0x7D3 November 0xB

Picture a mottled marble - green and brown and grey, speckled here and there with points that glow a furious blue. It hangs in front of a backdrop of swirled red clouds, looking more than anything else like a page from an elementary planetology text, with a caption along the lines of "The larger gas giants hold storm systems large enough that an entire Earthlike world would be lost inside them.". But this is an illusion; a terrestrial planet in such a place would plummet to the core. What seem like raging frozen winds are, in fact, a great nebular cloud of ionized hydrogen, compressed by the raging solar winds of a blue-white sun lurking somewhere in the wings.

Peter viewed the sight with some trepidation. Beautiful, yes. But deadly. Of late, messengers had born rumours of rising tensions. The ideological schism dividing the Gorwhol had grown worse of late; influential philosophers had been heard to argue for pacification of the colonies. Riots had occurred in the human quarters of several Gorwhol cities. Worse, a large fleet was reportedly being assembled near Earth, for purposes as yet undisclosed.

And then there was this mission. To investigate the murder of a Guild inspector on the Gorwhol homeworld, in the very tunnels wherein the alien rulers decided the course of their scattered empire.

He turned away from the window. It would be subjective days yet before the transport docked; in the meantime, there was little point to staring stupidly at his destination. Reaching into a pocket, he removed a small round disc. Peter gripped it between his thumb and forefinger and squeezed it. No sensation betrayed the first check: the disc tasting the oils on his hands. A faint scraping sensation noted that that check had succeeded: he tasted like Peter, not some other human, and now it was checking the bioelectric modifications to his nervous system. Were that check to fail, a milligram of antimatter would destroy the container - along with anyone luckless enough not to have a few feet of rock between them and the self-destruct mechanism. He wondered if, perhaps, Guild command ever used these devices to eliminate agents who became liabilities. Probably not often, he decided. The machine could be programmed to destroy agents, but the logic to distinguish genuine betrayal of the guild from an attempt to, say, convince a hostile agent that you agree with their aims would be awkward. Unmanageable.

Placing the translucent object therein on his eye, he proceeded to immerse himself in the distorted logic of Gorwhol Interaction Simulator, version 19.4.1, (Diplomatic Special Edition).

His reverie was interrupted by the door opening. A mottled trapezoid faded from his vision, clearing the way for the off-white chitin of one of his shipmates.

"I sense a thousand thousand liars in our future, my friend. Care for a last drink before they slit your belly and hang you from the flagpole?"

"Gladly, on one condition."

"And what would that be, soft one?"

"A respite from your melodramatic posturing."

"Moi? Posture? You wound me, human; I assure you that my melodrama is entirely, completely, totally, utterly sincere."

"In that case, perhaps I shouldn't. It might shake the conditioning."

"Well, if that's the way you see it... follow me and I'll see if the crew are willing to substitute your spleen for an olive."

Peter grinned as he placed the little lens back into its case. "Better. You sure you'll be able to survive down there for a month?"

"Certainly. I'll just keep my mouth shut as much as possible."

Peter dogged the cabin bulkhead and looped a shiny bluish toroid over the handle. "Check. Any message you want me to give your heirs?"

Striding off in the general direction of the observation cylinder, Sloan said "Yeah. Tell them to rip out your spleen for me."

"Spleen. What is it with you and spleens, anyhow? Don't you have plenty?"

"Oh, didn't I tell you? I'm an organ merchant, specializing in spleens."

"Fun. And gall bladders, too, I take it."

"Gall bladders? GALL BLADDERS? How *DARE* you accuse me of such!"

"Oh. Not licensed, I take it."

"Hmph. The things I put up with, just so's I can have company that doesn't run screaming..."

"As I recall, they weren't running all that fast when I left..."

"True.". The chitin-coated being smiled disconcertingly. "Maybe I don't need company after all..."

"Oh, I'm as capable of running screaming as the next guy."

"Really?" Sloan asked. "Care to make a bet on it?"

"Not really."

"Wuss. Afraid that you won't be able to match 'em?"

"No. Afraid that the next guy'll be Cynthia."

"Hmph. You wound me."

"Not without more armament than I'm willing to use on ship."

"I reiterate my earlier accusation."

"Which one? The one where you questioned my ability to outrun a soldier morph, the one where you claimed I was breaching your integument, or the one wherein you accused me of being a spy for the Bictrixi?"

"Do I have to choose just one?"


"Oh, all right. In that case, I accuse you of being the most insufferable, nitpickingest, obnoxious, slowmoving, painful Bictrixi spy I've ever encountered. And having the most implausible disguise ever."

"For abnormally large values of one?"

"For cubical values of one."

"One cubed is still one."

"Ah, but with eight salient points."


"Points.", said Sloan as the observation ring's bulkhead opened. The human on the other side went pale. "Sharp points.". The human suddenly decided to walk the other way.

"Scaring the humans again, Sloan?"

"You're one to talk. Why, you're ugly enough, I think your mother might have been a human."

"She was."

"I'm sorry, it doesn't really show that much; I was just kidding you."

Peter rolled his eyes. "Now I know why I hang around you. It's to make dealing with the Gorwhol seem like a relief by comparison."

Sloan settled into a chair at one side of a triangular table and grinned. "I'm going there, too, remember? Just think. You'll have me *and* them to deal with."

"I *did* think of that. Why do you think I suddenly feel the need to kill brain cells?"

"A plot to make your company less attractive?"

"A plot to make me forget where the hell I'm going until I'm already on the shuttle down."


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