The ambassador’s richly tailored white suit glowed. A dozen marines spread around the perimeter of the restaurant and wedged themselves into tiny booths. The room’s windows had been bolted shut to keep out the sunlight and heat. Madelyn stood waiting, her linen blazer cleanly pressed. The ambassador dabbed his pink brow with an ornate handkerchief, then he sat and Madelyn followed. His smile was practiced and precise. She did not return it.
“It’s hot today,” he said.
“It’s a desert planet,” said Madelyn. “It’s hot every day.” Two glasses of sima sat on the table between them. The ambassador raised a glass and Madelyn followed.
“It’s quiet here,” he said.
“Only between the dunes,” said Madelyn. “If you’d like to hear the wind, I can arrange for someone to escort you to the ridgetop, though I wouldn’t recommend it. At speed, the sand can clean cattle to the bone, like the piranhas of the old world.”
“You’re not one for subtle conversation, are you?” The ambassador’s guffaw was well-rehearsed but halfhearted. He felt that his time was wasted in the Periphery. “It’s wonderful what you’ve done here, building something in this place. No easy feat, that.”
He waited for her to speak and still she said nothing. And so they sat in silence, waiting and watching and listening. The ambassador’s sense of decorum fought his impatience. He wanted to be home, or at least somewhere he could get a nice syrah. “It’s hard with these new worlds. This one, I daresay, was especially hard. Better times are ahead.”
His words poured like water onto the sands and dried as quickly, leaving nothing but the implacable silence that lurked behind everything in the valley of the dunes. When Madelyn refused to interrupt that silence, he continued.
“The Allied Worlds are ready for Dyyni to join them, which means life is about to become much easier for you. Congratulations.” He raised his glass but, this time, Madelyn did not follow. “The Allied Worlds bring prosperity. Isn’t that what this was all for?” His white teeth flashed in a smile and Madelyn thought that they looked sharp, like the rows of a shark’s teeth that she had seen in pictures, dangerous and desperately out of place on a world like Dyyni. Just like the Allied Worlds who were swooping in to enforce membership and conformity on people who had made a living without either.
“I am sorry to have wasted your time, ambassador,” said Madelyn. “Dyyni will not join the Allied Worlds. If better times are ahead, it is because of the men and women who work to make this land their home, not profiteering imperialists.”
“Come now,” said the ambassador. “That’s a harsh view, Madelyn.”
“Ah, that’s right,” said the ambassador. The sharpness of his eyes betrayed his condescension. “You established an election. Found yourself ‘elected’ president, too. What a surprise. But calling yourself a king doesn’t make you one.”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Madelyn. The ambassador waited for a further retort but none came. He smiled, mildly surprised that this was all the resistance Dyyni could muster—he had expected more, that was why he had brought his marines—but he was not surprised that he had won. He always won. Every territory came under his sway eventually. They might buck at the yoke but they would tire, worn down by the monolithic power of their adversary, like all that had come before. The ambassador smiled and sipped his drink.
“I admire your passion,” he lied. “But it’s too late. There’s nothing to be done.”
Madelyn drained her glass. Four of the marines stood from the cramped booths and positioned themselves in the corners of the room. “You misunderstand,” she said.
The ambassador sighed. “Must we do this the hard way?”
“Only if you insist.” Even as she spoke the words, the four standing soldiers each drew two pistols. A barrel aimed between the eyes of every seated soldier.
“You underestimate us, ambassador,” said Madelyn. “You weren’t the first to do so but you will be the last.”
“Think about this,” said the ambassador. The pink had left his face. “If you kill me, the Allied Worlds will retaliate. You’ll doom Dyyni just as it begins to have hope.”
“We have had hope. Infiltrating the bureaucracy of the Allied Worlds was even easier than getting our men into your personal guard. Your government is too large, stretched too thin with too little connective tissue. We’re already inside but you can help us. Or, if you remain uncooperative, I’ll tell the Allied Worlds that your ship burned up in orbit. A tragic accident. They’ll send another—your’e not so irreplaceable as you think—but that trip will take a dozen years. We’ll be ready for them by then.”
“I’m offering you a choice. You have known freedom. Will you help us be free? You have access to information worth many lives.”
“And if I refuse?”
“You were a military man, Mr. Ambassador?”
“Then you already know the answer.”
The ambassador looked into her eyes. It couldn’t be. No one refused the Allied Worlds, the greatest military might the universe had ever known. No one, not even an insane despot on a wayward planet, would kill an ambassador. It could not be. It was farce and he was a man of honor and dignity. He would not be bullied, he would not betray his office, he would not be told when to speak or what to say.
“Your passion is admirable,” he said, “but your threats are empty.”
Madelyn’s smile was jagged.
“A poor choice, Mr. Ambassador. But yours to make.”
She turned and left, pressing her finger to a microscopic earpiece. “Tragedy it is,” she said. She walked through a doorway and out onto the sand. The sky was radiant, the sunlight piercing. Behind her, eight shots rang out simultaneously, followed by one final blast. Madelyn did not turn back.