They arrived at the conference room second despite being about 45 minutes early. An advance contingent of Royal Guard were already there to secure the area, with Sergeant Zhensen on hand to smooth anything out with the humans.
Colonel Lhenan and Senator Khalene were already seated on the Tslao side of the table, speaking quietly to each other.
“How are you doing?” Eleya stood near the door with a cohort of guards hovering around her protectively, but at a respectful distance. Alex leaned on the table and Stana stood nearby, ready to report on something.
Alex knew what she meant, and it wasn’t about him. The upload had started pouring out of his Amp a few moments after they had departed the shuttle. Despite the multi-terabit wireless link, it had only recently finished. He nodded, his actual answer to her. “It’s good to be back.”
“I am pleased to hear it.” She turned to the Sergeant. “Have there been any problems today?”
“Nothing unexpected, excellency. All preparations have been without trouble.” She spoke in Tsla, for the time being. “Perimeter was established four hours ago-”
Eleya stopped her with a gesture. “Thank you, sergeant. I trust Colonel Lehnan to be thorough. Would you excuse us?”
“Of course, Empress.” She bowed low and stepped back before turning away, taking up position in the hallway near the entry to the room.
Alex knew better than to assume there was no listening device in here. Perhaps Eleya was rubbing off on him, because he was pretty sure that he’d have just started flapping his gums about any old thing before a few months ago. Assuming that ONI had been the one spying on him, he mentally reviewed what he felt he could talk about. There was a noticeable deficit in things that were not secret in one way or another. “So... Got any dinner plans tonight?”
“Last time Carbon was on station, we were having dinner with an old friend and that got cut short. It’d be nice to finish that. And because if I come back onto station without at least saying hello, he’ll kill me.”
It took Eleya a moment to determine that he didn’t mean that literally. “Is there an appropriate dining facility here?”
“Oh, sure.” There had to be some kind of dining room for brass and dignitaries. He’d only been in the two commissaries and the pub-like Noonan’s on the secure side of the station, though. There was a coffee shop, an italian place, a bar and a themed restaurant for the tourists... Alex found himself particularly amused at the idea of dragging Eleya into the retro sci-fi pastiche of little green aliens in flying saucers there. “Noonan’s, of course.”
“I believe that it could be fit in. I will discuss the matter with security after this meeting.”
“Oh! I’d have to bring my mom, too. She’s on station and all, so, you know.”
“Yes.” She seemed to like the idea less now that he was stacking people on. “I have been remiss in not speaking to her yet.”
“I’ve heard that she’s eager to meet you.”
That did not improve her outlook. “I am sure.”
“That’s it, though. I don’t really know anyone else on board that... Huh.” He watched a dark skinned marine walk up to Zhensen in the hall and give her a shove. “Shit, hold on.”
He was up and halfway to the door when the Tslao sergeant shoved the marine back, both glaring at each other as they exchanged heated words and began a handshake far too complex for this to have been their first meeting.
“Ah, Alex.” Zhensen smiled wide and gestured to the marine. “This is an old friend of mine, lieutenant Dorthea Williams.”
“I can tell.” He could now, anyway. “Good to meet you, lieutenant.”
She gave him a nod and a thin smile. “Likewise, Mr. Sorenson. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Ha, really? All good, I hope.”
“Good enough.” The lieutenant sounded like she meant it as a compliment.
“Great. So, I’ll just go... back in there.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, stepping backwards into the conference room. He didn’t particularly like that she knew who he was already, but it was nice that she was upfront about that.
“I will join you, Mr. Sorenson. The Admiral should be here in just about two minutes.” Williams gave Zhensen a nod and followed Alex, stepping past him and waiting behind the second to last chair on the human side of the table.
His chair was, naturally, the last one. Admiral Argueta had the first seat and one Captain Thames was next to her. They were all involved in the project to explore of the artifact in one way or another. Which reminded him... “Excuse me, Lieutenant. What’s the name for this operation? Haven’t heard it yet.”
“Last I heard, it was Shadow Steppe.” While she did not roll her eyes, there was a certain tone in her voice that intimated it. “Like a prairie, not walking.”
Oh no, that’s not obvious at all. “Wow, that feels a little on the nose. Someone got out their thesaurus, huh?”
“Better than the first two I heard floated.” She finished that under her breath, straightening up as the Admiral and Captain arrived, Carbon in tow.
Admiral Argueta gave Eleya a shallow bow. “Thank you for coming here in person, Empress Tezhan. It is heartening to see you take a direct interest in this project.”
Eleya waited a beat before she gave the admiral a nod, pretending that she was still using a regular translator and that Argueta’s bow was deep enough not to be insulting. “Given the importance of the task, it is best that I am involved directly. Particularly when one considers how our previous joint effort yielded nothing that was intended.”