“Sir, the kyrrztli chancellor is on the telescreen.” Naresh, the chief of staff, stood by with a wearied look. “She insists on an audience.”

“What a prick,” President Hargunn grumbled. “Can’t you hold her off a bit longer? Things are just starting to heat up down there.”

Naresh shook her head. “We’ve been trying, sir, but she’s adamant. Says it’s urgent. And yes –” she interrupted the President’s objection “– we did tell her that all strategic concerns should go to General Arbael. No use. She insists she’s gotta talk to you, and only you. And… let me remind you, it’s her forces backing us up there in Phrynea.”

“Alright, alright, bring it over,” Hargunn said, sitting up in his chair and straightening his suit. “You guys, keep watching the field. All info goes to Janker,” he said, motioning toward his military advisor. “Let me know if there’s anything vital.”

A moment later, two aides carried the heavy telescreen into the situation room, and set its heavy base onto the mahogany table with a clunk. On the smooth crystal screen, there was an insectoid wearing the formal regalia of a Raidmaster.

“President Hargunn, you are now speaking to Supreme Chancellor Zyrrktli of the Galuran Basin Confederacy,” Naresh announced, struggling with the kyrrztli’s name.

“Good morning, Excellency,” the President mumbled quickly.

“Good morrning, yeer Excellency,” the Chancellor replied with a bow. “We have come to addrress yee with a prreeposal regarding our prrevious negotiation of the rrights to rhodoprasyte mining in the Upper Drrigyr.”

Hargunn frowned. “Rhodoprasyte mining? I… I’m sorry, Chancellor, but with all due respect, we’re in the middle of a battle here!”

“So arre we,” the insectoid replied, “and yet our analysts have managed to find the time to rreassess the terms of our cooperation. We must discuss it at once, I insist.”

“But why now?” The human was baffled. “Couldn’t we at least table this discussion for when the battle is resolved?”

“I’m afrraid that will neet be possible,” Zyrrktli calmly objected. “After all, the rresolution of such battle may well depend on the outcome of our negotiation here… that would make feer quite an interresting paradox, nee?”

“Sir,” Colonel Janker whispered in the President’s ear, “the kyrrztli haven’t moved in.”

“What?” Hargunn whispered back, casting a distrustful look at the telescreen. “They’re bailing out?” The insectoid patiently watched the exchange, clacking her fingers together.

“No, sir, they’re in position,” the military advisor replied. “They’re just… standing there. Not doing a damn thing.”

The Chancellor glanced at a metal plaque someone presented her and waved it away. “It seems things arre developing quite peerly in Phrynea, see say reports. Maybe it weeld be wise to accelerate our negotiation.”

The President’s face fell, as realization dawned on him. “You… wouldn’t.”

“Prreetect the lives of my citizens by keeping them away frrom a battle that brings no prrofit feer us? I weeld, and in fact, I am deeing same rright now.”

“That’s… betrayal, of the lowest kind!” His face contorted into a scowl. “You made us a promise! So your word is worth nothing, huh?”

“There were nee trreaties signed,” the insectoid said with a nonchalant wave of her hand. “Nee handshakes. Nee public declarations. We betrray neething but a vague plan of action that is easily superseded by furrther plans.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Naresh said, barging back into the situation room with a communicator in hand. “I’ve got Arbael on the link. He’s getting desperate, you gotta talk to him.”

Hargunn took the device and pressed it against his temple, glaring at the telescreen. “Listening,” he said.

“Find a way to contact those goddamn bugs!” the general screamed into his mind through the link. “They’re standing there like freakin’ statues, not responding to our backup signals, and Basin Command refuses to acknowledge any comms!”

“Oh, I’m in touch with their command, alright,” the President said, eyes fixed on Zyrrktli, who watched him calmly. “Right at the top.”

“Then tell ‘em to get their abdomens down there, because our boys are getting butchered! The Nuradians are sending in air support from the north, and the bugs are supposed to be our anti-air!”

“I weeld like to remind yee that we may begin furrther negotiations whenever yee’re ready,” the Chancellor started. “Specifically, we have grreat interest in the plots seerrveyed near the villages of Fargyr and Damin.”

“Sir?” Arbael insisted. “Do you copy? Have you gotten through to them?”

“Forget the bugs,” Hargunn replied. “They’re not fighting.”

“What the hell do you mean, they’re not fighting? That’s not an option, sir! We need them, and we need them now!”

“Repeat, they’re not fighting. Figure it out.” He shoved the communicator into Janker’s hands, shaking with anger.

“Reaching an agrreement is a simple matter,” the insectoid continued. “I’m sure we can rresolve this in time to rrejoin the battle.”

The President leaned on the table. “The only agreement you’re getting is this: Your soldiers get in there and do what they’re supposed to do right away, and maybe we’ll consider letting you keep the mining rights you’ve got now.”

“Our contrracts are already signed with the winning bidders,” the kyrrztli coolly replied. “Feel frree to attempt to feerce them out of the plots. I understand the Alliance views such brreaches of contrract rather peerly. Although yee might be too occupied retaking Phrynea from the Nuradians, of keerse.”

“Dammit!” He pounded the table with his fist. “We are not giving in to blackmail! To Hell with you and your damn soldiers!”

“Sir, please cons–” Naresh tried intervening, being silenced by a dismissive handwave from her boss.

The Chancellor made a pinching motion to someone off-screen. “Such strreeng weerds to a head of state are quite the un-dipleematic gesture, I’d say. Nee mind. In name of our leeng rrelationship, I’ll refrrain from turrning my seeldiers against yeers… directly, at any rrate.”

“Do your worst… bug!” Hargunn snarled. Beside him, Janker struggled to answer General Arbael’s frantic appeals, while Naresh argued with foreign representatives.

“I believe our negotiation is eever, then. Glad to eenderstand one another.” Another motion from Zyrrktli shut down the telescreen link, making her vanish from the crystal screen.

The chief of staff approached her President. “You do realize that losing Phrynea will make our whole Bhadrapadan colony non-viable, right?”

“Of course I do!” He slumped onto his chair. “And set Varasa’s position within the Alliance way back. And wreck our economy. Not to mention cost me my job, most likely.”

“Glad you understand what’s at stake here, is all I’m saying.” Her voice was subdued.

“What the hell was I supposed to do? Roll over and let her have her way with me?” He glanced at the foreign dignitaries in the corner, who were glaring disapprovingly at him. “That’s not how you do diplomacy. Not with these psychos, anyway. You gotta show strength. Excuse me,” he said, picking up the communicator Janker was handing him.

“We’re in a dead-end, sir,” Arbael’s voice rang inside his head. “The bugs raised a fog around the enemy’s pods to shield them from our own anti-air, and now they’re collapsing the south passage as well. Our forward can’t fall back, and our rear can’t give support. It’s a goddamn slaughterhouse in there.”

Damn.” The President made a fist. “Those bastards didn’t just hang us out to dry, they’re aiding the enemy.”

“At least they’re leaving now,” the general sent back. “For all the good that does at this point. Sir, we need a decision.”

“General, you’re in charge of military strategy,” Hargunn replied. “It’s up to you to make the calls.”

“Oh, I’ve made my call,” the commander said. “But since you’re officially responsible for the operation, we need your go-ahead to disengage and fall back.”

“I see.” President Hargunn sighed. “General Arbael, you are authorized to abort the operation and organize a retreat to the closest allied base.”

He tossed the device on the table, without waiting for the acknowledgement, and got up. There would be time to debate his decision later, but at that moment, there was nothing to be done. So the President walked out of the room, ignoring all the voices yelling at him in discontent, and closed the door behind him.

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