2951-01-18 – Tales from the Service: Ramrio’s Admirer 

This week, we continue with the account sent in by Ramiro W. of his role in moving diplomats from the Sagittarius Frontier toward the Core Worlds. Independent reports suggest, as we mentioned last week, that the trio is, if genuine, a delegation from the polity known as the Grand Journey, which is rumored to have little reason to like the Incarnation despite evidence of significant past technological exchange between them. 

Ramiro’s account at this stage gives me reasons for skepticism, but I will present it as it was given to me; the fact that it was approved by Naval Intelligence for publication should not be used as evidence of its veracity. They have permitted false accounts to be published before, though the worst examples of this were thankfully in other publications. 

“Tell me something, Skipper.” Captain Marie Larson sipped whiskey from one of the glasses which she’d collected from her three polymer-averse charges and meticulously cleaned. The alien delegation had retired to their cabin more than an hour previously, leaving Ramiro and his only human passenger alone. “When I asked Naval Intelligence to recommend a light-duty ship to take those three toward the Core, why did they recommend you? You’ve never worked a steady government job in your life.” 

Ramiro delayed answering by taking a long drink of his own whiskey. He had guessed from the moment he’d first met Larson that they’d been put into touch by Naval Intelligence, and that had to have something to do with his connection to Livia. Learning that her new friends possessed some degree of official sanction had been a relief to him, but also a source of anxiety; he had no desire to be drawn into the cloak-and-dagger world of intelligence and counter-intelligence. 

Larson picked up on Ramiro’s hesitation quickly. “Eh, I know how it is. They tell you not to talk about even the silliest things.” 

Ramiro shrugged. “I can say it came as a surprise to me, too. I wasn’t asking anyone for official work.” 

“You must have a friend on the inside, then.” Larson nodded. “Though I knew from my first look at her that Jen Daley was perfect for our needs.” 

“How so?” Ramiro loved his ship, and had from his own first look at her, but she was hardly an ideal diplomatic transport. She’d been designed to move small, sensitive cargoes a few tons at a time, both in external cargo pods and in her internal, pressurized cargo bay, where enroute inspections could be performed. The ship only had passenger cabins because Livia had done most of the legwork to design a total refit of the crew deck.  

“Survey’s flagship is in Maribel. It could have gotten those three where they’re going a lot faster, and a lot more comfortably.” Larson pointed vaguely toward the bulkhead separating the lounge from the cabins. “They insisted on a civilian ride. I had to talk them down from booking second-class berths aboard one of the regular passenger liners.” 

Ramiro winced; in normal times, the big passenger lines that terminated at Maribel were quite comfortable ways to travel between worlds, but ever since Maribel had come under threat, most of them had double-booked every outbound cabin up to the absolute maximum of the atmospherics, turning the once-luxurious liners into noisome, overcrowded, clamorous hulks. There had been riots aboard one of them recently when the main food-fab system broke down, and only the first-class passengers were permitted to enter crew spaces to use the crew’s food-fab system, leaving everyone else to consume un-adulterated nutrient slurry. 

“You weren’t just a name on the list, mind you.” Larson watched Ramiro carefully. “I asked which independent ships and crews we could rely on, and they sent me to you directly. Intelligence never does that. They’ve always got a list.” 

“Someone thinks they owed me a favor.” Ramiro chose his words very carefully. “I have my suspicions who, but I’ll keep them to myself. I haven’t done any of their black-ops work, if that’s what you’re trying to get at.” 

Larson smiled humorlessly. “That’s just what a BCI minder would say.” She drained the rest of her whiskey and set the glass down on a table near her chair. “I don’t know what the spooks want with my friends over there, but-” 

“Captain Larson, neither do I.” Ramiro hoped breaking the ancient spacer custom of never calling anyone by the rank “Captain” out in the void except the ship’s commander, but he knew Larson, with her background in the Navy and in Survey, would take notice. “If BCI is keeping tabs on you, it’s not through me.” 

Larson sunk back into her chair, though she was clearly unsatisfied. “All right, all right. But you can be sure-” 

“Pardon.” A soft, raspy voice, like silk dragged across broken glass, interrupted. Ramiro turned to see the female diplomat peeking into the lounge. “Rest has eluded me. Would I be permitted to join you?” 

“Of course, Rhila.” Ramiro gestured to one of the other chairs, shooting an annoyed look at Larson. He’d have heard the cabin door hiss open, had it not been for the woman’s badgering and suspicion. “I apologize, the bunks in my cabins are far from the Reach’s best.” 

Rhila walked across the room and sat down, her even gait and floor-length garment made the motion look more like gliding than any natural motion. “The bedding is quite adequate.” She waved a golden hand which seemed to have either too many joints, or too few bones, then folded her hands in her lap. “Have I interrupted?” 

“Not anything important." Ramiro again spoke before Larson, though this time Larson opened her mouth too late to interject. “We were just trying to figure out which of our mutual friends recommended me and my ship.” 

“Ah.” Rhila blinked slowly, those blank, polished-ruby eyes vanishing under golden lids and then reappearing. “I had assumed it was your woman.” 

Ramiro had been raising his glass to his lips, and nearly spilled it in surprise. “What?” 

Larson, though somewhat less surprised than Ramiro at the alien’s deduction, nevertheless looked alarmed. “His woman?” 

“Or perhaps, she was your woman, and no longer.” Rhila pointed one long finger at Ramiro. “After all, she is not aboard.” 

Ramiro stared hard at the alien. Was this a bluff? Was Rhila helping Larson probe his Intelligence contacts? If not, then how had this creature come to so accurate a conclusion so quickly? He certainly was not at liberty to tell a diplomat from a foreign power what Livia was doing any more than he could tell Larson, even if he wanted to. 

After a long moment, the thought that these golden-skinned xenos might be telepathic entered his mind. Telepathy wasn’t real, of course; it was the stuff of salacious tales of explorers meeting buxom alien princesses on the deep frontiers. Even if an alien creature could detect the neural impulses in a human brain, how could it possibly learn to interpret them fast enough to be of any use? 

“I tried to explain to him earlier.” Larson held up her hands in defeat. “And he’s still surprised.” With a sigh, she stood and placed her glass in the cleaner. “I’m going to my cabin. We’ll talk tomorrow, Skipper.” 

Rhila’s blank eyes followed Larson out, then returned to fix on Ramiro. A smile – one that seemed less practiced than before, and more natural – tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Do not fear, Captain. I cannot read your thoughts. Such things are beyond our art.” 

Ramiro set his whiskey down. “Then how?” 

“We see many of the things you have trained yourself not to see. Small things that are familiar, and expected, which change only slightly.” Rhila held up her hand. “Look here. A being might go mad cataloging all of the things which one might learn from observing the momentary motion of one hand.” 

“A being who’s not you.” Ramiro nodded; he was beginning to understand, because he’d learned something about the art of reading and manipulating people from Livia. Were these diplomats nothing more than superhuman con-artists? What could that mean for whatever negotiations they were planning to undertake? 

Rhila’s eyes sparkled, and she emitted a broken-glass sound that Ramiro interpreted as laughter. “Maybe even I, someday. But not for a long time.” She leaned forward in her chair. “You fear us, now that I have revealed our art?” 

Ramiro shrugged. “A bit, I guess. You’re probably the third most worrying thing I’ve chatted with in this lounge.” 

“And the most terrifying of all was the woman.” Rhila nodded. “The space she once occupied has not healed.” 

Ramiro nodded; there was no point denying this. He missed Livia terribly, and missed her all the more every time her sporadic, halting messages came in. 

“I admit I find you a most interesting creature, Captain.” Rhila stood and stepped into the middle of the lounge. As she did, Ramiro wondered for a moment how he could have ever seen youth in her, until he realized that with the knowledge of reading subtle tells probably also came the capability of broadcasting them consciously. This being carried the experience of many human lifetimes, even if she might yet be young by the standards of her own kind. 

“I’m not for hire as a specimen.” Ramiro caught himself comparing the subtle curves of the xeno’s body to those of a human woman, as much as her robe-like garments allowed. After an instant’s self-recrimination, he realized that her posture had changed to one that would register for humans as sexually provocative. Was she trying to solicit him? Despite the general humanoid nature of their kind, the idea filled Ramiro with horror. What could such a liaison mean for her role as a negotiator with the Confederated Worlds? What would it mean for Livia, if she ever returned, if he had a cheap fling with an alien diplomat? 

“Ah, so then she is not gone forever.” Rhila walked past Ramiro toward the lounge door, seeming somewhat disappointed. “Do not let me dishonor what you already have.”