was opened with a heavy metal key rather than the normal keyless devices beloved by most in the Expansion – and we were finally in. Logan hadn’t so much as glanced backwards or said a word as we’d moved through his home, but now he crossed to a small bureau set against the wall. He reached into it and drew out a small, opaque jug. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ I said, but the ambassador didn’t react. I moved quickly across to join him, and gently pushed the jug back down before he could pour a top-up to his drink. ‘Ambassador, please.’
‘You – you don’t want a drink?’ He seemed a touch dazed.
‘No, thank you. I would like you to tell me what’s happened, and why it is so urgent.’ I smiled at him patiently, and kept my grip on his wrist.
‘There, James, on the desk. Read it.’ He breathed.
‘Very well,’ I replied, trying to remain patient. I let go of him and moved towards the desk, which was itself impressive for managing to dominate the room despite the study being larger than most offices. Indeed, it was vast enough that four people could have used it to work at without getting in one another’s way. Getting nearer, I sighed at the sight of reams of documents spilled out across the surface, from shipping manifests to delivery orders for an inordinate number of items. ‘Ambassador, you’re going to have to help me out here. What piece of this am I reading?’
He passed by me and went to his side of the desk, snatching up a single printed sheet, folded three times. ‘Here, read it.’
‘A letter?’ I asked as I unfolded it and turned towards the desk light.
‘Yes, read what it says.’
Dear Ambassador Hawking Logan,
It has come to our attention that you are a man of many talents. In addition to serving as your empire’s ambassador to our sovereign world, you also manage to act as something called a ‘senior advisor’ to the Expansion Resource Management Corp. and to the Expansion Investment Brokerage Group.
Indeed, so talented a man are you in advising these bodies, it appears you are as well-compensated as three such high-level roles would indicate, far better compensated than any of our political leaders would dare to aspire.
We are not an unreasonable group, Ambassador, but when you came to our world three years ago, you promised us openness and transparency. The records we possess indicate a culture of anything but. Is this the way politics is done in the Expansion? If so, we would be well advised to steer clear of you and yours. We offer you the right to respond to this letter, but be advised that it is our intention to publish the details of these arrangements, in full, on the morning of Honore 8, which your website tells us is April 24, by your calendar.
We eagerly await your response,
‘My, my.’ I folded the letter back up and placed it down on the table. I was aware that Logan’s eyes were boring a hole in the side of my head, but I took a moment to reflect, and to resist the urge to punch Logan.
‘Ambassador, what have you done?’
‘I… I… excuse me?’
‘Well, is it true?’ I replied flatly.
‘There are… elements of truth to the matter, certainly.’
‘And which elements would those be? The part where you’re earning a nice extra salary, sorry, two salaries, off the backs of the locals? The ones we’ve said we’re here to help, I’ll remind you.’
‘I don’t have to stand here and take that from you-’
‘No, you’re quite right, I apologise for my language, Mister Ambassador, so tell me why you wanted me here.’
‘I need this story to go away.’ He certainly seemed desperate, though contrite would have gone a lot further in the circumstances. I picked the letter back up and skimmed through it again.
‘Right, obviously I’ve heard of the Resource Management Corporation, that goes without saying, but who are the other group you work for, these investment brokers?’
‘They help facilitate high finance deals on worlds looking to join the Expansion, or on colony worlds just setting up governance.’
‘And what do you do for them?’
‘I set up meetings, I host their events, give speeches to their board – hell, that’s where I was a few weeks back, you remember when I was off-world for a few days?’
‘Yes, I remember…’ I replied hesitantly. ‘No, wait – you said you were taking your wife to see part of Wagner’s Ring?’
‘Well, I did both, I gave a speech in the afternoon to the firm’s leadership and we caught the opera in the evening before travelling back.’
‘Ultimately… this is not my sort of thing at all. You have Miles at the Embassy for PR, he’d be best placed to prepare a statement in response. It’ll have to be a bloody good one, mind.’
‘I’m not talking about a response, that isn’t why I sent for you.’ He spat. ‘I want you to make the problem go away.’
I didn’t like where this was going at all. ‘I’m the cultural liaison from the Expansion to these people, I’m not about to go and rough up some guy for having a bit of dirt on you.’
Logan smiled, but there was no warmth or humour there. ‘Ah, but you aren’t, are you?’
I took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘I mean, that might be your official job, but I know better. At least the last one was more up-front about why they were here.’
Shit. ‘I really don’t follow.’
‘Don’t you? That’s funny. To be honest, I knew as soon as you turned down living quarters in our district.’
‘You’re a spy – maybe you’re on my side, hell maybe the Presidium wanted you here to keep an eye on me, but that’s the point, isn’t it? None of us really knows you, spending all your time out there amongst them. I know there’s much more to you than that, I know, I know you’ve done some dark shit in the past. All I’m asking is that you don’t let all this come down around us.’
Now it was my turn to smile humourlessly. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ambassador. Good luck with the statement, and good evening.’ I turned towards the door and made as if I was about to go.
‘Wait, please. Just…’ The ambassador practically sprinted to get there ahead of me.
‘I’m not hurting this man.’ I said.
‘Well maybe you don’t need to!’ He sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as me. ‘Just, have another look at the letter, maybe?’
‘Alright, let’s go over this again.’ I moved and picked it up again, giving it a proper read this time.
‘I don’t suppose you’ve made a copy of this letter yet?’
‘No, this is the only one.’
‘Good, then don’t. This is the original?’
‘Yes, that’s how it came, and in an envelope.’
‘Show me.’ The ambassador pored over the documents on his desk for a moment, then handed me the envelope in question. It was torn along the top, and the embassy address was typed out, there was no stamp or postal service markings.
‘This, we can work with.’
I explained things to the ambassador as patiently as I could. I was still quite annoyed with the man after all. When I first read through the letter my fear was that it was a government type from the Empari side, or at the least some kind of political or terror group, hence the familiar tone and the use of ‘we’ – a traditional blackmailer would seem more detached from the situation. Hence, I found myself coming down on the side of it being a journalist or other interested party.
If it was, indeed, a local journalist then we needed to ask serious questions about what information we were allowing to disseminate. It’s true that we’ve tried to be open and honest with the Empari since our arrival but while the books of the Resource Management Corp. are public domain, they’re not the same as the ones we publish here, which only deal with the business as it is on Empar. To be more specific, I noticed from the documents that Logan had dug out himself to check the letter’s veracity that his name does not appear in the Empari records, only in the overall corporate one, for the organisation based on Earth that oversees mining and other resource governance projects across the Expansion. That likely meant that this Nagoya chap was getting passed information from someone out in the wider Expansion.
‘James, I don’t get the right of reply business.’ The ambassador interjected.
‘No, he hasn’t left a forwarding address or contact number. Do you know the name?’
‘Tell you what, if he’s a local, how about we just search his name?’ I don’t know how it took so long for the idea to come to me, if I’m honest, but it was really getting late. While I read over the letter again, the ambassador connected to the Empari communications exchange network.
‘He says they’re publishing in three days. (I checked my watch.) Scratch that, it’s past midnight. We have two days until they go public, and I’m willing to bet they won’t hang around for the evening press. Realistically, we need to find this guy today.’
‘Good news, I think I’ve found him. Jon Nagoya is the editor of a satirical news magazine in the city called Bead, there’s a few news articles on him meeting the queen, and a few more about Bead coming up to its centenary. Not bad!’
‘Yes, but it’s slightly easier to get a centenary when your years are only two hundred and thirty days long.’ I smiled, despite the situation. ‘Right, if he’s the editor then he might be protecting a writer, I’ll try to see him at the Bead offices first thing, but don’t be surprised if he isn’t willing to play ball with me, they’re probably used to it by now.’
‘Probably.’ The ambassador agreed glumly. ‘If that’s everything?’
‘I think so for now. Don’t let the envelope or the letter out of your sight. I’ll head home for a quick rest, then set out early. 11867 Rio Maratimo?’
‘That’s the address. I’ll show you out?’
‘Is there something you don’t want me to see?’
‘Hardly – my wife is hosting a social gathering for some of her friends from back home.’ I suppose that explained the classical music. ‘If anything, I’m trying to spare you from them.’
‘Such is the life of an ambassador, I suppose.’ I replied, then caught myself. ‘You realise if this does go to publish it could mean the end for you here? I’ll do what I can but brace yourself in case you need to leave in a hurry.’
Logan just nodded, then indicated the door. ‘Shall we?’
I awoke both before my alarm and before the dawn broke. I got up quickly, having a breakfast of egg and toast (both locally sourced, of course) and then dressing into my running gear. As I stood admiring the sunrise through my window, I realised just how similar to Earth this place was. The ornate decoration on structures like the royal palace could have come from a High Renaissance church in Italy, or the spires of the Calderon could have been plucked from the Old Kremlin – though the effect was lost slightly in not bringing the colour along too. The local markets would not be out of place in India or Marrakech, and the wide streets put me in mind of classic paintings of Berlin or New York.
This was not, however, the best time for contemplating architecture. Fortunately, the storm of the previous night had blown itself out, and aside from surface water, the conditions outside were just right for a morning run. It wouldn’t be a long one, but I could spare half an hour to covering six kilometres.
I have a route I like to take for these shorter runs: down to Plaza Victory, renamed after a bloody revolution eighty years previously, across two connecting roads up to the Mall, and from there to complete a lap of the Calderon - beyond its perimeter fencing of course, then back down the Mall towards the Institute Leogopolis and the rest of the military bodies. From there, I cut down towards the River Video for a go along the south bank, and from there back to the gallery and home.
Today, the run passed entirely without note, I nodded to the King’s men at the palace, and to the Empari military who’d had the same idea as me and were getting some early exercise in. Initially, I’d gone to great lengths to disguise that I was human when out on the streets, wearing baggy clothes and keeping my hood up, but quickly I’d become more open about it. Indeed, it was no secret that I was living above the old art gallery on the Bread Law road. I’d expected that I might one say get doorstopped by a journalist or even just a member of the public, but I suppose humans had been on Empar long enough now that we weren’t an attraction in our own right any more. Perhaps if I’d been here from the beginning, things would be different.
I was just unlocking the front door when I heard a voice call out behind me. ‘Mister Kreindeker!’
‘Georgi,’ I smiled, turning to face the Empari. ‘It’s rather early for you, isn’t it?’
Her face broke out into a wide, beaming grin. Georgizhi Torran was fairly typical of her species – round-faced, at six foot tall she was slightly shorter than me, but had a physique that would be considered quite impressive for a human, but was much closer to average on Empar. She had once told me that in her youth her hair had been a deep, burning crimson. In later life, however, it had settled down to a paler strawberry blonde, though to be honest it matched up well with her amber skin.
‘It is early, I admit. Took me long enough to get out of bed this morning. No, I have some new pieces for the gallery, I wanted to get them inside before opening up.’ She indicated her clapped-out car, pulled up half onto the kerb. Even from here, I could see the paper-wrapped pieces she was talking about, filling up every bit of space going.
‘Oh, let me give you a hand.’
She walked back to the car with me. ‘Careful, Major, they’re heavy,’ Georgi winked.
‘I’m sure I’ll manage,’ I smiled. I was aware time was against me, but I’m fond of the old woman and was happy to help. She also happened to be the most pleasant of the landowners I’ve had to deal with in my time.
Opening up the back panel of the car, I almost laughed. ‘Georgi, what’s all this? Where did you find it all?’
‘A friend of mine told me that the Davis Gallery was having to move some of its works on – not bringing in enough visitors, restoration projects, you know the sort of thing. So we headed down to their auction and bought as much as we could. Like these,’ she indicated the box of forearm-sized shapes she was about to pick up. ‘These are a collection of 28th Century Drakeist statues, utterly unique.’
‘I didn’t know your man Drake ever branched out into sculpture.’ I replied, grabbing another of the mysterious boxes and following Georgi into the gallery.
‘You’ve been reading the books I gave you, I see!’
‘Of course, it’s my job to understand your culture.’
‘Well, you’re not wrong. As far as we know, he only ever made these then returned to painting. Are you about this evening, at all?’
‘I’ll be honest, I don’t know yet. We’ve got a thing on at work, might occupy my time tonight. Any reason why?’
‘No, I was just hoping to show you all of this properly, but it can keep if you’re busy.’
‘I’ll let you know how we’re getting on. I’m choosing to remain optimistic.’ I replied with conviction I didn’t feel. As we deposited our first pair of boxes, I asked Georgi, ‘I suppose this is where you’ve been all week then? You didn’t go all the way to Davis in this thing, did you?’
‘We did, but there’s more than just works from there in here, we stopped off at a couple of antiques shops on the way back.’
‘You’ll never be a rich woman, Georgi.’
‘No, but I couldn’t just let all this end up in some private collection gathering dust, could I? I’m richer for having them, as our visitors will be for seeing them.’
‘You’re really quite philosophical on the quiet, aren’t you?’
We managed to get the rest of the works indoors swiftly, with Georgizhi trying to tell me more about them as we worked. I was sad to have to go so quickly, but I made my apologies and within ten minutes I’d showered and dressed, ready to pay a visit to Mister Nagoya and Bead.
Before going to bed the previous night, I’d copied what information both we and the local information network had on both to my comm, and as I sat in the back of another taxi, I read what there was. More than once I caught myself yawning. Nagoya, it seemed, had had a solid, if unspectacular journalistic career. He’d come out of university in Botfala with the highest level of qualification in Politics and Journalism, then worked his way up through the Night Standard, a national newspaper, and then just when he’d risen to become assistant editor, he’d abruptly cut all ties with the Standard and travelled halfway across Empar to found a satirical news magazine. Frankly, I didn’t get it, and it didn’t seem to have made enough of a splash to get much coverage at the time – the few organisations that bothered to interview Nagoya ahead of his move seemed to just accept his explanation that all he’d wanted was a change of scenery. Something clearly wasn’t right here.
It didn’t get much better looking at the news after he’d arrived, as less than six months after he’d moved to Nabucco, the ongoing energy crisis on Empar had stepped up several gears, looking like it would result in all-out war… which was the moment that the intelligence section had informed us it was ‘now or never’ for making contact with them. In the years since then, it seemed barely an edition of Bead had gone by without at least one article targeting us, be it when we took over an apparently much-loved public building to use as the Embassy, when the Resource Management companies moved in to start distributing fuel, when the Ambassador bought a four-floor seafront property to use as his personal residence (I sympathised on that point), every time we increased the number of planetside staff, hell there was even an article criticising my predecessor Rickie Wilbraham for spending too much of his time attending private receptions and functions rather than going out and actually experiencing any of the local culture. When I got to that point, I searched my own name, and was almost disappointed to hear I apparently hadn’t done anything worth an article of my own.