“I don’t think I’ve seen so many people happy at once on board.” Alex leaned against the wall and took a pull from his drink. The tart cider was a traditional beverage for the Tslao winter festival, the bright flavor mixing well with mood. “Or so many people not minding me being around.”
“It is an auspicious time. The Namara shipyard has been returned to service, refit and expanded with the assistance of Humans.” Kenata was the Fifth Order of the squad he’d been training with. Sharp, a bit of an outsider and not at all interested in actually being in the military. He wanted to paint, saw it as important.
Alex sort of considered him a friend. Maybe. He still got this feeling he was in high school again and somehow being set up so some clique could get a laugh. Alternately, Alex was a crown prince. He could have them all executed on a whim, not that he would. “Good. That’s an important piece to have back in the game.”
“Yes.” Kenata sipped his cider. “It has been too long since good news was so common. The expansion colonies are stabilizing, trade routes are hardened against piracy and birth rates have risen. Though I do not think Humans had anything to do with the last of those.”
“You never know.” Alex shrugged.
He scoffed into his drink. “How could they have?”
“Look, I’m just saying I’ve heard some things.” He knew better than anyone just how incompatible Tslao and Humans were genetically. He had a brand new heart to prove it. He had also seen the still-classified report about the growing grey market for Human made luxury goods. Eleya had decided to allow it to exist because it provided a wide range of items that were not being produced in Tslao space, including things used in various sexual activities.
“Tzhai-aur.” The Tslao equivalent of calling bullshit on someone. He snorted and clicked his teeth, annoyed. “It is impossible.”
“You’re just not using your imagination.” Alex checked his watch and pushed off the wall, knowing that Kenata would find that insulting. “Anyway, I’ve got to get going. See you around.”
Kenata grumbled and flipped him off.
Alex would probably come to regret teaching his squad that someday, but he still thought it was hilarious right now. He pushed through the crowds in the common area, largely ignored and surprised at how good it felt to not have everyone staring and shrinking away. He’d spent most of his life trying to stand out in one way or another, just to find himself enjoying being background noise.
There was a lift lobby at the bow end of the pseudo-village and he needed to go up. Eleya had news about their operation to find out who had bugged his Amp and like anything that was remotely secretive, she wouldn’t discuss it over electronic means.
“Hey! There we are.” Eleya and Carbon were waiting at one of the restaurants they ended up frequenting. Alex supposed it was really good. He could just barely tell high quality Tslao cuisine apart from dispenser food and that was mostly by texture.
Carbon slipped an arm around him and stretched up for a kiss, something she’d only recently started doing in front of Eleya. She clearly didn’t appreciate it. “Your new clothes fit you well.”
“Yeah?” The tailors had set out to build him an outfit that was cribbed heavily from his own clothes but tweaked to give him a little more Tslao-ness. What they made were black slacks and a mock turtleneck to cover up all that nasty skin the wide collar of his jacket would have shown off. “I think the jacket needs to be longer. Give it a little bit of flow when I walk.”
She stole his cider and took a sip with a smile. “We will discuss it with them.”
“This is delightful to watch,” Eleya cleared her throat, “but there are a few things to discuss while we have the time.”
“Certainly. The intel team figure out who I need to punch yet?” Alex had been itching to apply violence to someone over this for the last few weeks. He knew it wouldn’t make the situation better, probably the opposite, but it felt good to think about.
“Unfortunately, no. The software package tracked to the northern hemisphere of Mars and we have not received any further contact from it.” She seemed legitimately sad about this.
“Damn.” There were any number of large corporations and military bases on Mars that it could have filtered into and been quashed by firewalls.
“Given our conversation about this project before, I have decided to ask you if you want to continue attempts to locate information related to the intrusion. The process from here is much less precise.”
Alex didn’t have to think about it, but Eleya asking him if he wanted this did give him pause. Did she actually care? “Do it. We’re in the area, might as well see if we can’t find something useful.”
She smirked and seemed quite pleased with herself. “The initial phase has already begun, seeding should commence within a day.”
“That’s great.” He rolled his eyes. Of course she had already gotten the ball rolling. If he said no, then she just would have called them off before any damage was done. More likely, she would have ignored his opinion and gone ahead anyway.
Still, that didn’t tarnish his mood. It was what he wanted anyway. Things were starting to feel right around the ship. He smirked and slipped an arm around Carbon as he bent to kiss her again. “You know, I was reading up about this holiday.”
“Were you?” She did nothing to hide how fake her surprise was.
“I was. Did you know, it’s traditional for the Royal family to give out little toys and stuff to kids.”
“Well... That hasn’t been practiced for a long time.” She gave him an indulgent smile.
“I’m just saying, I am trying to build up some good will around the, you know, entire race. It seemed like it was popular and the Sword is about as safe-”“You could not be more transparent.” Eleya cut him off with a huff. She knew exactly how much both of them disliked state dinners. “Go, before anyone else arrives. Just be sure the stories that make it back to me are impressive.”