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by Lezli Robyn

“What makes something special is not just what you have to gain, but what you feel there is to lose.”

—Andre Agassi, Tennis Star

Lezli Robyn is an Australian multi-genre author, currently living in Ohio, who frequently collaborates with Mike Resnick. Since breaking into the field, she has sold to prestigious markets such as Asimov’s and Analog, and has been nominated for several awards around the world, including the Campbell Award for best new writer, and the Aurealis Award for Best short SF story; she has also won the Ictineu Award twice, in 2011 and 2014. Her short story collection, Bittersuite, is due to be published by Ticonderoga, followed by her novella, On The Mechanical Wings of Dreams, to be published by Hadley Rille Press in 2016.

Lezli’s story here is set in the same world as her story in my previous anthology, Mission: Tomorrow (Baen, 2015). This time, she offers us an unusual take on billiards.

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When Ruby was selected to be on the homo sapiens’ team to play in the first Intergalactic Eight Ball Pool Tournament, she had thought the two-year lead time was overkill. However, by the time all the bureaucratic red tape had been completed and she walked into the pre-game conference a scant hour before the main event, Ruby suddenly felt woefully underprepared.

The Intergalactic Consortium of Planets had clearly held nothing back when it came to ensuring the Tournament Committee had catered to every possible need or whim of the players. She was introduced to ambassadors from star systems she had never heard of, and treated like royalty by servers whose names were unpronounceable by any human tongue. It felt like every new race she met was more alien to her than the last. If it weren’t for the universal translator the committee had provided, or the nearby presence of her teammates, Ruby would have been completely out of her depth.

A prickling sensation ran down the back of her neck, and she had the impression that someone—or rather, something?—was watching her. When she turned around to find the source of her unease, she was taken aback.

In amongst a crowd of very unusual and diverse lifeforms was a mermaid.

Or, rather, a merman.

With an angular jawline, broad shoulders, and a well-muscled torso, the alien was almost completely humanoid in form—except for his long, cobalt-blue tail. He glided towards her on some kind of gravity device, his gills encased in a flexible force field filled with an water filtration system that was able to sustain him outside of his natural habitat. While his long platinum-white hair floated like a nimbus around his head, luminescent blue lights pulsed hypnotically underneath his pale skin, radiating out from a crystalline structure positioned in the center of his chest to course through what appeared to be his version of a circulatory system.

To say he was beautiful was an understatement. His genetic adaptations to an underwater environment predominately devoid of sunlight were absolutely breathtaking. And while there was a clear alien cast to his features, so much of his form resembled the old human folklore about mermaids that Ruby couldn’t help but wonder where the basis for that myth had originated. Had his kind visited Earth around the time the first stories surfaced?

He stopped in front of her, and inclined his head in greeting. “I am Niravphlorokk, of the Calthérii race.”

Ruby couldn’t think of an uglier name for such a beautiful specimen.

“Please call me Nirav.”

It is a pleasure to meet you, she replied, sincerely, wondering why in hell he would want to meet her. I am Ruby Shaw. A human, from Earth.

He cocked his head to the side. “I can hear your words, but you do not speak in the same manner as the others of your species.”

I use a neuro-communicator because I was born with a genetic abnormality in my larynx that prevents me from communicating naturally. When he didn’t reply, she continued on. There is an implant in my brain that enables me to broadcast my thoughts into this device—she pointed at the skin-toned speaker between her collarbones—which makes my words audible to others.

She could also use the neuro-communicator to talk telepathically with anyone else who had a compatible mechanism implanted into their brain, but she didn’t feel compelled to tell him that.

Instead she watched in surprise as the lights under his skin pulsed quicker for a few seconds, a keen intensity entering his gaze. “Such an innovative race, for one so young.”

She bristled at the condescending approval in his tone, but he couldn’t know how many times she’d heard that sentiment since she’d arrived at the Alpha Centauri Waystation. She took a deep breath, and flicked her hair over her shoulder in an unconscious way to deflect her annoyance.

His eyes followed the gesture, widening when they saw the closed gills on the side of her neck. He didn’t say anything for a long awkward minute. “Pardon my rudeness,” he stated eventually. “I had not been informed your race was physiologically adapted to land and water.”

I am the exception to the general rule, she replied, wondering why he had to be “informed” about any aspect of her race. I am a part of a second-generation, genetic-manipulation experiment to expand our race into the oceans, due to overpopulation of the land masses on our world. She could tell she held his interest now, not just his curiosity.

“I envy your ability to be able to switch between the two environments,” he admitted, indicating his inability to breathe air without a filter.

And I envy you your tail, she confessed, in turn.

Ever since she had been a child, Ruby had longed to be able to swim alongside her dolphin family with the same speed and grace that was so inherent to their form. Being the only tailless member of the pod had meant she used to daydream about growing up to become a mermaid. Now, she had met the real thing.

She felt like pinching herself. Instead, they shared a tentative smile, then an awkward silence.

Do aliens talk about the weather on their homeworld, or some other banality, when unable to think of anything intelligent to say? Ruby asked him wryly.

His icy blues twinkled, and he opened his mouth to respond, only to be interrupted by the arrival of a couple of her teammates.

“I apologize for the intrusion, but we need to go, Red,” Lance said, by way of introduction.

“Now,” Charlie added, for extra emphasis.

Not understanding their need for urgency, Ruby frowned, but nodded. She extended a hand out to Nirav to formally take her leave, which he accepted more eagerly than she’d anticipated.

She felt a jolt of power race up her arm as soon as their skin connected. Some kind of static discharge. To cover her surprise, she continued to shake his hand, lamely repeating that it had been a pleasure to meet him.

The pleasure was all mine, he replied, then slid his hand out from hers and melted back into the crowd.

Ruby turned to her teammates. This had better be good. I just met my dream man, she joked. A fair dinkum merman!

“He is our competition, Red. But, not only that—”

Wait, she interrupted. He’s on the Consortium’s team?

Charlie nodded. “The tail wouldn’t prevent him from sinking the eight ball, if he’s talented enough.”

Huh. Good point. She frowned. Well, I am glad to have had the opportunity to get his measure then.

“Red, he was the one that just sized you up,” Lance pointed out. “While the Consortium’s team is made up of multiple races, I found out just today that his race is the one who would specifically benefit if they win the Tournament.”

Their earlier urgency finally registered. No wonder Nirav had been so “informed” about humans. He was researching them; rummaging for any nugget of information he could use against them to win the Tournament and, along with it, the legal right to colonize Earth’s oceans.

Her ocean.

While the rest of the humans on the Earth team were land dwellers, Ruby had grown up in the first completely submerged human settlement in the Southern Ocean. Funded by the Australian government, the underwater installation was filled with geneticists, scientists, and biologists, who were exploring the myriad of ways humans could be adapted to an underwater environment.

Orphaned at a really young age, Ruby had been half-raised by one of the dolphin pods that had partnered with the pioneers in the project. The dolphins had only recently been awarded human-equivalent sentient status and recognized as having a voice in decisions involving the future of their planet. While they understood Man’s wish to take a giant Galactic leap into space, they had been vehemently opposed to the idea of aliens colonizing their oceans as a part of the agreement Earth was drawing up with the Galactic Consortium of Planets to become a full-fledged member.

To be fair, most humans had been opposed to it, too, feeling they’d already given up enough of Earth’s resource rights in the first steps to even qualify for membership. But the promise of advanced technology was a powerful lure; appealing to humanity’s innate propensity to want to expand their horizons before they have the means.

Once it had been determined that both sides had reached a stalemate near the conclusion of otherwise very successful contract negotiation talks, it was decided that the colonization rights could be determined by a “friendly” game between Earth and the Consortium. One that promoted equal opportunity for all the races. If the Consortium won, Earth would be colonized. If Earth won, they could set up a small colony on one of the closest habitable planets in the interplanetary network.

It would be one gigantic leap for Mankind.

It is almost time, interjected Sun Dancer, interrupting her thoughts. She felt the warmth and love of her pod mother as the dolphin slipped quietly into her mind, using the connection between their neuro-communicators to reach out to her before the Game.

I know, Ruby replied, with equal warmth and more than a little trepidation. We’ll have to enter the stadium soon. Do you have a good view?

Yes, my child. Do not worry about us.

Ruby felt the rest of the pod fill her mind, one by one, staying long enough to wish her luck, and send her their love, before leaving.

She had felt their pride in her, their concern for the outcome, and something else. Almost like a feeling of pressure. Is the medication still helping with your claustrophobia? she asked her pod mother, worried.

We are fine, the dolphin replied, her tone soothing. It is harder on the young ones, but we are monitoring them.

Ruby felt a polite tug on her arm, and returned her attention to the room.

“It’s time to go in, Red,” Charlie prompted.

Ruby reached out one last time to her pod mother, to say their goodbyes, and then sent the mental command to turn off her neuro-communicator. During the course of the game it had to be transparently clear that none of the players were getting any outside assistance during their turn at the table, so she wasn’t taking any chances.

Making their way through the crowd, they made it to side entrance of the stadium, collecting more members of their team as they went. The Earth Council had felt it was very important to pick talented players from all forms of diversity—race, nationality, gender, and sexuality—to show the Consortium how far it has come as a species since World War 4, but one glimpse of the vastly different types of species on the alien team told her that the humans probably all looked like clones to them.

They entered the arena, the excitement of the (mostly) alien crowd, deafening. The entire back wall of the round stadium had been turned into aquariums, or enclosures for other aliens needing specialized environments. With thousands of other aliens in tiers surrounding the entire arena, Ruby now had a visual to grasp how vast the Intergalactic Consortium of Planets truly was.

Each team of ten lined up on either side of the pool table and took their seats—or whatever the equivalent version was on the alien side for the giant arachnid, hovering merman, and elongated stick bug thing—and all turned towards the stage.

Well, all except Ruby and Nirav.

While he calmly considered her, she stared at him, incredulous to realize that he was third in the alien line-up, which was the exact same position she held on her team. They were going to be playing directly against each other during the Tournament.

It couldn’t be a coincidence.

She knew that the committee had read all the players’ genetic medical files as part of the extensive physicals both teams had to go through. They would have known that her DNA had been manipulated in utero to give her gills, webbed hands and feet, and a denser epidermis to better adapt to the seventy-six percent of Earth that humans had yet to dominate.

The committee would have also known that out of all the players on the human team, she would be the most aware of the stakes if Earth lost this Tournament. Were they trying to throw her off her game, by pitting her against the only water-dependent race on the alien team that would specifically benefit from their loss?

Ruby felt a sense of unease sliver down her spine, and turned away from Nirav’s piercing blue gaze just in time to see the game host walk out onto stage.

“Welcome the Consortium’s first ever Intergalactic Eight Ball Pool Tournament! I am your host, Broslain Torvulcavich, and I hail from a star system the humans like to call the Beta Centauri—not too far from here.” The stadium erupted into cheers. “I’d like to introduce you to today’s referee, Mark32i, a fascinating model known for his exemplary record in accuracy and precision.” He turned to the robot in question. “I have been assured that you have studied the new Intergalactic Eight Ball Pool Tournament manual extensively, in preparation for today’s momentous event. How excited are you to be the only robot chosen out of so many drones to referee the most important game in Earth’s history?”

The spider-shaped robot took a moment to consider the question, scurrying forward on various mechanical pincers and claws to reach the microphone. “I have not been programmed to provide emotional input on the particulars of the game process.”

“A most excellent answer! That’s exactly what we need: an unbiased referee.” He turned back to face the spectators with a flamboyant flourish. “Now let’s give the audience a brief overview of the rules of this game. A game of pool has two opposing teams comprising of ten of their best players. To win the Tournament, each team has to try to be the first to win eight frames. Now, for those of us who are not human—and let’s face it, that is most of us in this universe—a frame is the name for an individual round of the game. In each new round, a new player from each team has to compete against each other to be the first to hit all of the balls of one color into pockets around the table, before they can attempt to pocket the winning eight ball. It’s a challenge fraught with mishits, fouls, and utter devastation, because at the end of the day, there can only be one victor.”

“And you thought Americans were dramatic, Red,” Lance commented, bemused.

Ruby grinned, and pointed to the referee, who was moving to rack up the balls for the first time.

She noticed straight away that the red and yellow of the object balls were more iridescent than the Earth-made ones she was used to, but there was something about the eight ball that was also different, but it was hard to see while the balls were all racked up together.

She held her breath as the robot referee tossed an antiquated Earth coin in the air. “Heads,” Mark32i declared, and the human team cheered.

Ruby turned to give a thumbs-up to their British team lead, William, who stood up to select his cue stick.

“Go Willie!”

“You can do it, Bill!”

Ruby watched him make the first break of the game, meticulously tapping the cue ball into the triangle of balls and sending them flying across the table. When they settled, she gasped. The eight ball looked exactly like a miniature version of Earth, down to the cloud patterns moving across its three-dimensional surface.

She absolutely loved the symbolism. If the aliens pocketed the winning eight ball of the game, they were literally claiming their right to colonize Earth. If her team pocketed it, they were reclaiming it back.

Within a couple of moves, William had missed pocketing one of his reds, which turned the table over to his alien opponent, who swept the table of all the yellows and then pocketed the eight ball.

Ruby grimaced. Not an auspicious start.

Their second player did a little better. His alien counterpart was unable to pocket any balls after he performed the break, so Raj was able to start his turn very consistently, pocketing balls left and right. However, when it came time for him to sink the last red, the eight ball fell into another pocket at the same time.

“Loss of frame,” Mark32i intoned. “Eight ball potted at the same time as final red ball.”

Ruby could tell Raj was devastated. She wasn’t feeling much better herself. A dull ache had formed at the base of her head, and it was increasing in severity with every passing minute. She stood up to walk to the table, mentally preparing to make her first break of the Tournament; wishing she could still feel the loving support of her pod in the back of her mind.

Biting her lip in an age-old gesture of nervousness, Ruby tried not to be distracted by the swirling clouds on the lifelike eight ball as she positioned herself and her cue stick. Taking a deep breath she hit the cue ball, watching it hurtle into the colored balls and scatter them in all directions.

She saw one yellow fall into a pocket. Then another. A red rolled towards her, it too falling into a corner pocket.

“Red and yellow balls potted,” Mark32i announced.

Ruby studied the placement of the remaining balls, to see which color held the best positions. As if to help her make a choice, another yellow dropped belatedly into a pocket.

Even the robot appeared surprised by her good fortune. “Yellow balls in play,” he intoned, after she pointed at the nearest one to declare her choice.

She made her way around the table to play her second shot, but as soon as she bent over that dull ache in the back of her head increased to a painful throb, affecting her concentration. I only have to make five more moves, she told herself, as she played that shot out, sinking another yellow into a pocket.

She moved around to the opponent’s side of the table, which brought her too close to the merman for her liking. She could feel Nirav’s icy gaze drilling into her back as she lined up a more awkward shot, hitting the cue ball along the railing so that it would push the fifth yellow into the far corner pocket.

She straightened out and raised a hand to rub the back of her neck, the pain so intense she nearly lined up a Red Ball for her next shot. It was only the inadvertently helpful gasp from the audience that made her realize what she was doing.

She walked around to the other side of the table, away from the merman, and sunk the last two yellow balls as quickly as possible. By the time it came for her to pocket the eight ball, she was working purely on instinct. Much to the horror of her teammates, she closed her eyes as she played out her last move, not opening them again until she heard a ball fall into the pocket.

The right ball. She had won.

She somehow made it back to her seat, amidst the excited cheers of the stadium, but the pressure in the back of her head was starting to overwhelm her. She barely registered that they lost the next game, and then the next. She wasn’t even sure if she cheered when they won the following three games. All she knew was that it took all her effort just to concentrate on blocking as much of the pain as she could.

She looked up to see the merman staring intently at her and grimaced, knowing he was intuitive enough to see her discomfort and worried that if it became noticeable enough to others, someone would alert the referee and the game would be cancelled.

Something unexpected flickered in his eyes, and she looked away, not wanting to see his pity. Over the next three losses, she fought the pain until it reached a point so agonizing, she finally gave into it, only then feeling an immediate surge of relief and a dissipation of pain until it became a dull ache.

Her sense of reprieve was immense.

She had the pleasure of watching Raj win his second frame, and then all eyes were on her.

“If you lose this frame, Red, they win,” Lance informed her. “Go show ’em what we’re made of.”

Bloody hell. How did it come to be that she was playing the deciding frame?

“You’ve got this,” agreed Charlie. “Do us proud.”

Sure. No pressure. It’s only, possibly, the single most important frame in Earth’s history, she replied, but of course they couldn’t hear her, with her neuro-communicator off.

Ruby stood up and grabbed a cue, trying—unsuccessfully—to block out all physiological awareness of the merman. While she continued to feel a tingling sensation at the back of her neck, it was her turn to perform the break. She had to focus.

She waited until Mark32i racked the balls—ensuring the Eight Ball was positioned correctly on the spot—and walked up to the table. Taking a deep breath, she leaned forward, balanced the cue over her right hand and struck the cue ball without hesitation, watching it hurtle into the triangle of balls and fling them in all directions. No reds or yellows were pocketed, but more than four of the balls were driven into the cushions. The referee should have been able to make the call that the table was “open” to play . . .

Except the eight ball was still moving.

Ruby all-but-flinched as the miniature representation of Earth sunk into the side pocket, thankful that it hadn’t been the Cue Ball. That would have resulted in an automatic “foul” call, and the awarding of the next play to her opponent.

“Void break,” Mark32i intoned, using multiple mechanical pincers to re-rack the balls with incredible speed and agility. “Same player to restart frame. No penalty.”

Ruby turned around. She looked past her teammates and the audience, and up into an aquarium running along the back wall of the stadium. Her pod mother, Sun Dancer, swam up to the glass, as if knowing the child of her heart needed her support, and in unison all the dolphins bowed their heads to Ruby, in deep appreciation of what she was doing for them.

Her breath caught in her throat. Their thoughtful gesture had moved her more than any words of encouragement could have.

“Thirty seconds.”

Strewth! Ruby tore her attention away from her pod, feeling bolstered by their support. Ignoring the icy intensity of Nirav’s gaze, she turned back to the table and lined up the cue with the cue ball again. This time, when she hit it, and the colored balls went flying, a red ball fell into a pocket.

Brilliant. Her color of choice.

“Red balls potted,” intoned the referee, stepping back.

She pointed to another red ball, to make it clear she was choosing that color.

“Red balls in play,” confirmed Mark32i.

Ruby studied the fall of the balls on the table, noticing that a couple of her opponent’s balls were already balanced in front of pockets. She grimaced. Maybe I should have chosen yellow, she thought, belatedly, but there was nothing she could do now, except be careful she didn’t hit them in.

She located the eight ball next—flush up against the rail cushion—then considered the position of the six reds left on the table, using the cue ball to sink the first of them into a corner pocket with her next shot.

She navigated the white ball around the yellows, pocketing three more reds with precision, her team’s exuberant reaction growing louder with each successful play, increasing her confidence.

Studying her next shot carefully, she moved around to stand in front of one of the side pockets. The position of a particular yellow ball was blocking her ability to sink one of her reds into the pocket across from her, so she angled her cue to hit the white ball into the rail cushion on the other side of the table. It repelled back from the rail on just the right tangent to hit the red ball in her direction and into the pocket directly in front of her.

The entire auditorium erupted into cheers—humans and aliens, alike—and she couldn’t resist looking askance to see Nirav’s reaction. Their eyes met, her fiery amber ones clashing with his icy blues, and she noticed that the luminescent light pulsing through his circulatory system had increased tenfold.

She should have felt a competitive satisfaction that she had been able to rattle that perfect exterior of his, but instead she felt a growing unease.

Ruby raised a hand to absentmindedly rub the back of her neck again, then pulled her gaze back to the table to study her last red ball. She had to sink it in such a way that the cue ball would then be in the best position to pocket the eight ball in her final shot. She couldn’t afford to get this wrong.

She angled the cue stick carefully, and softly putted the white ball into the red. It rolled slowly towards the corner pocket, agonizingly hovering at the edge of it before finally falling in with a resonating thud.

The appreciative roar rising from around the stadium was deafening. She looked up to see the dolphins doing cartwheels in the water and grinned. You bloody ripper.

Then she heard it. The distinctive sound of another ball falling into a pocket.

She turned back to the table to hear the robot’s announcement: “Foul.”

Shocked, Ruby looked down at the table to discover that one of the yellow balls she had previously noted was too close to a pocket after her break had inexplicably fallen into it. She’d done nothing specific to sink it, but she didn’t have to. The rules clearly stated that if any of the opponent’s balls fell into a pocket, even without being touched, the result was an automatic nonstandard foul, and the end of that player’s turn.

Nirav glided up to the table before she even had a chance to register what had happened.

She hastily stepped aside, and returned to her seat, fully aware that she had probably just handed the entire colonization rights of Earth to the Intergalactic Consortium. She wanted to scream in frustration, or cry salty tears of regret, but instead she accepted her teammates’ conciliatory comments with stoicism, turning her full attention onto her opponent.

The merman’s playing style was both measured and graceful. He gained permission from the referee to adjust the parameters of his gravity device, enabling him to lean forward on his tail and position himself as a human would, when making his first, more difficult shot.

After he’d sunk the next two balls with ease, he paused, focusing his attention on the yellow lying mere inches from one of the corner pockets. He positioned himself to hit the cue ball in its direction, and Ruby silently cheered. If he made that seemingly-easy shot, his white ball wouldn’t be in the best position to sink the two balls on the other end of the table. He was just about to increase his margin for error.

With a swish of his blue tail, Nirav pulled back at the last second, changing positions to pocket the first of the two balls lying at the other end of the table.

Ruby blinked in surprise. Bugger. She figured that if he moved around to the right side of the table, he could now angle the cue to sink the second yellow into the same pocket, making sure to hit it with enough force to rebound the cue ball into the center of the table. That would position the white ball perfectly for him to sink the last yellow ball.

Astonishingly, he did precisely that. When the dust had settled, only the eight ball was left standing.

Alarm bells rang in Ruby’s mind. He had executed every one of his shots exactly the way she would have done them. Something very, very fishy was going on.

She tried to signal the referee for a time out, but the buzzing feeling at the back of her neck intensified, all but immobolizing her in pain again. It was as if her neuro-communicator was somehow being affected, but she shouldn’t be having any feedback issues since it had been turned off prior to the game.

Her eyes widened in panic. Could someone have reactivated it without her permission?

An entrancing male voice seeped into her subconscious, followed by a chorus of others, weaving a haunting harmony of distraction through her thoughts. She tried to fight the hypnotic haze their music created, but it was so hard to resist their siren call. It took all her effort just to look up into the aquarium on the opponent’s side of the stadium.

If she had thought one lone merman was alluring, seeing an entire pod of his kin lined up along the glass, all their tails undulating back and forth in unison, was absolutely mesmerizing.

She had to remind herself that she wanted to fight their violation of her mind.

Beads of perspiration formed along her forehead as she tried to combat the enchantment their lyrics were weaving through her neuro-communicator, but she wasn’t able to move any part of her body but her eyes. Lids heavy, she dragged her eyes back down to the pool table to watch in horror as the Nirav lined up his last shot and smashed the cue ball into the eight ball, hurtling the miniature planet along the rail cushion, and right to its doom.

“Earth, corner pocket,” the robot intoned as she watched all the hope for her future fall into darkness with an appropriately loud impact sound.

The stadium erupted into a standing ovation of alien hands, claws, and feelers, all clapping in a human affectation of delight. It seemed the Tournament Committee had been thorough in educating their diverse Consortium membership about the appropriate homo sapienes reaction to a win. It was a pity they hadn’t been as committed in advocating fair play.

Ruby wished she could cry foul, or better still, punch Nirav in his perfectly-structured face, but instead the voices in her head cajoled her to stand and move into the center of the stadium. While Mark32i formally announced the winner of the first World Eight Ball Pool Tournament, her puppeteers forced her to extend her hand to shake the merman’s in a gesture of good will.

You bloody bastard, she thought at him.

He tilted his head, and inclined it. Not accurate, but I will accept the connotation, he replied, his words weaving through the siren song ensnaring her mind.

She was not surprised that he could hear her. You somehow hacked into my neuro-communicator to access my knowledge of the game. You used it to cheat.

No, he replied sincerely, to win.

She fought against the binds on her mind. You. Had. No. Right.

He kept ahold of her hand, turning them around to bow to the audience. I had every right. We were at an unfair disadvantage.

Disgust colored her tone. And how do you figure that?

We were playing an Earth game against the very race that created it.

You didn’t stop to consider that we are also very much out of our depth. We’re the newest race in the Consortium, and so very far away from the only home we have known.

Nirav didn’t immediately answer, but she could tell that he was considering her words. I am honor-bound to do whatever I can to ensure a future for my pod, he replied, finally.

So am I.

The inference she had placed on those three little words were not lost to him. His eyes widened perceptively. He dragged her around to bow to the audience in the opposite direction before answering. Your teammates do not appear to view dolphins with the same level of esteem as you.

Anger flared. That doesn’t lessen their value or their right to fight for their oceans.

Something she said must have struck a chord in him—or within the collective minds of his pod. Their hold over her mind wavered for an instant, their resolve weakening. You can’t keep me silent forever, she added. I will talk.

Who would believe you, after this pleasant display of camaraderie? he replied, regaining his composure. He raised their joined hands and held them above their heads, to the resounding pleasure of the audience. “I think we can all acknowledge that there were no losers today,” he announced, to the stadium at large. “Both of our races, and the rest of the Galactic Consortium, will benefit from this new alliance, forged today with Earth in the spirit of sportsmanship.”

The audience’s reaction was overwhelmingly exuberant . . . and the perfect distraction for Ruby.

She pushed at the musical enchantment ensnaring her mind until she found a faltering chord, and reacted instinctively, using the reactivated neuro-communicator to send a warning through the gap to her pod.

The dolphins’ collective minds surged through the weak spot in the enchantment, joining their stream of consciousness with hers. Bolstering her energy and resolve, they reacted powerfully to the violation on her mind, pitting their minds against the sirens.

Shock registered on the merman’s face. He looked around to see the dolphin pod were also smashing their snouts against the weapon-proof glass of their aquarium; desperate in their need to protect her.

Tell them to stop, he commanded. Their actions will be noticed.

Unable to see what her pod was doing, Ruby fell back on false bravado. Awww, are they causing a scene? Something a graceful bow can’t cover up?

They are hurting themselves, he asserted.

His words sent a chill down her spine. Sun Dancer, whatever you are doing: please tell the pod to stop it.

He is hurting you.

I know. But he will stop now. She directed her next thought to Nirav: If you don’t want there to be any kind of suspicion raised as to the legitimacy of your win, tell your pod to cease and desist its enchantment. Now.

You will not mention this . . . little misunderstanding? he temporized, letting go of her hand with a parting flourish for the audience’s benefit and turning to greet his approaching teammates.

If you leave my mind now, then no, I will not. For Nirav was right about one thing: she would just look like a sore loser if she made a complaint now, especially after his speech. It wouldn’t do Earth any good to look like they were making excuses to weasel their way out of a contract they had made with the Consortium in good faith. She couldn’t be selfish and act solely in the interests of her pod now. She had to consider Earth’s future in the intergalactic community as a whole.

Satisfied with the veracity of her conclusions, the merman ordered his pod to stop their assault on her mind, and the haunting song dissipated.

Ruby took in a deep, shuddering breath and tested her newfound freedom by turning around to assure herself of the dolphins’ physical safety; taking comfort in their continued soothing presence in her mind.

I’m so very sorry, she told them, her heart heavy. For she had been their appointed champion, and yet her actions today had sanctioned the invasion of their oceans.

I can’t speak for the other members of the Consortium, but the Calthérii have no intentions to harm your race, Nirav injected into her mind, and then added: Not the one you were born into, nor the one you have chosen.

Anger flared anew. And bitterness. You promised to sever this connection. You already got what you wanted from me.

He hesitated before answering. My pod is no longer involved in this link, but when you return home, we will be traveling with you to your Earth, to become the first wave of the colonization effort. I know we have not made the most admirable of impressions, but we are a desperate race. Our oceans are dying. Yours are not.

There is nothing I can do about that, she said, somewhat sullenly.

We have come to the conclusion that as a result of your unique physiology and extraordinary relationship with the dolphins, you are the best candidate for us to liaise with on behalf of your world. Your advice could be invaluable in helping us acclimate.

At first she was alarmed, but then she considered his words—and their apparent sincerity—very carefully, for they were entering uncharted waters for both their races. She wanted to eject him and his entire species out the nearest airlock, but since she couldn’t get rid of him, she had to concede that working with him might be the best way she could mitigate the threat to her world. There is a popular saying on Earth, she told him, softly. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

He was silent for a long time—too long for her overwrought nerves to deal with easily. How about we consider working together so we can find a way to become less close in the future? he asked, eventually.

She raised her eyebrows, incredulous. After the day they just had, did he just make an overture of friendship? She was still too angry to accept his entreaty at face value, or as having any value at all, but she knew she had to try, for the future of her world. I’m game if you are.

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