Diplomacy's Children

A Note From The Human Translator

As with all Ic'nichi works, this book has certain terms which simply do not translate into human languages due to their odd nature. As has become a tradition in these things, an Addendum has been added in back to provide possible—rough—meanings. We hope the reader will understand and bear with us on this.

*****

"The Seeds Of Greatness..."

You know, they shouldn't make hatchlings ponder questions like 'what will you do with your life'? What does the typical hatchling know of life's choices and what can come from them? Not a l'cc'vn thing, most of them: I'm proof of that, if you need any. But they insist we make these decisions in upper-crèche, right at the worst possible moment when our minds are empty of common sense and filled with enthusiasm. That's a dangerous combination; it's a wonder our civilization manages to limp along Egg Unto Egg Eternal.

Given their head in such things, most hatchlings will do something safely pathetic, like becoming accountants. A few will do something like join the defenders; at least they showed some spirit. And then there are those like me: the dangerous ones, the ones who wind up changing the course of history. The ones they write books about. That's me, E'draMinr, Tail-Shaker Of The Universe, not that I set out to create such a commotion! All I really wanted was to follow a foolish hatchling fancy, and look where it got me.

§

I was bitten by the lure of interstellar adventure almost before I was hatched. As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated by starships and strange worlds, and most of all by all the alien races we knew of. If it was off-world, I wanted it. I guess you could say I was a bit off-world too. I was so determined to enroll in the Space Service that I learned how to write my name at a tender age just so I could sign the enrollment forms. Talk about obsessed: sometimes I even dismay myself.

And I wasn't just interested in the Space Service, I was aiming high for no less than the elite 'Dark Grays'. As a youngling I was thrilled by the fantastic adventures of the fleet as they explored the edges of the Universe and guarded us against hordes of marauding aliens. It was only later, when I got a taste of reality, that I began to understand about the sensational press and the all-important moving of ad copy. But at the time, I existed in a glowing dream world of high drama.

Yes, eventually I did enroll in the 'Dark Grays'. My adventures among the stars, brief as they were, reshaped this whole sector of the galaxy, altered our relations with the humans, and set off the biggest emergency in space since the First Contact. See what comes from letting unsupervised hatchlings loose on the world?

Like I said, I was madly fixated on space travel as a hatchling. I would collect anything having to do with space—news clippings, coloring books, pictures torn out of magazines—my locker in the crèche was a disaster area which earned me constant demerits from the instructors.

Old Elder X'neTpreth understood me better than most of the instructors, and if he was hard with me at times, I could see—now—it was because he sympathized with me. Our crèche was his third go-round as an instructor, starting when we were only a year old, and he would be retiring after we graduated from upper-crèche. He was a personal favorite, since he taught the cultural studies, which included our space exploration, the colonies, and especially the aliens. Not that he was a soft touch: well, he did give me back my quarterly essay once, and told me I had until the start of next session to pull it up above a failing grade. I spent all night on it and handed it in the next morning. It made third-finger, anyway. He was strict but fair, and my love of space made me a favorite of his. It didn't buy me much, except his constant hassling, which kept my grades at a low second-finger.

"You need to take this more seriously if you ever want to amount to anything," he scolded me again and again. "Sometimes I think you just don't care about getting an education."

Of course I always had a snappy comeback. "I would if they taught us something interesting like jump drive engineering or human language."

"Jump drive engineering! In middle-crèche? You have no idea how complex those systems are!"

"And whose fault is that? I would if the crèche taught them. You know I'm right!"

Having been thwarted, he would retreat to a disdainful gesture at my locker. "And there is another example of the problem.  A starship in such a condition is a disaster waiting to happen!"

Of course, being a know-it-all hatchling, I dismissed it as the pettifogging of an oldster. We went on for years, all through lower-crèche and into middle-crèche: he nagging me and encouraging me at the same time, me putting up with his hassling with a mixture of amusement and impatience.

I was coming to the end of middle-crèche when he took me aside one day and showed me something which changed my life forever: a Space Service recruit collar patch, now faded, worn and threadbare. You can imagine my surprise when I learned he once enrolled—not just in Space Service, but in the fleet defenders—when he wasn't much older than me. He'd washed out half-way through Indoctrination, but he was once considered good enough so the elite 'Dark Grays' were willing to give him a chance. I shut up and listened in respectful silence.

"I've watched you ever since you hatched," he went on. "And honestly, I'm afraid you are in for a big disappointment in life." This was nothing new, although he wasn't lecturing me like he usually did. "I know how much the Space Service means to you, but unless you buckle down and improve your grades, you won't make the cut."

"I'm not doing so bad," I grumbled.

"You're barely second-finger, and in the sciences and math, you're even worse." He took my snout in both hands and rubbed my ears affectionately. "Believe it or not, I really do care about your dream. It would do my old hearts good to see you join the fleet, or even go to the colonies. But you'll never make it without a solid education. You need to buckle down in your studies!"

This was starting to worry me. I'd always assumed I would enroll once I finished upper-crèche—if I thought about it at all—but I was beginning to wonder if it was as simple as it looked. "Is it that bad? I'm first-finger in some stuff."

He shook his head ruefully. "Your forensic debating technique isn't much short of a clubroom brawl, and being good in athletics is not going to impress the recruiters. You have enthusiasm, but it takes a lot more."

"But I'm first-finger in Alien Studies! I know all about the dinosaurs. That ought to help me get into the service."

He offered a sorrowful ear twitch. "Just because we resemble earth's small bipedal dinosaurs won't impress the 'Dark Grays'. They aren't interested in long-extinct earthly species. What matters to them is if you can follow orders and keep complex shipboard systems functioning."

"Well...they would have to teach me how to do those things anyway, wouldn't they?"

"True, but will you listen?" He sighed in exasperation. "You lack self discipline, E'draMinr. You only excel at things you like, and you sluff off the parts which don't catch your fancy. Without intellectual discipline, they won't take the risk of putting you in a vac suit. You'd kill yourself, likely, not to mention others. Space is not a hatchling game!"

I wasn't enjoying this little snout-to-snout. He was raising all sorts of things I conveniently overlooked all these years. "Honestly, sir," I asked. "Do you think I can make the cut?"

He squatted and pondered for a long moment, staring at infinity while he thought, and for the first time I got a glimpse of the calculating deliberation space required. Then his eyes came back from wherever his thoughts drifted off to, and he considered me somberly. "I'd say you have potential," he said at last. "You certainly have the brain power if you choose to use it, and you're a fine physical specimen. I could see you carving a place in the colonies, or perhaps in the fleet engineers. But you need to put aside your hatchling habits and buckle down!" There was a moment of awkward silence, then, "You can still put it together even now, but you have a lot of catching up to do. You'll have to bust your tail to do it."

I wasn't thrilled. Studying—math in particular—was never my favorite activity, especially now that I was discovering fems. He was right about my physical condition anyway: I was half a snout longer than any of the others in my crèche, and muscular. I was already a standout on the crèche b'Ven'gtt' herd, which did my prospects in the fem crèche no end of good. As for the mental part, X'neTpreth was welcome to his reservations, but I was convinced I was as brainy as I was brawny. You just can't please some people!

§

As I said, I was fixated on space right from the start, but fantasizing about something and actually doing it are two very different things. I was well into upper-crèche when my moment of truth came, and it almost shattered my innocent dreams.

One of the benefits of being on Elder X'neTpreth's good side is that sometimes I could influence his choices for field tours. We in upper-crèche went on a lot of tours to see how the real world worked, and my persistent nagging resulted in us going to the spaceport to get a taste of interstellar travel. It almost became my undoing, or my salvation, depending on how one looks at it. Sadly it didn't. It would have saved me a lot of trouble.

This was my long dreamt-of Day Of Days, and you don't know the meaning of excited! In my fuzzy-brained innocence I was sure we'd receive the grand tour of the spaceport personally conducted by a host of first-finger space executives followed by a quick jaunt to the outer fringes of our stellar sphere, all in the grand style to be expected for the new generation come to show them how it's done.

And did reality meet those expectations? Of course not.

The place was impressive. The main concourse seemed to go on forever, and the teeming herds coming and going in all directions invoked vivid fantasies of vast migrations of our people bound for every corner of the galaxy. There was noise and hustle, with people trotting every which way dodging loaded baggage carts. The food concessions were packed, and the gleaming baggage carousels carried a steady stream of luggage deep into the building while other streams emerged to take their place. The ticket counters were busy with endless herds of travelers; announcement boards changed constantly; there was an atmosphere of excitement and adventure in the air. It was everything my fantastic dreams could have wanted.

It wasn't long however before my beautiful dream was shattered. It turned out this was the main civil airport for the World Nest: the spaceport was a modest area at the far end of the building, and it was a huge letdown.

While the main airport concourse was well lit and tastefully decorated, the spaceport was drab and functional. The entrance was barred by a fence and the first 'Dark Grays' we'd run into: a pair of Service Wardens who clearly weren't pleased to have our herd descend on them. Off to one side was a metal cage with a couple more 'Dark Grays' laying on the floor. The sight alarmed me, and I wondered what they did to be in such trouble. I didn't know about the 'drunk cage' at the time.

The spaceport was a drab, functional building looking more like a warehouse than anything else. The walls were faded and bare, the light fixtures supported by naked truss work, and the floor was stained concrete. Aside from the admitting gate (and drunk cage) there was a kiosk where people would check in, a lone baggage carousel, and a long queue of passengers waiting to board their shuttles. There were only a few seat cushions, a bare, functional fountain, and a small announcement board with a few cryptic messages. No food court, no lounge, and no sense of excitement, either.

Even here gray uniforms were thin on the ground. The traffic was a fraction of the stampede of the planet-bound flights, and most of those were civilians dressed in rugged work clothes and toting straddle packs across their backs. It seemed a colony ship was loading, and this herd was leaving d'enchia forever. Perhaps it was my imagination, but they seemed somber and grimly determined, which I suppose I would be if I was about to be dumped on an uninhabited world.

Our hosts were a pair of civilian flunkies who seemed almost as plastic as the rest of the place. They greeted us with the usual platitudes, and launched into what was clearly a rote presentation delivered in a monotonous sing-song. Their lack of enthusiasm was not promising.

We spent most of the morning touring the dusty back corridors of the spaceport while the flunkies lectured us in their tedious chant and warned us constantly not to get our tails stuck in various machinery. The place was a warehouse in fact, with conveyer belts and load lifters and metal racks of boxed parts. It was huge and busy, but no different than any other warehouse, and the workforce were ordinary civilians. The tour was followed by a lecture and slide show (not even a decent video!) on commercial space operations. Needless to say, my eagerness soon turned to frustration as this game of grab-my-tail went on. They brushed over military matters and offered only vague generalities about the aliens until they got tired of my persistent questions, and ignored me thereafter. The rest of our herd were either polite or politely interested, which shows just how shallow the gene pool in our crèche was, while my frustration turned to anger and finally to disillusionment.

By time they finished, I was ear-fallen. I went to all this effort to backbeat Elder X'neTpreth into this trip, and what appreciation did these Space Service flunkies show for my enthusiasm? We weren't allowed anywhere near a real starship (they were in orbit; a detail overlooked in my feverish imagination), and the zero-G endurance rations we sampled were revolting. We did get to see a shuttle from a distance, but only through the large windows overlooking the flight line. They didn't allow us to visit Traffic Control, or even go for a ride in a shuttle simulator. I don't mind telling you it really put a knot in my tail.

§

"This was a wasted trip," I grumbled to Elder X'neTpreth after the flunkies were through with us. "Don't these people care whether we're interested in joining the Service? You'd think they would show a little more enthusiasm."

He expressed his sympathy with an irritated ear twitch. "What did you expect? Your own personal starship?"

"That, or a trip to earth would do."

We were gathered on the main concourse getting ready to go back to the crèche, and I took the moment to gripe about my disappointment while the assistants rounded up the last few stragglers, not that X'neTpreth had much sympathy for me either. "Honestly, E'draMinr, your behavior was not appropriate today. You need to learn to temper your enthusiasm!"

"What?" I was surprised that he would be cross with me. "I'm just complaining about their slack tails. What'd I do?"

He flexed his ears in annoyance. "Sometimes I wonder if you've gone er'trxxda over space. These people did their job as expected, and the world is not going to stampede to suit your whims. You need to get your tail straight, youngling!"

I didn't see what he was grumbling about since I was obviously right, but I'd learned to be wary when he lost his temper, so I let it go. There was another distraction to focus on anyway: an authentic 'Dark Gray' Third Degree Elder with Staff medallions on his collar bearing down on us. I knew the insignia from hearts, but was still vague on the rank structure, so I was sure he must command his own starship. I cornered him as he tried to thread his way between our herd and a passing baggage wagon.

"Excuse me, Elder!" I blocked his path so suddenly that it startled him. "What's it like out there in space?"

"Huh? Space? Why would you want to know that?" he asked in annoyance. "It's not like you civilians appreciate what we put up with."

"I plan to enroll in the 'Dark Grays' as soon as I graduate from the crèche. I want to know all about life out there."

"You do, hmm?" He didn't seem impressed. (I only learned later the Staff are the dregs of the Service, not that it kept him from putting on airs.) "You're really going to toss yourself in tail-first?"

I didn't let his attitude get me down. "Yes!" I plowed on. "I'm looking forward to a career in the fleet."

"The fleet? What makes you think there's any future in the fleet? If you want to go somewhere, get your accountant certification first."

"Accountant?" I was appalled. "But...what about the aliens? What about guarding the spaceways? Doesn't the fleet matter?"

He offered a snort of contempt. "Those 'v'thorbles go galloping around the universe putting on a fine show of bravado, but for every one of them there are eight poor riv'Agna who have to pick up the pieces. If you seriously intend to enroll, look at being on the Staff, or at worst one of the groundside specialties. There's where your future lies."

"But...but..."

"What is going on here, Third Degree?" We were interrupted by someone wearing Staff trim and Ki collar tabs.

The Third Degree reacted if he'd been stung; snapping to rigid attention and offering a hasty tail wave. "I was just answering a few questions about the Service, sir."

That one looked me over with a disdainful ear twitch. "You have more important things to do than gossiping with younglings, mister. You need to get on with your duties."

The first one snapped, "Yes, sir!", gave him a crisp tail wave, and trotted away without a backward glance. The other one at least made a dismissive ear twitch before he moved on.

"Arrogant un'tdars," I grumbled once they left. If the 'Dark Grays' were all like those l'cc'vn hro'n'nad n'bna'nmn, then why would anyone want to join them? It really hurts when your youngling heroes prove to be less than the stuff of legends.

§

So the instructors herded us out of the terminal toward the trolley station and back to the crèche with me mooching along in a desolate funk. Space had proved a big disappointment: grimy and plastic, shallow in their attitude and long on hollow promise from the look of things. I went to all that trouble, all that anticipation, and all I had to show for it was a cheap plastic toy shuttle they handed out to each of us.

"You seem troubled, E'draMinr," Elder X'neTpreth said at one point.

"Just disappointed, I guess. I thought they'd show a little more enthusiasm for us potential recruits. They were going through the motions. Don't they even care?"

"Honestly, E'draMinr, you need to keep things in perspective. Space Service is a job, like any job. It has its rewards, but no one is going to get hysterical over it. Real life is not an adventure story."

"Well I hope not! The humans say an adventure is when you're having a bad time in a nasty place far from home!"

"They do? Hmmm, maybe I was mistaken. In any event, your grades aren't going to impress the recruiters, so you shouldn't get your hopes up."

Not that I cared by then. My hatchling dreams of high drama along the spaceways had been shaken, and I was feeling a bit lost. For the first time in my young life, I actually thought about what I might do with myself if I didn't go into space. That was a bleak prospect which didn't help my mood...

...And then I saw them. I read endlessly about the humans—their history, culture, the whole thing. They fascinated me, but I never met one before. Now we were confronted by three of them: two dressed in some sort of tan utility suits and the third in a neat bottle green and oxide brown uniform. They came walking down the hall toward us chatting among themselves in their strange, moaning language. I recognized the uniform: this was one of their Peacekeepers, their version of the 'Dark Grays'! I stood transfixed as they came toward us. These were genuine aliens! To my surprise they weren't three lengths tall, they didn't breathe fire, and weren't armed with horrendous weapons of mass destruction, but they were the real thing nonetheless.

As they passed us, the Peacekeeper noticed me staring at him and gave me a small bending-over gesture—a nod of the head, I realized after a moment. The three were probably ordinary crew off one of their courier ships, but I was thrilled by his acknowledgement and filled with awe as they swept by like the First Ancestors. My frustration and disappointment vanished, those high-tailed Staff un'tdars were forgotten, and I was hopelessly lost from then on. No matter what it took, I was determined to make the cut and go into space.

*****


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