By Chris Dean
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The Drumarian marines searched him at the gate. And again in the vestibule inside. Don slid a hard cinnamon stick into a gloved hand each time. Nods were exchanged. He was cordially escorted to the office of the High Ambassador.
The High Ambassador was a commanding figure with a prominent yellow beak and a brilliant slash of violet plumage crowning his head. His dark eyes gleamed with intelligence and when he spoke the high voice necessitated attention. "Mr. Rubin, sit down," he said, sliding into his chair behind the desk.
"Ambassador," Don said.
"I have reconsidered our position regarding the proposed colonization of Mars."
"I thought you might."
"We will provide the transportation that you requested."
Don placed a tin of powdered cinnamon on the desk. The High Ambassador gasped. He quickly recovered his composure and said, "This venture will be very expensive."
Another cinnamon tin joined the first.
The ambassador's voice began to flutter with excitement. "The fuel-for our ships."
Hands shaking, the High Ambassador gathered the cinnamon up. "This will do. This will do fine."
Don knew the Drumarian was eager to try his prize. "Go ahead. Don't mind me," he said.
"I shouldn't. Right now? No."
Amused, Don said, "Enjoy."
A sharp glance and the High Ambassador began the ritual. He extracted a brown tube and a thin-bladed knife from a drawer. He arranged these two items carefully before him. Opening a tin, he sniffed and smiled. He tapped out a tiny orange mound.
Don also enjoyed the ritual. It happened every time he visited the embassy. The diplomat was hopelessly addicted and he couldn't resist. The assistant knocked at the door, another part of the ceremony. He brought in a beer for Don and waited. His dark blue eyes never left the mound of cinnamon.
The High Ambassador frowned. He cut a very small amount of cinnamon from the pile. He pushed it aside.
Face flushed, the assistant plucked his own tube from a pocket. He bent and snorted the tiny bit of cinnamon. His body jerked upward and feathers snapped. He wheezed, "Thank you, High Ambassador."
The assistant bowed and left the room. Don opened his beer and took a drink. It was an alien beer called crugg. He had one every time he came, another part of the ritual. The High Ambassador made a line of cinnamon on the desk. He snorted it. Another line disappeared. He set his tube down and lolled back in the chair. His eyes were glazed.
"Good?" Don asked.
Don sipped his beer and the High Ambassador stared at the ceiling. "I wouldn't mind getting a case of this crugg," Don said.
Suddenly the door burst open and several of the marines rushed in. A tall Drumarian dressed in a shiny black uniform entered. "The attache to the Earth Ambassador, Mr. Rubin," he said in a high cackle. "And High Ambassador Pinchet. Together."
The High Ambassador stared nervously at the intruder.
"Tell me, Pinchet, what did you give them this time? Cold fusion conversion? More medical technology?"
The High Ambassador ventured weakly, "We are conducting an official negotiation."
"You can explain what you're doing to a judgment council. You're being charged with corruption and use of an intoxicant." The tall Drumarian addressed Don, "Allow me to introduce myself. Security Officer Allington."
Don feigned ignorance. "Intoxicant? Corruption? My god, High Ambassador, what have you been up to?"
"You!" Pinchet went crazy. He jumped up and started around the desk.
Allington ordered the marines, "Take him away."
As Pinchet was being dragged off, he protested, "It was him. This is entirely his fault!"
"I have absolutely no idea what he's talking about," Don said.
Allington reacted with disdain. "Like all of your kind, you are an inveterate liar."
"I deny that too."
"Humans are the most deceitful life form in the galaxy. Look at what you've done to Pinchet. You've turned him into a pathetic weakling dependent on your cinnamon."
Don took a sip of his beer. He hadn't actually hooked the High Ambassador. The whole thing began with an accidental dosing in the form of cinnamon pancakes. Pinchet had eaten twenty-three of them at that fateful brunch and stolen two cinnamon shakers. Don had been his supplier ever since and diplomatic negotiations were going extremely well.
"A Drumarian could never conceive of such a despicable scheme." Allington sat. "And Pinchet has told others. Several members of the embassy staff have taken up this vile habit. I suspect some of the guards have also fallen prey."
"You don't say." Don repressed a grin.
"You are deplorable. All you humans."
"Is this going to affect the Mars mission?"
"We just finalized an agreement. You didn't know?"
"Hah! You cannot possibly be serious. Any prior agreement is void and you know it."
"I thought it was worth a try."
Allington honked an ugly laugh. "I think you'll find that things are going to be different in the future. One change you may find particularly interesting is our request for a personal liaison for the new High Ambassador. We'll be needing you full time, Mr. Rubin."Don knew there was more to this. "I'll be working here?"
"You will be acting as the High Ambassador's envoy on a very special project."
Waving a finger, Allington declined to answer. "No, no. That would ruin the surprise."
"I want you to know I never actually did anything to High Ambassador Pinchet. That really was all an accident."
"Were you not willing to take advantage?"
"I suppose." There was no sense trying to mislead Allington. The Drumarian knew it all.
"You will be allowed to make amends."
Allington's amusement shone in his eyes and Don winced. His penance would be unpleasant. "Tell me what you're going to do to me."
"All in good time. You may be pleased to learn my people will be providing transportation and support for the Mars mission. Several missions actually. For a suitable fee, of course."
"You're sending me to Mars?"
"If only you were that fortunate, Mr. Rubin."
Don cringed. Mars was a barren planet. What could be worse?
The security officer brushed an invisible speck off his cuff. "You see, part of the contract we'll be offering your people includes expedited terraforming. It's an exponential process that will transform Mars into a habitable planet. It will be a paradise in no time at all," he said.
"But I won't be going there."
"We want you on a project of great importance here on Earth. A large portion of our fee for transportation, terraforming, and associated amenities will be in the form of enriched uranium. You'll be working in the field, helping to ensure delivery."
"You want me as what? Project manager?"
Allington's beak twisted up at the corners and his blue head feathers stiffened. A tiny chuckle chirped in his throat. "Mr. Rubin, we feel a valuable asset like you will be more effective as a direct, proactive representative."
This did not sound good at all. What in the world was Allington going to do with him? Don sputtered, "You-?"
"Don't be concerned. Our standard agreement for envoys only runs four Earth years."
"You humans live to be one hundred, correct? What's four short years?"
Don slumped. This was going to be bad. Four years suddenly seemed like a lifetime.
The last load crushed Don inside the cab and he clung to the hot steering wheel. Brakes squealed coming down the mountain. Forty tons of yellow cake shifted at his back as the eighteen smoking wheels recoiled. He veered onto the turn-out, zipping up the light grade to the top. Downshifting, engine growling, he eased the heated rig into a crawl and went to the rear of the processing plant. He backed the semi-tractor trailer up to a bay and turned her off. One hand yanked at the handle and the door swung open. An easterly simoom sloshed warm air over him and a smile cracked one side of his broad face. The last load of the day was always the worst.
Pink Tinsdale loped over with an e-cigarette chugging out white clogs of smoke. "Where you been, cuz? I been here twenty minutes," he drawled. Beads of perspiration clung to his dark face.
"It's not a race," Don said.
"Lucky thang for you."
"You going to the hill tonight?"
"I think I'll join you."
Pink popped off the John Deere ball cap and replaced it. He squinted with curiosity. "Thought you hated the Drumarians and that spot."
Don slid out of the cab and down to the pavement. "Hate is a strong word."
"What changed your mind, cuz?"
"Let's just say I came around."
"Do you have to know every single detail of my life, Pink?" Don was used to this. The drivers were a close-knit group and Pink was the worst. The rambunctious Mississippian had no sense of propriety whatsoever.
Don fished the letter from a pocket. "Then read this."
He ambled to the rear of the trailer. Tires looked fine. A supervisor stuck her head out and told him it would be a half hour before she could check him in. He shot her a wave.
"Is this the Drumarian what sent you down here?" Pink asked as he read the letter.
"The very same."
"Seems to me he's just rubbing it in. What he done to you."
Pink's eyes twitched and blinked. Don waited for the outburst. Allington had done something so uncharacteristically beneficent that it was worth a hoot, and maybe a holler. That's why Don would be on the hill that night looking at the spot for the first time. He would be going up there when his contract ran out.
"You get a ticket to Mars? If thet don't beat all!" Pink crowed. Allington was sending Don to the red planet after all.
Only Mars wouldn't be red in two more years. The spot, which could be seen from Earth at perihelion, would continue to grow until the entire planet turned blue. The Drumarians had learned to grow ecosystems a million years ago and they were very good at it. Don would be immigrating to a paradise.
Pink went on and on, about how Allington liked Don after all, and how lucky he was that Allington was giving him a job like that too. When the Drumarians opened up Mars, Don would be part of the Martian diplomatic corps. Pink back-slapped him. "You are one lucky son-of-a-gun."
Don couldn't agree more. He gazed at the sky, the color of sapphire, thin clouds trailing in the west. Up there, sixty million miles or so, was another chance. Allington was giving him an opportunity to redeem himself and Don was not about to let him down. He owed it to the Drumarian. And to himself as well.