Chapter 3

Admiral Joel Foley arrived on Station Cumberland with Commodors Ben Miller and Janice French.

"I'll have you shown to your quarters, Sir." Natasha said.

"We'll go straight to the Conference Lounge." The Admiral said firmly. "We'll use the time until Vanley arrives for our own discussions. You'd better stay here to receive them." Foley left with his Commodors.

"I hope he's not going to flog the 'Admiralty' card to death." Natasha exhaled loudly.

"A bit of tact is needed, I agree." Dale tugged at the neck of his dress uniform. "I had to get Gilly Pace to starch the collar. It looked like an unmade bed."

"It may all be for nothing if Sor Vanley doesn't show. I sincerely hope he does. I know Bedlam will never be our bosom buddies but we can still coexist as neighbours."

"Admiral Foley ..."

"Station Cumberland. Can you hear me?" The volume of the broadcast had Natasha and Dale clutching their ears. Natasha stumbled for the communicator panel. "Captain Crown? Oh bugger, I've broken it."

"Captain Natasha Crown. We hear you. Can you reduce your volume please? You're broadcasting through every channel on the Station. Everyone can hear you." Natasha winced.

"Well how did that happen?" The speakers boomed. "Umm give me a minute. I'll twiddle a few knobs." Natasha and Dale just looked at one another in surpise. "How's this?"

"Much better, although you're still wide broadcasting." Natasha watched the alert lights going off all over the station. "Dale, tell security to issue a message telling everyone not to panic." Dale nodded and left the Docking Bay. "Are you still reading me?" She returned to her visitor.

"I can't find the thing to block everyone else. Oh well. Good evening Station Cumberland!"

"Who am I speaking to? You aren't Sor Vanley, are you?" Natasha took a seat and got the specifications for the approaching vessel. It seemed to be a mutant of bits and pieces from extremely old Commonwealth vessels. Obviously, the Bedlites had used abandoned craft too.

"Please excuse my manners. No I'm not Vanley. As if! I'm Pril Cawdor. Vanley and I had a ... debate ... and I'm now an Ambassador." Pril snorted a laugh. "Right! This space ship is a bit dodgy and I'm making it all up as I go along. Where's the closest parking space?"

"Er ... bear with me please." Natasha tried not to sound too alarmed. "I have you on sensors. Make for Bay 11. It's clearly marked. Once in range, we'll pull you in."

"Thank sod for that. I see a huge 11. Or is it a pause sign?" Another snigger.

"Transport here, Captain Crown. We have the Bedlite vessel in a guiding beam."

"Thank you. Pril Cawdor, we're bringing you in. I'm on my way to Bay 11 to meet you." Natasha darted out of the door. "Dale! Bay 11." She saw her engineer rounding the corner. "Pril Cawdor. Not alot like Sor Vanley by the sounds of it."

"Maybe this one won't send the Admiral's blood pressure up." Dale muttered. The Admiral himself was already in Docking Bay 11.

"That pilot is utterly incompetent!" He stated flatly. "Not only that, he's flying a unsafe spacecraft. The damn thing's belching all sorts of smog into the atmosphere. Make sure it's isolated."

"Yes Sir." Natasha tried not to heave. "Dale, inform Pril Cawdor that there will be a five minute decontamination process." Dale nodded and went to Bay 11's communicator.

The space shuttle that creaked and groaned into the Bay was a sight to behold. It was a cobbled together rust bucket and a genuine antique. The forcefield blinked and shimmered infront of the shuttle as the decontamination began.

"You don't have to stay in the vessel, Sir, but keep behind the red lines." Dale informed Pril Cawdor.

"Good. My arse is as numb as the Admiralty." Came the reply and Foley looked far from impressed.

The pilot who emerged from the shuttle rendered everyone speechless. The expected pilot's apparel had been replaced by a long, loose ensemble of layers, of every colour imaginable. Prill Cawdor had jet black hair that had been twisted and knotted into a elaborate structure of braids, decorated with gold baubles. The pilot also wore heavy kohl eye makeup and dozens of gold bangles on both sinewed arms. Added to all this, Pril Cawdor was only around five feet tall

"Bloody hell." Natasha whispered. "Pril Cawdor, I'm Captain Natasha Crown, this is Admiral Foley. This is Dale Tanner, my chief engineer. Please excuse our containment methods, it's procedure."

"Oh don't apologise." Cawdor waved a manicured hand from behind the shimmering shield. "That pile of junk is bound to be toxic. Engineer?"

"Yes. Dale Tanner." Dale answered awkwardly. "It's an honour to meet you, Ambassador."

"Amb ... oh! Me, you mean. It's a new thing." Cawdor smiled and winked at Dale, causing him to turn bright red. "Aww how sweet. Captain Crown, may I say how elegantly beautiful you are."

"Thank you, Ambassador." Natasha replied in surprise. "Admiral ... "

"Ah Admiral Foley!" Cawdor smiled. "Vanley can be a complete arse at times, don't you think? Communication skills of a crumpet. That's a mighty fine moustache you have there, sir. I wish I could grow one."

"You ... you ... " Foley went crimson with rage.

"Decontamination complete." The System came to the rescue and the shield faded.

"I suggest we get this started. Captain Crown!" Foley marched out of the Bay. Natasha gave him a rueful look and followed him.

"This way please." She managed to be polite to her guest over her shoulder.

"I don't mind following such a pretty figure." Cawdor complimented and Dale went red again. "Your's isn't bad either. Shall we?"

The Admiralty looked like a brick wall as the three officers sat rigidly at the table. Natasha sat at the right side and looked like she had another headache coming on.

"Tough crowd?" Cawdor whispered to Dale as they entered the Conference Lounge.

"You could say that, yes." Dale whispered back, indicating the seat at the opposite side of the table, before taking his own seat next to Natasha.

"First things first." Foley looked evenly at Cawdor. "How am I to address you?"

"Cawdor will do." Cawdor replied.

"As you wish. Admiral Foley, or Sir. I'll get straight to the point. After much discussion I think we've come up with a suitable arrangement. Not only will I personally sign a legally binding document which states that the Commonwealth will at no time use Fifeogen gas for destructive purposes, I'll also make this arrangement beneficial to you. We propose to pay your people to mine and package the gas. As well as that, we fully agree to you selling us the resource at a price of your choosing. A business arrangement."

"I cannot accept your proposal, Admiral Foley. My purpose here is to dissuade you from coming into contact with Fifeogen, regardless of who mines and processes it." Cawdor held Foley's even stare.

"Even with our assurance that it won't be abused? This is a valid document Cawdor. If you suspect, and prove that we are misusing the gas, then our own legal department are obliged to contact the Blockades, as are you." Foley clarified.

"To be perfectly honest with you, I don't think you'd misuse it. Vanley isn't too sure but Vanley always was a bit giddy. The data we sent you does make sense and you know it. You know full well the extent of carnage that can be caused by just one Fifeogen bomb. Not even the Admiralty is so arrogant and ignorant." Cawdor sat forward and drummed four flawlessly polished nails on the table. "Did your Boffins even read that data?"

"Of course they did!" Foley answered hotly. "Look, Cawdor, you've just said that you trust us not to abuse this gas and we have no intention of betraying that trust. That was never, ever, in the equation. We have the means to make Bedlam a recognised and wealthy economy. You win all round, Cawdor. Whatever the problem is, it's all down to the Belites' paranoia."

"Why do you persist with the notion that you can handle that crap? It doesn't matter if the Bedlites mine it bottle it and tie it up with a pretty bow. We hand it to you and 'SPLAT' you're dead within days. It can't be packaged or stored safely and it can't be converted or modified into a substance usable by you. Really, Foley, It's not that bloody difficult." Cawdor said in exasperation.

"Yet here you are, a former human, living in the stuff!" Foley snapped.

"Former human, yes. Vanley has told you this. We evolved and adapted to that shite down there but it was at a cost. A cost that was far too high, Admiral Foley. Vanley told you it was our physiology that enabled us to live down there and it's a physiology we don't share. Even if you were exposed to the stuff for milenia, you still wouldn't adapt because you aren't sealed in with it. It's our natural atmosphere. Am I getting through here? You will all die." Cawdor planted both hands on the table.

"Now you sound like your colleague." Foley said stubbornly.

"You need to address all this with your Boffins, Admiral." Cawdor said evenly. "Any further scientific information you need, we'll gladly supply it. Any further explanations regarding Fifeogen and we'll supply that too."

"I doubt your Bedlite Boffins could teach the Admiralty Scientists anything." Foley sniffed.

"About our own lethal atmosphere? We had no choice but to get to know every single molecule of it. We don't want to teach you anything but if it's the only way to get you to clear out, then we're there to advise. Contact your Scientists, Admiral." Cawdor stood up.

"I haven't dismissed the meeting yet." Foley barked.

"Oh just carry on without me. Dale? Can you show me where my room is? That space ship has me reeking like someone's feet."

"Yes, of course." Dale stood up too. "Captain Crown has prepared the guest suite."

"Oh I say!" Cawdor grinned. "Plenty of room for all three of us then!" Natasha received the wink this time.

"I'm sure you'll be comfortable." She forced a smile for Foley's benefit. "Thank you Dale." Dale escorted Cawdor from the lounge and Natasha sat and waited.

"That behaviour is not acceptable, Captain Crown. Deal with it." Foley stated.

"With respect sir, what would you have me do? Cawdor's ways are obviously different to our own." Natasha tried not to sound so irritated.

"And our ways apply on this Station. Men are men and women are women." Foley said flatly and Natasha felt her temper rocket.

"Admiral Foley, a person's personal behaviour is their own business. If Cawdor's behaviour leads to any disruption on this Station then I'll deal with it. For now, I'll extend the utmost hospitality to the Ambassador of a people that no one has ever seen before. Excuse me please." Natasha hurried from the Lounge before she said something she'd suffer for.

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