Negotiations, by Sonia Focke
Personal Audio Log, Universal Time 3456:98
Lt. Zephyra, ESS Nocturna
What a day. Have you ever hacked into the mainframe of a sentient supercomputer using a Piet script and a reconfigured Trojan while the captain spouts philosophical babble at it? Wait. [recording paused] Third time this month? Jeez. Why do all these evil supercomputers use Piet? I mean, I get it, evil, but why an archaic, nonsensical colour-based language no-one has used for over a millennium?
On the plus side, I only needed to modify the code from last time to account for its data retrieval architecture, so the captain really had to hurry to get to the existential conundrum that made it look like he popped its circuits. Come on, honey. By now, everyone here knows you can't actually logic a computer to death.
But there went my coffee break and it made us late for our mission to Alpha Sagittari VI and its precious ardinium reserves and put me behind on configuring the translator.
Oh, look, at least the Chief Mate appreciates me. A commendation. Let's see if it gets approved, this time.
All right. Sonic shower, check. Nice music, check. Sperryl wine, check. Fluffy bathrobe, check. Alpha Sagittari VI is primitive and the geologists know how to use the translator. So: holovid or audiobook?
[comm whistle] LIEUTENANT ZEPHYRA TO SHUTTLE BAY ALPHA, FULL LANDING PARTY GEAR. DEPARTURE IN 20 CHRONO-UNITS.
Whooo. There goes my evening.
Audio Log Universal Time 3456:99
[mobile log data]
Soooooo. That went well. I mean, after all, who would have thought even a primitive society might have patrols in the tunnels beneath their main fortress? And who knew that large deposits of raw ardinium would short out the power packs in our laser pistols?
Me. I knew that. Oh, and Ensign Barnes, our geologist. He knew that, too. And the Chief Mate, bless his barren, administrative soul. He knew that. So did the three Crew Mates and the medic, and she barely acknowledges the existence of anything without a nervous system.
The dungeons are all right – bunk has a mattress and there's a cover on the amenities, so the smell's not too bad. Aaand – trousers! I mean, I've got some mean legs, if I do say so myself, but they tend to get scratched up in firefights. But if you re-program your sex in the 'cycler database, it'll give you the boy uniforms and – ta-da! – no cuts that get infected with alien spoors and spawn weird telepathic life-forms.
They took the Captain. I can hear the others in their cells taking bets on how quickly the Queen will fall to his charms.
They dragged us before her, resplendent on her throne of stone and silver, a gold and ardinium crown and matching bracelets and collar throwing green highlights over her dark umber skin. Her eyes were flint as she looked us over.
The Captain, of course, was talking. Doing what he actually does best. I did my best to translate – their language is very close to others in the database and the translator raced through vocabulary and syntax and consonant shifts and I chose whatever seemed least like gibberish, hoping it made sense. I'm not actually a linguist. Not of sentient – oh, never mind. Her face was impassive as she listened.
And then our eyes locked.
I probably imagined it. And yet – the cold steel of her eyes seemed to ignite. I couldn't look away. I felt – breathless, shipwrecked, cast adrift in the middle of an asteroid field. And then she turned back to the Captain, as though she had felt nothing, as though her whole world hadn't been tilted on its axis. I glanced at the others, sure they must have noticed. No one reacted.
Just me, then.
They're taking their time with the Captain. I guess whatever they were discussing didn't need an interpreter, even one as clueless as I was.
Now why did that hurt?
Audio Log Universal Time 3457:00
[mobile log data]
They came for me, eventually. I clutched my data recorder, heart racing. Maybe the Captain wasn't having fun times with the Queen, after all, but with the Chief Torturer instead, and now it was my turn. Torture? Done that. 0/10, don't recommend.
No. It was more probable that the Captain's negotiations had reached a state where oral communication was required.
Ding! I won! The guards took me higher and higher in the fortress. The walls became smoother, covered in spidersilk hangings, inlaid with ardinium. Torches burned along the walls. Tsk. Fire hazard. Closed oil lamps are the way to go; less soot on the ceiling, too.
The Queen's chambers were everything I imagined. Silks and furs and gold and ardinium, the cloying smell of spices in the air. And, lounging among them, the Queen herself, dressed in something flowing and satiny that hid and revealed as she shifted.
Funny. I couldn't see the Captain.
The Queen beckoned. The guards pushed me from behind and I scowled. I knew how this worked. I stood before her – my hair all over the place, my skin smudged, my trousers ripped (but look, no sepsis or alien parasites! Yay!) and mumbled what my translation programme told me the standard greeting should be.
She looked me up and down and smiled. With a wave of her hand, she dismissed her guard.
I pulled my eyes away from her and scanned the room. She said something and I stupidly forgot I had my recorder and just stared at her like a guppy out of water. She smiled again, and this time there was warmth in it. She patted the bed beside her.
She spoke again and this time I looked down at the screen. It said: <Your king sleeps in the borgle space.>
I laughed. I couldn't help it. Of all the ludicrous things to have ever happened to me, all the trans-dimensional godlike beings, all the slave societies run by well-meaning computers (Whitespace-based), all the time-travel, the space gladiators and the surprisingly vicious snails of Arcturus, “borgle space” was somehow the pinnacle.
Her mouth thinned and she said something sharp. I gasped and tried to pull myself together. "My device," I told her. "Gave me the wrong words." I hoped the phrase I chose didn't involve the equivalent of "borgle space".
"Your king," she repeated and pointed to a door off to the side. <He sleeps.> She patted the bed beside her. <Tell me about him.>
I sighed. Here we were again. How often had I had this conversation with High Priestesses, Pirate Captains and Warrior Queens? "What do you want to know?"
She stretched out and caressed my arm. I shivered in the warm room. <Is he ...> the recorder gave me several options for the last word. One was – "Fertile?"
<Does he make good babies?>
Hooboy, and does he. Guess who manages the birthday calendar and sends regular paternal greetings? Ding! You guessed right. What with FTL time-warping and relative planetary days, getting birthday gifts to everyone on time deserved a commendation in itself. I simply nodded.
<Good. I need a kitten. But I cannot give too much power to my head alligators.> Kitten? Head what? Never mind, I got the gist. She toyed with a flyaway strand of hair on my brow. Her hand smelled of spices and sweat. <You do not wiggle from here?>
"No," I was a little breathless. The heat, perhaps. "I definitely do not wiggle from here."
<Hmmm. Good. The head alligators will be angry I did not choose any of them. But if I did, they would all fall upon him like mice.> Whoa. What kind of mice does this planet have? <An outsider is ... chocolate. Someone with no windlethorp. This way, my kittens will endure. And I can keep them guessing as to who ended up in my carriage.>
Her hand travelled down my face. <I am sorry. Your gunnysacks cannot be allowed to go free. But until I am certain of kittening – your king will need his translator to help him skydive.>
The translations were getting more and more surreal. I set the recorder aside and captured her hand. Our eyes locked.
Turns out, I make a pretty good negotiator.
Personal Audio Log Universal Time 3457:10
Tagged to public view
All right. Sonic shower, check. Sperryl wine, check. Fluffy bathrobe, check. Getting everyone out alive after the medic confirmed conception, and with a cargo of ardinium to boot, check.
Ah, my good friend the Chief Mate. Who... was unable to get my commendations approved. ˗He's really sorry, yadda yadda. Good work getting everyone out, better luck next time.
[recording paused for 600 seconds]
All right. Still in orbit? Check. Security to Shuttle Bay Alpha overrode? Check. Piloting license up-to-date? Who cares? Underwear? Hell, no.
This is my official resignation. I'm off to be a royal consort, bitches.
Sonia is an Egyptologist by profession, a teller of tales by trade. She lives in Munich, Germany, though in her head she can be found anywhere from Middle Earth to Coruscant. She has showered with a scorpion, married a blacksmith, moved house in a VW Polo and learnt the whole of The Mikado by heart. She banks with a dragon and curates The Museum of Lost Things, a piece published in part in the Australian magazine Overland. She is a contributor to the Arcana2020 project which will go online in October of 2020.
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