Ginber 27, 000165
"Little bugs?" Hardi muttered.
"Shht," Lucia hissed, head bowed in fear.
"What brings you to my world, little bug?" the colorful woman asked Hardi and Robert. Her glance flitted between both of them before settling on Hardi. "Well?" she cooed, head tilting. Her accent was much lighter than Lucia's.
Hardi straightened in her seat. "We're looking for the people who have been attacking your world." She paused briefly as six guards entered and took up positions in the corners and framing the door. "Are you hiding them here?"
"Stupid!" Lucia grumbled.
The woman cackled, revealing the bare handful of teeth in her mouth. Her laugh was the only sound in the room for a long moment. Hardi's chair squeaked as she shifted uncomfortably.
As she wound down, the woman braced her hands on the table and leaned down, beaded hair brushing the table. She met Hardi squarely in the eye. "I am Ma Posh," she announced. "Who are you?"
"You're a Witch," Hardi hazarded.
Ma Posh snorted. "That is a dumb word, but serves well enough to identify you off-worlders. Especially you off-worlders who wish to move in," she added with a knowing wink.
Hardi glanced away at Robert, and he asked, "What do you mean, off-worlders who want to move in?"
Ma Posh gave him a long look. "What are you, off-worlder?"
"Uh... Along for the ride?" he replied with a charming smile. She grinned back, more a predatory smirk. If anything, his smile widened, and Hardi shook her head at his gall. Even she wouldn't tempt this woman too far.
Ma Posh turned her attention back to Hardi. "I am not hiding any villains here, little bug, other than myself. You know why these people are attacking," she said to Hardi, then paused. "Don't you?"
Hardi's mouth opened, then closed. Lucia and Robert both turned to look at her.
Hardi put her hands on her knees to keep them from twisting in her lap. "Why don't you fill us in," she suggested quietly.
Ma Posh snorted again and looked back at Robert and Lucia alternately. "They," she started, waving a hand at Hardi, "blame us for their Sekhmet-given visions. They insist we know the cause or the solution or the way to control them." She leveled another look at Hardi. "Am I correct so far?"
"I'm not one of the attackers," Hardi said levelly. "What they're doing is vile."
"These attackers are crazy, too?" Lucia interjected. "Why do all the off-worlders believe they are having visions?"
"Because they seem to be having them," Robert mused, eyes narrowed on Ma Posh despite his smile. "I'll pretty curious about it myself. Is Sekhmet your god?"
"Sekhmet is the creator, but not the only. We don't know why they are chosen for their paltry visions," Ma Posh said sweetly, "but they insist on forcing themselves upon us for answers."
Hardi sat up in her seat. "Paltry? People are dying, and just because you have people waiting on you hand and foot when you collapse—" The guards shifted a bit, reminding Hardi of their hulking presence. She stopped, slowing her breathing.
"People are dying all the time, little bug," Ma Posh said condescendingly. "You've just been exposed to a few of them as Sekhmet wills."
"I don't believe in gods," Hardi replied. "I want to understand what this is and how to make it stop."
Ma Posh smiled crookedly. "So do they," she said, jerking her chin upward. "And we won't help you. You and they must leave, and you all must leave us in peace."
Robert tipped back in his seat, propping his feet up on the table and resisting Lucia's attempt to push them off. "We certainly aren't trying to cause any trouble—why couldn't you just tell them what to do to control it and let them go away and do it?"
"There is training involved," Lucia said unexpectedly. "Our 'Witches' are revered for their focus and dedication."
Hardi glanced at Lucia. "I can train. I can focus."
"Can you give up your life to do so?" Ma Posh look at her, really looked at her. "Can you give up your job and your doctor for it?"
Hardi looked at Robert in horror. "He's not my doctor," she protested. Robert just grinned and buffed his nails lightly on his shirt.
"Whatever," Ma Posh said dismissively. "Can you?"
Hardi took a deep breath. She loved her job, but she wouldn't be able to work with these damn visions anyway. And Markos... She closed her eyes for a moment, remembering him sleeping on the couch as she left. Remembering him slamming her head into the wall when she couldn't say how long she'd be gone.
"Yes," she said. "Yes, I can leave it all behind."
Ma Posh grinned as Robert looked at Hardi carefully.
"Excellent!" Ma Posh crowed. "The price for your training is that you must negotiate on our behalf. They must go."
"Shouldn't they get the same deal?" Robert asked incredulously. "Why would you deny them the same treatment?"
"Because too many will pollute our world," she said. "Do you accept?" she asked Hardi.
Hardi looked at Robert, then back at Ma Posh. "He's much better with people—" Robert was already shaking his head—"I want his help."
Ma Posh also shook her head. "The boy is cute, but far too silly for serious things. I know you don't take him seriously."
"Hey!" Robert held his hands out in a what-for gesture. "I'm more than just 'cute'."
Lucia, Hardi, and Ma Posh looked at him. He subsided with a sly smile, slumping comfortably in his seat.
Ma Posh nailed Lucia with a look. "You, go home. Say nothing of this."
Lucia shot Hardi a hard look that Hardi knew was covering trepidation. Hardi tried to look confident, and Lucia assented quietly in the Ungians' language. One of the guards took her arm as she stood, and she snatched it away with a glare.
"I will walk out on my own," Lucia hissed at the guard. He recoiled slightly, and she walked around him. "Good luck," she said over her shoulder as she left.
Hardi sighed. "So now I talk to them."
"Now you talk to them," Ma Posh said, her good cheer returning. "Go get the comm," she ordered one of the guards. With a grunt, he left. Ma Posh slowly took a chair and sat down, slumping tiredly but still in a good mood.
Robert sized up Hardi in the minutes before the guard returned. They were both tired, hungry, and bruised. Hardi sat with her head back, eyes closed, like she had in the alley.
The guard returned with a large, old-fashioned comm, which he sat in the middle of the table, facing Hardi. He pointed to a button and moved back to his corner.
Hardi saw that there was an address already dialed into the comm. She hit the button, which was presumably "dial".
Darnell's dark face appeared. He was in a ship of some sort, Hardi guessed, judging by his surroundings.
"Darnell," she said.
"Hardi?" he asked. "Is this the girl in the plastic prison?"
"I'm not in prison anymore," Hardi quipped, ignoring Ma Posh's raised eyebrow. "...And I'd like to negotiate for the antidote to the bioagent."
Darnell shook his head sadly and said, "You aren't an Ungian. That's who we're dealing with here, sugar."
Hardi's jaw set. "I'm negotiating on behalf of the Ungians." She looked up at Ma Posh, who reached forward and swirled the comm toward herself.
"She is negotiating on our behalf, off-worlder," Ma Posh said with a sweet smile. Hardi couldn't see Darnell's expression, but Ma Posh added, "Yes, she is a mean one, isn't she?" She swirled the comm back around before he could respond.
"Make me an offer," Darnell said after refocusing on Hardi.
Hardi blinked. "Isn't that my line?" she asked.
"It's whoever's line says it first," he smirked. "Call me back when you have an offer to make."
Hardi stared at the now-blank screen.
Robert laughed. "He's got your number," he said.