Belgrano pushed the button and shot back into his seat, as if he was bracing for impact. I breathed deeply as I began hearing the indecipherable belching noises that comprised the Drezian language. There was only the slightest delay for the translation.
“Craft Human,” the gurgling voice came over the speaker, “identify yourself.”
Before I spoke, Belgrano pointed downward. I took that to mean that I needed to remember to speak in the lowered octave. I was insulted that he’d thought I forgot about it. My bigger worry, however, was that I’d just stumble over my words. My hands buzzed and my head ached with fear. I kept having to remind myself to ignore the part of my brain that told me this would all end in disaster. From the standpoint of probability, it was right, but even if it was that didn’t do me any good at this point.
“This is Ambassador Veronica Hunley,” I said. Belgrano wiggled his finger to make clear that I should continue speaking, but I wasn’t sure what to say. We’d never worked that part out. “We’re coming in to dock for the Emperor’s reception.”
Belgrano gave a tepid thumbs-up to that performance.
“Ver’gol! Pleased we always are to have you at Erg’um! Dock at zu’kog ner’til seventy-four,” the gurgling voice responded. “Ryk’lon!”
The signal cut out and I could breathe again. Belgrano pressed the communications button several times to ensure that it was off. He then entered in the coordinates we’d been given.
“That was a Gitr’og continental dialect,” he said. “I’m sure you noticed a few words didn’t translate.”
“I did, yeah.”
“They also have unusual grammar compared to mainline Drezians. In fact, they have stochastic grammar,” Belgrano sighed. “They’ve got that in common with uneducated buffoons on Earth. Our translators do what they can, but they can’t anticipate random incompetence.”
I giggled at his comment, but then he snapped his head toward me.
“Don’t laugh. This is important and you need to remember it.”
“Of course. Sorry.”
“Before we land, there’s one thing you must know how to do. At formal occasions, Drezians greet one another with a flick of the head. It’s up, back, to the left, and down, but all in one smooth motion,” Belgrano said. Then he demonstrated it. He certainly had practice with it as he could do it fluidly. “The Ambassador, though, always did it a little wrong. It was subtle and you have, oh, three minutes to figure it out.”
“Well, then get on with it!” I blurted.
He was taken aback by that, but quickly recovered. I can only imagine what face he was making on the other side of his encounter suit.
“Remember the up and back part? She executed that perfectly. She always wiggled her head a little to the right before doing the rest, though. If it was from anyone else, it’d be deemed an insult. They find it endearing from her, or rather they did find it endearing from her,” he said, his voice trailing off. “Now, try it.”
Slowly, I lifted my head, arched it back, wiggled it to the right, and then fully turned it to the left.
“No!” Belgrano shouted. “That was too much to the right.”
“Well, what’s the problem with doing that?” I asked.
“One, that’s not how she did it. Two, it’s a grievous insult.”
“What does it mean? In case I want to use it, I want to know what it is.”
Belgrano shook his head.
“It doesn’t make much sense to us. It means something along the lines of saying that their broodmother had weak egg membranes.”
“That’s… disappointing,” I groaned, expecting something with some more sting.
“Not to them. Don’t do it. Now, again. I want you to do it a dozen times so that you have it second nature.”
I kept trying to pull it off, but each time Belgrano would just judge me by barking “Again!” He would periodically show me what he wanted me to do, but he kept insisting that I had done it wrong. At last, as we neared the destination landing pad, he told me to hold my head just where it was when I tried the wiggle.
“Yes! That far and not a centimeter farther!” he instructed. “Now, do it a few more times. Make it part of your routine. You’ll be doing it dozens of times, maybe hundreds, coming up.”
Once I found the groove in my neck, it seemed much more natural. Each time I did the correct wiggle, Belgrano cheered louder and louder. It was strangely gratifying. However, then the computer gave me some unwelcome news.
“Landing sequence initiated,” the slow drawl announced.
I braced myself, trying to remember all of the information that I had tried to cram in my head earlier. It was all a jumbled mess. I couldn’t recall if the Minister of Wetlands was Jug’rub or Jul’gil. Ambassador Hunley wouldn’t have even given it a second thought. I decided that the best decision was to pretend that I would need no introduction since they had known her for years and years by that point. It was the best rationalization I could come up with. Of course I was assuming away problems, but it was the only way to alleviate my surging fears.
The craft jolted when it hit the landing pad. My spine felt like it would shatter. Belgrano would tell me at some later point that the autopilot was actually dreadful at landings, but that he didn’t want to chance me taking over the landing given my nerves. I would have acted insulted by what he said, but that was a fair assessment.
“Do you remember the three terms I told you?” Belgrano asked.
“The three what?”
“The three familiar names.”
“Oh. Hun’drez, Ver’gol, and Bil’trog,” I responded.
“Your pronunciation is a bit off, but not enough to draw suspicion. Ambassador Hunley was always sloppy with that sort of thing. Also, you don’t have to say those names. You only need to acknowledge them when they announce you.”
“That makes sense.”
“Quite. Now, you’ll have to do your own introductions. I hope you’re ready.”
We walked up to the shuttle door and waited for the Drezian guards to take up on either side of the approach to the Imperial Palace. I watched on the monitor as these hulking frog beasts stood at attention, each of them grasping these large pikes, which I learned were actually laser rifles that doubled as a melee weapon. I suppose I should say that your typical Drezian looks staggeringly like an Earthican frog, but generally walks on its hind legs, and of course they’re much larger. Among Drezians, these guards were especially large.
Between them, a rotund Drezian stepped forward, using a gnarled cane that contrasted with the otherwise impressive technological prowess these amphibian aliens possessed. I would have expected some sort of levitation device. Some Drezian custom commanded it, especially among the higher castes of Drezian society. As this Drezian had a fluorescent cyan skin, I realized that it was separate from the lower rung Drezian soldiers. Sad as it might be, Drezians order much of their society by color.
“That’s Minister Anu’ra,” Belgrano said. “Incidentally, I don’t know what Ambassador Hunley and he discussed before she died. They could have spoken about anything and I would be careful if I were you to not betray surprise at even the most outrageous things that might be said to you.”
My sweating escalated. I was soon stewing in a pool of my own apprehension. I tried to think through her documents and I couldn’t recall anything that was relevant. There was oddly nothing about Minister Anu’ra in her records, despite the fact that he was the Emperor’s most important advisor, and also a personal friend to the Dowager Broodmother.
“What was the joke that she was supposed to tell you? That’s something we can go on,” I suggested.
“Oh, that I’m a vug’freg, a homosexual Drezian who sleeps at the bottom of a pile underneath his brothers. It doesn’t make any sense as not one of those things is true,” he growled.
“Ah,” I said, suppressing a laugh. “Shall we?”
The door hissed open with carbon dioxide spraying on either side of the ramp. I became so nervous, but I recalled that no one could see me through the suit. There was something about the way the suit felt that I never felt entirely safe from the Drezians’ prying eyes. However, I was indeed safe and I decided that Ambassador Hunley, from what I saw of her, would simply sprint down the ramp and greet Minister Anu’ra where he stood. Hesitation could yield disaster.
Without even bothering to consult Belgrano, I lunged down the steps, sprinted toward the minister, and did the greeting ritual I had practiced with Belgrano so many times by that moment. I watched as Minister Anu’ra leaned on his cane, his heavy slimy jowls drooping down from his baggy face. It was hard to tell with Drezians exactly what they were thinking, despite their expressive faces. Their yellow eyes showed some signs, as their large pupils would dilate and contract periodically, which I figured must mean at least something. From what I understood, contracted pupils meant hostility and dilated pupils meant friendliness or, perhaps, aroused. In Anu’ra’s case, his were in a permanent state of contraction.
“Hun’drez, I’m so glad you could make it after our last meeting,” Anu’ra said, his fat lips seemingly being stuck to one another as he spoke. His voice was not as gurgling as I had thought it would be. For a creature so bloated and warted, I would have expected much more tortured speech.
“Oh, it was only by Splorxx’s will that I recovered. I didn’t think I’d make it,” I said, correcting my higher octave only part way through what I said. I noticed that Anu’ra tilted his head slightly to the right, but then ignored the discrepancy. I think. Maybe he thought it was an error in my synthesizer. In case that was something he had thought, I decided to draw attention to it. “Took me a while to get this forsaken suit working again.”
“Primitive human technology isn’t ever much use,” Anu’ra sneered. “The last shipment you sent us as a gift was an insult.”
I noticed Belgrano coming up behind me.
“Minister,” Belgrano announced himself.
“Very good, Belgr’ano. I see you’ve decided to come out from your cave,” Anu’ra said. “Hun’drez, if I might.”
Anu’ra grabbed me by the arm, which shocked me. However, there wasn’t anything hostile about it. It was to simply pull me closer.
“You haven’t told him, right?” Anu’ra asked in a light whisper that my translator barely picked up on.
“Oh, no. Of course not,” I chuckled.
“Good. Good. And I haven’t told the Emperor, either.”
What that could mean, I had no idea. How I would ever discover what it meant was beyond me. I’d relied on Belgrano for the few hours up until that point. Ambassador Hunley’s records were in such a state that I was quite certain that it wouldn’t be clear.
“I think we shouldn’t discuss any of that until later, if that’s alright with you,” I said, motioning back toward Belgrano.
“Most sensible, as always.”
“Belgrano,” I called back, “did you have my itinerary for the rest of the day after this?”
I could sense from him that he was not pleased with what I said. I think he must have seen it as a clumsy remark. I’d not even known him for a day, but that much was clear to me.
“After the festivities here, I think you could use some rest, Ambassador,” he said in a low grumble.
“Oh yes, that’s probably a good idea!” I chirped back toward him. Minister Anu’ra kept a wary eye on me as we approached the palace. I tugged on the Minister’s loose skin and was pleased by how strangely fun it was to grip. “Belgrano says I haven’t been sleeping enough and he’s ‘worried’ about me.”
“That sounds like Belgrano. A vug’freg until the very end,” Anu’ra muttered. Noticing that Belgrano wasn’t close enough to hear what he would say, he tugged on my encounter suit again, his sticky fingers making a sickening thwapping sound on the metal. “Well, you need to keep him at least somewhat happy with what you’re doing. If he writes an unfavorable report…”
“Oh yes, I understand,” I chuckled.
Fierce blasts of music came out from the Imperial Palace as we approached. They sounded like coordinated belches, albeit rounded and pleasant enough ones. I quickly realized that this was a Drezian choir, typical of high ceremonies such as this, or so I gathered later. While it sounded like nonsense when I first heard it, as the moments went on I came to like it. It wasn’t the sort of thing I was used to, but I could see the appeal. It was a bit like a Russian Army Choir from days of old, but in frog voices. It was moving in its own right.
We passed an array of statues, cast in this spongy-looking metal that didn’t bear any resemblance to anything I saw on Earth or Quarmarq for that matter. A message that Belgrano typed to me anticipated that question. On my HUD display it said, “Swog’jik, the most common metal on Jin’Drezia. Not useful for much but ceremonial purposes, but they prize it a great deal for that. Be sure to not insult it. Ambassador Hunley was a fervent fan.”
“I’m forgetting the details I was sent on this earlier. When do I speak at the Erg’um ceremony?” I asked Anu’ra.
The Minister’s right eye slowly slid to observe me and was obviously judgmental of my apparent forgetfulness.
“As usual, the Emperor insisted that you speak first,” Anu’ra grumbled. “He’s very insistent on it for some reason. I don’t mean to be indelicate, Ambassador, but you know why I find this improper.”
“Ah, you’re always sentimental about this,” I laughed again. After a short pause, I realized I should probably do something other than try to imitate Hunley’s gregarious demeanor. She did have other modes, after all. “If you would like to speak before me, I’d be happy to allow you.”
“No. No. No,” he relented. “I know what I should do here and it’s not anything that upsets the Emperor’s wishes. Besides, the Broodmother will be here. She doesn’t think the Emperor knows how to conduct a proper Erg’um, or so she keeps telling everyone at court.”
I gathered from what little Anu’ra said that the Dowager Broodmother, named Byt’hula, was particularly keen on the alliance with Earth. This had special weight with various members of the Drezian Imperial Court. After all, she had spawned not only the Emperor, but the rest of the Imperial Brood and also a variety of ancillary broods who staffed a host of other key governmental posts on Jin’Drezia. She had lived so long and had so many mates, whom she would later dispose of, that it was hard to find a prominent Drezian that didn’t spawn from her.
Something I had not understood until that point was that the Emperor’s power was only a function of the power that the Broodmother gave him. It was her bloodlines that made him powerful. Since he had the authority he had by sitting at the top of her brood, she ultimately controlled all of the power that he relied on. As time had gone on, she had taken more direct control of important matters herself.
Once we were shown to the palace’s reviewing stand overlooking what would be the great parade, this became clearer to me. An extremely elderly-looking Drezian, dressed in fetching imperial regalia, sat at the center. I didn’t need to be told that this was the Broodmother Byt’hula. We were brought forward to her to formally declare our presences at the festivities. I’ll spare all of the details as Drezian protocols are extensive.
“Right. Always such a pleasure to receive you, Ambassador,” she said in a wheezing gurgle. I couldn’t tell if it was a warm greeting or not. “Anu’ra. Again, where is my son?”
“The Emperor?” Anu’ra asked.
“He’s the only son who counts!” she barked back. “Even then he’s lucky I consider him a son.”
“I’ll find him, Your Moistness,” Anu’ra said with his head drooping. He limped away while the Byt’hula glared in his direction.
“It’s almost time for speeches,” she scoffed. “Lazy hatchling he’s always been. Look at how many are waiting for this parade and he can’t be bothered to be here on time!”
She was right on that point. From the palace reviewing stand, it looked like there were hundreds of thousands of Drezians lining the route.
“I don’t think I can tell you enough that it never surprised me it took one of you humans to save him in that war,” she continued, her voice breaking into a disdainful hiss. Her gaze then turned to the lurking Belgrano. “What was your name again? Bel’adro?”
Belgrano steeped forward, his encounter suit seeming a bit wobbly.
“Belgrano, Your Moistness,” he said, choking a bit on his words.
“Oh yes, Belgr’ano,” the Broodmother said with a belch. “Why don’t you go back there with the functionaries? It’s more fitting for you. Yes, irrelevance suits you.”
One of the Broodmother’s guards walked up to Belgrano and placed its slimy hand on his encounter suit. He did another of the ceremonial head flicks and retreated back to the platform’s rear rows.
“Ambassador, sit here,” the Broodmother gurgled, motioning for me to sit to her right. Drezian formal seats resembled cushy Lily pads that were slightly raised on both sides for their arms. They were awkward for humans to sit in, but then again they had only encountered humans for a short time and we were the inferior race in any case. I understood why they didn’t make any effort to accommodate us. “If my son can’t be bothered to show up on time, I would rather you take it. Kig-freg to him! Kig-freg!”
Apparently, her voice carried enough for Belgrano to hear it. He sent me a written message from his suit to my HUD saying, “That is an archaic Drezian word term, common of her generation. It means that she wishes for him to wilt in the sun.” I wasn’t sure how serious she was about that.
“Right. Now, going forward I don’t think you should bring Belgr’ano with you,” the Broodmother murmured as she leaned over to me, her ample jowls almost touching my encounter suit. “With what we’ve agreed to already, I don’t think his involvement is a good idea. I don’t trust him.”
Immediately, I recognized that I would have a problem. If Belgrano wouldn’t be able to bail me out on more mundane matters and I couldn’t understand Ambassador Hunley’s notes for the more serious ones, my ability to fake my way through the rest of these negotiations was not going to be sufficient.