The First Ambassador to Crustacea (7)

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7. Friends

Zip read over the mission briefing one more time. Transport VIP to planet, monitor situation, protect VIP. Three tasks, all straight, clipped, and to the point. Protect the VIP. Reading over the words again, there was some room for interpretation, but not enough to turn her back on Pilsen and still get paid. Still, the odds that he was breathing were slim. The negotiation center was a wreckage of burnt metal, charred chitinous bodies, and brown blobs of yeast. Whatever the lobsters did, they did it with brutal efficiency. Blue blood was spattered across the walls in a pattern that almost looked artistic. If it hadn’t been for the rotting smell of decaying seafood, the color might have actually been an improvement.

Protect the VIP. Dead people didn’t need protecting. Unfortunately for Zip, the bodies surrounding her were all crustacean in species, and as far as she could tell, not a drop of the blood was red. She cursed herself for not putting a vitals monitor in Pilsen’s rations. That’s it, mandatory ‘vitamins’ for all future passengers. People would take anything if they believed their safe passage through uncharted space depended on it. Rather than having a convenient blinking light telling her if Pilsen was alive or dead, Zip was stuck in a sea of moral ambiguity. She needed something, anything to prove he was dead.

“You couldn’t have left me a finger?” Fingers were ambiguous too, but usually enough to stave off any unpleasant court appearances or withheld wages. Political servants weren’t loved, but the law treated them as though they were. Searching an aquatic planet for a single kidnapped humanoid was going to be an exhausting task. Zip was in the middle of turning around to head back to the ship and make herself a pot of coffee when a small, metallic voice called out from the corner of the room.

            “Helllp.”

            The thought of coffee was erased by short, efficient breaths as Zip returned to combat readiness. She raised her gun to her shoulder and swept it methodically around the room, checking for any lurking invaders she might have missed. Luckily, the area’s spartan design left little to the imagination. What she had missed was an overturned table, currently pinning a terrified-looking shrimp to the floor. Looking at it, the creature was easy to miss. At first glance, he looked just as broken as the other, more deceased creatures.

            “Don’t shoot.” The creature’s voice was weak and mechanical, coming from a small metal box by its neck.  

            Zip looked at the shrimp, wondering if it was the same one she had seen earlier. Ordinarily, shrimp were food, and the resulting face blindness was enough to raise some brief mental questions. “Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t, and I won’t.” Sure, the shrimp didn’t look like it was on the side of the lobsters, but Zip was already halfway to pulling the trigger and needed a hand coming back from the edge.

            “I know where they’re taking your ambassador.” Sparks shot out the end of the metal box, stuttering and blurring the creature’s words.  

            You had to say something. A tension headache crept into the corners of Zip’s head. “Alright, I’m going to ask this next part carefully, and you’re going to give me a truthful answer. Lie to me, and you might not die right now, but I can promise you, later will be worse.” She meant it. Back home, there were thirty ways to fry a shrimp, and the one sitting before her was a step above jumbo. Zip took a deep breath. “Is ambassador Pilsen still alive?” Just Say dead. She had no hatred for the man, but if there was an option to hightail it off the planet without any further firefights and still get a paycheck, she was taking it.

            “Y-yes.” The shrimp’s limbs moved excitedly. “Well, at least, he was when they left. I’m not sure for how much longer.”

            Zip let out a breath hissing between her teeth. “And why would his vitality be in a questionable or temporary state?’ There was some anger in the question, but she was losing steam by the minute.

            “The l-lobsters are zealots. They’ll be taking him to the deep. I’m not sure what they plan to do with him once they get there, but I can tell you it likely doesn’t end well.”

            At least he’s honest. “The deep?” Zip lowered her rifle and started moving the table off the shrimp’s body. It was a miracle the damned thing hadn’t cut the creature in half. 

            “S-sorry, the drop off.” The voice box gave another stuttering spark.

            “Still not helping me with the nomenclature. You sure it’s safe to be holding that thing?” Zip motioned toward the metal box.

            The shrimp gave a shrug. “If I wasn’t holding it, our communications would take long, and your compatriot would die before I could explain myself. The drop off is the edge of the continental shelf where we have built our city. The water grows dark and the journey becomes – perilous. We need to get moving, quickly.”

            “We, huh?” Perilous was yet another fancy word for death. Any journey that had been billed as perilous meant at least fifty percent of the crew was expendable. With her and the shrimp making up the rescue, Zip didn’t like her odds.

            “They’ve got Huron too, and you’re not going to be able to find them on your own. The ocean is… big.”

            “Yeah,” Zip heaved the last piece of rubble away from the shrimp’s body, freeing its unsettling number of limbs. “Oceans tend to be that way.” She took a step back, allowing the shrimp to get freely to his feet.

            The shrimp tested out his limbs, moving gingerly, but otherwise fine. “There is one problem.”

            Zip looked down at her machine gun that was not built for aqueous combat, then at the devastation that was the negotiation table, and then back to the shrimp. “Yeah, one problem. Let me guess, you don’t have anything that’s going to keep me alive below the surface.”

            The shrimp nodded, meekly.

            “Yeah, well, lucky for you, unlucky for me, I come prepared.” Nana’s Hog was outfitted for just about every eventuality but was not an aqueous vessel. However, with the gracious stipend afforded to her for expenses by the UCP’s reserve fund, Zip had purchased something that was. The accountants grumbled at the trail of receipts it had taken her to acquire such a piece, but in the end, they let her keep it. Underwater combat was another fast way to die, but on the other hand, giant mechanical suits were just plain fun

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