Pandora 0.3

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Maybe it was because of that smile, which warmed her features considerably and made her body language seem less closed. Maybe it was just pure shock. I stared at her, a frank, blatant stare that would have gotten me a slap back home.

"Are you completely space-fried? What could you possibly want with me?"

The captain leaned forward and gestured to my plate, which I hadn't touched in a while. Obediently I cut into my roast beef. The faint warmth coming off the plate itself kept my food from getting too cold, so it still tasted fine, but it was hard to eat. My heart pounded with anticipation, though what it was anticipating, I wasn't sure. I chewed quickly and thoroughly, swallowed past the lump in my throat, then cut another piece, waving it on the fork to demonstrate that I was following orders.

"Tell me, Xandri. Your opponent down there...how did you know to bluff?"

"Oh. Um..." Shit. The food churned in my stomach, along with disappointment. She really was just here to bust me. "Uh, just luck, I guess. You know, sometimes—"

"You know who I am. I'm not going to waste my time busting for a gambling den. The truth is, I already know what you did, but I want to hear it in your own words."

Her no-nonsense tone compelled me onward. "People...people don't only speak with words. There's all this other language that comes from the body and the face and the tone of voice and—well, normally people like me aren't too good at that sort of thing, I guess. I always had a hard time as a kid, though I didn't really understand it."

I realized I was babbling and flushed. "The point is, I spent the week watching him. He has this thing, his whiskers twitch in a certain way when he has a good hand. The more twitching, the better the hand. That's all."

"Sounds like a useful skill."

"It keeps me alive."

"I have a feeling it can do more than that."

"It works best with non-humans," I said, gazing down at the piece of beef still sitting on my fork. "I'm less good at it when it comes to my own species."

"Well, we might need to work on that a little, but it's not the main concern," Captain Chui said. "I'm in need of a new head of Xeno-liaisons. I don't employ diplomacy AI—they're expensive, and they don't always work. Too one-track, if you ask me, and it's little wonder the AFC has so little luck with them. No, I want someone who is truly capable of catching the small nuances and differences in other sapients, and I think you're the one for the job."

"Me?" Once again, I stared.

She had the grace to ignore my gawping. "Why not? You pay attention and you perceive. A natural instinct for reading others isn't necessary and, I suspect, might prove detrimental. Your constant awareness, on the other hand, means you're less likely to assume too soon that you have the answers."

"I...suppose..." Assumptions, as I knew all too well, could put me in danger. "But—"

"You'd get to see new planets before most people, new lifeforms, even meet new sapient species. What do you think?"

What did I think? My heart raced so fast, I thought it might gallop out of my chest. The idea of going to space was, in and of itself, enough to make me want to bounce in my seat. But to see new planets and new creatures, to see them up close instead of taking what I could get from the news and holos and the like? My hands shook. I set my fork down and reached into my pocket, rubbing the satin ribbon between my fingertips and trying to think straight.

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