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Story Excerpts

A Rocket for Dimitrios

by Ray Nayler

Now

“Just hang on, Alvin. We’re going to get help.”

Alvin was slumped in the passenger seat of the open-top Willys terraplane. Two thousand feet below us, the Black Sea lived up to its name: a sheet of ebony darker than the sky above, its featureless surface relieved only by the scattered flecks of night trawlers and freighters.

The bad stabilizer on the Willys kept pulling its nose down. I had both hands on the wheel and was just fighting to keep it level, glancing over at Alvin.

“Talk to me.”

“Okay, I’m talking.” Alvin said. In the dull yellow light of the dashboard lights I could see the pain lines at the side of his mouth.

“Where were you hit?”

“Chest. High. Left side. Can I . . . not talk for a while?”

I unfastened my seat belt and leaned over, one hand on the wheel. “I need you to buckle yourself in, Alvin. I know it’s hard, but I need you to help me.”

Alvin searched for the latchplate. His fingers were clumsy and slow. Finally he came up with it. I dug on the other side of the seat, found the buckle, snapped the belt closed.

“There.”

“Safety first,” Alvin grinned through bloody teeth.

“Such a comedian. Now I’ll do mine.”

Then they hit us.

I didn’t see them until they were just a few meters away: a black sedan, running lights off. It clipped us high in the rear fender . . . and I was out of the terraplane, falling through space, arms outstretched, toward the black water below.

*   *   *

Days Earlier

“You travel with your own private army.”

I was balancing a gimlet on the alabaster railing of the villa’s balcony, looking out at the Bosporus. Across the strait, the lights of the city’s European side were strung like watchfires between the winding ribbon of black water and Belgrad Forest flowing down from the isthmus’ hills. Ferries crossed the water slow as comets hanging in the sky.

I had been gazing out at this view for fifteen minutes now. Alvin was running interference, keeping the Turks attending the diplomatic reception away from me with a stream of banter, drink refills, and war stories. Alvin had played football in high school before the war—linebacker, state champion. He knew how to block. Years in the OSS had translated that footwork and stiff shoulder to subtler techniques. But somehow this one had gotten through.

I didn’t turn around right away. He continued:

“During the thousand-year rule of the Byzantine Empire, a view of the Bosporus was considered so essential to happiness it was illegal to build a home that blocked anyone’s window on the strait. The Greek records are filled with lawsuits to this effect. I think it is Istanbul’s greatest treasure, this view to the water from nearly everywhere.”

Now I did turn around. “It’s nice.”

He was tall, with an old-fashioned brilliantined hairstyle that made me think of silent film stars. Like all the other men at the party, he was in coat and tails. His bowtie was as immaculate as his well-barbered face and the affected gray streak in his hair.

“As I was saying, Miss Aldstatt—you travel with your own private army.”

He gestured at the two MPs taking up space in the balcony’s recesses. I wondered if he knew they were just a fraction of the people keeping an eye on me.

“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Chief Inspector Refik Bayar.”

Yeah, he knew. Chief Inspector Bayar, if the briefing from the Consulate was even half accurate, had nets everywhere sifting through the sea of information, sorting the plots and counter-plots and counter-counter-plots from Istanbul to the newly won possessions in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Transoxiana. He was the center of everything in the Istanbul Protectorate’s network of informants. Our OSS attaché called him by the nickname everyone in Turkey knew him by: Balıkçı—“the Fisherman.”

He continued: “I was hoping to get a chance to speak with you before your—performance—tomorrow.”

“Performance? Like a séance, or a magic trick?”

He shook his head. “Perhaps I have insulted you. If so, it was not intentional. My English is . . . imperfect. What I mean is that I would like to give you some background, some helpful context, before you begin to . . .” he struggled to find a word “. . . investigate Mr. Dimitrios Makropoulos.”

“With all due respect . . .” But we were interrupted by a general commotion. The U.S. ambassador’s stretch terraplane had come sweeping in over the Bosporus, and was making a smooth half-turn in the air before beginning its descent, its landing lights playing across the villa’s marble terrace. Below, white-gloved Marines snapped to attention, unflinching as the terraplane lowered itself to the ground no more than a few meters from them.

I left my half-empty gimlet on the balcony rail and walked inside. Chief Inspector Bayar followed, but Alvin intervened, taking my arm with a disarming grin directed at the Fisherman. “I see you’ve met our national treasure,” he said. “You’ll excuse me, but I’ve got to borrow her for a minute or two. Duty calls, you know.”

“What did he want?” Alvin whispered in my ear.

“Didn’t have time to find out.”

The U.S. ambassador was a California Tech scion, one of the hundreds of beneficiaries of the boom in patents and manufacturing that had come after the government began to parcel out discoveries from the saucer crash of ’38 for research by the universities and private companies. His family was in the terraplane and anti-gravity transport end of things—hence his grand entrance in his custom flying car. It was said he had Roosevelt’s ear, too—but I doubted that: I’d had an in-briefing with the ambassador that morning, and he’d struck me as about as much puffed-up, self-important ignorance as you could cram into a suit. Mr. Roosevelt, now well into his seventh term, didn’t seem like the kind of man who would need advice from this particular species of buffoon.

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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.”
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