Pilsen shivered in the cold, dank confines of wherever the hell the lobsters had put him. His limbs ached, and the demoralizing sensation that he would never see home again was omnipresent. There would be no more afternoons spent in his lavish office, seeing to the wants of the people, and then denying them. No more power grabs to contend with or foment. Instead, there would only be the cramped metal walls penning him in until his untimely death. At least, he considered it untimely.
His head throbbed from the remnants of the lobster attack. The negotiations were going so well. The word ‘lobsters’ had barely left Huron’s lips before the creature’s came bursting through a solid stone wall. Their attack was swift, and effectively firebombed any latent sense of political ambition Pilsen still held. He had attempted surrender, but as was often the case, brutality trampled politics. Pilsen had been in the process of constructing an off-white flag from linens and forks when a lobster claw smashed him on the forehead. In the seconds before hitting the floor and unconsciousness, Pilsen could only think of the UCP hostage negotiation protocol. Put simply, the global government had plenty of servants and a surplus of debt. Put even more simply, no negotiations.
Pilsen groaned, the sound of his own misery echoing back to him. Years, years of political training only to be taken hostage on his first real assignment. Back home, LaVain would find a way to spin his demise to her advantage. Maybe she’d even place a wreath in his honor. Nothing too big or gawdy, just enough to let the people know she cared, and just little enough to convey spite towards his corpse. If she could find a way to spit on his body, or what remained of it, in private, Pilsen had no doubt that she would. That was politics, and even thinking about it, he felt a swell of pride in the profession. He had come so close to meaning something or being somebody, but in the end, he would die in the dark.
Initially, he had scoffed at Zip’s insistence on staying with the ship, but given his current predicament, it had proved the wider decision. He wondered how she fared topside. The concussive blasts of the Hog’s antimatter guns were unmistakable, and yet, not quick enough to come to his rescue. Yet another instance in his life of ‘close, but not close enough’. Pilsen tried to stretch and hit the lid of his container with an already bruised knuckle. Suppressing the urge to scream, Pilsen took a deep breath. His tiny prison was thick with condensation despite a constant flow of air from somewhere near his feet. Like everything on the wretched planet, it smelled of salt water and primordial decay.
Treats political prisoners poorly. That would be the line in the report, if there was one. It helped to carry on in his mind as if there might be another day, even if the odds were growing slimmer by the moment. As if in answer to his brief swell of hope, the container tilted and Pilsen felt himself descending. Where were they going? He had to guess it was somewhere below the sea. Granted, just about anywhere on Crustacea would have been below the sea. His only real hope was that the lobsters were smart enough to realize he would need continual oxygen to be there. The slow flow of air was a hopeful sign.
A drop of water fell from the container onto Pilsen’s forehead, rolling toward the corner of his mouth. He reached a hand up to try and stop it but banged his knuckles again. Shooting pain gave way immediately to a dull throb. At a certain point, the body stopped caring about minor inconveniences. He gave up and leaned his head against the floor of the container. The water tasted like salt, sweat, and defeat.
Before he had any more chances to contemplate the mistakes that had led him to his current predicament, light, what little there was, spilled through the top of the container. The ocean’s crystal blue color had changed to an inky purple as what remained of visible light faded away. Wherever they were, it was far deeper than Pilsen was comfortable with. Above him, a glass barrier separated him from two large lobsters and Huron, now captured. Beyond, he could see the silhouette of the continental shelf fading above them.
“I wouldn’t bang on that glass too hard,” came a voice out of nowhere, ringing through Pilsen’s head.
Telepathy? Pilsen had wondered about the various radioactive effects of a psychic ocean but had never taken the leap into the full fantasy of telepathy. Of course, the lobsters are telepathic. Mentally, he added it to the growing list of troubling facts that would make up his report.
“Still thinking of reports, even in this, your time of dire need. A political servant to the end.” One of the large lobsters leaned over Pilsen’s window. Its skin was a mottled orange with green and black splotches running down powerful mandibles. Two ridges of spines ran between its beady black eyes and down its back. Up close, it was a terrifying sight. “You’re smaller than I imagined, but still, it’s a pleasure to meet an esteemed negotiator of the UCP. My name is Gabriel, leader of the Crustacean Revolutionary Action Brotherhood. ”
Pilsen took a deep breath and slowed his heart rate enough to eek out a sentence. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Gabriel.” More well spoken than I expected. He tried to cut the thought off as he had it, but it was too late.
Something between a laugh and a rasp cut through his mind. “Yes, I don’t imagine the research was quite so good on us. Bunch of savages dropped on a planet and forgotten. An exhibit for you to bring back to your superiors. No materials of value, no luxuries, no promising technology, only a threat. What was it your historians called the races they couldn’t conquer?”
Pilsen was at a genuine loss for words and comprehension. Outside, natural light faded completely, replaced by an artificial orange glow of guiding beacons along a single rail. Malformed rocks cast monstrous shadows against white particles floating in the ocean. Pilsen wondered if he had ever been closer to living through a nightmare. “I’m not quite sure I understand your meaning.” Pilsen understood it fine, but there was a simple rule as an ambassador: When possible, stray away from the topics of conquerors and colonization.
“Bug planets,” finished the lobster. “You called them bug planets.”
Pilsen silently cursed whoever had seen fit to put ‘bug planet’ in publicly available documents. “Past leaders were not careful or kind with their language.” While technically true, it avoided the subject of present leaders and their tendency to send political rivals down to aquatic hellholes.
“Past leaders, of course.” Gabriel looked away to the rocks. Beady black eyes reflected the shine of the rail’s lights, revealing shadowy, chitinous forms hiding in crags.
Pilsen imagined the sound of scuttling even through the muted nature of his container. “If it’s a consolation, Crustacea wouldn’t be categorized as a bug planet.” Another technical truth that could change if Pilsen’s report ever made it back.
“Oh no? What are we categorized as then?”
And there was the flaw in Pilsen’s logic, plain to see like a flare in pitch black. He had played chess with himself and lost, again. Knowing there was little chance of hiding his thoughts, Pilsen tried honesty for one of the first times in his life. “A planet of little interest.”
Gabriel recoiled slightly in what might have been shock, bemusement, or anger. It was impossible to tell. “Little interest.” A series of harsh clicks came from below Pilsen’s box as their transport settled to a stop.
“I’d hardly say that now.” It was true. Threats to the UCP were of the highest interest. Crustacea might not have been in fighting shape yet, but with a little more political instability, they’d be on their way.
“No, someone in your position wouldn’t be wise to say a thing like that. In any case, it doesn’t matter. Your interest in us is no longer part of the equation. Take heart, your death will have meaning to our people.”
Pilsen gulped. “Might I suggest an alternative proposal?” Negotiations were in dire straits, but there was always a final play. There had to be.
“No.” There was no menace or hurt in the words, only finality. “We’ve already taken you prisoner. If your superiors were to find out, any negotiations we made would be voided. I’ve read the history of the UCP, much as they thought I wouldn’t. They bill themselves as a benevolent, unifying organization, but really, they’re as bad as their ancestors that dropped us here.”
Pilsen’s heart turned to lead. Only then did it become clear how well and truly LaVain had screwed him with his assignment.“W-well, that isn’t entirely—”
Gabriel slammed a claw on the glass, cutting off further argument. “Beyond that, I don’t trust you, Ambassador Pilsen. You have a busy and calculating mind, two things we have no need of here. At least you have a beautiful place to spend the end of your life.”
Pilsen could not have disagreed more. Oppressive gloom and spiderlike creatures hiding in every crag and cranny did not make beauty. Still, he tried to manage a smile.
“Even when you don’t speak, you lie.” Gabriel removed his claw from the glass. A small crack had formed from the impact. “Be seeing you.”
“Wait!” The cover of Pilsen’s container slid shut, returning him once more to the pitch black from which he had awoken.
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