In formal negotiations, Drezian Broodmothers for centuries had used the Old Cyg’rol Chamber. It was the oldest room in the entire Imperial Palace, dating back millennia to the formation of the Drezian Empire. Originally, it had been the first throne room. I tried to avoid gawking at all of its splendor, since Hunley had been in there dozens of times just in the records I had seen. It was hard to resist, though.
Ancient Drezian artistic tastes incorporated a glorified algae lattice into all of their pillars, giving it an organic yet streamlined look that I’d never seen before. The same was true of the stones that circled the central meeting area. Though they were polished and ceremonial, they also had a mossy texture woven into their surface that, from a distance, looked both like authentic swamp moss and something far prettier at the same time. Upon closer inspection, I saw why this was. The “moss” was actually comprised of crushed Drezian jewels of various kinds, ground into fine dust.
Keeping with the traditional aesthetic of the rest of the chamber, the central meeting area was a gloried arrangement of large artificial Drezian lily pads. The largest of them was under a statue of the first Drezian Broodmother Vet’uyn. Dowager Broodmother Byt’hula sat on it, with Emperor Grez’a on a far smaller pad at her left side. A string of her other advisers sat on the opposite side while there were two seats open on her right.
Emperor Grez’a leapt out of his pad and came running over to me. His pupils dilated so wide that his eyes were almost entirely black.
“Hun’drez! You’re alright!” he screamed. He wrapped his squishy arms around my encounter suit and squeezed hard. “I was so worried! I swear we’ll catch whoever did that and make those nog’durs beg for their lives before it’s done!”
I looked over his shoulder toward the frosty gaze of the Dowager Broodmother. Nothing about the way she was looking at me made it clear whether this was a gaze of suspicion or just generalized contempt for Grez’a. I also almost forgot that I had been the one responsible for my own poisoning, along with Minister Anu’ra and his aides.
“Oh, good Splorxx! I appreciate it,” I said to Grez’a. I patted him on the back several times and then pushed away. When I looked into his eyes, I wondered if there had ever been anything more between him and Ambassador Hunley. There was a fondness there that I couldn’t quite explain otherwise.
“Enough of that, you two,” the Broodmother belched. “Ambassador, sit over here. As for Belgr’a… That’s not Belgr’ano. Oh, Ambassador, who is this Zer’fog with you?”
I should mention that Zer’fog was a Drezian insult related to Drezians who neglected to keep their mucus membranes sufficiently moist and thus were susceptible to diseases. Once again, it’s a slur that makes very little sense in our own language.
“Good Splorxx!” I yelped in a forced gasp. “I should have told you he was coming. Habib, care to introduce yourself?”
Awkwardly shuffling, Habib strode forward. The Broodmother tilted her head and licked her bottom lip with her gnarled tongue. Habib then stopped and did the customary Drezian head flick, although I thought he did it too well for a man who had never actually visited Jin’Drezia before.
“Your Moistness, I’m Habib Bin Tawal, Secretary of Interstellar Affairs to Supreme President Zhou of Earth. I told my dear Hunley that with a treaty as important as this, I have to give the final approvals,” he said with customary stilted excitement. I breathed a small sigh of relief that the module and implant were still functioning properly.
Tog’un stepped up behind me and leered over my shoulder.
“Hun’drez, I thought that all of our negotiations with you were under the idea that you spoke for Earth and we wouldn’t have any other outside interference. Was I wrong on that?” he said in a distinctly accusatory tone.
I shook my head and turned around, waving my hands wildly as though to swat away his silly statement. Of course, he was right, but that didn’t matter.
“This is just a small matter of…” I began, but Byt’hula cut me off.
“Feh. Protocols and more protocols,” she spat. “Everyone sit down so we can get on with this. We have our own ceremonies. Grand Moistener!”
Her call for the chief religious official to the court went unanswered. This caused her skin to darken and her eyes to narrow.
“Cul’hut!” she bellowed, slapping her hands on her pad.
Just then, Arch Moistener Cul’hut came scuttling forward, slipping into the water and bumping into Grez’a’s pad. Emperor Grez’a screeched as he became destabilized, drawing a disdainful groan from the Dowager Broodmother.
“Vog’waz! Vog’waz both of you!” she spat. “Now get out of there and get this ceremony over with.”
Two of the attendant guards pulled Cul’hut out of the water. Now standing still, I had a chance to examine him. He was an old Drezian, possibly older than the Broodmother herself. His skin was pale, as though he’d been dunked in bleach repeatedly over the years. In his right arm he carried some kind of ceremonial staff, complete with what appeared to be a massive glass eye at the top of it. It looked like a Drezian eye, but that wasn’t too clear because of how old and weathered it was.
“Brothers and sisters, the moist harmony of Splorxx… the moist harmony of Splorxx, yes that’s right, is a gift to us all. She carries herself through the cold and dry fabric of space to… hrm,” he paused and looked around the room confused. Just as Byt’hula was on the verge of another outburst, he remembered what he was supposed to do. “Oh, I’d forgotten. Open the Splorxx Lens!”
The two guards who had carried him out of the water operated a series of ancient devices that slowly opened the dome above us. When they did, we had a clear view up through a massive telescopic lens that focused on a particular section of space. Belgrano forced Habib to look up with reverential attention, too. I also got a message from Belgrano at that point.
“Splorxx herself will be passing over that exact point in just about thirty seconds. Remember to play along with the throat displays. Also, expect powerful hallucinogens.”
Sure enough, the lens began to fill up with a view of Splorxx as she completed her annual pass over Jin’Drezia. She was glowing in silver and green and red, just as we had always seen in every medium from holographic displays to statuettes. Her spores radiated out in all directions, filling the sky with sparkling wonders. Cul’hut tapped his staff repeatedly on the ground and then inflated his throat. The others all did the same and I tried to follow as best I could, craning my head back and humming in a tone that sort of matched their own.
“As we enter your beneficent wake, oh Splorxx, we offer our deference to the moist harmony you make possible,” Cul’hut screeched in his crackling voice. “We now… We now enter the Trance so that our minds can be made tender… be made tender, yes tender, and malleable to accept your commands.”
The spores cut through the lens and into the Old Cyg’rol Chamber. The Drezians, even the Broodmother who must have seen dozens of these rituals, braced themselves while Cul’hut hopped around on all four legs, giggling without restraint. I wondered what was about to happen to me as I watched the spores cut through my suit’s metal exoskeleton and drift into the interior. No substance could stop the spores and they would react with any blood they encountered. I found that out soon enough.
My vision began to wobble and twist. It looked as though the whole room was stretching horizontally. Each of the Drezian’s faces switched places. Then they all deformed and became hideous and malformed, their skin sloughing off and their eyes sinking backward into their skulls. Then they all blended together and a strange song played in the background, something that sounded like blaring trumpets. Or rather trumpets if they were being played by giant frogs. I drifted through a hall of wispy swamp gas.
I looked out on a vast expanse of festering marshlands as Splorxx passed over in broad daylight, spewing her spores all over the mire. Then day and night passed by hundreds of thousands of times in mere blinks of an eye. I saw fish, strange fish that I didn’t recognize, jumping in and out of the water, some flopping around on the solid lands. Countless millions of them died as I watched. Then, some sprouted legs. It reminded me so much of our own evolution depictions back on Earth, but it was so much more than those could ever hope to be.
Then the cycle played out differently, just as we had always heard about from our Drezian contacts. A strain of amphibians, the forerunners of the current Drezians, grew larger and far more intelligent. They began building a primitive society that survived a great mass extinction event caused by a toxic meteorite that polluted much of Jin’Drezia’s water. Then, in a moment of desperation, they turned their prayers skyward. It was at this point that my vision slowed down.
Splorxx initially cut across the sky like she always would, surveying her creations, but this time she stopped. Her massive, moon-sized eyes turned downward upon the Drezians. Being among them in this vision, I shared in the awe. Hey eyes flashed with brilliant light and transmitted the following message that echoed in my brain. “You have achieved the highest and greatest form of evolution, fulfilling my vision for life. You are worthy to receive eternal souls so that you may live on forever and be reborn in this world should you so choose. This is my gift to you.” She reached her celestial hands into her body and flicked forth some thousands of iridescent flakes that sank into every Drezian present. Nothing landed on me, though. At first I thought this was simply because I wasn’t really there and that this was just a vision. Then Splorxx’s eye turned toward me. I lifted off the marshes of Jin’Drezia and was sent hurtling across the galaxy, the planets and stars blurring around me. Then I was floating above Earth. I plummeted down to the surface and was sent on a floating tour of the planet’s swamps and rainforests. There I saw that every frog and salamander also had a glow iridescent flake buried within them.
Other creatures of those biomes, however, had no such glow. Within them there was only a black void. Then I was flicked around from city to city, looking at throngs of people. Voids. All they had were empty voids. I even saw myself in a mirror and saw that void in me where there should have been one of Splorxx’s iridescent flakes.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt as completely stunned by anything I’d seen in my entire life. I would have rather watched Popov’s skull get crushed in a million times than learn what I learned there.
I heard a voice, a deep gurgling voice, but it sounded so different when I was in that trance.
“Ambassador!” Byt’hula’s voice broke through my haze.
I shook my head around violently and came to, seeing that the room was entirely unchanged. The whole thing had been so strange. I wasn’t sure how long I had even been in that trance state. It looked as though the Drezians were ready to move on, like nothing had even happened.
“Oh… yes. I’m sorry. I must’ve gotten distracted with all of that,” I said.
“All of what?” Grez’a asked, chuckling.
The Emperor, Dowager Broodmother Byt’hula, and Tog’un all gave me varying degrees of stares. There was a very uncomfortable silence in the air. I flicked my head around a few more times to make sure that this was truly the chamber again and not some extension of my vision.
“I’ll be honest, I had the strangest vision with those spores,” I began nervously. I had no idea why I felt like sharing this with them and Belgrano must have thought the same since he had Habib shake his head at me. “I could swear that I saw the natural history of Jin’Drezia, dating back to the original life-giving spores from Splorxx herself. Then I saw her grant Drezians souls once their advancement pleased her. Then she showed me my own planet, Earth. Amphibians on Earth all have souls, but not one other creature does, not even humans. I… I don’t know what else to say.”
There was one of those pauses so quiet that I could hear the water drip from our lily pads. Then all of the Drezians present broke out laughing. Byt’hula laughed so loudly that I thought she might, if you’ll forgive the expression, croak. Even Tog’un, who had been so reserved and genteel earlier, was driven to slap his hand on this own pad, almost capsizing himself.
“Oh, Ambassador!” the Broodmother gasped for air. Several times she tried to continue, but instead laughed again and again. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard you say!”
“You’ve always been such a good actress!” Emperor Grez’a chimed in, smiling.
“Shut up!” the Broodmother growled, flicking her hand at her son. Grez’a recoiled, whimpering back into his pad for protection. The Broodmother then looked back to me, returning to her amused demeanor. “The way you’re able to make it seem like a new revelation after all this time is truly something else!”
“Ah! You know me!” I replied awkwardly. “I…”
Then Belgrano decided that he would have to interject to save me from anything that might embarrass me further.
“My dear Hunley, a thousand apologies upon a thousand more, but what’s this thing you’re referring to?” Habib, at Belgrano’s direction, asked.
“I’ll defer to a better authority than myself,” I said, offering an open hand toward Grez’a.
The Broodmother dropped her jaw at me for this.
“Better authority?” she guffawed. “Oh, I want to hear the little Vog’waz explain this. That’ll make this a great day.”
Grez’a looked like he wanted to cry, but I nodded at him and silently encouraged him onward. He stiffened his composure and cleared his throat with a couple of phlegmy coughs.
“Hun’drez was so shocked the first time she learned this that she drank a whole kel’drel of Kargrez. That’s why she wanted this treaty so badly. There’s that clause in the treaty about long-term genetic amplification,” Grez’a said.
“Modification, you Vog’waz!” the Broodmother rudely corrected him. “Otherwise, you did well.”
Grez’a brushed off the initial insult and seemed to bask in the light praise he got from the Dowager Broodmother.
Belgrano sent me a message to my HUD. “Genetic modification? I know I saw those terms in the treaty, but I have no concept of what it means. I’ll ask for you.” I was glad that he was going to since I had no idea what it meant, either. I’d read it over, but it had meant nothing to me.
“All of that was so very very helpful. A thousand upon a thousand thanks, but what is this genetic modification?” Habib inquired.
Tog’un raised one of his long webbed fingers to command the floor.
“The project has the eventual goal of converting humans to being amphibians instead of mammals. Once you adopt the various water purification procedures spelled out in the treaty’s terms, your species will undergo the necessary alterations to become proper amphibians. No, you won’t be Drezians. We can’t get you to this point of perfection,” he explained with an affected lilt. “Nonetheless, you would be at the point where Splorxx, in her merciful grace, would grant your kind immortal souls so that you might live and be reborn forever. As of right now, when your biological functions cease, that’s the end of you. Hun’drez has been very keen on putting an end to that. Moist harmony, you see, is not a mere phrase we say idly. This is what it means.”
I was almost struck speechless. I had no idea that something of that magnitude was the ultimate goal of the treaty. It made me fairly depressed to immediately realize that Hunley herself would never benefit from it, being that she had died before this had been accomplished. Also striking me at that moment was that humanity’s religions had passed along their assumption of an afterlife to our new adoption of Splorxx worship. When I look back on my own life, I’d never actually given any of it a second thought. I definitely wager that the 14 billion humans on Earth and across the settlements elsewhere in the galaxy hadn’t thought much about it, either.
“I…” I started, but about forty different thoughts crashed in my head at once. “Yes! That’s exactly right and why we need to get this treaty over and done with immediately.”
Amazingly, Belgrano took this moment, of all moments, to express shock about something that was going on. I can’t believe that he hadn’t heard or thought about this before. He occasionally made comments that Hunley had kept secrets from him, but I think he always suspected that those were somehow just insignificant things. He sent me a message to my HUD, “I’ve never heard a thing about this before! I’ll have to ask if this is mandatory or voluntary!”
Before I could stop him, he commanded Habib accordingly.
“Most interesting, my good friends, but I must know something,” Habib said in a faux-jovial tone. “Would this be a mandatory procedure or…”
“Mandatory, of course, Secretary Bin Tawal,” Tog’un interjected, drawing an approving head bob from the Broodmother. “Partial conversion would render your race unstable and would undermine the entire effort to achieve moist harmony. Think of it, Secretary Bin Tawal. How could two peoples so radically different live within the same planet and settlements? Once the process is underway, it must be completed, without exception.”
“Pardon me, my dear friend, but if I understand you correctly this would be the end of the species we call homo sapiens. Is that correct?”
“Yes. That’s correct,” Tog’un replied.
“And good riddance!” I chimed in, giving a thumbs up.
I found it really rather strange that I took so quickly to this idea. I wondered how quickly Ambassador Hunley had come to the same acceptance. Once Splorxx’s will became clear in an irrefutable way, I can’t even imagine how one could reject the notion. That’s not fair to me. I can imagine it. We humans always find a way to argue against things that are so self-evidently necessary and proper. That’s how we almost wiped ourselves out in the 21st and 22nd centuries regarding our own climate. Even tangible proof of Splorxx and her wishes would be rejected by those insane people who want to live in their delusions. That’s as good an argument as any for deleting humans as they exist as a dated file.
Somehow, Belgrano decided he would be slow on accepting this new reality and I don’t know why. He sent me another message that popped up on my HUD. “We WILL have to talk about this before the formal signing. Also, the refrigeration units have utterly failed and we’ll have to turn to emergency rations soon.” That second portion of the message worried me a lot more than the first.
I took advantage of some brief cross talk between Byt’hula and Grez’a to send a reply. “Just agree right now and we can deal with it when I get back.”
Habib raised both of his hands, as though he was literally surrendering.
“I had my reservations, my good friends, but now I am coming to terms with it. We can dispense with haggling over the treaty provisions here today. On behalf of all Earthicans, I give you my pledge that we will accept the treaty in full,” Habib declared with maximum pomposity.
The Dowager Broodmother appeared stunned by that, but then she shrugged.
“Well, that was easy,” she quipped. “Grez’a, have the treaty drawn up formally. We’ll get this over with.”
While they were finalizing the preparations for the treaty signing, Habib and I returned to the embassy, ostensibly to get ready a larger staff to be there for the ceremony. I guess that was actually true in a sense, but the bigger reason was that the situation with our ration refrigeration had become more than a small problem.
In fact, it threatened everything.