#10 The Ambassadors: Part 2
Investigations aboard an airship
Previously: Detectives Yannick Clarke and Lola Styles are aboard an airship attending a diplomatic dinner arranged by the Joint Council. During the evening Ambassador Vakho of the koth collapses…
It had been a mistaking accepting the invitation, Clarke had realised the moment that Hutchinson had begun his speech. They were wheeling Callihan’s name out because it served them, not because they knew him or cared. He should have told Miller to bring Chakraborty, or Kaminski.
He was picking unenthusiastically at the minimalist, beautifully presented morsels on his plate when he became aware of a disturbance on the other table. There was a commotion near where Styles was sat, next to that hulking koth. Clarke sat up, craning his neck across the heads of other guests, to see the koth thrashing about. Styles was on her feet, looking startled. Clarke pushed his own chair back, fists clenched. The koth’s serrated tail sliced through the air and Styles fell, disappearing from view behind the table.
Clarke moved, using his chair to climb up onto his table, snatching a knife from beside his plate. Ignoring the shocked cries of other guests and the scattering of dishes, he jumped down the other side and crossed the room in an instant to where Styles had been seated. Dashing around the side of the long table, he discovered her kneeling by the koth’s side. The creature was immobile, save for spasming in its limbs.
“I need a doctor!” Styles shouted.
A vision of Styles lying on the floor of the airship cabin, body torn to pieces, the koth standing over her with blood dripping from its jaws. It held Callihan’s head in one hand.
He blinked it away, then dropped the knife onto the table. “What happened?” he asked, breathing heavily. His heart beat furiously in his chest, his blood loud in his ears. He was getting too old. The koth was entirely incapacitated, vulnerable in a way he didn’t think was possible.
“The ambassador just collapsed,” Styles said, “I have no idea what to do!”
“Turn them onto their back,” said an unfamiliar voice. It belonged to a man, human, with a long fringe and a movie star jaw. He approached, crouched beside Styles and grasped the koth’s shoulders, flipping them onto their back while manoeuvring their tail out of the way. Clarke blinked at the apparent ease with which he shifted the ambassador’s heavy body. “Koth physiology is different to human and aen’fa, in that their airways are naturally cleared when positioned like this, rather than on their sides. They are also able to engage in a state of sudden hibernation when experiencing what would otherwise be a fatal body response. Quite clever, really.”
The guests crowded around, forming a circle around the stricken ambassador. Styles recounted everything that had just happened. “I am no doctor,” the man said, “but I would theorise a reaction to an element in the food. The response appears similar to the anaphylactic shock experienced by humans when in exposed to certain irritants.” He straightened and examined the remains of the ambassador’s plate. “They appear to have consumed a similar dish to others here. Perhaps poison, then.”
There was a collective gasp. Clarke started visually examining the guests for their reactions, immediately on the job and paying attention. He gestured to Styles, who moved nearer. “If this guy’s right, then everyone on this airship could be a suspect.”
Styles smiled, eyes bright as always, despite the circumstances. “At least nobody can get away while we’re flying around, right?”
Lola hadn’t worked directly with Detective Chief Superintendent Stephen Walpole in the two months she’d been with the SDC. DCS Walpole was the head of the investigative branch, which meant he was the ultimate authority from which all other authority was granted. She was used to sitting in the office with Clarke, or being out on the streets. Locked in the same room as the DCS was not a little intimidating, especially when there was a potential assassination attempt to uncover. She could feel the pressure and a glance at Clarke made it clear that he felt the same. DCI Miller was hard to read: on the one hand, his veneer of slick efficiency was intact - on the other, he had to be seething that his big PR event had been derailed.
As for Ambassador Vakho, they had been stabilised with the assistance of another koth guest and an aen’fa doctor. The ambassador lay on their back, breathing shallowly, eyes half-open and glazed.
“Can you imagine how excited Wong would be if he was here?” Clarke said quietly.
“He does always say how he likes to examine non-local fauna.”
Clarke nodded. “That is the exact phrasing he uses, yes. I think he prefers things dead, to be honest.”
Walpole turned away from the Commissioner and strode over to them. His gait was that of a man with utmost confidence in his own abilities. From what Lola had heard, it wasn’t arrogance. “OK, listen up, both of you,” he said, his voice never becoming loud and yet somehow carrying easily through the background chattering of the worried guests. “We’ve secured a room in the aft of the ship. Nothing fancy but it’s out of the way and mostly soundproof. I want you in there. Miller will send you guests to interview. We need to start narrowing down potential suspects, or ruling them out. I put a call into HQ, they’re locking down the airship tower in case there’s anybody or anything there we need a handle on. The airship is on the way back, which means you’ve got an hour to figure this out. Be sensitive. Everyone here is someone important. Any questions?”
“No, guv.” Clarke shook his head.
“Then get to it.”
The room was definitely small. One wall was lined with wooden palettes, another with boxes of fruit which gave the space a pleasant tropical aroma. A desk and three folding chairs had been dragged in from elsewhere. Clarke leaned against the back wall while Styles sat at the desk.
The first person was sent in, a koth who went by the name of Kasothe. “I am the legal attaché to Ambassador Vakho. This is deeply concerning. Deeply concerning.”
“What is it you do, Kasothe?”
“I advise on matters of inter-dimensional law, as it pertains especially to koth citizens. That is, extradition policies, immigration and refugee processing across borders - in all directions - and ensuring that any koth charged or arrested while in Mid-Earth is afforded correct legal processes according to both local and Palinese law.”
“Sounds complicated,” Clarke noted. This koth seemed smaller than the ambassador. Certainly smaller than the one at Sterling Court.
Kasothe looked up at him. “Not if you know what you are doing, detective. I would not know where to start with your job, but I imagine you are quite competent at it.”
“You didn’t experience any side effects from the meal?”
“No, but I had selected a different menu option to the ambassador.”
“Does he have any known allergies?”
“They do not. Vakho is a great proponent of the Joint Council, and inter-dimensional cooperation. It will be a great tragedy for us all if they do not recover. We will demand recompense.”
“Are you sure you had the same selection from the menu?” Clarke, now seated, slid the single sheet of paper across the desk and jabbed a finger to it. “This is what the ambassador ate. You as well?”
Princess Daryla leaned back in the chair, managing somehow to make the hard-bottomed, folding monstrosity look stylish. “Yes, I am certain. I have a particular fondness for kothian cuisine and was curious as to how well your Mid-Earth chefs would handle it.”
Lola was sat next to Clarke on the opposite side of the desk to the princess. “And?”
“And what, DC Styles?”
“Was it any good?” She felt Clarke looking sideways at her, and ignored him.
A tiny smile wrinkled the side of Daryla’s perfect mouth. “It was adequate. Flavour wasn’t quite there. But it certainly didn’t nearly kill me.”
They’d spoken to almost a dozen guests, learning only that the ambassador was well-liked and the Joint Council’s caterers were mediocre. Clarke hadn’t even had a chance to try his meal and his stomach was starting to complain.
The door opened and the man who had assisted so swiftly and ably with the ambassador’s predicament entered. He closed the door, moved to the offered chair and sat down, all in a remarkably precise series of movements. “Hello again, detectives,” he said, smiling, each of his teeth precisely where they should be. Clarke ran his tongue over his own raggedy set.
“You’re from Max-Earth, I’m guessing?”
“Correct. My name is Justin.”
“What is your role here, Justin?”
“Primarily I am an observer. The others think me strange for taking such an interest in the affairs of mortal organics. Yet, here I am, once again.”
Shit. Clarke realised who, or what, he was talking to, and inwardly groaned. At least, he hoped it was inwardly. “You’re a simulant.”
Styles leaned forwards, unable to hide her excitement.
“This body is a simulant, yes. My consciousness is a shard of the vessel Just Enough. After our business here is concluded I will return through the portal to Max-Earth and merge with the vessel.”
“You’re one of the megaships!” Styles exclaimed, all pretence of professionalism abandoned.
Justin smiled. “I’m glad to meet you properly, DC Styles, after our rather overly dramatic encounter earlier. Have you made any progress in your investigations? I do apologise for mentioning poison in the open cabin earlier. This shard is unable to run as many outcomes as the ship, but I should still have anticipated potentially causing panic.”
“Yeah, well,” Clarke said, “us humans get very emotional.”
“I should note that in my subsequent observations of the guests I do not believe foul play is involved,” Justin said. “At least, not on the part of any of those attending.”
“This is our investigation,” Clarke said, bristling. “If you’d answer our questions, please.”
“Of course, detective.” He smiled. “This is very exciting for me.”
“I’m thinking there’s no point in asking what you had for dinner?”
“On the contrary, the roasted veal with white asparagus was delightful.” He shrugged, an oddly human gesture. “I do eat. When I’m in this body, or one like it, I can do anything a natural human would do. The point is to simulate, after all. Otherwise I may as well be a floating drone. The purpose is to integrate and put others at ease, so that I can observe more effectively.”
“How’s that going for you?”
“Putting others at ease.”
Justin laughed. “I can see it is something I’m going to have to keep working on. Given the evidence thus far, what do you say to a trip to the kitchen?”
The head chef was struggling with balancing his own evident pride and the reality of the evening’s unfortunate situation. “I cannot believe that somebody would intentionally try to harm one of the guests,” he said.
“That’ might not be what happened,” Clarke said.
“Walk us through how the ambassador’s meal was prepared,” Lola said. “The whole process, start to finish, every ingredient.”
The chef looked about to object, then relented and led them across to the other side of the kitchen, every surface sparkling steel. He started pulling ingredients from shelves and out of fridges. “This was the ambassador’s chosen dish. Nothing out of the ordinary, as you can see. Our reputation is built on using only the finest ingredients, drawn from all corners of the triverse.”
Justin picked up a small jar. “What is this, please?”
He picked up another. “And this?”
“Ground Palinese red knot.”
Lola put a hand to Justin’s arm. It felt exactly like a normal human arm. Which, of course it did - it was 26th century technology, being from Max-Earth’s dimensional timeline. Future tech visiting their crummy 1970s London. “Ah?”
“I have a comprehensive database of materials, flora and fauna across all three dimensions, including details on the digestive capabilities of koth. Perhaps it is a little-known fact here on Mid-Earth that while cinnamon and red knot are both harmless on their own, when combined they produce a chemical reaction that can be deadly to koth.” He looked at the chef. “It does create a memorable flavour, however.”
The chef paled. “This is the first time we’ve produced this dish for Palinese visitors,” he stammered. “We had no idea.”
“OK, we’re done here,” Clarke said. He pointed at Lola. “Styles, take our robot detective friend here back to the dining hall and let them know the details. It might help to get the ambassador back on their feet.” He turned back to the chef. “And you. You should do some more research into what you’re feeding people. Understand what you’re using. Don’t use it because it’s a pretty colour and tastes fancy and exotic. Some things just don’t mix.”
The airship jolted as it connected with the tower’s ramp and locked onto the docking brackets.
Clarke and Styles stood to one side as the guests disembarked, filing out into the rainy night.
“Well, that was a lot more interesting than I expected,” he said.
“Your kind of dinner party?”
“Murder mystery, I like it.”
She grinned at him. “Nobody actually got murdered.”
“There was some mystery, though.”
DCS Walpole and the Commissioner walked up to them. “Good work, both of you,” Walpole said.
“Matthew Graves,” said the Commissioner, introducing himself to Lola. “You must be DC Styles. I’ve heard a lot about you. And Yannick, it’s very good to see you again.” He pulled a cigar from a pocket. “You handled yourselves well tonight. Impressive. Glad to see our funding isn’t going to waste.”
As the two highest ranking people departed the airship, Clarke felt a part of him finally relax. “I’m the same age as the Commissioner, you know,” he said. “But here I am, and there he is.”
They followed out into the rain, Clarke unbothered as droplets ran down his face. “You see that Justin robot leave?”
“He was first out. Said goodbye and wanted to find you but said he didn’t have time. Had to get back through the portal.”
Clarke smirked. “Yep, that’s their crappy degrading batteries for you. All the power in the world back home, but as soon as they come here it starts falling apart. Imagine how much trouble we’d be in if it didn’t.” He paused and looked up into the night sky. “Callihan had a funny joke about it. Wish I could remember it.”
“I’ve never met a simulant before. Reckon we’ll see him again?”
“Let’s hope not.”
That was a more interesting excursion than expected. Just Enough beamed a report over to Could Kill, who always like to hear about escapades to Mid-Earth. The Joint Council was as much of a mess as usual. A major diplomatic incident almost triggered by the unconscious incompetence of a human chef. To think that organic relations could unravel based on the unintentional misuse of a spice.
They were so vulnerable.
As had always been the case. And yet, an equilibrium had been reached in 2542, a balance of AI and human society. The portals offered a reminder of how things could be, of how bad they used to be, and how close Earth had come to annihilating itself.
No more of that. Just Enough would not allow it.
Thank you for reading! More next week. I hope you have a lovely weekend.
Author notes: A nice, short tale, this one. I felt something snappier and lighter was needed after the multi-part 'Traffic' storyline. That said, 'The Ambassadors' was an opportunity to introduce some key concepts, get a better sense of triverse society and politics, and introduce a couple of supporting characters who we'll most likely be seeing again down the line.
This also brings back a character from the PROLOGUE, of course, albeit in a slightly different form. It's the first time we've had direct continuity from then to now, and while Justin/Just Enough only cameos in this chapter, it will be interesting to have a multiple-centuries-old supporting character to play with. It also fits perfectly into my long-running obsession with robot detectives, which I suspect is Isaac Asimov's fault and something I've repeatedly returned to in my writing. You can actually check out an ANCIENT short story I wrote over on Wattpad on this theme: https://www.wattpad.com/story/7587980-the-detective-and-the-robot
Like I say, it's very old, so please don't judge. ;)
Until next week!