“But I rely on Belgrano so much to keep track of everything,” I protested, which drew an almost immediate glare from the Broodmother.
“I’ve never known you to need Belgr’ano’s say-so to do anything. Leave him as the tool that he is,” she grumbled with a dismissive gesture of her hand. “And we’re signing this treaty by the end of the holidays. I won’t accept anything else. It’s either that or the relations between our peoples are at an end. I don’t think I need to tell you how unfortunate that would be for you and your Earth.”
“Good Splorxx, no!” I chuckled awkwardly. “I’ve got every confidence that we can do this on time.”
“Right,” she nodded. “Start the ceremonies without my son,” she directed one of the red-skinned armored guards near her.
“This is early for him,” I joked.
The Broodmother didn’t even acknowledge that I said that. However, just a few seconds later I heard this relentlessly approaching sound of squishing Drezian feet from behind. A green-blue Drezian with rings of golden spots on his skin slid in front of the Broodmother. I knew from the pictures that this was Emperor Grez’a. I had to remind myself to eschew introductions. Separating the fact that I’d never seen any of these prominent Drezians in person from the fact that they were long-standing friends of Ambassador Hunley had not yet become second nature to me. I momentarily wondered what would happen if I was introduced to one she hadn’t met before, but I pretended to know them.
“Mother, I’m so so so sorry! I meant to…” he began in his squeaky, almost broken voice.
“Shut up,” she said. “Vog’waz you are and Vog’waz you’ll remain.”
When I looked it up later, Vog’waz means something so incredibly fowl that I dare not speak of it or write it in official records. Think of the most disgusting aspects of human birth and then imagine that for Drezians, but then left out in the humid air to rot. It was a shock to me that she’d call him such a thing in front of prominent guests. Even though I didn’t understand the insult at the time, I could tell that Grez’a was absolutely devastated by his mother’s sharp tongue. His pupils contracted to the point they appeared as little slits, the width of paper cuts, in his yellow-green eyes. They widened again as he looked at me.
“Hun’drez! Taking my seat… again? No no no. Please, get out of there! I’m here now after all. Right, mother? This is…”
“The Ambassador’s seat now. You can sit over here,” she said, motioning to the left. Humiliated, the Emperor took this lesser place of honor. “Minister Anu’ra. Make sure that we have more shots of the platform.”
Her command made me realize that there were dozens of floating glassy orbs across from us over the parade route. Doubtlessly, they had been broadcasting coverage of the platform that whole time. I glanced past the massive body of the Broodmother to see poor Grez’a wanting to sink into his seat. Even though I didn’t fully understand Drezian formal attire, I could also tell that his various insignia were all slightly askew. I knew that Hunley had been very good friends with Grez’a and my heart broke at the fact he would have to take one more emotional blow at some point when he found out that she was dead. I could only imagine it. Drezians all have very pliable emotive faces, so I would have to see the full brunt of it.
My pity was cut short by the anxiety that crept in. Here I was, sitting next to the most powerful members of a very powerful alien race, being recorded by all of their news media. Any awkward movement I made or any gaffe I said would be lampooned by fools and studied by conspiracy theorists. I thus decided to maintain a very still demeanor until I was called upon.
“Go on, Vog’waz. Do what you’re paid for,” the Broodmother commanded Grez’a to step forward.
With one of those fake bursts of enthusiasm that always makes you pity the person doing it, Grez’a jumped out of his seat and began to address the crowd. I noticed that their cheers where, by human standards, muted. I wasn’t entirely sure what they were using for microphones, but apparently all you needed to do was step out onto the platform and their audio projection system automated the rest.
“A Moist Erg’um to all of you!” Grez’a announced.
The crowd cheered, raising their front feet in the air and slapping those slimy appendages together. The sound of hundreds of thousands of Drezians doing that was viscerally somewhat disgusting. He began to speak again, but Belgrano sent me another message that appeared on my HUD in bold red letters. “When Grez’a is done speaking, all of the Drezians will turn their heads skyward and inflate their throats out of respect to Splorxx. Ambassador Hunley would always observe this ritual by posing like a Drezian on four legs and tilting her head up with them. YOU MUST DO THIS WHEN THE TIME COMES!”
By the time I was done reading it, Emperor Grez’a had almost finished with his short address. I’m only going to assume he said nothing important since the Broodmother seemed to be dozing off. The crowd only barely applauded as the speech went on, too.
“Now, the entire reason for Erg’um, and the reason we are even here in the first place, we honor Splorxx for her magnificence and malevolence,” Grez’a said.
“Benevolence, you dolt!” the Broodmother corrected him and then leaned toward me. “Never let him speak without a written document in front of him. He’s absolutely useless.”
I noticed that she said that loud enough that almost everyone on the entire reviewing stand could hear her. As he slinked away back to his seat, the audio projection system blasted out a somber croaking choir and I saw each Drezian, even the aged Broodmother with her stiff limbs, positioning themselves for the ceremony. I scrambled to do my best imitation of them, but I ended up looking more like a parody of an Earth frog than a Drezian. It was close enough in some senses. Their throats all expanded, forming translucent orbs as they all began to sing toward the sky. Craning my neck as far back as I could, I joined them. As I did, I could feel a sharp pain radiating into my head. I was sure I was doing some damage to either myself or my encounter suit, but I couldn’t be bothered to worry about that.
We all stared at the dark purple Jin’Drezian sky as a massive hologram of Splorxx moved over us, a trail of holographic spores raining down on the capital from above. Splorxx, if you’re not familiar with Drezian representations of the one true God, has the appearance of a gnarled toad, with exceptionally long arms and eyes far larger than we represent now on Earth. I hadn’t actually looked at the Drezian representations of Splorxx before taking this assignment and had to quickly accept their artistic renderings. Of course, it was somewhat silly since Splorxx changes her appearance on each pass through the galaxy, but that’s neither here nor there. We would actually see Splorxx herself later in the holy day period as she made her regular journey past Jin’Drezia as I will explain later.
One thing I hadn’t looked into by that point was how Splorxx explained why Drezians bore such a resemblance, albeit far larger, to Earthican frogs. Earth is actually merely another planet whose life was spawned by a pass of Splorxx’s spores. The fact that life on our planet mutated and ultimately made mammals the dominant lifeforms was completely by accident. Apparently, if one of our mass extinctions had gone differently, Earth, like Jin’Drezia, would have been dominated by something like the Drezians as well. And, like the Drezians, they would have eliminated all other major competing lifeforms.
At any rate, I must have done a passable enough job imitating Ambassador Hunley’s reverential pose because the ritual passed without incident. Or at least no one wanted to raise an issue. Then the Broodmother instructed me to go forward and give my address. I decided to keep it short, even shorter than Ambassador Hunley would have with her terse style. Screens all around over Imperial Palace plastered pictures of Ambassador Hunley with what was, to me, indecipherable Drezian font underneath. Trying to ignore that, I was sure to prepare my voice for my brief address.
“It was fifteen of our human years ago that we had the blessed fortune of encountering your people. Through that accidental encounter, we discovered that all of our human history had been lived in ignorance of the magnificence of the true God of this galaxy, the magnificent and benevolent Splorxx,” I said, being sure that my pace always stayed in the Ambassador’s slightly halting cadence. I felt like I was almost parodying it. “Only by Splorxx’s graceful paddles through our galaxy do Earthicans now enjoy the friendship of Jin’Drezia. Under Splorxx’s guiding spores, we will all live in moist harmony together.”
It felt like I was watching myself give the speech. It was all over so quickly. Short as it was, it was only twelve words shorter than the typical speech given by Ambassador Hunley. Drezians apparently valued brevity. Even a coronation speech for a new emperor or, even rarer, a new Broodmother, would be, at most, thirty minutes long. They preferred a large number of short and varied social events rather than a smaller number of protracted ones. It’s actually very civilized.
“Oh, that was so much better than most of your speeches, Ambassador,” the Broodmother said as I sat down to the squishy applause of the crowd below.
“I’m glad you liked it! I was studying some of her… my speeches and trying to improve them,” I stumbled and whimpered as I realized my mistake.
Byt’hula glared at me in silence for a few moments before Minister Anu’ra took his turn to address the crowd with a rambling speech, by Drezian standards. It was a full seven minutes. Byt’hula continued to glare in my direction out of her right eye. Her pupil narrowed until I basically couldn’t see it. Belgrano’s warning to me about who nothing slipped past the Drezians was truer than I realized at the time.
At some point, she let her eyes shift off toward the parade as it began. It was a close-run thing. I wondered if, had I made another mistake, that would’ve given it all away. My shoulders tensed to the point that I could barely feel my arms. For a moment I thought the suit might be malfunctioning and that I was breathing in too much of the Drezian air, but that certainly wasn’t the case. All systems were at 100%. No, it was all me.
The full division worth of orb laser artillery passing by gave me a distraction. Far from our austere blocky military equipment, theirs was smooth, organic, and globular. They also had the ability to shoot tightly bound laser balls hundreds of kilometers and have them expand in solid spheres that incinerated everything in their path for hundreds of meters. Their foot soldiers, following on behind in shining green body armor, carried miniature versions of the same technology. I remember hearing from our military officers that we couldn’t replicate their technology even if we tried. That was one of the motivating purposes of the whole treaty. We needed protection from all kinds of different enemies, especially the Thregix Alliance and what remained of the Glygrat Dominion, which sought vengeance for our prior encounters.
In any case, once the parade was over, there was a reception in the Imperial Palace’s newer throne room. It was a massive room that had two waterfalls coming from the ceiling that poured into a central pond that had all manner of exotic flowers and plants. The Broodmother sat in the middle on the green and mossy throne, which was a replica of one of Jin’Drezia’s oldest artifacts.
So many of the Drezian ministers and their elites were gathered that I badly strained my neck doing the formal greeting over and over again. I was worried that I’d lose track of which Drezian was which since their bodies and faces were all very similar, but they had different enough colors and markings that I could make a mental note of probably a dozen of them. Then, of course, there was the Ambassador’s old war comrade, now a First Kib’grot, Cerg’jyt. He had lost an arm and a leg in combat with her, making him very distinctive.
“Bil’trog! Bil’trog!” he announced himself from across the room. He came bounding forward and embraced me, picking me up off the ground. His artificial limbs, which didn’t look much like the originals, gave him absurd power. He then slammed me down to the ground playfully, his long spiked tongue drooping a bit out of his mouth in excitement. His pupils grew so dilated that his eyes became almost totally black. “Say, I didn’t hurt your left knee, did I? That’s the bad one, right?”
I never knew that Ambassador Hunley had any serious injuries from the war so I just went along with it.
“Yeah, you could stand to put me down a little easier,” I chided him. “I keep praying to Splorxx to make the old left knee as good as it used to be, but I guess that’s my scar forever.”
That was clumsy. I knew it was clumsy. Worse yet, it turns out I got it wrong. I knew that as soon as I saw Belgrano gently shaking his suit’s head back and forth at me.
“Wait!” Cerg’jyt belched and squinted, his heavy eyelids falling low on his eyes before they vaulted back open. “You took it in the right knee! I always forget… Say, were you just being nice to me? Sparing me from being tossed in uzb’qeg somewhere? Me forgetting something like that right in front of the Broodmother!”
Emperor Grez’a, still waddling with a deflated demeanor after the Broodmother’s ritual humiliation of him, looked over at me as the discussion turned. There wasn’t terribly much time to lose. Belgrano was clearly looking for some escape for us, but I knew that wouldn’t be ready in time. We might have been overly paranoid. Maybe the Drezians aren’t that observant. On the other hand, Cerg’jyt indicated that a small memory lapse would lead to him being put in the Drezian equivalent of a hospice center.
“When you get to be my age as a human, both of your knees are shit, shrapnel or no,” I guffawed. There was this very short silence that made me more worried than any other moment of my life. But, thankfully, I was saved by a round of Drezian chortles.
One who didn’t join in the chortles, though, was Minister Anu’ra, who slowly moved forward, clicking his cane a few times to get my attention. I was likely unprepared for any kind of question he could toss at me, but salvation came in the form of Belgrano, who had pushed toward where the Minister stood.
“Minister Anu’ra, forgive me, but I think we should probably continue our discussions of the Earthican Amphibian Reclamation Project you keep insisting on,” Belgrano said, dripping with forced hostility.
Almost all of the other conversations near me cut out to pay attention. Seeing so many Drezian eyes fall on Belgrano must have made him nervous because he approached Anu’ra with a stiff, yet obnoxious gait.
“I was unaware this topic required any further conversation, Belgrano,” Anu’ra said, making a dismissive gesture with one of his webbed hands. “This was already most adequately discussed with your Ambassador.”
Belgrano lifted his head up and back, flicking it to the right several times. Gasps and chirps and croaks erupted from the Drezians. Anu’ra, for his part, only stiffened his pose against Belgrano, even forming a slight smirk.
“Use your words, Belgrano. This sort of thing doesn’t suit you,” Anu’ra chuckled.
“That matter hasn’t been formally adjudicated by experts in Earthican ecology and evolutionary biology. Ripping out some 100 million amphibian lifeforms requires some study that I’m not sure the Ambassador understands!” Belgrano angrily protested.
Remembering that Belgrano told me that he would make a scene as our cue to leave, I dutifully interceded in the scrum before anyone else could inject themselves or anything else could be said. Sliding between the two of them, I raised my arms into the air and said.
“Good Splorxx! I think that’s enough! This is Erg’um after all! We’ve still got plenty of time to hammer out all of these little details! I think Belgrano needs his rest for a spell. He’s gotten awfully grumpy,” I declared, forcing a chuckle that I worried might have sounded too forced. Another of those awkward silences passed, but it ended it the entire court laughing. I grabbed Belgrano’s suit by the shoulder. “Time to put the old man to bed.”
“You’re older than me!” he protested.
“Not in spirit,” I jabbed him. This was, again, met with the Drezians laughing, even Minister Anu’ra.
We left the reception with that cover of laughter and took off in the shuttle in silence. I was wondering when Belgrano would finally feel like he could speak again.
“That was a narrow escape,” he said at last just as our shuttle neared the embassy. “A very very narrow escape.”
“Did I do something wrong?” I asked, knowing that I did, but at the same time I thought I did rather well for a first encounter under the circumstances.
“You made precisely as many errors as I thought you were going to make. You can’t afford many more,” he sighed. “Now that we’ve deceived them, we can’t go back now. Please realize that. We’re committed now, to the very end.”
“I understand,” I said, not wanting to actually understand what he meant. Back in my mind, I wanted to believe I could just run away if this went poorly. That, however, was obviously not true.