Chapter 2. Welcome

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We exit the spacecraft through a jetway whose walls are made entirely of glass. That should have been a relief, to be able to look around, but even though I am glad to set foot on solid ground again, my stomach jitters.

Everything looks different. The airport runway to our right is lined with planes that are airy and light, not at all the tubular monstrosities I'm used to. The trees at the edge of the runway are unfamiliar. Hell, it smells different here. An odd smell, layers upon layers of dust and pineapple cleaning products and chlorine and grease, that sticks to my nostrils and makes me want to gag.

Then Sennai breathes "Damn," and when I turn to see what he's looking at I'm suddenly cold to the core.

My face is plastered man-sized on the wall of the terminal building, next to Sennai's: both of us with a single hole in our forehead that leaks a trail of blood-red paint. A man in blue overalls is hastily scrubbing it off, but hasn't reached as far as the bright-red warning over our painted heads: DIE UPPERCUNTS.

I can't peel my eyes away from that word, DIE, or from the bloody bullet hole in my own forehead. Sennai has frozen in place, almost as mesmerized with the painting as he was in the space shuttle earlier; only this time, he looks both fascinated and a bit ill.

I only notice I've stopped walking when the Ambassador puts a hand on my shoulder. "Best not to linger," he says gently, and pushes us toward the jetway exit, into the terminal building.

I let myself be guided, trying to not trip over my feet, bile rising to the back of my throat.

The image clings to me even as we are hurried through empty hallways and down some stairs by two soldiers, then shoved into a waiting limousine on the other side of the building.

The car takes off, quiet except for the sound of the wheels on the asphalt and the air rushing against the windscreen, and Sennai and I sit next to each other in silence. After a while, I see him glancing at me from the corner of my eye, and again he makes as if to put a hand on my hand. He pulls back before finishing the gesture, and I pretend not to see. It's the least I can do: not embarrass him any further. He is allowed a private moment of weakness. We're all we have for the next couple of months, after all. Two of us and an ocean of them.

The ambassador slides up the internal partition to obscure us from the soldiers in front.

"Are you both all right?"

He keeps asking us that, and I'm not sure how to answer. Am I all right knowing someone in Base wants us dead? Could anyone be?

Sennai's Adam's apple bobs; then he says, grimacing: "Ask me again in a couple of days."

I try a smile, but the expression sits uneasy on my face. If I were at home right now, I might give in to the chills running through my body like platoons of marching soldiers. But not here. I must not show fear; not to the ambassador, and certainly not to our enemy – former enemy, though I feel even less sure of that now than I did this morning – even if our escort supposedly can't see me through the partition.

I breathe in deeply and push down the feeling, force the door closed on it. Fear never trumps honor – it's the first lesson my father ever drilled into me. The second, learned from my teachers, my nanny, the general society, is that honor is synonymous with Upper. And my mother, who would honor even her husband's most unreasonable demands, taught me dishonor means pain for those I love. I could live with dishonoring Upper, but I could never cause her more pain than I already have.

"I'll be fine," I tell Pilger.

"You should know most people don't actually want you dead," Pilger says. "There are some who hold grudges, but others are moving on."

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