Chapter 19 (conclusion)
Brief glimpses at Talya and Manuel showed the same confusion that probably decorated my face. Manuel’s eyebrows dropped into a deep frown and that worried me a little. He’d shown nothing but patience in the months we’d been talking. I chalked it up to the stress of the moment.
Snap, snarl, spit. Before the Hoon Ambassador finished speaking, my translator began delivering stilted English. “This is strange.” Was that a break with tradition, the Hoon going first?
Mahyul nodded, her thin head almost slicing through the air. “I am forced to agree. My blood is hot being this close to you, even in the cause of peace.” She spoke Shalash, letting the various translators render her words as needed. I heard the high pitch of her natural voice but the translator gave the words a different tone than if she’d used her implant to speak English, still female, but lower and almost, well, generic, with even less inflection or feeling than I’d gotten used to. Pulling out the left earpiece might give me a few clues to emotional content, at least with Mahyul, but I might lose bits of Hoon or Asoolianne speech in turn.
The Asoolianne ambassador gargled, or maybe yodeled, and I wondered if I’d ever manage to pick individual syllables out of its language. “I am filled with distaste for both of you. Only the hope that my children might one day not share that feeling keeps me at this table.”
Another long silence before the Hoon leaned forward, again breaking the tradition of lateness. “I am Gargltch nahg Krg and I speak for the Hoon.” Breath poured out of my mouth and my spine relaxed just a little. Someone had finally remembered what they were supposed to say, but I wondered if the unscripted comments might be more helpful. Feelings in the open could be discussed and dealt with. Just ask any talk show host.
“I am Anissal wektun Mahyul and I speak for the Shalash.”
“I am Riptalektik’fa and I speak for the Asoolianne. We come to end the bloodshed.”
Mahyul placed her hands on the table. “We come to see the future.”
Gargltch growled. “We come to forge a peace.”
After that, they followed the formula, taking turns to speak in general terms about misunderstandings and communication and how things might have been, about battles won and lost, about friends, family, and comrades fallen. They stepped around the horrendous and inhumane acts of war and none of them mentioned any particular atrocity or death toll. Finally, they each spoke of the hope for a future without war when families could all be together, and a greater understanding could be sought between all three species.
After that first tiny hiccup, the meeting went very well, as far as I could tell, at least until the three stood to leave. Riptalektik’fa yodeled and I heard something very different than the scripted comment that, twice echoed, would have released them to the long break. “I cannot return today.”
Gargltch leaned forward, putting basketball sized fists on the table. “Already? The very sight of us roils your stomach?”
“Of course not.” The Asoolianne ambassador shook his head along with his upper body. “I find that I am tired and need rest. The stress of preparing for today—”
“Ha!” Mahyul’s back straightened. Paper thin, she still towered over the other two. “The stress of being near your enemies without trying to kill them is something you should have been prepared for, expected. I may not like you, but I will sit at the table and discuss the future with you.”
Riptalektik’fa flicked both left hands. “Do not deny you would cheerfully slit our throats given the opportunity.”
“With my own claws.” Claws Gargltch chose not to show us, but the table creaked under the pressure of his fists as he leaned forward. “But we are here to end that if we can. Why do you insist on making it difficult?”
“Why do you insist on misinterpreting fatigue? Nothing would please me more than peace! Do you think I would throw it away on a nap? If so, then you are as stupid as my people generally believe.”
I snapped my mouth closed and lurched to my feet. This couldn’t be happening. Arguing and trading insults? How did it go wrong? How could it be set back on track? I looked at Manuel and Talya, but they stayed in their chairs, frozen in place.
Mahyul, the calm, reasonable, restrained Shalash woman I’d met with almost daily for months, quivered with barely contained rage. I’d missed several comments completely and had no idea what she was responding to, but she snarled at the Hoon ambassador. “You are a pathetic excuse for a sentient being. I cannot believe we thought it possible to negotiate in good faith with your kind.”
“My kind!” Gargltch’s chest ballooned. “We sought the stars when you were still picking fruit from the ground to eat.”
Riptalektik’fa’s head bobbed up and down. “Ah, the mighty Shalash, overlords of all that is good and right, as long is it conforms to their view.”
“You are so different, then? Savages. World killers.” The pink being stiffened at Mahyul’s venom, fists clenched and all four elbows locking open.
Gargltch turned his back and stalked away, feet vibrating the floor with each step. “You are both the same. Slaughterers of babies. Destroyers of worlds. I do not know why we thought this could work.”
Both hurled an insult at the retreating Hoon’s back before turning for their own doors.
Months of work thrown away in a few seconds by three trained, professional diplomats, trading insults like spoiled children on an unsupervised playground, eager to get verbal revenge for imagined slights. But the slights the ambassadors remembered were in no way imagined, wounds of the soul that could never be forgotten, or it seemed even put away for more than an hour.
We Intermediaries stood there, staring at each other while the cameras kept running. I dropped into my chair and reached for the water, suddenly feeling very, very dry. I filled the glass when it was empty and drank half of it again.
What the hell happened?
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