"I don't know much about this whole civil war," I say, "But whoever these people are fighting it, they've got some pretty nice digs."
The Grand Council Dome is unlike any other dome in Government Sector. Instead of being entirely filled within by office space and minister's living quarters, the council dome itself is taken up on its upper half by a vast hollow space beneath the glass. It gets hot enough in the day to function as a greenhouse, and indeed the space is filled with broad bushes and shade trees, which form dense thickets and occasional clearings. These trees offer escape from the sun but not from the humidity.
I am sitting in the shade of a tree near the edge of the dome, along with Klunk, Aristede, Ramon, and the various members of the Resistance. Sword Lesbian is off in a different clearing being coached by Smith about how to address the council. We've all gotten the basic rundown about keeping our remarks as short as possible, but Smith wanted to discuss more technical matters with the Betelgeusean. Tikreelkara and their fellows are off in a different sector of the greenhouse, basking in the sunlight.
"Better digs than ours for sure," says Klunk, "Although I kind of like having a mining station for a home. There's endless work to do and parts to spare for my special projects."
"Yeah," I say, "About that. The guy I saw to get a prosthetic hand was worried you'd be in a bad state after losing forty percent of your body mass."
"Fifty," says Klunk. "I had a great ass and you never looked like you noticed."
"I tend not to notice such things. But back to the main point -- "
"Frustrated," says Klunk. "Once we're done with this supid interrogation I want to show you what I've come up with so far. The legs look amazing. The arm looks amazing. And guess what?"
"They don't work."
"They don't work! I hook them up to batteries and they move, but then I put them on and they don't move! It's the dumbest thing. I thought I'd accounted for possible electrical interference. Have I lost my touch? Have I focused on car mechanics for so long that I've forgotten basic prosthetics? One of the first things we Barracudans learn is how to replace missing limbs. What did I do wrong?"
"Possibly nothing," says Ramon. "You notice Robin doesn't have a hand either? Nothing we tried in the workshop of Mister Mist worked. You two have the same problem. Looks like Klunk will have to be the right hand and Robin will have to be the left! I'll make you a nice big get-along shirt and you can be a two-headed three-armed -- "
"Knock it off," says I. "This isn't something to joke about."
"Maybe not," says Klunk, "But you don't need to worry about my mental state, Robin. I've been preparing for this situation my entire life. Remember I said losing a limb was a rite of passage on my planet? It's not a happy one but we consider it part and parcel of the work. I'm more concerned about you. You didn't expect to lose a hand."
"I expected some kind of internal radiation burn," I say. "That would be serious." I wave my truncated arm around. "THIS is absurd."
"At least you still have your parents and your planets," says Smoky Quartz.
"Technically they don't," says Lake Blue. "They're on the run, same as us. I'd say that makes about...nine people here who have lost everything."
"Ten," says Aristede. "I lost my vehicles and my secluded abode and my assets."
"Is your planet intact?" says Yellow Hair.
"Then boo hoo hoo."
"Hey," I say, "If you're going to run with us I need you to at least try to get along here."
"Don't act like you know what we've been through," says Aquamarine.
"I don't," I say, "because you didn't want to tell me. I'm not trying to minimize your loss, which sounds pretty big. I just want to know the shape of the conflict here."
"The first thing to remember," says Aristede, "is that the war has been off-and-on for a hundred standard years. The Galactic Government officially counts the Galactic Core as part of its territory, and there are occasional skirmishes on the core's outer edge, but the difficulty in getting there in the first place has rendered previous attempts at conquest unfeasible. The Space Slug has been parked blocking the widest pathway between black holes for about fifty years. Commerce since the beginning of the war has slowly increased through the unoffical condoning of smuggling."
"Sounds like a real stalemate," I say.
"The second thing to remember," says Lake Blue, "Is that 'skirmish' is a euphemism for either side destroying whatever edge planets refuse to surrender."
"So the Government is responsible for your predicament?" says Ramon.
"A government," says Bonci, "Yes." She glares at me.
I put up my hands in a 'don't look at me' gesture. Well. I put up one hand and one arm and one blue cloud.
"The third thing to remember," says Aristede, "is that my father was the one who suggested escalating the Galactic Government's policy to match the policy of the Separatist Alliance. So I really, REALLY would appreciate it if you didn't mention that fact -- "
"Aristede Rabemananjara!" says a voice from the trees. "You are the son of the man who suggested the odious policy of destroying non-compliant planets!"
I look around. There in the trees is a human man robed in gold and silver. "You must appear before us," says the man, "and explain yourself."
From within the trees appear more gun-toting soldiers than I can count. I suppose the Council members are no fools about their security. Strange how all of them appear human. Then again, so was the crew of the Space Slug.
"What if I don't want to go?" says Aristede.
"Then we shall take you hostage, and ransom you to your father."
"Now just hang on a second," I say, talking off my helmet and letting my long hair loose at last. "Surely I'm a better ransom than the second son of some bureaucrat?"
The human man stares, wide-eyed. "You!"
"Don't go sacrificing yourself and leave me out of it," says Ramon. He takes off his helmet.
"Both of you!"
"I helped them escape the Student Loan Company," says Klunk.
"Question us too," says Smoky Quartz.
"Shush!" says Bonci.
"Guilt by association! You will fetch a high price, all of you."
The armed soldiers surround us, rifles at the ready.
Suddenly there is a commotion from the outer edge of the soldiers. The trees appear to be moving. I fancy I see a short figure with long thin limbs in one of their branches.
How nice it is to have friends.
"Maybe we could have our interrogation right here," I say. "Unless you all want to lower your guns, and we can have a nice chat with the full council?"
The human man grumbles. "Very well. Come with me to the council and we will have this out. Stand down, men. Back to your positions."
The soldiers melt back into the trees.
The human man leads us down the garden path towards what promises to be an interesting discussion.