Royce walked through the corridor of unused suites that had been turned into a hotel by an enterprising merchant not too long after the station had been opened. She flipped the keycard around her fingers as she paused at the doorway that Marsten had indicated. She took a deep breath. Don’t back down. Don’t give in. I’m done with him. I just want my life to go back to the crazy “normal” that it was before I got involved.
She rang the bell and then ran the keycard.
The door slid open silently and revealed a suite so opulent that she had to do a double take. She hadn’t realized that there was any housing of this sort on the station. Thick, velvety carpets covered the floor of a room hung with tapestries and paintings, all artful replicas of famous originals of a half-dozen sentient species. The lighting was the low, yellow-tone that a lot of humans identified as “old fashioned” lighting.
Sitting on a soft, red couch opposite the entry was Marsten. He was human with the standard golden-toned skin, black hair, and dark eyes. His hair was stiff and thick and was sculpted in a thick wave that brought images of frozen tsunamis to Royce’s mind. He had no facial hair to add lines to his generally soft features. His outfit was simple, conservative, and opulent: a thick, matte black, threadless poly shirt and trousers. His shoes looked as though they were made of faux leather and would probably add an inch or so to his height when he stood.
He didn’t stand, though. He waved the Corporal over. Carefully composed, she walked gracefully over to the sueded seat across from him and sat down.
“So.” Marsten said informatively.
“So…” Royce trailed off. She looked around nervously before looking back at Marsten. His hands were folded, he was grinning, and he had a twinkle in his eye.
“Well, you served admirably, given your lack of training and the circumstances. This would be your second assignment for Human Affairs, am I correct?”
You know damn well. She thought, but for some reason just couldn’t bring herself to snark at him. He had a powerful presence, and always gave the impression that he knew much, much more than she did and was holding something very threatening over her. She couldn’t imagine what it was, since she had lived a life that was generally on the right side of the law.
Then again, good cops tend to have a facility for making other people nervous in just such a fashion. She had always been afraid that she hadn’t been able to pull that off well, that look that said, “I know that you’ve got something to hide. “
Royce was having issues with her choice of careers.
Marsten nodded back. “Yes, you served admirably the first time, which is why we tapped you again. Now it’s time we have a discussion about your future.”
The gravity of his tone fell like a weight on her chest and shoulders, and Royce suddenly found that breathing required more effort than usual. He’s not going to kill you. He’s just messing with you.
“Are you interested in continuing to be employed by Human Affairs? Perhaps in a more long-term capacity?”
Do it. Do it. Do it. Just say it. “No.”
Marsten didn’t look at all perturbed. He grinned a little. “Might I ask why?”
Royce licked her lips nervously. “I think that it might interfere with my career here.”
Marsten nodded. “Care to explain?” He asked.
Royce took a deep breath. “I’ve had to handle a lot of stress in my career. I’ve arrested people who weight eight times as much as I do for destroying things more valuable than anything I’ll ever own. I’ve been shot at in a room with a paper-thin bulkhead where the emergency vacuum protocol is sealing off the exits and letting whoever is inside decompress. I’ve had to be the face of humanity day after day and not just when dealing with other members of the Collective. Given that we’re on the edge of known, explored space, I get to be one of the first humans encountered by some of the diplomats that get invited to the station.
“What you’re offering, though – it’s a different level of stress entirely.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “And it involves hiding things from my comrades in arms and my superiors, something that … I’m just not wired that way. It doesn’t sit right with me. I can’t do it anymore.”
Marsten steepled his meaty fingers and pursed his lips as she spoke. When she was done, he nodded again and picked up a slim, fluted glass filled with a clear yellow fluid and sipped at it thoughtfully. Ugh. I can’t stand people who do that. Make you wait for them to speak. Nevertheless, she maintained prorpriety and sat with her hands folded, waiting for a response.
“Good.” He said finally. “We don’t want you. Oh, don’t act surprised – we don’t want you for the same reasons that you don’t want to work for us. The whole purpose of Human Affairs is to ensure that humankind sets its right foot forward as it continues to stride across the cosmos. We might need covert operations now and again, but not at the cost of our image. Do you know how the other species see us? Naïve, unintelligent, slow – but friendly, hard-working earnest, and mostly honest. Let them think that we’re stupid all they want to, that gives us an edge in certain relations. We don’t ever want them thinking that we’re anything but friendly, hard-working, and honest though.
“You typify the more positive stereotypes that our species has acquired in the interstellar community. You are those things. You’re exactly what Human Affairs wants the others to see us as. Oh, you’re not stupid – but you have integrity, and we can tell that we’ve been pushing you way too hard to compromise it. I brought you here to bring you good news: we have no interest or intention in retaining you or tapping you for aid again.”
Royce sighed in relief. “So that’s it? Can I go?”
Marsten looked apologetic. “Um, not yet. I was hoping that you wouldn’t be terribly disappointed to know that the funding that had been allocated to paying you for your services has been absorbed by the cost of employing Tatalik.”
Royce laughed. “Not really. I’m sure that my descendants will thank you; I might have blown most of it at the bar anyway.” She stood up. I still kind of see him as a superior. I’m waiting to be excused. How odd.
Marsten stood up and shook her hand firmly. When she tried to extract hers his grip remained firm. “What if I told you that Shankuk Bash’Krakal sends his regards?”
Royce felt the beginning of a panic reaction and swallowed it down. “I’d call you an asshole. If you were working for Shankuk you would have been decapitated by now. You hired a Tesetsi.”
Marsten laughed and released her hand. “No, not stupid, not at all. You’re perfect. Thank you Corporal. Good job.”
Dea turned and left, trying to look relaxed. When she got out into the corridor she headed towards the nearest lift to get a moment’s privacy.
“Good job, huh? How did I do a good job? I blew my cover at least twice and cost them a fortune in medical bills.”
“Maybe that’s what they wanted.” Lim piped up. “In fact, I’m sure it is.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, Roycey, you didn’t just act as a mule. You were bait. You drew out Shankuk’s gangsters, their subverted Vislin, and forchrissakes Apostates came after you too. These guys were identified and in some cases caught. I’ll bet you anything that HA made deals with Covenant and Collective forces to draw them out.”
That was a disturbing thought. “Lim, do you trust him? Do you think he’s going to leave me alone?”
Her AI cackled. “Gee, I wish I could give you a hug right now. No, Roycey, not a chance. Not a chance in the cosmos.”