Chapter 1

Dispatch 598.584 Hemera, July 10, 2521 – EYES ONLY

Death’s Festival destroyed. Total loss including cargo and crew. Ship’s manifest being forwarded under priority security to gy’Bagrada. Request delicate handling. Imperative no filing of complaint with human commission. Direction required prior to renewal ceremony of Protocol 10 Rhadamanthus. Urgent.

***

Nick Severin’s heart raced as he stared at the screen. The short missive, accidentally picked up by the listening post on Hemera, whispered of impending trouble and sent a shiver of apprehension down his spine. Praying he’d misread the message, Nick reviewed it again, parsing the words carefully in the original Gunera rather than rereading the English translation.

“Not going to the big centennial celebration?”

Nick jumped, having thought he was the last man standing in the Trade Commission office that Friday evening. Realizing it was his pal Corey Boyers, Nick relaxed.

“Wasn’t planning on it.” Nick’s fingers tapped his desk as he pondered what to do about that damned message. “I have no desire to rub noses with the rich and powerful.”

Corey snorted his agreement with Nick’s assessment. “No, the political animal you are not. No-Nonsense Nick. Though I thought Secretary Huntzinger would insist on your presence since you’re his second-in-command.”

“Hmm.” Nick rubbed his chin, mind focused on the fate of the Death’s Festival, not the upcoming ceremony or his friend.

Corey frowned. “You okay?”

“Why would a standard cargo freighter have its shipping manifest forwarded to that miserable SOB?”

The muttering drew Corey to the side of Nick’s obsessively well-organized desk. “What SOB?”

“gy’Bagrada.” Nick scowled, mouth twisted as he spat out the name.

“What?”

Corey leaned in to peer at Nick’s computer screen, but Nick clicked the window closed before his friend could view the message. Nick counted Corey among his few friends. But Trade Commission business was delicate at the best of times. Corey, a freight forwarder, knew Nick was privy to information unavailable to others in the business community. Sometimes Nick wondered if the only reason wealthy, golden-haired Corey had befriended him was to use him to get a jump on the competition.

A frown puckered Corey’s brow. “Still getting messages from the section chief of the Guneri Secret Service?”

Nick rubbed his forehead to preempt an impending headache. “I’ve never stopped getting messages from the sick bastard. God, I hate the Gunera.”

“What’s he want?”

Nick retrieved a bottle of painkillers from a desk drawer. “I didn’t say he wanted anything.”

Corey straightened before folding his arms. Nick glanced up as he swallowed two caplets. For a brief instant, he thought he glimpsed an ugly grimace wash across Corey’s disgustingly handsome face, but if so, it flitted away too quickly, and Corey resumed the persona of an unflappable businessman.

Corey fingered his chin. “You need to be careful around gy’Bagrada. The last time my company did business with him, it turned out he was moving surface-to-space missile launchers. Damned near got half my executive team arrested.”

Nick didn’t bother to remind Corey he personally knew more about gy’Bagrada than any other human alive.

“You guys overreacted if you ask me,” Corey grumbled.

I didn’t ask you. Nick caught himself before blurting the retort. Don’t be rude to your friends. You’ve too few as it is.

Still, he felt he needed to defend the Commission.

“It was one hell of a violation, Corey. Not only was the gy’ thumbing his nose to the Balance Protocols, but he was also waving a red flag in the face of the Amaurau. That stunt almost started a war.”

 “Yeah. Yeah,” Corey replied. He’d heard it all before.

“We dropped the charges,” Nick reminded.

“Yeah. Yeah.” Corey gestured the comment away with a wave. “What brought up gy’Bagrada’s name on this fine festival day?”

Nick jerked at the choice of the word festival. Was instantly suspicious but rebuked himself. Corey couldn’t possibly know about the Death’s Festival. At the moment, knowledge of the lost Guneri vessel was limited to him and the security team on Hemera.

You’re seeing ghosts where there aren’t any, Nick thought.

“The listening post on Hemera picked up a message containing gy’Bagrada’s name.” Nick began closing down his computer. The day was done, and it was time to go home. “I don’t get it. The Gunera didn’t bother to encode the transmission. Hemera couldn’t read it, but I can.”

“Sure. One of the advantages to being the only human who can read Gunera.”

Nick shot Corey a hard look, seeking the censure, but Corey kept his Nordic face bland. “One of three,” Nick said, hating the defensive tone of his voice. He shook his head. “I don’t understand why it wasn’t encoded.”

Corey shrugged. “Maybe the Gunera have figured out we’ve broken their codes.” It was his turn to shoot Nick a hard look. “They’ve got to know you were put here on Rhadamanthus to spy on them.”

“True.”

Corey tilted his head to the left. “So what’s bothering you?”

“The Gunera lost a ship, Corey.”

“What do you mean lost? How do you lose a ship?”

“Reading between the lines, I think the Amaurau took it out.” Nick spread his hands. “Why haven’t they filed a complaint? Especially now, on the eve of the biggest Protocol renewal of the century? Trotting out Amaurau duplicity in front of the whole damned nebula is just the sort of bombastic propaganda I would expect from the Gunera, especially gy’Bagrada. There should be a half dozen filings hitting my desk: demands for restitution, blood to be boiled, an Amaurau or two hung from the rafters of city hall. Lord, that man loves twisting my balls.”

A puzzled look stretched across Corey’s face.

“It’s like this,” Nick explained. “Since the Gunera and Amaurau can never meet in person, the Trade Commission would handle the complaint. Which means me, the gy’s damned errand boy. I’d bear the responsibility of tramping to the western edge of the nebula, having an unpleasant conversation with the Amaurau, and demanding concessions.”

Corey grinned. “Okay, so why not simply be happy they haven’t filed a complaint?”

Nick wanted to be happy. English didn’t possess words to describe how much he longed for this. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an emotion known to members of the Severin family, especially its last surviving member.

“So what’s the plan for tonight, buddy?” Corey asked. His brilliant blue eyes swept the vast, empty cube farm just outside Nick’s office. Everyone else had departed hours ago. “Sandy has to make an appearance at the party, but Jordan and I were going to McGuffy’s to watch the game. Care to join us?”

A chime sounded on Nick’s computer announcing an incoming video request. With a grunt of annoyance, he hit accept, and Les Johnson’s pallid, balding head appeared in the viewscreen, bobbing like a fishing float. “Secretary Huntzinger wishes to see you, sir. In the residences, not his office.”

 Nick rolled his eyes. Duncan Huntzinger’s office was next door. It had been empty all day.

“On my way.” Nick abruptly closed the message and turned to his friend. “So much for your offer, Corey. Duty calls.”

Corey scowled. “C’mon, No-Nonsense. Live a little. Come to McGuffy’s. Deal with His Highness later.”

Nick shuddered. What a choice. Hang out at a bar with a bunch of sports fanatics following a game he didn’t understand or take word of the Death’s Festival to his boss. Neither was particularly palatable. Nick longed to flee to his apartment and hide like he did every weekend.

“You once asked me to remind you when you start going Gunera on me,” Corey noted matter-of-factly. “Putting business before a little fun is going Gunera. You need to mingle more. Learn a few social skills, buddy. Hell, get drunk and, dare I say, get laid for once.” Corey placed his hands on Nick’s shoulders and rocked him in his chair. “You could use it.”

Nick sighed. Sex. Why was it so damned important to Corey? Why did both Corey and Duncan Huntzinger think that if he developed a sex life, Nick would suddenly become a “normal” human being? Nick was self-aware enough to realize there was nothing normal about him. Never would be.

“I’ve got to speak with Duncan first. I’ll stop by afterward.” Nick raised his hands. “I promise!”

Corey issued a disparaging look. “I’m holding you to it, Nick. I’ll save a barstool for you.”

“Thanks,” Nick said half-heartedly.

Convinced that he’d given it his best shot, and with a carefree hop to his step, Corey headed for the standard Wednesday night revelry at McGuffy’s.

Nick finished closing down his computer and its disturbing message. A glance out his window revealed the sun setting behind towering black thunderheads that cast great shadows across the jungles of Rhadamanthus, humanity’s regional capital for the western lobe of the Fortuna Nebula.

A series of lights glimmered against the thunderheads as another ship made the curve through the atmosphere and headed toward the city. They’d been arriving like clockwork for the past two days. Protocols were renewed on a staggered five-year schedule, the Gunera on the zero year, the Amaurau on the five. Being Gunera 10, the centennial was a major event. Nick was aware that the Presidents of Hemera and Erebos had already jetted in with their ubiquitous staff and that the Secretary of State had been dragged all the way from Earth, the poor fellow. Then there were the movie stars and opera singers and those who were known for being known. The whole affair had become a circus long before the Guneri representatives arrived. Nick was relieved to fret about cargo manifests and to have no dealings with that overwhelming display of pomp and circumstance.

Nick emptied what remained of his Earl Gray into the ficus next to his desk and wiped out the teacup while considering what to do. He needed to make Duncan aware of the message, but he questioned whether now—a handful of hours before the ceremony—was the best time to dump it onto the secretary’s lap.

Tucking his keys in a trouser pocket, Nick closed his office door and exited the Geiger Center for International Trade and Economic Development. The July evening air bore a heavy threat of rain. Having lived his entire life in conditions far worse, Nick barely broke a sweat as he strode through the dense, beautifully landscaped jungles of the trade complex. Plants couldn’t help but thrive on tropical Rhadamanthus. The temperature never dropped below 30 degrees Celsius, and it rained almost every day. The engineers who’d terraformed Rhadamanthus designed the minor planet as a safe haven for the endangered plants of Earth’s disappearing tropical islands. Nick passed stands of lovely red hibiscus, a swath of ti grass threatening to overtake a walkway, and a grouping of highly endangered abutilon that appeared to be quite happy a billion miles from home as they lounged against the air conditioner of the patent office.

Great drops of rain began to fall, plopping like water balloons on the concrete walk, but Nick didn’t increase his pace. He liked walking in the rain. A man born and raised in a tropical hothouse more prison than home, he relished the simple act of getting soaked in a downpour. Without a care, he stripped to the waist and turned his face upward, allowing the rain to run off his unfashionably long (by Rhadamanthus standards) dark hair. For a brief second, Nick considered stripping off his remaining clothes, but the startled glimpse from a woman racing past was a grim reminder that he was among humans now. Humans didn’t walk naked through the streets. He slipped his shirt back on and continued along.

Upon arriving at the residences, Nick was buzzed through the security station without question. The officer grinned at his soaked appearance but said nothing. There wasn’t a single person working for the Trade Commission who didn’t consider Nick a strange bird. Arriving rain-soaked to a visit with the International Trade Secretary on Independence Day was simply one more oddity for which Nick was so well known.

Duncan Huntzinger’s extensive suite consumed the entire third floor of the long, low building while Nick occupied smaller digs on the first floor. Trotting up the stairs two at a time, he quickly arrived at his supervisor’s front door. Nick pressed the doorbell and heard footsteps approach.

Cardaman, Duncan’s valet, ushered Nick inside. The aging gentleman silently twitched his lips at the sight of Nick’s rain-soaked appearance. He gestured toward the back of the suite to Duncan’s bedroom.

Fully expecting to find his boss readying for the ceremony, Nick was surprised to find Duncan sitting in bed with a tray atop his lap, prematurely gray hair in a tumble around both shoulders.

Nick spun, expecting to see Cardaman behind him in readiness to prepare his master for the ceremony, but Cardaman had disappeared. Momentarily forgetting about the Death’s Festival message, Nick anxiously approached the bed and studied his boss with concern.

“Duncan, what’s going on? The ceremony starts in an hour.”

Duncan Huntzinger cast aside the tray with a look of distaste. “I’m not going.”

“What?” Nick looked desperately for Cardaman. He’d seen the venerable fellow order Duncan around in a way Nick could not. “You must, Duncan. It’s not only a renewal, it’s Protocol 10!”

“I’m quite aware of the number, Nico. The centennial.”

“It might not mean a thing to you,” Nick replied, trying not to rile his superior, “but it certainly means a lot to everyone else. For God’s sake, Duncan, they dragged the Secretary of State all the way from Earth!”

“Yes! Yes! His lordship informed me that he’d arrived two days ago.” Duncan sipped his tea and frowned. “I’m sick, Nico.” Sensing Nick’s confusion, Duncan elaborated. “As in throwing up anything that starts to go down. As in, no way in hell capable of handling not only all the mandatory schmoozing but the requisite eating as well. Dear God!” He held his hand to his stomach and belched. “Nope. Not happening.”

Nick stood with his mouth agape and fumbled for an appropriate response. He wanted to drag Duncan from his bed and force him to dress, but a decade of etiquette lessons had taught him it simply wouldn’t fly. His inability to react appropriately left Nick staring blankly at Duncan, hoping the man would throw him a lifeline. Tonight, however, Duncan wasn’t in the mood to play the role of Nick’s father as he’d so often done. He lay limply against his pillows watching as Nick dissolved into panic. There was, Nick realized, no empathy on his mentor’s face. None of the usual bending of human social norms to ease the way for him. Vaguely, Nick heard the door of the suite open and close but was too gobsmacked to notice who had arrived. He heard, oddly, no announcement from Cardaman.

“Duncan … sir …” Nick stumbled to a halt, seeking the proper words rather than the ones he wanted to express. “Don’t you think the Secretary of State, not to mention the Guneri ambassador, will be offended if you fail to make an appearance?”

Duncan discarded Nick’s concern aside with a flick of his wrist. “Not at all, Nico. Because you’re going in my place.”

“Wait … what?”

Duncan gestured. “Someone from the Trade Commission has to be there, as you so helpfully pointed out. As I am presently indisposed, you’ll have to do it.”

Nick glared at Duncan, studying what he thought resembled a relatively healthy complexion. His mouth opened to spout a string of invectives, but he snapped it shut, aware that whenever he lost emotional control, the human on the receiving end had a problem with his honesty. Duncan was no exception. Nick clenched his fingers in an effort to keep them from dragging Duncan to his feet. Yet another annoying taboo he’d learned from Duncan. Humans generally avoided physical contact except in prescribed situations. Unfortunately, rattling a sick man to health wasn’t one of those situations.

Dammit! Nick thought.

A rustle announced the soft-footed Cardaman as he entered with a pile of clothing across his outstretched arms. Nick’s heart sank upon recognizing the attire. Full ambassadorial equipage, right down to the highly polished shoes. His own.

“Duncan! You know how I feel about talking to the Gunera.”

The secretary brushed the words aside like he did anything not to his liking. “You don’t have to talk to them. Well, of course you’ll have to say hello and all that sort of diplomatic stuff. But you need not hold conversations with them. PDS. Be polite. Be diplomatic. Be silent. It’s always worked for me.”

Cardaman was already untying the cord from Nick’s sopping hair. He tossed it distastefully aside. Before Nick could further complain, the efficient old fellow had whipped out a towel and was vigorously scrubbing the dark locks dry. A scuffle ensued when the valet ruthlessly relieved Nick of his shirt and began to towel off his torso.

“Give me that!” Nick growled, wresting the towel from Cardaman’s hands and grudgingly drying his upper body. “Duncan, there’s something we need to discuss …”

Cardaman extended a hand. “Your trousers, sir.” He glared distastefully at the wet fabric clinging to Nick’s legs.

Nick turned desperate eyes to his superior. “Seriously, Duncan, I can dress myself.”

“Give it up, son,” Duncan chuckled. “I fought that war and lost. Cardaman takes his job as the Keeper of the Torch of Propriety quite seriously. Let him dress you. We need to talk.”

“Yes, we do. I really need …” Nick stopped in midsentence as Cardaman jerked Nick’s pants free of his left foot, nearly knocking both men to the carpet. With a sigh of submission, Nick relinquished his care to the capable hands of Cardaman, suffering what he considered the humiliating experience of being dressed by one of the finest valets to ever graduate from the Cambridge School of Butlery.

Duncan watched with amusement as his protégé was transformed, layer by layer, from an awkward young man into the epitome of a diplomat. Nick couldn’t tell if the amusement was the result of his sartorial transformation or because each new item he donned meant Duncan was that much further from having to attend the ceremony. Loose black trousers, no belt or other sort of metal fitting, preceded a tight-fitting black sweater. The tailored jacket, a single-breasted garment, unadorned without pockets or buttons and knee length (as dictated by both Gunera Protocol 1 and Amaurau Protocol 3), followed. Lord, how just the length of the coat had been a source of conflict between the two alien species for nearly 30 years, Nick thought, as Cardaman worked his way through the carefully dictated elements of a human diplomat’s wardrobe.

Shoes flat and unadorned, the polish being the only item humans had inserted into the Protocols and only because it was, miraculously, the one matter over which neither the Gunera nor the Amaurau held an opinion. No jewelry allowed, not even a watch. Finally, the hair. Another source of infighting that had lasted almost 50 years. Couldn’t be short because that would indicate a bias toward the Gunera. Couldn’t be long because that would tip the scales toward the Amaurau. Shoulder length exactly, and always, without fail, tied in a queue. The queue denoted neutrality because neither the Gunera nor the Amaurau wore their own headdress in such fashion. Finally, the bow. A pert, black, taffeta construct. The ultimate indication of the human diplomat and the sort of regalia that made finding dates impossible. Not that I could land a woman regardless of my attire, Nick reminded himself.

Cardaman fussed with the length of Nick’s sleeves, tugging them up so that they wouldn’t hang over his hands and violate Protocol; specifically, Gunera 4 and Amaurau 7.

“Don’t bother, Cardaman,” Duncan stated as the ridiculous ritual continued. “His sleeves are deliberately too long.”

The statement startled the ordinarily unflappable valet, and Cardaman fidgeted the sleeves upward yet again until the black tattoos on the back of each of Nick’s wrists appeared. For a moment, Cardaman stared at the symbols. Embarrassed, he quickly shoved Nick’s sleeves over the tattoos.

“My apologies, sir,” the valet murmured. “I forgot you prefer to hide them.”

“No need.” Nick offered a weak smile.

“We could have them removed,” Duncan commented, while watching Cardaman delint a spotlessly black Nick from head to foot.

Nick self-consciously rubbed one hand against the other. “It wouldn’t do any good. I’ve got implants below the skin that can’t be removed.”

“I would think a good surgeon back on Earth could handle the job.”

“Not without destroying the use of my hands.” Nick’s bitterness was palpable. “They’re embedded into my radial nerve and can’t be removed without damaging the nerve. That’s the point. The only way to get rid of them is to chop off my hands.”

“Bloody savages,” Duncan muttered.

“Savages you’re forcing me to court tonight.” Nick let the dig fly before he could snatch it back.

“Yes, well, about that …” Nick eyed Duncan speculatively as the old man stumbled over his words. The single most important diplomat in the known universe had never, as far as Nick could recall, been at a loss for words. And yet tonight, in the company of a friend and coworker, he was practically speechless. What the hell was going on?

“I wasn’t expected to make any sort of speech,” Duncan stated. “If I had, I wouldn’t be putting you in this position on such short notice. Wouldn’t have been fair. The Secretary of State and the Presidents are handling the speeches. You simply need to show up and be polite. Smile a lot, not that the Gunera care, and keep conversations to a minimum.” He lifted a finger. “Remember, you’re wearing the uniform of the Trade Commission, and as such, you’ll be viewed as the official in charge of the Protocols. Don’t utter a single yes or no that doesn’t apply to food and drink. And when it comes to drink, the answer is always no.”

Nick nodded somberly, staring down at his black clothing. Even the color had been written into Gunera 1 and Amaurau 2 after a boatload of protests and posturing.

“Yes, sir.”

“No! None of that! You aren’t listening. Your best answer to any question is I’ll answer that after I’ve conferred with the office.”

Nick knew the job’s requirements. He’d been with the Trade Commission for almost eight years, five of them on the front lines on Rhadamanthus. He knew what he was doing. While he might be completely inept when it came to human interaction, Nick was a genius with alien encounters, especially the Gunera. “Can I answer if they ask about my father?” he asked bitterly.

 Duncan had the grace to flush at the blunt question. Nick’s father had died before Nick was born. “I would recommend something like his legacy is held in much regard, or words to that effect.”

Nick cringed. He could expect nothing else from Duncan. The man had been holding the uncivilized universe together for almost 20 years. The need to deflect any question had been hammered so deeply into him that he sometimes couldn’t answer yes or no when asked if he wanted cream in his coffee. Nick found the art of deflection more difficult, but he was learning. He had the master as his coach.

“You’ll do fine,” Duncan stated, noticing Nick’s face pale. “Be polite. Be vague. Be a shadow in the back of the room.”

Nick sighed.

Duncan circled his finger in the air. “Turn around. Come here.”

Nick stood beside the bed while Duncan smoothed the collarless jacket (Gunera 3 and Amaurau 4) then issued one last look.

Nick shifted uncomfortably. “Sir, there’s something I think you should know. Hemera intercepted a message out of Gunera. It seems that a merchant ship, the Death’s Festival, was destroyed yesterday.”

Duncan’s face didn’t move. “Amaurau?”

“Unknown, but that’s my impression. The ship’s owner specifically asked that the incident not be reported to the Trade Commission. I thought that very odd.”

Duncan’s face remained unreadable. His fingers tapped the coverlet. “Odd during ordinary times but not, perhaps, on the centennial of the Protocols. Maybe someone’s being sensitive about discussing ugliness during tonight’s ceremony.”

Nick gazed at his boss reproachfully. “When have you ever known the Gunera to be sensitive about anything?” When Duncan failed to reply, Nick continued. “I don’t know what the ship was carrying, but its manifest was forwarded to gy’Bagrada on the QT.”

Now he had the secretary’s attention. “Really? That’s very interesting. What else?”

“The end of the message stated, Direction required prior to renewal ceremony of Protocol 10 Rhadamanthus. Urgent.

The secretary was silent.

“Sir, what do you think it means?”

Duncan’s head jerked in Nick’s direction. “What do you think it means?”

“I think the Gunera are up to something. I’m worried they’ll take action during tonight’s ceremony.”

“They wouldn’t try anything on such an important night! Hell, security will be up the yin yang with no weapons allowed for a million miles of the place. You’ve seen the details. We’ve got at least ten warbirds over our heads. And there’ll only be 20 Gunera at the ceremony. What could they possibly do?”

Nick shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m just worried. I’d be much happier if you were there.”

Duncan issued a gentle slap on Nick’s shoulder. “You’ll do just fine, Nico. There’s no one in the universe better versed on the Gunera than you. Just keep to the shadows, stay out of whatever happens, and report back what you see and hear. Try to have fun.”

Fun, Nick thought morosely as Cardaman ushered him out of the apartment. Fun. I’d rather undergo a root canal.

Unfortunately, there was no avoiding the inevitable. Nick knew that someone needed to be present to represent the Trade Commission and, like it or not, he was that someone. Annoyed at his misfortune but resolute in his duty, Nick squared his shoulders purposefully and set off for the capitol complex. He had a job to do, and if there was one thing at which Nick excelled, it was getting the job done. Fortunately, the storm had blown through, and a brilliant sunset splashed across the heavens as a wondrous prelude to night.

The Capitol Building, constructed in the style of the ancient Roman Pantheon, possessed a dome so large that without its three separate climate control zones, it could have generated rain. The building was lit up like a rocket, spotlights playing across every balcony, cornice, and portico. Glancing skyward, Nick noticed a hovercraft which, he deduced, probably harbored a sniper or two. Security, as Duncan had indicated, was tight.

As he entered the Rose Room, Nick surveyed the territory to locate the shadowy corner where Duncan promised he could hide. The room, however, was not designed for hiding in corners. It was lit by a series of 50 crystal chandeliers while glittering sconces marched down the walls. Long tables filled the space with glowing candelabras at intervals along their length. The flicker of candlelight danced on the glassware, silverware, and gold chargers that made up the place settings for the evening meal. At the far end of the room stood a dais where a chamber orchestra played a medley of Strauss waltzes. The room’s acoustics were magnificent and the sound of the “Blue Danube” washed over the quiet hum of pre-party conversation.

Twin bars stood on opposite sides of the room. Most of the guests hovered around them, guzzling wine and champagne. Nick counted three senators, five department heads, the current Poet Laureate, and President Tanaka of Erebos, all gathered in the midst of corporate interests currying favor. He had no interest in talking with any of them.

A hand grabbed Nick’s right arm. It belonged to Jennifer De Walt, the President of Rhadamanthus. She was a lovely lady of African descent who had the softest, sweetest demeanor in public but who could, behind closed doors, cut the throats of her political rivals.

“Dear Mr. Severin,” she greeted. “I’m so glad you were able to fill in for Mr. Huntzinger. I hope his illness isn’t serious.”

“Not in the least.” Nick fought to mask his annoyance. He doubted Duncan was sick at all.

“Good! Good!” She continued to smile, although Nick was sure De Walt’s mind was in a thousand other places rather than worrying about one silly diplomat, even if that one diplomat was the wingnut holding the universe together. “I truly hate to throw business at you so quickly, but the Guneri ambassador is insisting he speak with you. He became quite excited when he heard you were taking Mr. Huntzinger’s place.”

Nick felt his stomach cramp, and he wished he was legitimately ill. Nausea would be preferable to a private conversation with the Guneri ambassador. De Walt hauled him across the room toward the Guneri contingent and dropped Nick off with a quick introduction. Her smile indicated she was grateful that Nick bore the nasty task of keeping the celebrated guests happy.

Nick knew the Guneri ambassador gy’Gravinda. The Guneri lord was the epitome of his species, a smallish creature about two-thirds the height of the average human but bulkier. gy’Gravinda’s three stubby legs worked, although he, like most Gunera, refused to use them. Instead, he moved via a personal hover-sled that enabled him to stand at eye level with his human allies. The lack of exercise assured that most Gunera were fat, and gy’Gravinda was no exception. He bulged out of his flamboyant court coat of blue, yellow, and red that looked like a bit of tattered quilting. The lord flaunted his power by the wealth of chartreuse lace that spilled from his wrists and ran down the front seam to his waist. Not that he has a waist, Nick thought. He didn’t have a neck either. Guneri heads sat as a blob atop their shoulders. The gy’s eyes were reptilian green, his mouth narrow with its disconcerting long, black tongue. Like most of his species, gy’Gravinda enjoyed flicking it at people, well aware that humans loathed the gesture. The final insult to human sensibilities was the gently fanning wings of air gills that protruded from his neck. These were in constant motion to absorb oxygen from the air. On that sultry night, the ambassadors were sweeping to and fro. gy’Gravinda’s tail, a sinuous thing, was in constant motion as well, the barb on its end menacing.

From long experience traveling in the human sphere, gy’Gravinda was an expert on humans and the injuries a Gunera could inflict on them. The moment Nick arrived, gy’Gravinda lashed his tail gleefully, causing Nick to take a calculated step back, although he refused to show fear. The ambassador waved a thick, four-fingered hand encrusted with jewels as he belched a welcome. The grunt was as close as any Gunera got to laughing.

“What a pleasure to see you again, eh’Nicodemus!” he stated in Gunera, knowing full well no one outside of his entourage would understand. He was, therefore, free to be as obnoxious as he chose to the young human imprisoned by his uniform. “You look quite … voiceless … in all your somber black.”

“Impartial, not voiceless,” Nick returned, also in Gunera, struggling to keep his voice from revealing the anger that lanced through him at gy’Gravinda’s provocative opener.

The Guneri lord drove his mover in a circle around his human prey, enjoying the fact that he could be as outrageous as he chose since Nick was constrained by his Protocols. “I must say I was delighted to learn that you’d been raised to the position of Messenger for the night. I so wanted to see how you’ve been progressing.” The reptilian eyes shot up and down Nick’s taller form. “Thickened up a bit,” he commented rudely. “Put on that muscle male humans do when they’ve reached sexual maturity, yes?”

The Guneri habit of calling the Secretary of International Trade a messenger was a long and arrogant one, something Nick had expected. The crack at his masculinity was less easy to brush aside. “I’ve aged, gy’,” he said. “As have you.”

gy’Gravinda twitched his air gills, another mark of humor. “Well, well, this is a joyous night. A night for celebration, yes? Human Independence Day, some call it.” He leaned close and pretended to whisper while Nick tried not to flinch in the close proximity of that damned tail barb. “I have another name for it, you know, eh.’ I call it the day we Gunera bought humanity wholesale as our slaves rather than waste blood and money trying to take you the hard way. Good, eh?” His body shook as he gave three belches of fine humor.

“I have my own name for the day, gy’.” Nick did not elaborate.

Nick sensed a disturbance among the Gunera. His eyes narrowed as he studied them. Like gy’Gravinda, the Gunera wore ostentatious clothes and fine jewels, though none quite up to the level of their ambassador’s. They were all nobles of one sort or another. A gy’ didn’t travel with anyone lower than a vuh’ and ordinarily wouldn’t even deign to speak to an eh’. gy’Gravinda had always made an exception when the opportunity to torment eh’Nicodemus was in the offing. Before Nick could decide what had disrupted the group, the touch of a Guneri tail shocked him by tracing down his cheek before it wrapped around his neck.

Moving cautiously, Nick turned and found gy’Bagrada standing in a hover-b beside him. For a blinding second, Nick’s vision whited out, and he lacked the words to respond to the blatant physical assault. His terror of the lord was so hardwired within him it froze his cortex, and he couldn’t move. For one beat, his breathing stopped. Then the sounds of the orchestra broke through his panic and his eyes refocused on the hideous countenance of gy’Bagrada, the butcher of Lethe’s Gate. We’re in the heart of the capitol, surrounded by thousands of human security, Nick reminded himself. Nick had only to yell, and men would come running to secure the safety of one of the most important diplomats of the night.

gy’Gravinda was tickled by not only Nick’s complete discomfiture but also by the outrageous assault his chief of security had dared to make on so high status a human.

“eh’Nicodemus, I believe you’ve met gy’Bagrada, yes?”

gy’Bagrada’s hold upon Nick’s throat continued. The tail barb stroked his victim’s lips.

“Indeed, we’ve met,” gy’Bagrada murmured, his emerald eyes probing Nick’s. gy’Bagrada relished this entrapment of his nemesis. “Alas, we were never able to consummate our friendship. Events slipped away from us, did they not, eh’?”

Nick carefully raised his hands to unwind the tail from his neck. The initial shock having run its course, Nick was furious. Although he knew not a single human in the room understood what gy’Bagrada had just implied, the Gunera knew. He knew. The gy’ was sexually obsessed with humans and got his kicks out of tormenting them. The tail assault had been an ownership statement, declaring Nick his sexual property. Even though no one in the group believed such a relationship existed, the fact that gy’Bagrada had been downright vulgar in a public gathering went beyond the pale.

gy’Bagrada allowed the human to free himself, slyly awaiting Nick’s response.

“Human sexuality isn’t like Guneri,” Nick stated, refusing to allow his composure to break a second time. “The open display of sexual prowess shows a lack of it by he who displays it.”

The barb sank deeper than gy’Bagrada’s. Air gills fluttered as the group howled at the human’s rebuke. Even gy’Gravinda couldn’t help but laugh at his comrade’s humiliation. gy’Bagrada’s eyes flashed, and his gills stiffened with rage. Nick saw gy’Bagrada’s hand clench and the barb move into thrust position, aimed for Nick’s face. The other Gunera inched away. Not even gy’Gravinda would challenge his powerful compatriot. Although Nick knew he was in imminent danger from the vile gy’, he nevertheless stood his ground. He’d run too many times from Guneri punishments and was through running. These creatures couldn’t harm him anymore.

In a frozen tableau, the two aliens glared at one other, each demanding the other concede; gy’Bagrada knew he could strike his opponent before human security could save him. Nick knew his nemesis would pay dearly after the fact. The remainder of the Gunera stood in a circle, none daring to intervene as the stalemate grew uncomfortable. gy’Bagrada moved first. He lashed with his barb and grazed Nick’s cheek, drawing a faint line of blood, but it had been a calculated miss. Nick hadn’t flinched, hadn’t moved. Even after the barb withdrew and a trickle of blood started down his cheek, Nick didn’t lose his focus or brush the blood away.

gy’Bagrada grunted his reluctant approval. “You’re growing up, eh.”

“While you, sir, are still an ass.”

gy’Gravinda chuckled. “Stand at ease, eh’Nicodemus. There’ll be no more bloodshed tonight.” Nick darted a look at the security officer, who glared back but said nothing. The ambassador patted Nick on the arm. “You have indeed grown into a mature man, haven’t you? I, for one, will continue to enjoy watching as you come into your own.”

“As will I,” murmured gy’Bagrada.

As Nick sought some escape, a waiter carrying a tray bore down on the group. The woman offered him a selection of miniature quiches. Nick, stomach still roiling from the encounter with the Gunera, declined. The woman upended the tray to reveal the underside where a knife had been fastened. Nick tried to grasp the incongruity. The woman secured the weapon and lunged for gy’Gravinda, thrusting the blade at the ambassador’s chest. Nick, envisioning a century of peace talks exploding in a sea of yellow Guneri blood, threw himself at the would-be assassin just as she reached ambassador gy’Gravinda. The three collided and fell to the ground. The woman continued her assault, slashing blindly. The blade slashed into Nick’s left arm. He growled in pain as he clawed for the knife. The room erupted in chaos as the innocent ran to escape the mayhem, and security rushed forward to stop it.

Nick managed to roll the executioner away from gy’Gravinda only to be locked in a struggle for the knife. The next few moments were a blur. The knife was wrenched away, and the woman was struck in the face. She screamed, and her hands leaped to the bloom of blood sprouting from what remained of her left eye. gy’Bagrada’s barbed tail slammed her a second time, extracting her right eye. The woman’s movement ceased. Her blood-soaked hands pressed to her face as a security team arrived. Before anyone could assist Nick, the lithe Guneri tail encircled his chest and pulled him out of the fray. Nick found himself clutched in the tail and arms of gy’Bagrada.

“You’re wounded,” the gy’ purred, his left hand tugging the sleeve of Nick’s jacket to reveal the forearm injury.

“It’s nothing,” Nick muttered, wanting to escape that horrible grip. Knowing the strength of a Guneri tail, however, Nick could do nothing until gy’Bagrada released him. The gy’ in the meantime was having a grand time of the experience.

Stubby fingers rubbed the tattoo on Nick’s wrist. “You’re still ours, you know,” the Guneri lord murmured in his ear.

“You view all humans as your servants,” Nick growled. “Release me.”

“All humans are servants, yes. You, however, are our property. Don’t forget it.”

“I’m the human representative of the Protocols tonight. And you’re breaking about 50 of them.”

“I’m merely protecting the human who so valiantly defended our ambassador. What’s to protest about that?”

“You’re feeling me up. I don’t like it!”

“In the future, you must tell me how to please you so that you desire it for yourself.” The tail unwound, and Nick staggered free, and he tried again to regain his composure.

The security team hauled the blinded murderess away while the lieutenant in charge babbled a weak explanation to the crowd that the fracas had been a misunderstanding and no further danger existed. The man was beside himself with embarrassment as he apologized to the ambassador. To Nick’s surprise, the Guneri lord handled the episode with aplomb.

“No matter,” he commented through his personal interpreter. “We’re aware of factions within both our cultures that don’t appreciate the mingling of species. No harm was done to me or mine and, therefore, there was no harm done to the Protocols.” He gestured toward Nick. “Please see to your own representative. His blood was drawn rather than mine.”

A paramedic grasped Nick’s elbow and led him through the jabbering crowd. A stout woman, she easily cleared a path and walked Nick to a small room staged as an emergency medical center. She tugged at Nick’s sleeve to study his wound, gasping at the tattoo.

“Prisoner of war,” he murmured.

“My family has lived in the Fortuna Nebula for three generations, sir,” the woman said while cleaning the wound. “I know what both the Gunera and Amaurau do to their prisoners. This isn’t something they do.” She studied Nick’s stony expression. “You’re Nick Severin, aren’t you? I’d heard the stories but hadn’t thought them true. I’m so very sorry.”

Nick said nothing. He couldn’t escape what he was, what the Gunera had made him into. He could only learn to live with the results. The stranger didn’t press him. She bandaged Nick’s arm, offered a smile, and left to sterilize her equipment.

The reprieve in the makeshift medical center provided Nick an opportunity to hide. When the state dinner was served, Nick ate a small portion from the platter the paramedic brought him. He claimed to be in extreme pain from the injury, but the paramedic saw through the lie. Still, the ruse enabled Nick to avoid the long-winded opening speeches from the two Presidents and the Secretary of State.

gy’Gravinda also made a short speech. He read from a phonetic English script, rendering his words nearly impossible to understand. He reiterated that the bond between humanity and the Gunera remained strong, adding that his people hoped for another century of progress and goodwill. gy’Gravinda concluded with an impromptu statement in poorly worded English that he remained touched by the actions of the human messenger who’d risked his life to protect Guneri interests. “I hope to see more of such a remarkable human in the future.” The words made Nick want to gag, but he knew it would play prominently on the newsfeeds.

Nick reemerged long after the speeches were over, knowing that the event was winding down. There was dancing by those who’d consumed too much to drink and schmoozing by those with agendas to accomplish, but the worst of the ordeal was over. Midnight had long passed, and Nick knew that once the Gunera left the building, he could escape.

Upon returning to the Rose Room, Nick was greeted by several people who’d witnessed the attack on the ambassador. He was welcomed as a hero and thanked for his courage. Several pondered what might have happened if the assassin had succeeded in killing the ambassador.

“Open warfare, probably,” Nick muttered.

A hand curled around Nick’s arm, and he cringed. What now? To his relief, it was Alessandra McCoy. The senator’s daughter, adorned in a gown of beaded pink lace, was a vision of loveliness. She’d piled her luscious brown locks atop her head and allowed a handful of spirals to drop to her smooth snowy neck, where a diamond necklace gleamed demurely. Nick swayed toward her, determined to nibble on that neck, but she stopped him with a touch to his cheek.

“Remember your human manners, Nick,” she laughed. “No sex in public.” Alessandra’s taupe eyes gazed into Nick’s dark ones. “Are you all right? Someone said you’d been injured.”

Nick slid his jacket sleeve to reveal the knife wound. Alessandra’s fingers lightly touched the tattoo, but she knew not to speak of it. She moved the sleeve down to cover it again.

“What was with the nasty Gunera and his tail?” she asked.

Nick cringed, wondering how many people had witnessed or recorded the encounter.

Alessandra’s eyes remained soft and warm. “I’m not going to judge you.” She was a marvel. One of a few humans willing to work with such a damaged man. “I can tell it upset you. You don’t normally blanch white in diplomatic situations. What happened?”

“gy’Bagrada made a sexual advance.”

“In the middle of a major diplomatic event?”

“The Gunera have no scruples whatsoever.”

“That thing is female?” Alessandra asked, startled.

 “Not exactly. The Gunera are hermaphrodites. They only have one gender.”

Alessandra’s mouth gaped open. “That explains a lot, doesn’t it?” she murmured.

Nick didn’t answer. The comment went deeper than it appeared on the surface. He stood beside Alessandra, mute and uncomfortable.

“Long night,” she offered, issuing a half-hearted smile.

Nick nodded, knowing Alessandra was just trying to be nice. As usual, when he was around her, Nick’s tongue tripped over itself as he struggled to devise a clever retort. None came.

“Dinner next week?” she suggested.

“Sure, I’d love that,” Nick answered,  questioning the sincerity of his words.

He liked Alessandra. She had a warm heart and good intentions. And lord knew he desired her body. She was a stunning thing. Probably one of the biggest catchesin the entire Fortuna Nebula, considering who her parents were. He just didn’t understand what she saw in him. Why would a beautiful woman like Alessandra, who could snare any man in the galaxy, waste her time courting the awkward undersecretary of trade? Pity? Charity case? Those thoughts ran through Nick’s mind in his darkest moments. Trying to show the world what a wonderful person she was by taking me in hand and attempting to make a human of me? That was a personal favorite. Actually interested in me because of my looks or personality? Doubtful, he reasoned.

Nick had no idea how to define their relationship or if it actually existed. He was too tongue-tied most of the time, too unsure of himself and of her. Too awkward. That was the heart of the matter. Nick wasn’t right, and he knew it. He also knew he had nothing to offer a senator’s daughter because all he’d ever been—and ever would be—was a low-level civil servant. Were he to succeed Duncan and be appointed secretary, Nick’s life would become an even greater tangle of complications. He’d officially become the damned wingnut that held the universe together. He doubted there was space in a wingnut’s life for a woman. Duncan had never managed it.

To his dismay, Nick heard the rumble of conversation strangle short. The throng of hangers-on was edging away. In mere seconds, he and Alessandra went from being just two people in a crowd to standing utterly alone with a circle of humanity crowded against the walls.

Nick’s panicked eyes darted to the door where a contingent of Amaurau now stood. His chest tightened, and he mouthed the only words that came to mind, knowing everyone could read them.

I am so fucked.