The ship spiraled down from the sky in front of us. I stifled a yawn, which prompted an elbow from my assistant, Kathy. I shot her an annoyed look.
“Stop it.” She hissed. I continued my glare.
“If the boss doesn’t want me to be yawning , he should give me more than a 6-hour heads up.” I retorted. It wasn’t my fault. I had pulled an all nighter for this. Of course I was tired.
“We didn’t have more than a 6 hour heads up. And you were the only available diplomatic staff in town. Everyone else already had their assignments. So shape up and do your world proud. Stop yawning.”
I surpressed a groan. It was true enough. The T’kel and the P’nar were sister races. They had emerged from the same planet, shared the same history, posessed the same basic genetic structure. One would think that made them alike.
It did not.
The T’kel were a militaristic, honor-based society. They were ruthless when it came to anything perceived as a slight to their honor, and were more liable to decapitate someone for an insult than we really liked to think about.
If we insulted them, as diplomats speaking on behalf of Earth, the entire human race, then we were doomed.
The P’nar, contrastingly, were hideously, insufferably pacifistic. Not just that, though. No, there had been plenty of pacifistic societies throughout both human history and those of the aliens we traded with regularly. Being a pacifist was fine. The problem came in that they had their heads so far up their own asses about their pacifism that I don’t think they’d seen sunlight in years. They took any sort of challenge as a threat. They used it as an opportunity to puff themselves up more about how superior they were, and thus how inferior the ‘lesser races’ were.
To top it off, the P’nar controlled most of the trade routes in our corner of space. For the most part, they were amiably willing to leave barbarians such as us be as long as we turned a profit. If we insulted them, though, well. We could forget about that, and we could forget about trading with half the civilized galaxy.
Which brings us, at long last, to today.
I’d received the notice last night. The T’kel and P’nar had decided to treat with each other, as part of the Conclave that oversaw interspecies politics for this corner of the galaxy. That was good. We were hosting the Conclave for this session. That was bad – that made this our mess to deal with. And of course, they didn’t RSVP. Which made this mymess to deal with, as I had found out last night at approximately 2am. Joy.
Thankfully, they wanted to see each other exactly as little as we wanted them to see each other. Stick them in the same room for too long, and we’d all be screwed. So, that made this pretty straightforward. They’d arrive separately, we’d do the meet and greet, try desperately not to piss anyone off, and then jam them into the Conclave and run. All I had to do was get them to their quarters without anyone dying.
I could do that. Probably.
With a heavy thunk, the ship was down. Kathy gripped her datapad more tightly, straightening her clothes, and the two of us walked forward.
And then, as the hatch on the side slid smoothly open, I stopped.
The alien on the other side was definitely, well, alien. It was lithe, and feathered, and had talons where we’d expect fingers on a human. It was wearing some sort of uniform, with some sort of insignia, which probably designated some sort of rank.
I was sure all of this was included in the briefing. Which I had read. I did.
It was early, all right? They pulled me out of bed with a panicked phone call. They’d been in a bit of a hurry to explain the whole situation. And now…They’d thrown around the names so much. T’kel, P’nar. P’nar, T’kel. They’d been in so much of a rush. I’d still been half asleep. The briefing files I’d sent had been rather…nonspecific on my end. More detailing the situation as a whole, as it were, than giving me the little picture.
I realized, with an icy jolt of adrenaline shooting down my spine, that I couldn’t recall which delegation this was supposed to be.
Kathy was elbowing me. I glanced down. There was confusion plain in her eyes. She jerked her chin towards the other delegation.
My mind spun wildly. This…this was not good. And I couldn’t risk asking Kathy, either. If these were the violent T’kel, they’d see my relying on an assistant to do my job for me as weakness on my part. Weakness was unacceptable, and for humanity to supply them with a second-rate diplomat would be insulting. Likewise, if these were the P’nar, my falling back on my assistant to do my job for me would be seen as abuse of my subordinates. And, coming unprepared to my job would be seen as, again, an insult.
I was so, so very screwed.
Kathy smiled blankly at me. She knew she couldn’t say anything, but she knew something was horribly, horribly wrong. Her eyes were growing steadily more horrified by the second, as she processed the fear in my own eyes.
I was in it now. This was their own fault, really. I was just a second-rate HR type, attached to the Human embassy because of my connections. I had an uncle. That’s it. I’d managed to coast along under the radar for years. Was this some sort of divine punishment, then? A backlog of karma suddenly coming due?
But if I didn’t do something now, humanity as a whole would pay the price. I may just be a lazy hanger-on, but I didn’t want that on my conscience.
So despite myself, I could feel my feet moving under me. I stopped, in front of the delegation filing off the ship, and bowed deeply. Bowing is never the wrong answer, and I was pretty sure I could remember a bowing culture described in the file for these assholes. I could feel Kathy doing the same beside me. And then I rose, holding my hand out in the well-advertised human tradition of a handshake.
“Welcome to Earth!” I began, my face fixed in a welcoming-but-reserved smile. My mind was on high alert now. If I wasn’t sure which group this was, then I’d have to be both. Strong, but reserved. Kind, but not weak. I’d have to be the best of both worlds.
I wished I had more than a few minutes’ sleep and two cups of black coffee under me, if ‘perfect’ was my goal.
“My name is Jake. I’m a diplomatic attaché for Humanity’s embassy, here at the Conclave, and I’ll be taking care of you during your stay here. If you’ll follow me?”
I turned to leave. I just had to get them to their rooms. And then it happened.
I could feel a talon on my shoulder. I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a rough grab or a soft touch. It was all just sharp. Couldn’t they give me some sort of clue?
“Just a moment.” I heard the silken voice behind me begin. My heart sank. Of course. They were diplomats, too. Polished and practiced. “I have a few questions, before we begin.”
I turned back, a smile plastered across my face.
“Of course. I’m here to answer whatever questions you have.”