Chapter 19 (cont)
The Hoon and Asoolianne ambassadors stood waiting, maybe even holding their breaths. I turned to greet the swish of glittering fabric as Ambassador Mahyul stepped through the door. From the corner of my eye, the Asoolianne representative hopped to stand beside Talya. The Hoon, still in my view as I pressed my knuckles together while bowing to Mahyul, waited for a second or two before thumping into the room to Manuel’s side.
The Hoon are always late. Captain Razush’s words came back to me from Landing Day. Or was it a day or two after? Months ago now, but it seemed like years. I had no direct experience with the Hoon before now, just strained electronic communications, but what I did have made me wonder if they’d developed lateness as a habit, being last because the other two species expected them to be.
The humans set the pace to guide our Ambassadors to the three-sided table in the centre of the chamber, getting them there all at the same instant. We’d practiced for days in stolen moments, starting at spots that should have been worn into the carpet and taking identical steps down identical aisles. Sharonwatched us for a full half hour as we counted out loud in three different languages and tried to match our steps to each other. She never once laughed or even cracked a smile, but after the kids were tucked in that night told me it looked like some kind of bizarre wedding march.
Our duty fulfilled, we each took a large step backwards before turning for our own seats. I caught my foot on something, probably nothing more than a loose thread in the carpet, and nearly provided comic relief to start the proceedings with. I turned around, my face hot enough to cook on, and looked at the other Intermediaries. Talya pretended she hadn’t seen anything, and maybe she hadn’t since we’d been walking away from each other, but Manuel winked at me. I bit my lower lip and dropped into my chair as quietly as I could, feeling it mould to my body. The chair would be a second home to me for as long as the talks went on and I resolved to find out who had provided the smart material so I could thank them for what I hoped would be an utter lack of physical discomfort.
Mental discomfort couldn’t be helped. Tough as things had been to set up, from here on in I really had to earn my keep.
The main table had similar chairs of appropriate dimensions for each ambassador, a completely independent computer terminal linked directly to the home vessels for making notes or calling up data, plus a pitcher of water, chilled to preference, and an acrylic drinking glass that would fit comfortably in his or her hand. A small side table provided the same amenities for each Intermediary, except our computers only worked for translation backup and notes.
We had a script. It didn’t dictate anyone’s exact words, but the general gist of the conversation had been negotiated through the human Intermediaries, and it had taken a lot of work to put together. The first session, scheduled to last a bit over an hour, would be little more than introductions and a statement of purpose and hope from each Ambassador. Then we’d adjourn for the morning, starting the negotiations for real after lunch and a suitable de-stressing period.
That was the plan.
More than once, as several minutes passed in silence, I forced myself to let out a breath. We had a script. The first lines should be easy for all three, but none of them said anything. Eyes shifted back and forth as they stared at each other. The war had stretched across decades and hundreds of solar systems. Could face to face encounters really have been so rare they couldn’t even open their mouths? How long would they spend looking for the enemy in the others’ eyes, for a reason for the millions of dead and wounded, for some sign of how it started and if today was the beginning of the end?
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