Story Excerpt

Table Etiquette for Diplomatic Personnel, in Seventeen Scenes

by Suzanne Palmer
 

“Did you know,” the Ijt Ambassador said, as she sipped gently at her soup with her long, blue, curling tongue, “that your predecessor, in an act of yofishi—” the translator choked on the word, but Station Commander Ennie Niagara knew that it meant self-destructive behavior that nevertheless brings great satisfaction—“served the Ponkian delegation something called ghost peppers?”

“I read the incident report when I took this post,” Ennie said. “The Ponkians believed it to be an assassination attempt and panicked. There are sections of corridor nine that still smell, and the dining hall had to be permanently relocated to another portion of the station.”

The ambassador fluttered several of her leaf-like wings. “The new dining hall is much nicer,” she said, “though too large a space for us to be comfortable.”

One of many reasons, Ennie thought, for having dinner in her private quarters. “The new hall was just being finished when I arrived on Kemon Station,” she said. Had it been a whole standard year already? And that was several months after the infamous ghost pepper incident. “What I never understood is why Beville, who by all accounts was a sensible, stable officer for his entire career up until that moment, would do that to the Ponkians. They are one of the more agreeable peoples, other than their tendency to emit clouds of foul gas when startled or upset, and I cannot guess what he might have had against them.”

“Ah,” the ambassador said. “It is a mystery we have long thought on, those of us who knew Beville and were here when it happened. Have you considered the possibility that it was not about the Ponkians at all?”

“I can’t believe it was an accident,” Ennie said. “The head cook at the time reported that Beville had insisted on taking a direct hand in meal prep that afternoon, having never done so before.”

“No, not an accident. Beville was a human of deliberate, thoughtful action,” the Ijt said. “Consider, instead, who else was on the station.”

“The Joxto?” Ennie said. There were others, but none so notable.

“The Joxto,” the ambassador agreed. “They function almost entirely by their sense of smell. It is their most powerful sense, other than hunger and outrage. Have you met them?”

“No,” Ennie said. She finished her own soup and set her bowl aside. Her kitchen staff would have a sandwich ready for her afterward, knowing she would still be hungry, but the Ijt only consumed liquid foods, so for the sake of politeness, soup it was. There would be subtle but significant compositional differences between their two bowls, and the Ijt would surely know that, but the station cook was good enough to make sure no differences were apparent, nothing to disrupt the illusion of a shared experience. Diplomacy was often in the details, and with Kemon Station far enough out from Earth, and not hosting embassies of much (or any) strategic importance, Ennie was typically pressed to do dual duty as both station commander and senior Alliance Diplomacy Corps representative. The Sharing of Food was one of the better sections of the thin guide she’d been given in lieu of formal training, right after the much less informative No You Won’t Be Eaten By Aliens*, whose titular footnote held statistics that undercut the reassuring solidity of its own premise.

“We have the necessity of occasional dealings with the Joxto,” the Ijt said. “I would suggest that the idea of triggering a roomful of innocent Ponkians to de-gas, even if it would effectively be the end of one’s career, might be tempting in the face of the Joxto’s far greater odiousness.”

“They were expected to remain on the station for several months, pressing for a land grant on one of our newer agricultural colonies, but left within an hour of the ghost pepper incident.”

“Yes,” the Ijt said. She finished her soup, her tongue retracting between her mandibles, and fluttered herself more upright on her perch at the table, the bright yellow-orange quills on her back rattling into the new position. “It is how they negotiate deals—show up and be unpleasant until your opponent gives in to all demands just to be rid of you. They are tenacious, relentless, and often unwelcome guests.”

“A potential motive involving a connection to the Joxto was not in any of the analyses,” Ennie said.

“The incident was an embarrassment to your entire Alliance Diplomacy Corps as it was, even when just seen as an ill-considered prank against the Ponkians,” the Ijt said. “How much more damage would it do, if it was clear it was a hostile action against two sentient species?”

“That’s a valid point,” Ennie said. “Why do you bring this up, though? Was your soup too spicy?”

“Oh, no, the soup was delightful,” the Ijt said. “I enjoy our dinners very much.”

So did Ennie. “It is my pleasure,” she said.

“Thank you very much for an excellent meal. Forgive me for leaving early, but I have tasks that I must see to before I can retire to my nest,” the Ijt said. She rose up into the air, the brilliantly colored streamers of her tail undulating beneath her as she glided gracefully toward the door. Once there, she turned—more a roll—midair to look at Ennie again with her three large, iridescent eyes. “I have received intelligence—and I share this with you unofficially, just between you and me—that the Joxto are on their way here again.”

“What?” Ennie said. She had stood up to see the ambassador out, but now took an involuntary half-step back. “I haven’t been informed of any such visit.”

“The Joxto are not known for their adherence to social or diplomatic norms such as waiting on invitations or sending word ahead,” the Ijt said. “I tell you only because we have become friends, and I have hopes that you will remain here for a while longer, and not succumb to a yofishi of your own.”

Ennie spread her hands. “I have no Ponkians. Or ghost peppers.”

“If there is anything I have learned about humans over my many years among you, it is an appreciation for your extraordinary ability to improvise,” the Ijt said. “And perhaps an equally impressive lack of wisdom for when one should do so, versus when one should not.”

“I’ll do my best,” Ennie said.

The Ijt nodded, spread her wings, and left.

*   *   *

“Something is afoot,” Qasi said. “Commander Niagara has been stressed and anxious for several days, but there is nothing noteworthy on the talks schedule nor on the incoming arrivals list. Or at least not on the public ones; since we have no formal treaty with the human worlds, thus rendering me a representative only in the name of courtesy, I have no access to the sector council feeds.”

“Nor do I,” Bako said, “in my capacity as an unapprehended stowaway on board the station. But I have also noticed that the usual rhythms have become unsettled.” Ey stood up on eir very last pair of legs and peered over the counter, eir fur immediately shifting colors to match it. “Speaking of anxieties, what are you doing?”

“It is a human thing I have just learned of, called fondue,” Qasi said. She tapped the pot on its stand with one claw. “I have filled this portion with a nutritive broth, and I have a selection of protein solids and dipping sauces. You place the solid on a sharp, pronged stick and boil it in the broth. Everyone has their own, with a colored handle to identify it as theirs.”

She demonstrated, pressing one of the protein cubes onto the end of a stick, and setting it in the pot so that the stick handle leaned out over the side. “I believe it is tradition to race to see whose solid reaches optimum temperature first, while also simultaneously trying to knock the others’ pieces off their sticks into the broth without being caught at it. It should be delightful! Do you wish to try?”

“The Dzenni people’s fascination with all things human is a bafflement to the rest of us. But I am willing to be delighted, if it is possible.” Bako tipped eir head sideways and blinked at the pot, stick, and protein cubes. “The broth is not boiling, though. Not nearly so.”

“That is because I have not yet added the heat source,” Qasi said. “I wished to test my understanding of the processes and equipment, and also refine my selection of sauces, before I invite an entire party to participate in the experience. I will even invite the commander!”

“What is the heat source, though?” Bako asked. Ey rotated eir head upside down so ey could peer at the underside of the pot, long whiskers bent back. “Some sort of thermal pod?”

“No!” Qasi said, her long tail twitching behind her from the excitement. “This is the very best part.”

She pulled out a small metal can, took the lid off, and slipped it between the legs of the stand under the pot. Then she grasped the small pull-tab on the side between two claws and pulled.

Flame jetted out of the top of the can, engulfing the pot. Bako skittered away on all eir two dozen legs, screeching in alarm. “It’s supposed to be able to be modulated,” Qasi said, trying to get close enough to see without burning her own whiskers. “I probably should have read the instructions.”

“Fire!” Bako shouted. “You made a fire! On a space station! This was a terrible idea, Qasi!”

“No, no, this will all be fine,” she said, just as the sector alarms went off, and they were both suddenly doused with jets of foam from above. “My dinner!” she cried, trying to shield the array of small bowls from the deluge.

Finally, she gave up, as she could hear the sounds of the emergency personnel racing down the hallway toward her quarters. Bako had melted away into hiding, no doubt picking a dry, dark corner where ey could blend emself in until the danger of discovery had passed; no one would likely see em again for days.

The fire, majestic and triumphant as it had briefly been, was out, smothered in foam. Her fur was matted and sticky with the stuff, and it would take hours to groom it out. She pulled out her stick, studied the protein cube for a moment, then shrugged and popped it into her mouth, using her fangs to pull it free.

“Not bad,” she said to no one in particular, though company was certainly, from the sounds in the hall, imminent. “But it would have been far better with sauce.”

*   *   *

There was a particular strategic advantage to the impossibility of having a genuinely private conversation in the station food court, and both Commander Niagara and Captain Vincente knew it. They also both knew the value of having that conversation—likely to be repeated, with copious but varying contextual details, across an equitable swath of casual and professional listeners—over a seemingly informal meal. And since Vincente’s ship, the Hermit’s Lantern, had arrived with too little warning for her staff to prepare a formal reception, grabbing a quick bite to eat was not particularly suspicious.

Vincente had dressed down for the occasion in slacks and a neatly pressed civilian shirt. He was still wearing his cap, as if forgotten upon his mostly hairless head, but Ennie knew him well enough to know otherwise. Each of them had brought their assistant, and after introductions the two juniors, Gao and Alli, sat together a table away, trying to relax and enjoy their Martian ramen while also remaining attentive for any call to duty.

“As I was telling you, Commander Niagara,” the captain said, while stuffing a forkful of noodles in his mouth, “the Joxto are expected to arrive in the next eight to ten standard days. The estimate is our own; they have not been communicative about their specific intentions or purpose, but then, they never are.”

Ennie nodded, though the captain had been telling her no such thing. Thanks to the Ijt Ambassador, at least she didn’t have to cover any surprise at this news. “I haven’t met the Joxto myself,” she answered, brushing a few crumbs from her jacket, “but we are of course prepared to receive them.”

Vincente leaned back in his chair and pointed at her with his fork, a stray noodle still impaled on one tine. “As it happens, we were already in the area, and my crew is due for a break, so this gives me the opportunity to provide what advisory assistance I can,” he said. “Assuming you’d want that?”

The Hermit’s Lantern had been nowhere nearby and must have burnt through a crap ton of energy reserves getting here as quickly as they had.

“I’d be grateful, of course,” Ennie said. “Do we have an agenda yet?” Do we have any idea why they are coming?

“Our diplomats are working out the details,” Vincente said. We have no fucking clue.

Ennie nodded, finished the last forkful of her noodles, then leaned back in her chair. “So how are things on Earth?” she asked. “Some hubbub on the Alliance chat channels recently?”

“Contractor woes at one of our research facilities,” Vincente said. “I wish I’d ordered a beer.”

“It’s not too late,” Ennie said. “You’re off-duty, after all. We import a nice dark berry stout from Beenjai that I expect you’d enjoy.”

Vincente smiled, took off his hat, and placed it on the empty seat next to him. “You’ve convinced me,” he said. “Will you join me in it?”

Ennie laughed. “Unfortunately for me, I am still on duty,” she said, “but—”

At the table next to them, she heard Gao’s handpad chime; her own was off, since he could and would handle almost anything without interrupting her and the captain. She was surprised when he scrambled to his feet, nearly knocking his tray off the table, and approached.

“Sir, and ma'am,” Gao said. “My apologies. Security reports they’ve got a body down in electrical. Looks like murder.”

Vincente put his hat back on.

Chief Mackie, Ennie’s head of security, met them at the lift entrance and led them over to where a man in station maintenance overalls was sprawled facedown in the open doorway to the electricians’ workroom. Tomas and Kreag, the custodians who had found the body, stood back as Mackie’s second-in-command, Digby, crouched beside the body. When the commander and captain stepped near, Digby pointed with one gloved hand to where something protruded from the victim’s swollen neck. Ennie leaned in to look closer, afraid she already recognized it: an orange quill. “Well,” she said. “Who is it?”

“Other than checking for signs of life, we haven’t touched the body,” Mackie said. They pointed up to where a bob hovered near the ceiling. “We swept and took a full holo of the scene.”

“Okay,” Ennie said. She pointed to the quill. “Bag that.”

Digby dutifully and carefully tugged it loose and dropped in an evidence bag, then Tomas helped him roll the body gently over.

“Garrow,” Ennie said. “Damn. He’s only been here a couple of months.”

Behind her, the captain made a surprised grunt, and she glanced back at him. “I don’t know who Garrow is,” Vincente said, “but I know who that is. That’s former Commander Beville.”

*   *   *

Digby reached over and stole half of Dr. Chessa Reed’s sandwich off her plate while she was distracted, and took a big bite out of it before she could notice and demand it back. “So you think the Ijt did it?” he asked.

“Oh, hell no,” Chessa said. “Signs of head trauma, and a needle trace in the back of the neck near where the quill was. Someone knocked him out, stuck him with something, then planted the quill. Bit obvious, really. Still running blood analysis on what was injected.” She lifted up her goggles, glanced at her plate, then at Digby, and scowled. “If you don’t want me to feed your living body into the post-mortem disassembler, you are going to fetch me a whole new sandwich.”

Digby shrugged. “I’ll think about it. So who do you think did it?”

“We currently have, what? Five ambassadors, six representatives, and all their retinues aboard, not to mention nearly forty human crew. Could have been anyone.”

“But who do you think? Who seems likely?”

“Honestly? None of them. I dunno. It makes no sense. Who do you think?”

Digby pursed his lips. “No idea. I mean, Perks in cargo is the biggest jerk on the station, and he cheats at cards, but I still don’t think he’d kill anybody. And more than that, what the hell was he even doing here?”

“Perks? Oh, Beville, you mean. Not a clue. I hear the Ijt Ambassador admitted she knew he was here, though, had recognized him but hadn’t told anyone. I’m surprised the commander isn’t ripping this station apart looking centimeter by centimeter for who did this.”

“Looking for who or what, though? And anyway, I’ve got enough extra work with the Joxto coming our way, so let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that.”

“But then maybe you’d finally find your ghost, too.”

“Hey, don’t give me shit about that,” he said. “I’m telling you, there’s something else on board the station, something alien that can disappear through fucking walls. Maybe that’s what killed Beville.”

“Can ghosts bash people on the head, though? If they’re not corporeal? Seems a stretch.”

“Did you see the Dzenni Representative’s apartment after the fire the other day? Two place settings at the table. The aliens are all in on this, I’m telling you.”

“Why me? Why aren’t you telling your boss instead?” Chessa said. “I’m just the med chief, trying to eat my very late, very insufficient dinner that you stole while I’m dutifully monitoring a high-priority autopsy.”

“Because I already did. Mackie just shrugged it off.”

“Maybe they know something you don’t.”

“Probably,” Digby said. He slid down in his chair, then kicked the empty chair at the side. “Fine, I’ll go get you another sandwich. But you have to tell me if you find anything interesting. For once I wanna know something before everybody else.”

“That would be a first,” Chessa said, as Digby grumped off out of her lab to the service kitchen.

*   *   *

Ennie sat on the edge of Mackie’s desk, watching as they filled a bowl with kibbles for their dog, Omnivore. Lately her security head had been trending masc, and the scruffy beginnings of the beard they were currently sporting reminded her of her late brother, with all the conflicted feelings that brought. “So, how did he get on board?” she asked.

Mackie finished rehydrating the dog food and set the bowl down on the floor. They both watched as the elderly corgi waddled over and sniffed at it with great disdain. After a few more minutes’ contemplation and glances at the two humans who were unforthcoming with anything better, the dog began wearily to eat.

Mackie sat down in their chair and put their boots up on the other end of the desk. “Cleared by service security,” they said, “and you and I both know we couldn’t squeak a dirty flea past them. From what I know about Beville, bribery would be a significant departure in character. And since even Vincente was surprised, you know it wasn’t regular Diplomacy Corps who put him here.”

“So you’re thinking EarthInt,” she said.

“I’m thinking EarthInt,” Mackie confirmed. “But again, why?”

“I’ve got a lot of why questions, and no damned answers,” Ennie said. “Nothing at all in his quarters?”

“Nothing inconsistent with Garrow, senior electrician,” Mackie said. “Nothing more from the Ijt Ambassador?”

“She’s upset enough to have started an off-season molt. They were friends, back when he was the commander here,” she said. “She says she only had one brief opportunity to speak with him, but he wouldn’t tell her why he came back. I trust that’s true, at least on the face of it. If she has guesses, she’s not sharing them with me yet.”

“Something to do with the Joxto, though.”

“Too much of a coincidence not to be,” Ennie said. “Though that would mean he knew they were coming long before any of the rest of us did, to get here ahead of them.”

“Do we know why they’re coming?”

“Because they want something,” Ennie said. “Usually it’s an attempt to bully resources out of either us or the sector council. Last time, they wanted an entire continent on one of our colonies, and what they offered in return was their ‘benevolent gratitude.’ I don’t know if you’ve ever seen vid of what they do to their worlds, but old Earth strip-mining’s got nothing on how they chew a planet down to dead rock.”

“So why give them anything?”

Ennie sighed. “Because we’re trying to be a force for peace in this sector, so they don’t all go back to sniping at each other, pirating each other’s ships, dropping mines in shipping lanes, shit like that. And diplomacy only works long-term if you include everyone, even the ones you don’t like. So we try to set a good example, when we can.”

“I get that,” Mackie said. “I just don’t get ‘can’ and ‘Joxto’ in the same sentence. You know whatever they want is going to be too much.”

She was silent for a while, kicking her feet gently. “This is not public knowledge, but about half a standard year ago, one of the independent deep survey ships, the Archaeopteryx, reported back to Earth that it had found a decent system with a lot of ice and a habitable planet with a very young ecosystem, way the hell out in the ass-end of nowhere, up-spinward from here. Arcx-127C is outside our official territory, but also everyone else’s. We have right of discovery, as long as there’s no indication of sentient or sentience-trajectory life, and there’s already an official science mission on the ground to determine that. It’s supposed to be secret, but, well, whatever really is? So it’s possible that the Joxto got wind of this, and they—” She paused, made a face. “Did your dog just fart?”

Mackie shrugged. “Maybe. He—whoa, yeah.” They got up from their chair and turned up the air handlers for the room, then hesitated for a second before coming back, looking puzzled.

“What?” Ennie asked.

“Thought I heard something in the ducts,” Mackie said. “I’m as bad as Digby, chasing his ghost around the station in his spare time.”

Ennie laughed. “Some ghosts are more real than others,” she said. “Just don’t spoil it and tell Digby.”

“Wait. There’s something really in here?”

“Yep. I’ve even seen it once or twice, out of the corner of my eye. I’m pretending I don’t know, for a lot of reasons, but at the top of the list is, it’s harmless. Don’t go looking for it, okay? I know you’re going to want to, but in deep survey circles they’re considered good luck, as long as you don’t scare them away.”

“‘And a good south wind sprung up behind; the Wihliwah did follow, and every day, for food or play, came to the mariner’s hollo,’” Mackie recited.

“Coleridge,” Ennie said. “Though I don’t think the bad luck runs as deep as the ancient mariner’s. Or at least I hope not.”

“I didn’t think Wihliwah were real,” Mackie admitted. “You know how the deepers like to yank everyone’s air lines about stuff they claim they’ve seen out there.”

“In fact, I do,” Ennie said. “Deep survey is where I started my service. But the Wihliwah are real. I do wish I knew what it’s seen, though, and how it got here. One more mystery that has to wait. I’m going off to bed because it’s really late now and I’ve got a long day tomorrow; it’s the Okgon Feast of Guug, and while the Okgono Ambassador is pleasant enough company, the feast itself is . . . sticky. Very sticky. And undignified, at least from a human perspective. I have a formal uniform made out of low-tac plastic just for this event.”

“I don’t want to know, do I?”

“No, you don’t,” Ennie said. She got up, and straightened her uniform. “Good night, Chief.”

“Good night, Commander,” Mackie said. “Sweet dreams.”

*   *   *

The Okgono Ambassador was an impressively not-at-all-humanoid alien. Over her two decades of service, Ennie had concluded that most aliens had at least something about them that you could look at and say, well, that’s not too different from us, but it was more akin to an enormous, yellow-and-red striped sea cucumber, whose surface was lined with rows of eyes, interspersed with rows of tiny sucker-like mouths.

Each embassy suite had its own dedicated environmental systems for the well-being and comfort of its inhabitants, and while the Okgono atmosphere was breathable to humans, it was kept at such high humidity that there were wisps of mist trailing along the floor, which was currently covered in a vast array of fruits and fruit-like sweets from over thirty worlds, many outside Ennie’s own experience. She had brought a basket of persimmons, goji berries, and plums as a gift, and had carefully wrapped her shoes in plastic covers with a nubbly, high-friction sole. It was going to get slippery.

The Dzenni Representative, Qasi, was already there, and though the distinctly panther-like alien did not generally tolerate shoes, she wore a similar type of booties for the occasion. The Aobri Representative, festive colors painted onto its exoskeleton with scented paints, was hopping excitedly up and down on its trio of legs, while the Gwobi Duet lurked in the corner anxiously, their perpetually intertwined arms fluttering back and forth like they were having a tug-of-war with themselves. The Ijt Ambassador had, as always, sent her apologies; high humidity and sticky flecks of fruit flying everywhere were a poor mix with feathers. The other ambassadors and representatives had either not been invited or not replied, and Ennie did not ask who was which.

The Okgono began to speak, by clicks and whistles from its hundred mouths, and Ennie listened intently to the translation in her earpiece. “Welcome, galaxy friends!” the ambassador was saying. “Thank you for celebrating the bounty of Guug with me today. Guug travels all the life-bearing worlds and the proof of Guug’s blessings is before us.” The ambassador shuffled forward, and gently rolled some round, Okgono fruit across the floor. “All the worlds have foods of Guug, whether they grow on trees or vines or on the spines of the pleasant Yorgogim. We reaffirm our gratitude!”

The ambassador smashed the fruit in front of them with its face, then rolled atop it, back and forth until the pulp and juice of it clung to its body.

“I present you with gifts of Guug from Earth,” Ennie said, and as the small speaker clipped to her shoulder translated that to the appropriate clicks, she placed the plums on the floor in front of the Okgono.

The ambassador lumbered forward and squashed the plums as it had the others, adding to the mess accumulating on its skin, and splattering a line of reddish juice across Ennie’s legs. Oh well, she thought, that didn’t take long.

The squashing of fruit took about an hour, and by the end all of them were thoroughly sticky and covered in a sickly sweet goo. One by one the other ambassadors and representatives made their excuses and left, until only Ennie remained. After they were all gone, the ambassador would exude polyps into the fruit on its skin, where they would grow into larval Okgono and in a few months be shipped home to be raised on Okgon, and the ambassador’s suite would be thoroughly cleaned while it cocooned itself on the ceiling and shed its outer layers. It was, thankfully, a largely private sequence.

As she retrieved her basket from a corner, picking it up carefully with as few fingers as possible while wondering how long it would take before her hair stopped smelling of fruit, the Okgono Ambassador spoke again. “I understand the Joxto are returning,” it said.

“Yes,” Ennie said. “We expect them in about a week.”

“We will not greet them,” the ambassador said. “You will make polite apologies for us?”

“Of course,” Ennie said. “I’m sure they will understand.”

“Understanding does not matter,” the Okgono said. “They are a terrible, greedy, contrary people, and it is a further blessing of Guug that I will not have to be in their presence. Thank you for your understanding of our practical circumstances, and your excellent diplomacy in wishing them my best, when no civilized peoples would wish them any such thing.”

“I’m sorry that the Joxto have been such trouble for you, and I will convey your apologies,” Ennie said.

“It is to our benefit that humans lie so easily and so well on our behalf,” the Okgono Ambassador said. “May the Blessings of Guug go with you and your viable spawn for generations, Commander Niagara; Guug has certainly withdrawn its love from the Joxto. You may now depart.”

Ennie left, wondering if, when the Joxto arrived, she could possibly build a cocoon of her own and refuse to leave it until they had departed again.

*   *   *

Three long showers and a fitful nap later, Ennie reluctantly left her quarters and headed down to the kitchen. She was not in a mood to eat with others, and the idea of even seeing something sweet-looking made her feel borderline ill. Most of the station crew did not have unfettered access to the kitchens, but the commander was an exception, not just because of her rank but also because she’d made it clear that she would not get in their way, mistreat or lose equipment, or make off with anything without checking that it was okay first.

The coffee machine was, in one of humanity’s oldest and most sacred covenants, fair game, with the caveat that if you finished the pot, you set it to make another.

Once that was done, she settled down at one of the prep stations, mug of hot black coffee in front of her, and let out a long, exhausted sigh. It was early afternoon, lunch had been done without her, and other than the hum of the autowash and gentle murmurs of something simmering several stations away, the kitchen was quiet. If only, she thought, just as she heard one of the doors on the far side of the kitchen open, it could have stayed like this a while longer.

It was Fred from gardening, along with Leize, the station’s head chef; Fred was—as he almost always was, every time she saw him outside of the garden ring itself—carrying a crate. Most of their produce was imported from nearby ag worlds like Beenjai and Moritau, but they supplemented as they could with home-grown, more as a matter of pride than practicality. “. . . not ripe yet,” Fred was saying. “I had to rearrange some growboxes about a month ago when number six failed, and the tomatoes took the move badly. Got the replacement unit in a few days ago, and once I’ve got it running things should be back to normal. I hope.”

“Great, just in time for the damned Joxto to stuff their faces with all our best food,” Leize said.

“Do the Joxto even like tomatoes?” Fred asked.

“Does it matter? They eat constantly. They’d eat everything in front of them even if it made them sick just to make sure no one else got any,” Leize said. “Of all the species we’ve ever had to deal with, they’re the fucking wor—”

Leize stopped mid-word as she spotted Ennie sitting at the counter, both her hands still wrapped around her coffee mug. “Commander,” she said, blushing. “I didn’t know you were here.”

“Enjoying the quiet,” Ennie said.

“Sorry, Commander. Let me make it up to you,” Leize said. She went to one of the fridges and pulled out a bowl, throwing it in the warmer, as Fred stowed the vegetables. When it beeped thirty seconds later, she carried over the hot bowl and set it in front of Ennie.

“I’m really not hungry,” Ennie said, the texture and odor of squashed fruit still far too fresh in her mind.

“Yes, you are. I can tell by how cranky you are,” Leize said. She popped open the bowl to reveal yellow rice with a subtle, spicy aroma. “It’s the opposite of sweet. Saffron, worth ten thousand times its weight in water out here.”

Ennie had to admit it smelled good. She took the fork Leize held out to her, scooped out a tiny amount of rice, and stuck it dutifully in her mouth.

All of a sudden, she was starving and had stuffed several more forkfuls in her mouth before she realized how undignified that must look, and caught the grin on Leize’s face. She swallowed. “Pretty good,” she said. “Sorry for snapping at you.”

“Apology accepted. Want more? You should have more.”

Ennie looked down at her bowl, and the bits of rice scattered embarrassingly around it on the counter. “Uh . . . I’m going to finish this in my office,” she said. “If you wouldn’t mind . . . ?”

“I’d be happy to bring up more, and fresh coffee,” Leize said.

“Thank you,” Ennie breathed out. Almost guiltily she picked up the remains of her coffee and hustled herself away before she could cry at the poor woman for her calm thinking and kindness, which would definitely be awkward for everyone.

No one was in the lift, and she bypassed the hallway past station ops to her private office and pressed her free hand against the doorplate. The lights automatically brightened as she stepped in, and stopped in her tracks in horror. Sitting next to her desk console, there was a fruit. Something bluish purple and mottled, about the size of an orange, with a bumpier exterior. It was not any kind she’d seen before, but it didn’t matter, it was on her desk.

She turned just as Leize arrived outside her office with a tray of more rice and a steaming carafe. “Okay,” she said. “I’m sorry I was cranky, and tomorrow I might think this is funny, or probably the day after tomorrow, but this was too soon.”

“What are you talking about?” Leize asked.

“That,” Ennie said, and stepped back, gesturing sharply at the unwanted thing.

Leize set down the tray and picked up the fruit. “I didn’t put this here, and none of the rest of my people even have access to your office. And anyway, I don’t even know what this is. I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. She sniffed it. “Smells great, though. You want to . . . ? No, sorry.”

Ennie sat down wearily behind her desk and poured hot coffee into the cold dregs in her mug, then tapped her console. “Station systems, who has accessed my office?”

“You are the first today,” the station’s computer system responded.

“Okay, who was in here between when I left last night and when I entered just now?”

“No one has accessed your office in the interim,” the station said.

“Then how did this fruit get here?” Ennie asked. “And what even is it?”

“There is no information about how it came to be in your office,” the station replied. “Also, I find no match for it in the local datasphere. No record of it exists.”

That last seemed as unlikely as the fruit appearing by magic without someone opening the door. “Keep searching. Drop a query out to SolNet if you have to,” she said. “If it got here, someone knows what it is.”

“May I take it?” Leize asked.

“Oh, please, yes, take it away,” Ennie said.

“While you eat your rice—all of it, because I’ll be mad if you waste my saffron—I’ll see if I can find out what this is, and if I can’t, I’m gonna take it down to the science lab and get it scanned and sequenced. If it’s not toxic, it could be tasty,” Leize said, then added, “not tasty tomorrow, though. Maybe tasty the day after tomorrow. Still too soon?”

Ennie shook her head. “Still too soon.”

Leize stuck the fruit in one of her pockets. “Hey, I have an idea how it got here. Maybe the Great Guug itself has blessed you with this miraculous gift, and you should devote the rest of your life to its daily worship.”

“Please get out,” Ennie begged. Leize grinned and took off.

*   *   *

On its way through the ducts from the station commander’s private office, Bako found a crawly thing. Ey attempted to greet it, but it pinched em with snappy mouth pieces, and concerned it might be one of the crawly things that chews indiscriminately on mechanical and electronic vitals, ey ate it.

It was crunchy and sour and full of wiggly pokey bits and not at all good, and ey were certain that even Qasi’s sauces would not have made it any better. Ey considered it best thought of as a small act in compensation to a station unwittingly acting as eir host, and determined to just not notice any more crawly things for a while, and thus not feel responsible for them.

Ey did hope, however, that the commander appreciated the gift ey’d left behind. Some things were hard to drag through the tiny cracks and spaces, and harder still not to eat along the way.

*   *   *

Captain Vincente was down in the Hermit’s Lantern’s officers’ lounge catching up on the last three Marsball games he’d missed while in jumpspace. He held a bottle of the Beenjai stout that Commander Niagara had sent over, while on his lap he had a plate and the last third or so of a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich on wonderful sourdough. Though his mission had been to provide backup support for the imminent arrival of the Joxto, not to enjoy himself, he had to admit he liked it here. So did his crew, though they were generally happy for any change of scenery.

Six more days until things got harder for everyone, and without knowing what the Joxto wanted, it was impossible to fully prepare. A few more of these stouts, he thought, and I won’t care.

The Titan Moonshots’ designated hitter had just knocked one so far out of the park the ball got caught in a slug field when Vincente heard the door open behind him, and he paused the game with deep regret.

It was Alli, his assistant. “You have a call,” she said.

Vincente was going to ask if it was important, but Alli wouldn’t have interrupted him if it wasn’t. “Who from?” he asked.

“EarthInt,” she answered.

Vincente handed her the half-empty bottle of stout and his plate, then brushed the crumbs from his shirt and put his cap back on.

“Ship, put the call through to the lounge screen,” he ordered, and the ship’s mindsystem flickered from the ballgame over to a nondescript Earth white guy with nondescript hair and a nondescript uniform that lacked any meaningful insignia.

“Captain Vincente,” the man said.

“Sir,” Vincente said. It was, lacking other information, a reasonably safe address.

“I am responding to your inquiry off the record, Captain. Is that a problem for you?”

“No, sir,” Vincente said.

“We are saddened to hear of the loss of Willion Beville. He was an excellent commander and a genuinely kind man,” the agent said. “As you likely anticipated, I cannot confirm or deny whether we had a hand in placing him back on Kemon Station under a false identity. As to his previous dismissal . . . you are aware of the details of the incident with the Ponkian delegation?”

“I am,” Vincente said.

“Commander Beville had a source, unknown to us but which he considered absolutely trustworthy, that there was going to be an assassination attempt by someone on the station against the Joxto.”

“The Joxto? Not the Ponkians?”

“No, Captain,” the agent said. “The Ponkians were, unfortunately for both them and Beville’s career, the most expedient method in getting the Joxto to immediately withdraw from the station. A more direct approach would have been seen by the Joxto as an obvious ploy; as you might imagine, they are accustomed to other species going to great lengths and fabrications to drive them away.”

“So the fact that the Joxto are returning is not a coincidence with Beville being here,” Vincente said. Not that he’d ever expected it would be.

“No,” the agent said. “Beville’s original source is also currently on the station. We don’t know their identity, except that they’re not one of ours, and may very well be one of the ambassadors or in their retinue. Also, if I was to conjecture, absent any knowledge about it which I can’t share with you, so is the original assassin. Or assassins. I trust you will assist Commander Niagara in negotiating an incident-free and not too expensive visit from the Joxto, and if you can also find out who murdered Beville—even though we cannot of course confirm or deny he was working for us—we would be greatly interested in that information.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Vincente said.

The EarthInt agent disconnected.

“Well, fut-nuckers,” Vincente said, who made a point of never swearing while wearing his hat. Alli handed him back his sandwich and beer. “Better call the station,” he said. “The commander and I need to arrange an opportunity to talk privately.”

 

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Copyright © 2020. Table Etiquette for Diplomatic Personnel, in Seventeen Scenes by Suzanne Palmer

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