My heart hammered so hard everyone in the chamber should have been able to hear it beating. The laptop tucked under my arm weighed twenty kilos, or felt like it, and I felt self-conscious carrying the thing. Mahyul didn’t mention it during the shuttle ride, didn’t even glance at it, although she had to be curious why I’d bother with a piece of human technology when I had access to far better. The Shalash were nothing if not curious, but they were ridiculously polite about it. I didn’t draw attention to the laptop, so she couldn’t. Very strange. Manuel and Talya had looked at me oddly when I carried it into the conference chamber, but we’d landed barely in time and they didn’t have the chance to ask about it before the doors all slid open. I just smiled and let myself be reassured by the heavy plastic under my arm and what it contained. Well, I tried to.
Standing in the conference room, I interrupted the proceedings the moment the Ambassadors finished the now ritual greetings, the only part of the talks that seemed genuine or positive anymore. Every eye in the room turned on me. Three sets of camera equipment focused to preserve my actions for broadcast to the entire world and for as long as a backup copy existed somewhere. Since I’d be speaking English instead of some unknown alien language, the world would get to hear what I said without having to guess. I assumed the Shalash, Asoolianne, and Hoon were all recording as well as the Intermediary systems.
The laptop felt very heavy, but there was nothing to do but dive in.
“Ambassadors, if I might have your indulgence for a few moments before you begin the day’s deliberations.” I couldn’t believe how my voice could be so firm. “In your time on Earth, you’ve seen very little of its people and its cultures. I understand the reasons for this separateness and they are good ones on the surface, but remaining in your vessels or in this complex has kept you from experiencing the incredible diversity of our planet. With your permission, I’ve prepared a small demonstration that might be the first tiny step toward remedying that.”
Alien the three may have been to each other, but enough alike that the debate happened without a word exchanged, nothing more than a shared look passing between them. Three separate gestures of acceptance came a moment later: a human-style nod from Mahyul, a four-palms-up shallow bow from Riptalektik’fa, and a pair of barrel-fists quickly pressed together from Gargltch.
I didn’t have time to try to remember if they’d agreed on anything else in the last week. “If I may approach the table?” The same three gestures repeated and I moved from my position to stand beside Ambassador Mahyul. I set the laptop on the table and flipped up the screen, waking it from sleep mode to present a folder containing the one file Antoine had put on the laptop for me. I didn’t know what favours he’d had to call in or promise in order to get it delivered to me at 730 that morning. It was only one media file on one laptop, so it couldn’t have been too bad. I hoped.
A double tap on the touch pad and the file opened but I stopped it from playing and set the time index to where I needed it to be, then looked up at the other two ambassadors. “I’m afraid this is fairly primitive by any of your standards. There is no projection, only a screen best viewed from straight on. You’ll all have to be on the same side of the table to see effectively.” Still without speaking, Gargltch and Riptalektik’fa moved to stand on either side of Mahyul, an amazing act all by itself, but I was her Intermediary after all, so I guessed it was somehow appropriate for them to come to her. I did notice they maintained as much personal space as possible.
The three ambassadors blocked any view theCBCreporter might have had, so I didn’t feel obligated to ask if the other two reporters could move to see. There wasn’t room anyway. Manuel and Talya slipped quietly forward to try looking around or over my shoulders. Their close presence was reassuring and I fought the urge to step out of the way so the two of them could have an unobstructed view, wishing I’d had the chance to warn them.
I had the ambassadors’ attention, but still waited for a few seconds to smile at each and make sure they were focused on me and not each other. “Please enjoy.” I moved the cursor over the play button and tapped the pad.
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