“We have all exhausted our resources, and we have nothing. It’s time to call off the search for Stella. We have a vote in about a week,” Ekon says to the other UJC members in the meeting room at the embassy. Sitting at the head of the table, Ekon stares down the others.
Maoka shakes her head in disapproval. Ekon takes in her short beak and feathery body. He would love to clip her wings and the arms attached to those wings. Even without Stella, Maoka is a pain. She has the other humanoids agreeing with her.
“I still believe it was Fateen’s people. They’re upset because she took him into custody,” Maoka says, eyes searching the room as if looking for support.
“If that was the case, don’t you think the apes would have made an offer to trade her for him?” Rattus says slowly, wiggling his long mouth.
“I agree with Rattus,” Cimicidae says, pink body jiggling. Most of the others in the room are confused. “I know it’s rare that he and I agree, but he’s right. Why would the apes hold her?”
“Because she’s a great bargaining tool,” Lutow says. He is the softest spoken of the two humanoids left on the Consortium.
“I don’t buy it. Stella had some questionable dealings on other planets. Maybe she fled in fear she would be discovered for who she really was,” says Ekon, shrugging.
“That isn’t true. I know Stella, and she is the most honest person I’ve ever befriended,” Maoka says, feathers ruffling.
“Maybe your friendship with her blinds you.”
Maoka stares at Ekon, mouth open. He can feel the anger radiating from her. The accusation is clear in her eyes, but he knows she will not speak it. He is high speaker. Labeling him a kidnapper or murderer without proof is high treason, punishable by death. Ekon smiles broadly, goading Maoka into sealing her own fate. She does not take the bait.
“What more can we do? We’ve sent out search teams. We’ve raided dozens of hostile planets. I think we’ve hit a wall,” says Cimicidae, his beady eyes scanning faces as his jowls wobble.
Settling back in her seat, Maoka laces her fingers and sighs. Ekon calculates her resignation. With no support coming from anyone else in the room while he, Cimicidae and Rattus push back on her, she is outnumbered.
“I just don’t want to give up on finding Stella. What if she’s alive out there and is someone’s captive?” Maoka says.
“Maybe she’ll pop up soon,” says Ekon, forcing himself to hold back a laugh.
“Stella had told me she was expecting some sort of attack.”
Ekon leans forward, elbows on the table. “What type of attack?”
“A bombing, I think. She didn’t know who, but someone had been funneling her information. She was preparing for an attack on her planet.”
Ekon realizes he is leaning so heavily on the table, it is lifting. His hands have become fists, while his smile has faded. He relaxes his body, controlling his breathing. A bottle of dart blood would be great.
“Well, no attack came, or else we would have heard about it. Her secret source could be the one responsible for her disappearance,” Ekon says thoughtfully.
“You’re probably right. Whoever it was could have been setting her up from the beginning,” says Maoka, the last bit of resolve in her voice breaking.
“Look, I’m sorry about Stella,” says Ekon. He puts on his best sympathetic face, standing. “All of us are saddened by her absence, but we must move on. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have other business.”
“You told me not to feed them, so I haven’t. It’s been days since my last visit down here,” Dalla says walking beside Ekon.
“It smells like death down here. Such a pleasant smell,” says Ekon, entering Bahati’s cell.
The space is empty. Ekon nods, as if confirming his findings. He is not angry, only disappointed. Closing his eyes, he tries to imagine Bahati and the human escaping. They had not had any food in two or three days. Their energy was at the lowest possible. They would not have been in shape to stage an escape.
Finally looking across at Creo and Stella’s cell, Ekon sees what smells. Creo’s body is slumped in the cell toward the back. Ekon lifts the arms of the corpse. The body is stiff. He can tell the man was not killed no more than a week ago. The singed holes through his chest tell he was killed with a laser gun.
“He shouldn’t have died this way,” Ekon says, leaving the cell.
“Sad, isn’t it?” Dalla asks.
“Yeah. I had quite the line of torture waiting for him,” he says, picking his teeth.
Dalla lifts her eyebrows, and Ekon laughs at her confusion. Her expression brings a sense of comedy to the whole debacle. Three of his prisoners escaped, and they could be his undoing. It is such a disaster, it is almost funny. His silent laugh is ripe with bitterness and irony.
Ekon assumes Bahati and the others know if they are caught, they will be subjected to the finest form of torture. Their fear will make them careless or careful. Bahati is a hothead. She moves before she thinks. Stella is a different beast. She is intellectual and calculating. Her mistakes, if any, will be small. He knows she will not make an interstellar call because those kinds of calls are monitored by the War Fleet. Still, he will inform the Fleet to pay special attention to all incoming and outgoing calls.
Catching the escapees would be wonderful, but if they stay in hiding until after the vote on Experiment G-Three, that would be fine too. Their presence afterward would not have an impact, since he would be king. It makes him uncomfortable not knowing where they are or what they are doing, though. He twists one of his golden rings while he thinks.
“I had nothing to do with this,” Dalla says, spreading her hands.
His thoughts come to the present. “It doesn’t matter. They couldn’t have gone that far. I’ll get them, and they will pay in blood,” Ekon says.
The dart frog blood is warm as it would be straight from a body. Sitting in his Embassy office, he licks the tangy residue from his lips. This is some of the finest dart blood, aged for two hundred years. Though it is sweet, it carries a sour aftertaste. It is an acquired taste much stronger than his normal drink.
Taking in his office, he considers the pictures on the wall, all of himself. They were taken in a time when he knew he would be high speaker one day but was not aware of how far he could rise. He is a boy in most of the pictures but only in age. His mind has always been more mature than others his age.
“Compassion” was one of Khalia’s favorite words. She had always pressured him to be a compassionate leader. Her compassion is what emboldened the people of Grot. There had always been a divide between the capital and those people, and she had allowed Grot to dictate her pace too much. Ekon is putting those people in their place now.
He swallows a mouthful of dart blood and hisses, as it blazes down his throat. Its sweetness dulls the fiery sensation, cools him down. Pressing his tongue against the top of his mouth, he relishes the bitter taste left behind. He catches himself in a nod, barely avoiding thumping his skull against his desk.
As Ekon dangles the bottle over his extended tongue, nothing comes. He leans his chair back, until he falls, legs up, head on floor. The cloud the blood has shrouded around his brain numbs the pain. He rolls over, gets on all fours and uses his desk to pull himself to his feet.
“What do you want?” he asks the woman standing in the corner. Her image is blurred, preventing him from making out much more than a lady in a dress who has her hands folded at her abdomen. The smell is unmistakable, flowers and death.
“Look at what you’ve become,” Khalia says, her voice preachy.
“What do you want, Khalia?” Ekon says, stumbling to his feet. His back is slightly bent, shoulders at an odd angle.
“‘Khalia?’ I thought I was your mother.”
He points a shaky finger. “You are nothing to me.”
“I wanted so badly for you to be somebody, I couldn’t see you for what you are.”
“And what’s that? A king? Someone more than what you were?”
“A tyrant,” she says. Walking toward the window, she aims a hand at the outside world ablaze in the orange setting moon. “You could have had all this. You wanted more.”
Ekon steps on the other side of the desk, avoiding being too near her. “I have all of it and more.”
“No, son. You have a false perception. None of it is yours. The people do not love you.”
“I don’t need them. They’re peons, all of them.”
“And you’re a fool,” she says, her grey, thinning dreadlocks swaying at her hips. Her head is riddled with bald spots, and she looks older. Her skin is a translucent green that exposes the veins in her face.
He slams a fist into a wall. “I’m not a fool. Stop calling me that.”
She smirks. “Or you’ll cry?”
His response is interrupted by a knock on the door. “What do you want?” Ekon screams.
“Dalla said you wanted me,” Tau Bot says, as he opens the door.
Ekon resists running to the tall, dark-skinned man. He never thought he could be so happy to see a human, but he is. The familiar face comforts Ekon in an odd way. It forces him to forget his disdain for the very species Tau Bot is.
“Don’t you see her?” Ekon says, leveling a finger at Khalia standing near the window.
Tau looks between the window and Ekon. “Is there someone outside,” he asks.
“You don’t see her? Standing right there beside the window.”
“There is no one beside the window, High Speaker.”
Ekon lifts Tau off his feet by his shirt. “Look. Tell me you do not see what I see. Are you toying with me?”
“Your mind is eating itself alive,” Khalia says sorrowfully.
“Shut up,” Ekon tells her. “You shut your mouth.”
“High Speaker, should I come back later?” says Tau.
Ekon stares at the human, then drops him to the floor. It is a hard fall, but Tau recovers immediately, confusion in him. He really does not see what Ekon sees. Ekon scowls at Khalia, then blocks out her voice. Refusing to look at her, sits at his desk with her beside him. He ignores the odor of death coming from her.
“Tau Bot, I’ve called you here because you’ve been doing a good job,” Ekon says sincerely, words slurred.
“Thank you, High Speaker,” says Tau humbly.
“It seems Bahati, Imani Bot and Stella have escaped from the prison. I need you to find and kill them if necessary.”
“Is that all?”
Ekon tilts his head, weighing how much to tell the human. “You’ve been loyal to me from day one. I believe in rewarding those who are loyal to me. When you get back to the capital, there’ll be a promotion waiting for you.”
On his way out the door, Tau bumps into Beebe. Ekon watches the interaction closely. The two size each other up. Tau is not small, but Beebe is bigger and stronger, wearing orange and black armor. In any reptilian versus human fight, Ekon would put his money on the reptilian, but Tau has resolve. Maybe resolve is worth something in a fight.
“I came as soon as I got the message,” Beebe says, closing the door behind himself. He takes four long strides and sits opposite Ekon, the desk dividing them.
“Did you? I called for you hours ago,” Ekon says.
“You push people away,” says Khalia.
“Shut up,” Ekon mumbles.
“I didn’t say anything,” Beebe says.
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
Beebe looks behind himself and around the room, confused. Then, he picks up the empty bottle of dart blood. “Did you drink this all by yourself today? This kind of dart blood is powerful.”
“It’s not too powerful for me,” Ekon says, taking another bottle and an extra glass from the bottom drawer of his desk. “Have a drink with me.”
“I’m not really in the mood.”
Ekon disregards what Beebe says and fills each cup to the brim. The room is lit with the aroma of sticky sweetness. It makes Ekon salivate. It is a challenge for him not to drain his own cup. Khalia antagonizes him, urges him to drink deep. Part of his mind is fighting to comply, yet his body refuses.
“Did you know Bahati, Stella and Imani Bot escaped?” Ekon says.
Beebe stutters. “No. No. When did that happen?”
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is, since the day I took my mother’s seat, you let nothing taint your loyalty to me. To me, that’s worth celebrating.”
“It’s my job, and I believe in your vision.”
“I killed Khalia, and you stood beside me. I have killed or had hundreds killed, many of them hatchlings, and you stood beside me.”
Beebe smiles, relaxes his shoulders. Ekon sees the tension ease from the other man, so he smiles as well. He can not recall a time when they had sat like this, two friends having a drink. It is something Ekon would never have imagined, but he did, and it is the perfect cover.
Ekon gives a few more words, and watches Beebe down the poison dart blood. The convulsions start immediately. Ekon grins, watching Beebe’s eyes roll to the back of his head. His body jumps, as though electrocuted. He digs his nails into the arms of the chair, as the convulsions become more intense. Then, he stops moving, his mouth wide and dripping foam and blood.
“You stood by me through the worst. I thought I could trust you,” Ekon says to the corpse.
Ekon cracks open another bottle of dart blood and pushes aside the glasses on his desk to make room for the clean one. He fills the cup and drinks deep. The sizzling burn in his throat does not deter him from downing another cup. His head spins quicker now, while his words become more slurred.
“You helped kill innocent reptilians, but you couldn’t put your obsession with that humanoid Stella to the side. It’s amazing,” Ekon says thoughtfully.
“He’s dead,” Khalia says.
“I know you are the leaker who funneled information to Stella. You were the only one who I told about the plan to bomb Stella’s world,” says Ekon to the dead body, ignoring Khalia.
She steps between him and the corpse. Ekon has no choice but to watch her dig her thin hands into Beebe’s mouth. Her hand bulges in his throat, but she goes further and deeper, until her hand can be nowhere but the belly. She yanks out the dead man’s innards and twists blood from them. Blood and gore drip on the floor.
“What are you doing?” Ekon asks, words nearly inaudible.
The sight unhinges Ekon. Seeing Khalia standing there with a man’s intestines in her hands sickens him, horrifies him. He feels his last meal bubble in his stomach and up his throat, unable to stop the bile from spilling from his mouth to his desk.
Khalia drops the organs and brandishes her scaly, red hands. She rushes over the desk and smears Ekon’s clothes and face. He screeches in shock. He rips off the bloodied clothes, but the bloody palm prints are on his naked chest and will not come off.
“What have you done to me?” he says.
She grins. “There is blood in the rain.”