Four hours, twenty-three minutes, and seventeen seconds after Ambassador Mahyul broke contact with the Hoon ambassador, the Asoolianne Intermediary initiated contact.
My Shalash escort showed me to a small conference room very much like the one I’d first met the Ambassador in. It seemed ideal for a three-sided conversation, except there was only one chair at the small triangular table. A lumpy, knobby cube in corner of the room was supposed to take care of all my communications needs. I’d been assured the device would provide not just a running translation with the other two Intermediaries, but also project holographic images of them and record the entire conversation to a private data storage location for later analysis if I felt the need. Someone would have to show me how that part worked, though. The Asoolianne and Hoon were to provide their Intermediaries with similar equipment, so it could be almost like having a conversation with people in the same room as long as no one tried to shake hands.
My escort–I thought her name was Sanzik but she’d only said it once, and quietly–brought me to the little room five minutes or so before the appointed time, remaining nearby in case I needed assistance, but had instructions to wait outside until I came out. When the meeting ended, she’d help me find my way back to my quarters or to Ambassador Mahyul, whichever seemed appropriate. I figured the second option more likely.
The woman’s sudden appearance caught me by surprise. Her projection included the chair she sat in, and I felt a spark of jealousy that hers seemed more or less the right size for her body. Trying to ignore that unfairness, I held onto the thought of how remarkably complete the projection was. She didn’t seem quite solid, but about mid way between Star Wars and Star Trek holographic technology. No flickering, but still a little on the transparent side. In the right venue, she would have made a good ghost.
Straight blonde hair pulled into a tight pony tail made her features seem a little sharper than they probably were. The frown creasing her forehead did nothing to soften her expression or mitigate her surprise. I guessed her to be at least a few years older than me and wondered what she her life had been like before the galactic spanning alien conflict came to Earth.
“Holy father!” A little more reserved than what went through my mind. “I did not think it would work.” Like anything live I’d ever listened to in translation, the English lagged a little behind her actual voice, but Shalash computer technology went far beyond standard human translations, I guess. It devoted some processing capacity to lowering the volume of her actual words, but then used a lot more to give the unaccented English translation a voice very close in pitch and tone to the one she actually spoke with, so far as my ears could tell. Emotions probably wouldn’t come through completely, but it was the next best thing to learning a new language on the spot.
“I’m a little surprised myself.” A man appeared on the empty side of the table, seated in a chair twice as wide as he needed it to be, and my mouth snapped shut before I could say anything else. White-haired with a light beard, he had very pale skin with just a tiny hint of brown underlying it. I put him in his sixties at least, but his bright eyes held the barely contained joy of a six-year-old on Christmas morning. I wonder if my eyes looked like that because my own awe hadn’t nearly worn off yet. Every few minutes, wherever I was, the kid living in my brain reminded me I was on an alien space ship.
We looked back and forth at each other for a long moment and I guessed they’d gotten just as much coaching and information from their hosts as I had from mine. ‘Go organize a peace conference.’ This would either be very interesting or filled with long, awkward silences. I’d actually rehearsed what I wanted to say, at least to start with, and hoped we’d find things to talk about after that. I smiled and tried to make eye contact with both of them at the same time. “Okay, I’ll go first. My name is Ian Cotta and I’m the Intermediary for the Shalash. I’m a data analyst living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. I’m forty years old, married and have three children. I have no idea where to start and the Shalash, while friendly enough, have told me very little about anything.”
The man spoke first. “My name is Manuel Hachez and my hosts are the Hoon. I am a retired soldier of the Argentine Army, living in Rawson, Chibut Province. My four children have so far provided me with nine grandchildren. While the Hoon have been very friendly, they have told me little other than that I am to work with the two of you in organizing negotiations to help them end a long-running war with the Asoolianne and the Shalash.”
The woman nodded and picked up as soon as Manuel finished. “I am Talya Vorishkova and I am an unmarried teacher of the Russian language and literature at Qinghai University in Xining, Qinghai Province. In China. Obviously, I am here on behalf of the Asoolianne, strange and interesting beings who seem happy to answer any questions asked, but I have already found those answers do not always satisfy.” I let Talya’s first sentence roll around in my head. The Asoolianne landed in what I guessed to be a decent sized city in China since it had a university, and the chosen Intermediary was not Chinese. I couldn’t begin to guess at the political ramifications.
We stared at each other for a few more seconds. Introductions were nice enough, but, assuming we were all telling the truth, none of us were trained diplomats or had any idea how to proceed. Ordinary citizens didn’t usually have experience organizing peace conferences or any conferences beyond maybe small ones for our offices. I’d done that once in my career, but it was really more of a catered off site meeting. Not exactly what was needed here.
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