In The Course Of Diplomacy

*****

"A Note From The Human Translator"

At the time this work was prepared, the translation software left a lot to be desired. Several Ic'nichi terms have proven indecipherable, and have, perforce, been expressed in phonetic form. As to their possible meanings, I have added an addendum at the end of this work which may help. We hope to have this problem cleared up in subsequent editions.

*****

"The Proverbial Knot In One's Tail"
(Related by Arbiter K'deiTai)

The World Nest,
271 Common, 5th B'matapur:

Eldest Arbiter G'cetGian was expecting me at midday, but with the way I felt as I trudged through the railroad station concourse, I almost decided to beg off. I hate to travel, and after a miserable night on the train, my tail was dragging. If any good came of it, at least we were back home. Arbitrating disputes between the Great Nests is crucial, delicate work, made all the more difficult in this case by long frictions and short tempers. I'd about been driven back to the egg by their endless scheming and obstructions, and I'd swear I was half deaf from their incessant yammer, may their eggs be hard-boiled.

I paused at the station entrance, ignoring the herd as they flowed past us, and breathed the wonderful air of the capital. Civilization, with its hustle and color and vitality-and no more of that spicy, foul-smelling South Coast provincial cuisine. It was a brisk late season morning, with just a hint of rain in the air. The chill breeze hit me like a bowl of strong V'liz, which picked my old metabolism right up and snapped me fully awake. I felt like I had escaped from the Uttermost Darkness.

"Thank my Ancestors," my Aide grumbled as he stretched a kink out of his neck. "I thought we'd never get out of there."

"Hmph."

He dropped his straddle pack, and turned on me with an irritated frown. "And please try, for once, not to let him saddle us with a new project. We have plenty of release time coming, and I intend to make the most of it."

"Well it wouldn't hurt if you came along for once," I grumbled.

He huffed, but said nothing. Truth, our professional relationship was in one of its periodic lows just then, as was often the case after a difficult assignment. We did need some release time to rest up and get the knots out of our tails, and if he was so worried about it, he could come to debriefing to present a united front. But he hated these sessions, and was begging off, as usual.

A local trolley rolled to a stop, and the herd surged for its doors. Time to return to reality. I hefted my straddle pack and joined the herd, ignoring the random elbows and tails as we fought our way forward. This trolley was inbound for the Chamber Of Ancients, (sigh) while the one coming up behind it was bound for the Outer Circle Southwest, where our homes were...

...but right beyond the tracks was the edge of the v'vR gh'vadja, with its eateries and amusements and street merchants. There was another festival going on, and the bright banners and lively music were irresistible. I faltered and came to a halt, bemused by the colorful spectacle. They seemed to be having a grand time with the dancing and drumming and costumes and all, and I needed a break in the worst way. My Aide paused to look askance at me, then wiggled his ears in exasperation, and boarded the trolley. Ingrate. The crisp late season weather and the smoking oil sticks were hypnotic. So I took a little time out for myself to stroll along the crowded streets enjoying the festive atmosphere-and wound up walking half way across the World Nest to my appointment.

§

G'cetGian was fiddling with an ornate V'liz pot-new since I was there last-when I arrived at his grotto. "You two did a fine job with that trade accord," he called over his shoulder.

'He better like it,' I thought, peevishly. "Thank you, Eldest," was what I said. His cloying courtesy got on my nerves at times, and right then he looked to be at his congenial worst. I sagged onto one of the plush belly cushions by the fountain with a weary sigh, thankful for a moment to sit down. My feet ached. Why do I do this to myself?

"And what do you think of their new negotiator, Ancient N'vumBre?"

"I try not to," I grumbled.

Sometimes I wonder why I put up with this profession. We Arbiters endure no end of narrow minded provincialism and petty whining, and they excelled at it; N'vumBre in particular, may his Ancestors renounce him. After a long, sleepless night I just didn't care any more. All I wanted was to get our report over with and go home.

G'cetGian paused and considered me. "Well, I trust your trip was pleasant, anyway?"

"I survived."

He looked askance at that. "Oh, come now. The south coast overnight is a premiere train. Nothing too good for my brightest star, eh?"

Brightest star, hmmm? That penetrated my fatigue and set my ears twitching. I learned long ago to be wary when he begins his flattery. Was he up to something? Or was I being paranoid? I flopped on the belly cushion, let the gentle splashing of the fountain soothe me, wished an enormous, painful knot in my Aide's tail for not being there, and tried not to worry about it.

G'cetGian seemed more ancient than ever. His Aide died years ago, and he carried on alone rather than retire. How he managed the endless burden of herding the Arbiters' Service at his age was beyond me. And he had added to his grotto's decor since I was there last. We field gallopers take all the abuse and never get a budget supplement for art glass windows. He earned these comforts in a lifetime serving the Chamber-Of-Ancients, as befitted his status and his achievements. Lovely windows they were, too, but really! I hated him.

"Let me see," he mused over the steaming pot. "Your usual bittered? Or are you feeling frisky today?"

And if that wasn't enough, reporting to the Eldest was stepping into a psychological quagmire. His grotto was a cozy, intimate space, much like an exclusive private club where old friends could chat about the world at large. It was all too easy to let one's guard down. He would get us rambling about our recent efforts as he plied us with V'liz and snacks, and probed for insight and self doubts. He would have made a great psychologist, which was how he ran such a tight herd: he knew how to twist our tails.

Finally he came over with a tray of steaming bowls. "I've gone over your work," he said once we settled in. "And I am most impressed with some of your innovations. I suspect your unorthodox approach was all that made the treaty possible."

"Ancestors know we agonized enough over it."

"Ahhh, yes." That dreamy smile made him seem so harmless. "Fre'dettit Great Nest; I remember them well from my days in the field. You finally got them to yield on that waterway; a minor miracle." He raised his bowl in salute. "A fine job, indeed."

"I daresay it was." I was starting to worry about all this scale polishing. "But now we both need a rest, as far away as possible from their bellicose posturing." A long rest, in fact. I hoped he would take the hint.

He eyed me with an amused grin. "Well, if you're willing to travel..."

"Plus we need to study up on current trends in diplomacy."

"I would think, with your skills, you should be leading the herd rather than following the same worn trails."

Yes, he was definitely up to something. This was beginning to taste like a new assignment; just what we needed.

"I...know you've just completed a major negotiation," he said with studied nonchalance, "and are due some release time-do try these seed cakes-but I hope you could step directly into something new. It's important."

As I figured. I pondered him cautiously with a sick feeling it was over-late to run for cover. From his beatific smile and those twinkling eyes, I knew something big and obnoxious was about to land on us. I wished my Aide was there; he was better than me at resisting these manipulations.

"More V'liz? Have you tried this spiced blend?" Not good. Those ancient hands trembled as he poured without awaiting an answer. One does not refuse the hospitality of the Eldest.

"I'm afraid there's some bad news," he went on over fresh bowls. "V'koBilen was supposed to take up a major assignment, but he has developed a heart condition."

"How is he?" V'koBilen was an old friend.

G'cetGian frowned. "The physichs say he is very ill, and will have to take it easy in the future. I'm going to place him in the Oversight Circle where his experience will be valuable."

"That's sad. He was a great negotiator."

And now he had his grotto, curse his ears. I would have to visit him the first chance I got to congratulate him and endure some of his good-natured banter.

G'cetGian settled on his chin rest, sipped his V'liz, and watched me closely. "You've been out of the nest with your own problems lately, so perhaps you haven't kept up with his efforts."

Here it comes.

"V'koBilen led our initial contact with the humans. He was supposed to be our Arbiter in an embassy on their world, but I'm afraid that's impossible now. I need you to take over as our Arbiter-To-Humans."

"Me?"

"My first thought was to turn to you, of course."

I was stunned. This was big and obnoxious all right; none bigger. The humans were our first alien contact, and it was plagued with misfortune right from the start. We came that close to interstellar war before the misunderstandings were straightened out! Relations were still tenuous, and we knew next to nothing about them. Beyond a half remembered glance at the news, I wasn't even sure of what they looked like.

"You can't be serious! We're not qualified. We've had no contact with the humans. We know nothing of our diplomatic efforts thus far." I wished my Aide was there. This was far too big a decision to make alone.

G'cetGian sighed and stirred his V'liz. "Honestly, no one is qualified. We've never done anything like this before. You two have a good record..." A studied pause to sip. "...and if anyone can do it, it'd be you. You know how thin we're spread these days. You two are the best available."

I slumped on my cushion as my mind raced. The Arbiter-To-Humans! It was an awesome responsibility, and it left me chilled. Yes, we had a decent record, but so did many others in the Service. We were nobody in particular, and our tails were nowhere near long enough for a mission like this. Surely there were others who were better qualified! We could refuse of course: Arbiter assignments are voluntary. But that was so uncommon as to be unheard of. Beneath the Eldest's genteel manners and palsied hands was a cunning which drew us helplessly along. It never occurred to most of us that we might refuse, and fewer still were those who could resist his manipulations.

But there were real issues here. "I...have no idea what the humans are like, what we have achieved thus far. How can we do and say the right things?"

"Some key Learnéds from the original New Patagonia expedition will be in this new herd, and I have arranged a series of accelerated briefings for you. You can draw on their knowledge, and your own skills and experience, and your uncanny empathy, to see you through."

"I don't know the language, nor does my Aide."

"There will be a class program on the voyage. It's a simple language, by all accounts."

"I've never been off planet in my life."

"Well then, here's your chance to get away from it all."

"I get air sick?"

"Not a problem. There's no air in space."

"Ah...well..." I was flat out of excuses. "I'll have to consult with my Aide, of course."

"As well you should, if time wasn't so pressing. Your Aide is a fine fellow. I'm sure he will understand."

"I can assure you he won't! We're both exhausted. We have some release time coming and..."

"And you'll be the first to meet the dinosaurs."

"...D-dino...saurs?" My first word of human.

"One of the human Learnéds at New Patagonia said we look like 'little bipedal dinosaurs', whatever they might be." I caught the calculating gleam in his eye, not that there's anything one can do when he starts these games.

"Dino...saurs?"

"V'koBilen pressed them about it, but the humans haven't revealed anything more. Think of it: life forms on their world which resemble us!"

"Dinosaurs?"

"For all we know, the humans may not be the only sentient life on their world...or are these dinosaurs on one of their colony worlds? Either way, we must learn more about them."

"But..."

"Wouldn't it be wonderful to discover a new race just like us? Plus the humans, of course. The potential cultural dynamics are enough to boggle the mind!" He gave me another of those beatific smiles, and his eyes twinkled in amusement. "I know you would love to explore this, with your interest in cultural studies."

"I'm not a sociologist! Just because I do some reading..."

"And here's your chance to do more than read about it. This is a wondrous opportunity! I'd go myself if I could only find someone to take my place here." He smiled, and gave me another dreamy look. "It'd feel so good to get back into the field again!"

May I live to see the day. "But...I'm not sure we..."

He waved that protest aside. "I have complete faith in you; otherwise I wouldn't have asked."

"But we've just come off an exhausting assignment..."

"And I do appreciate your dedication, which is why I know the two of you are the right choice-the only choice-for this urgent task."

"This is er'trxxda. You know this, don't you?"

"And this is so important, not only for us and the humans, but for the dinosaurs as well; especially in light of how close-tongued the humans are about them. Are they hiding something, perhaps?" he added, ominously.

"Um..."

He set his V'liz bowl aside, took my hand, and gazed earnestly into my eyes. "We need you. They need you. Please say you'll help the dinosaurs."

"Dino...saurs?" Yes, he had me by my ears. "Oh, very well, then," I sighed. But then my usual pessimism took over again. "This is going to be a nightmare, isn't it?"

"Oh, who can say?" He shrugged, and smiled beatifically. "But I wouldn't be surprised."

The things I do for my species. I really wished my Aide wasn't off attending to personal matters. I could well imagine the prim, damning silence he'd put on when he heard this one. He would be impossible until he got over his snit.

"So, when do we leave, then?"

"In eleven days."

"WHAT?" That jolted me to my feet in dismay. "Eleven days? What happened? Why the rush?"

G'cetGian eyed me warily until my outburst passed. I must have startled him. I certainly startled myself since I'm not usually so outspoken. My moment of panic faded, and I slumped on my belly cushion in stunned confusion.

"I'm sorry to do this to you," he assured me. "It's our own stupid fault, really. The humans seem to think they can put an embassy together a lot faster than we can. They allotted too little time in the Protocol, and V'koBilen foolishly accepted it."

"But..."

"V'koBilen tried to get the process going, but neither of them is good with administrative matters. The paperwork got so snarled up that almost nothing has been achieved. Then his health failed, and there was no one to pick up the slack."

"But..."

"He almost killed himself, thanks to our illustrious bureaucracy," he added, bitterly.

"But..."

"At any rate, he was hospitalized twelve days ago, and his Aide has been glued to his bedside ever since." He shook his head in frustration. "How many times have I said it is not wise to be a bonded mating pair with one's Aide? What little they accomplished fell apart without someone to watch over it, so you'll pretty much have to start over from scratch."

"But...eleven days?" I was appalled by the news that we had to start essentially from nothing-forget that: I was appalled by the whole thing. "You...can't...be serious," I gasped as the implications sank in. "It's hopeless! This will take a year to put together."

"I'm afraid there's no choice. The timetable in the Protocol is exact, and we were running badly behind even before V'koBilen went down. If it means anything, you'll have the Ancients' Seal for whatever you need."

A lot of good that would do with the mountains of paperwork it took to get anything done! The Chamber-Of-Ancients is a blessing to our people, but the downside of our benevolent world government is a malignant world bureaucracy. The bureaucratic inertia could halt tectonic drift. No wonder V'koBilen had a heart attack!

"It's just not possible," I told him flat out. "Can't you ask the humans for a delay?"

"We don't dare." G'cetGian was at his most earnest, like he always was when he wanted the impossible. "Relations are too fragile, too tenuous. We can't deviate from the timetable."

He took my snout in his hands in an intimate gesture, not between Eldest and subordinate, but between two old-time professionals of our great calling.

"I know you can do this because it has to be done. It doesn't have to be neat and pretty, but you have to make the deadline, whatever it takes." The tension in those aged eyes chilled me. "Our Service has negotiated the peace for over three hundred years, longer than the Chamber-Of-Ancients has existed. This is our greatest test. We cannot fail now."

What could I do? Well, for one thing, I would definitely visit V'koBilen tomorrow-today-and pump him for everything he had. Idiotically, the one thought foremost in my mind was how I hate to travel. I really wished my Aide was there.

*****


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