As I started the weekly press briefing, I had no idea that I’d soon be defending the indefensible.
“The human mining operation on Redfall,” said a groundling journalist, waving a tablet with one spindly limb. “What can you tell us about it?”
“I can tell you that’s the Kenyans,” I replied, using a vocal adjuster in my collar to make the low, rumbling groundling sounds. “This is the British embassy.”
Her antennae drooped in embarrassment. A lot of human nations were represented on Herrje and it could get confusing for locals. But she had been working the diplomatic beat for a decade and should have known better.
“Next question.” I pointed to a feathered k’kiri.
“Is it true that the British government stole k’kiri technology to kickstart its cloning program?” she asked.
Just the mention of clones made my guts knot. Without thinking, I reached for the scar on the inside of my arm.
“We don’t do cloning,” I said. “Next question?”
“But one of your previous governments-” she began.
“Next question,” I snapped.
The rest of the briefing was the soft, pointless drivel that is most PR. As it ended and I made for the door, strong fingers gripping my arm. I turned to see the k’kiri journalist.
“Mr Atticus.” With her green feathered face and slender beak, she looked almost like a parrot. A determined parrot that was going to make my life awkward. “You should talk to me.”
“And why is that?” I asked, extracting myself from her grip. The other journalists had all rushed away to find real stories.
“I have evidence,” she said. “Damning evidence, as humans say.”
“I don’t believe you.” I fought to keep my calm. This was all kinds of bad. Britain had spent thirty years trying to put the eco-eugenicist government behind us. Stir that up again, throw in interplanetary technology theft, and you had a public relations nightmare.
“Believe me or don’t,” the journalist said. “But if you won’t answer my questions, I’ll publish the story without your side.”
The communicator in my pocket buzzed, telling me that she had sent me her contact details. Then she stalked out of the room, leaving me to brood.
“Snap out of it,” I muttered to myself. “Let’s go get a drink.”
Technically, I wasn’t meant to be drinking in the embassy’s archive room. Alcohol and government records were considered a bad combination. But after six hours at a data terminal, reading about the bad old days, I was glad that I’d brought a bottle. There were only so many disturbing genetic experiments you could read about sober.
Worst of all, I couldn’t find what I was after. However the British government had developed cloning technology, the trail had been carefully hidden. Hardly surprising, given the terrible defects many clones had developed, the illegality of the work, and the stigma attached to the whole dirty business. As far as Her Majesty’s Government was concerned, the less people looked into this, the better.
But someone was looking into it, and to prove them wrong I needed to know where the tech really came from.
My level of access clearly wasn’t good enough. I needed someone else.
Ten minutes and a breath mint later, I was knocking on the door of the ambassador’s office.
“Enter,” Ambassador Canning called out.
As I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me, she peered suspiciously across the top of her glasses.
“Have you been drinking, Julian?” she asked.
“Just a little,” I admitted, peering out the window at the city beyond. Low domes, dizzying towers, sparkling buildings that seemed built out of light – all the hassles of my job were worth it for that view.
“Dammit, Julian.” She put down her tablet and stared at me. “Don’t make this a thing again.”
“Won’t,” I said. “Promise. But there’s a thing.”
I put my own tablet down on her desk, showing my formal request for more information on the cloning era.
“Ah.” Her voice softened. “Why do you want this?”
“Press thing,” I said. “Have to prove that we didn’t steal it off the k’kiri.”
“That would be difficult.” Canning ran a hand through her greying hair. “Because that’s exactly what happened.”
“Shiiiiiit.” I sank into a seat.
“I need you to cover for this. Lie, obfuscate, do whatever you must to stop this turning into a diplomatic row.”
“But the evidence…”
“Is from the past. Don’t let that bring down the present.”
An idea flashed across my brain.
“Thanks, boss.” I leapt to my feet. The room spun a little and I grabbed the back of the chair. “I’ve got this covered.”
I was sitting at a pavement cafe near the embassy when Saluc, the k’kiri journalist, found me.
“You-” She began. I only understood half the words that followed. My study of k’kiri languages focused on diplomacy, not obscenities.
“Nice to see you too,” I said, smiling.
“You gave my story to that groundling.” She held up a tablet with a news feed on it. “And you fed her some waffle about the past being the past, how you’re a new nation now, how your government will take its time to fully investigate the allegations, blah blah blah.”
I shrugged. “I brought her a story. She was happy to tell it my way.”
“People should be outraged,” Saluc said. “Instead, you’ve turned this into one more piece of bland politics.”
“I do my best.” I gestured to a seat. “Would you like to join me for a drink, Ms Saluc? I hear that you like coffee.”
“Fuck you, Atticus.” Some obscenities will translate into any language. “Those clones were abominations, and I’m going to prove that they were part of something worse.”
As she stormed away, I reached instinctively for the scar on the inside of my left arm. The one I said came from a childhood bicycle accident. The place where they’d removed my own warped souvenir of the cloning vats.
I jerked my fingers away and reached for my coffee. No sense dwelling on the secrets of the past.
* * *
And so begins another series of flash stories. This time it’s science fiction and the return of Julian Atticus, the cynical PR man. He ‘s featured in some of my previous stories, including in the collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves. So if you enjoyed this story then you might want to check that out. And come back next week for the next installment, as a dangerous leak forces Atticus to sober up and do some real work.
Well, something approximating real work.