That Same Afternoon
Tuesday the 31st, Lunar 3, Luka 16
Somewhere in the Dimensional Divide
Onboard the Neptune’s Rhapsody
Quail and Jane led me onto the bridge, up through the stern and toward the ship’s cockpit. Legato and Kipley were there waiting for us in the cabin, the compartment lit only by floor lights and the somber glow of old-fashioned television surveillance screens. Kipley had her makeup supplies and the dress swung over her arm.
“I’ve certainly learned something about the social media today,” Legato said, looking uncharacteristically overwhelmed. “No going back now.”
Quail extinguished the corridor lights in the stern and made sure that no one had followed. He closed the doors behind us. “Good news: doesn’t seem as if anyone onboard has put two and two together.”
“And why would they?” Kipley giggled. “We gotta get ya ready again, honey. Sorry. Call’s in 45.”
Jane tossed me another towel. “At least we’re ready.”
I barely caught it, still unable to process what was happening. No one was really speaking to me, more at me and my general direction, and the adults were just running around in what looked like circles.
“And the VPN is working?” Legato asked.
Quail nodded. “Sure is. Best in the galaxy and then some. Reporting live from the Zan Daams air space… or something like that.”
Forty-five minutes. I wouldn’t have a script. I’d have to just talk to whoever it was.
“You okay, Pietro?” Jane asked.
“That’s Your Highness, now,” Legato said, glancing between her and me. “And while I know it’s tempting to have a mental breakdown, I need you to keep it together awhile longer.”
“O-okay. Sure. Yeah. I can do that,” I said, biting my lip. “So I’m… talking to who now?”
“Probably The Queen,” Kipley said, shrugging.
Right, just The freaking Queen.
“No, it won’t be her. She’d delegate such a thing,” Legato said, stroking his chin. “I’m sure the Senate will verify her identity before they let Pietro get anywhere near Luka…my bet is one of the Admirals, maybe a Senator…”
Someone said something else, too, but by then my brain was full and no more information was coming in. I toweled off, slowly. Somehow I got to the first mate’s seat and was sitting down, just hiding my face in the towel.
“What do you need?” Jane asked, from beside me. “How can I help?”
“I… don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “Maybe some water. A snack.”
“Shit, you never ate, did you?” Jane said, concerned. “Cool cool. I’ll be right back. Just get dressed.”
“And grab the necklace,” I muttered. “It’s under my…”
“I know,” Jane said. “Be right back.”
Kipley wasn’t mad that she had to re-do my makeup; she was delighted, actually, as apparently she found it quite enjoyable to do. In almost a trance, I got dressed and got ready. I should have been nervous, but I was more numb than anything, feeling myself drift in some ways very far away. I was there still, and I was okay — not woozy or anything — just mentally halfway somewhere else, not sure where. Quail and Legato were bantering back and forth about something and testing out some things in the background. Andros the Beaver was there, too, holding up various compacts and makeup brushes for Kipley while she rotated between them.
Jane came back with the necklace and helped me back into it, along with a bag of mini cheese wheels. One after the next, I peeled them, crushed the wrappers in my hand, and ate them until I’d gotten through the whole bag.
“That was a power move,” Jane muttered, at me. Somehow in all the chaos and uncertainty, she was smiling, and at me.
“Huh?” I asked.
“Oh, dairy makes me sick. Guess not you.” Jane tapped a finger on her chin. “Or it does and you’re the bravest person alive, about to shit your pants in front of the Queen of half the galaxy.”
“Hm. Possible,” I muttered, still in a trance.
“Noted. Is it helping?”
“Uhm… I think? You ever just, have a moment where you know your life is over?”
Jane shook her head. “It happens, yeah.”
“Ever have like, ten or twelve of them back to back in the course of a month?”
“Must not really be over, then. Here you are, still alive and well. Pretty good success rate if you ask me.”
Even the depths of my anxiety couldn’t argue with that. I’d made it this far, hadn’t I? It stood to reason I could make it farther, too. Still, it was so hard to fathom — to imagine how I’d gotten from where I was a month ago to where I was now.
I sighed, breathing out through my teeth. “How can you be so positive?”
“Easy. I have faith in you. Everything I’ve seen so far tells me I’d be a fool to doubt you now.”
Jane shot me the most unexpected of piercing gazes. She placed a hand overtop of the back of mine again, holding it down in place, and grounding me.
I turned away. “All you’ve seen my vanilla ass do is panic and cry like a bitch. You don’t have to be all nice all of the sudden.”
Jane hugged her knees with one arm, perching up on her seat and staring forward, into the distance and away from me, but kept holding her hand over mine.
“I’m not being nice,” she said, flatly. “Let me let you in on a little secret, Pietro: you’re not the first person I brought back to this ship, but you are one of the only ones who stayed.”
That got my attention. “Sheesh. What do you do, go around asking everybody to be your fake princess?”
“Nah, that was a first. Most people get part of their fees paid and bail on the spot. Not you,” Jane admitted, her devious little lips curling into a smile. “Maybe it’s been hard and you cried, or complained…but you stepped up, and you keep stepping up, too. You’ve got a lot more to lose than any of the other ones who ran, but here you are, trying anyways, like some kind of dandyweed in cement…”
Not often does someone call you dandyweed as a compliment — it’s a common weed on Lumeria, an annoyingly common little yellow flower that pops up in springtime no matter what you do to try to stop it. Dandyweed is blight of lawns and terror of allergy sufferers everywhere, most well-known for being extremely difficult to get rid of, like toxic mold or a waterbug infestation. When you call someone a dandyweed, it usually means they’re annoying, or so common and plain they’re worthless, nothing special.
“So I’m a pest?” I smirked. “Just too dumb to quit?”
“Take it however you want, but what I’m trying to say is that you’re strong–tough as nails, actually. If you were that vanilla, you wouldn’t still be here or be doing this.”
She must’ve been able to tell I was freaking out, because she was doing that thing where she turned off her usual sort of intense side and went straight for the emotional jugular. It was nice to be on the receiving end of it for once.
“Thanks,” I whispered. “I just don’t know how to talk to important people like this. I’m just… me,” I said, taking a sip of the water she brought me.
“Then don’t think of them as important,” Jane said, shrugging. “Maybe it’s just some guy, or gal. Nobody special. Just some old geezer who’s afraid if he sees a girl’s ankles he’ll pop a stiffy in the cold light of day.”
I almost spat out my drink. Kipley must’ve been listening, too, because she suddenly burst out laughing at the computer she was tending to down the way, with Legato.
Quail walked back toward us. “You about ready?” he asked me, glancing at his bare wrist as though there was a watch there. “It’s about time.”
I nodded. Ready? No. But I felt like I could do it without falling over, now, which was as close to ready as I’d ever be. I got up, and Jane did along with me.
“Thanks for that. It really–” I tried to begin, the breath knocked out of me when Jane yanked me into an unexpectedly tight hug. I held her back, light at first, until it became clear she wasn’t going anywhere. Then I held on just as tight, burying my face in her shoulder, taking in a deep breath of her scent.
“You’ll be great,” Jane whispered, tucking a bit of my hair behind my ear. “Promise.”
“And if you’re wrong?” I asked, biting the inside of my cheek.
Jane let me go. “We can drink about it later…or, er, whatever your vanilla ass does to blow off steam, as long as it’s not–”
“Swimming. We’re going swimming again.”
Jane whined, wrinkling her face. “Fine… jerk.”
The adults spent the rest of the time getting the camera ready and setting up a green screen, being extremely cautious to remove anything identifying from the shot. We had just enough time for a practice run before it was time. The set up was engineered to suggest I was in a house on Flanders, not cruising through space. The last thing we did was a soundcheck, then waited those final, heinous moments for the communication deck to ring…
And then it did.
Two military men and some older guy transmitted on screen — Admirals, based on their uniforms, like Orias’ back on Carthage, but their uniforms weren’t what caught my attention. The one in red appeared to be a koibito, like Jane, but unlike Jane, his black hair appeared to be made of small tentacles with suckers, like an octopus, wriggling independently as he stood at attention. The one in yellow might have been a mixture of golin and something else — he was more than a foot taller than the other two men, with some massive black device over his mouth. The scales on his face were covered in raised spines, like quills. Between them was the older man, an otherwise unremarkable older Ambin guy in a black suit and tie. He was ancient, with massive eyebrows and a huge nose, and sagging, deep cheeks.
“Good evening,” said the older man, clearing his throat. His gravelly but stifled, wispy voice echoed and boomed through the speakers. “You are the one who sent the transmission, no?”
“Yes.” I could say no more before he went on.
The Admiral in yellow with the quills spoke next. “Then Her Majesty and the Lumerian Systemic Senate humbly request your presence tomorrow morning on Helsingin to confirm your identity. Please arrive by 09:00, in formal attire, and report to the Bayside Senate Building.” His nameplate read ADMIRAL SHAX SCHEHERAZADE.
Then came the one on the right. “You will be subjected to a full physical examination, serological testing, a palm swap, and some additional measures. Should you pass these trials, you will proceed to an interview with Her Royal Highness, Her Majesty, Queen Luka of Lumeria and with the Senate,” His name read ADMIRAL AYM. “Instruction will then follow.”
“We look forward to meeting you,” said the older man between them. “Or perhaps I should say, meeting you again.”
The video connection cut immediately thereafter.
Any relief I might’ve felt over not having to speak immediately dissipated into utter and complete panic. I turned back to Quail and Kipley, and Legato, speechless in horror. None of them seemed to share this feeling, except Jane.
“Woof. Grampy Marsh is lookin’ old,” Kipley said, and let out a whistle. “Real old.”
“Well that was easy,” Quail said. “And Helsingin? That’s not even that far.”
“Really easy to park there,” Kipley said. “Especially since we’re taking a smaller cruiser.”
“Can you give them a second?” Jane shouted at them. “Damn, guys–”
“Uhm, excuse me?” I finally blurted out. “How am I supposed to beat a DNA test!? A palm swap, for fuck’s sake?”
“Don’t worry. All you have to do is play along,” Legato said, completely cool and in command. “As for the palm swap? If you’ll come with me…”