Diplomacy's Stepchild

The Dreamsingers' War


*****

"A Note From The Human Translator"

Despite our best efforts, the translation software still has serious shortcomings, due in part to several Ic'nichi terms defying translation. These terms have, perforce, been expressed in phonetic form, and an addendum has been added to the end of this work. We continue to hope for progress in subsequent editions.

*****

"Those Innocent Beginnings Will Get You Every Time."

(Related by Learnéd K'deiTai)

"Emotions are the key." I rapped the chalkboard with my pointer to remind them of the diagram of the human brain, and to allow a moment for the echoes in the cavernous instruction circle to die down. "The humans are rational beings, of course, but they are far more prey to their emotions than we are. So to understand and communicate with them, one has to relate to them as if they are irrational."

It seemed almost as if the candidates were ignoring me, busy as most of them were scribbling notes. They were listening, all right. Human Studies was a much sought-after prize, and those who made the circle were both capable and motivated. That, and lurid tales of human behavior are always a popular subject.

"Rationality, or rather the lack of it, is fundamental to the human psyche. Reality is what they believe it to be, regardless of the facts. This effects everything they do, and it has shaped their culture in ways which can be hard to grasp at times."

I paused for another moment to let the echos fade, and idly pondered the high domed ceiling. I was still bemused at times to be standing there. It wasn't so long ago that we weren't sure we'd get off the humans' er'trxxda world with our ears. And now here I was, safely back home in the World Nest itself, teaching a course on the humans in one of the most prestigious Institutes on d'enchia. I could hardly believe it at times.

"This is not to say that the humans are evil," I went on. "Rather, their thought processes are so different from ours that their actions can be alarmingly erratic at times. But rest assured, as bizarre as they can be, they mean well." Another pause. You wouldn't think a new 'Adjunct Learnéd' would be given the largest circle at the Institute—one of the largest on d'enchia, I understand. It was a work of art and an icon of academia: the polished wood, inlaid marble tile, and subdued light fixtures gave it a somber tone; dignified, steeped in culture, rich in history and tradition. It had lousy acoustics.

"As we discussed yesterday, fear and anger are the two strongest human emotions, and are closely related..."

"Learnéd K'deiTai?" One of the candidates in the second tier was waving her tail for attention. I squinted against the light; it was her, again. I was in no mood to put up with her, so I pretended not to hear and kept on. Hopefully she would take a hint.

"So in trying to deal with humans, one must..."

"Learnéd K'deiTai?" No such luck.

"...yes?"

"I have seen several references to humans relying on 'wise cracks', a form of humor, in unsettling situations. How do they apply humor in a crisis?"

"Hmmm, good question."

She was a sharp one, someone I was keeping an eye on for the Arbiters, and frankly she tested my nerves at times. Our Human Studies program was the first of its kind: so new, in fact, that we were still developing it. We hadn't the time to prepare so complex a topic, and we simply knew so little about the humans that the curriculum was severely limited. Whenever someone deviated from the prepared material, it usually left me stumped, and she was the worst of the lot at that. I would have preferred to put this off for another year or two, but the interest was there and the need was urgent, so I did the best I could. At times that meant faking it, outrageously.

"Humans use humor in a crisis to release tension by making 'wise cracks', as they say it. That relates to the terms to 'crack wise', and to be a 'wise ass', all of which refer to the human rectum, which is known as an 'ass' or a 'crack'." I paused to scan the rapt snouts on their tiered rings of belly cushions around me. They seemed to be buying it.

"We aren't sure of the origin of this, but it may have to do with the human reaction of losing control of ones' bowels when badly frightened. They make 'wise cracks' to avoid this loss of control, relying on higher reason—to be 'wise'— to overcome their instinctive fear, and thus maintain control of their 'cracks'."

More scribbling. I went back to my notes, hoping to pick up where I left off before she could start again.

"Learnéd K'deiTai?"

Sigh. "Yes?"

"But how does humor affect their emotional state, especially as they have such a difficult time at self control?"

The other candidates paused in their notes, and were paying close attention. These confrontations were becoming a daily occurrence, and they fully expected a show. I grabbed the first rational thing which came to mind.

"Humor...is an intellectual process. One has to see the humor in a situation, devise a comment, and deliver it in a form that evokes humor in others, all of which requires logical thought. Being a 'wise ass' is a defense mechanism, their way of focussing their higher intellects to place reason over emotion." More scribbling, and a few furtive glances my way.

"Learnéd K'deiTai?"

I resisted the urge to strangle her. "Yes?"

"Isn't humor considered a disruption of the defense mechanism? And if so, how does humor circle with the instability of the human psyche?"

'Ancestors!' I grumbled to myself. 'Where do they get this stuff?' The program drew the sharpest minds, which was both a blessing and a curse. The prepared material was little more than an outline of what we knew about the humans, and the candidates' relentless curiosity made these sessions a daily challenge. Much of what we taught was being researched by them as extra credit projects, in fact. I did the best I could, drawing from my two and a half years as our Arbiter on earth, but their questions often left me stymied.

"Any...defense mechanism...short of obsessive-compulsive paranoia has to be considered 'disrupted' to some degree."

"But..."

"Remember, the humans are imperfect. Their defense mechanism functions despite their humor."

"From what you said earlier, they appear to depend on humor as part of their defenses. How is this contradiction resolved?" That was the academically correct way of accusing me of not knowing what I was talking about. My opinion of her, which started out high based on her wit and curiosity, dwindled a bit more. The apprentices were watching avidly now. I sometimes wondered who they rooted for.

"Um...I..." Just then the gong rang, mercifully ending another day of mortal combat. The interruption gave me a chance to regain the initiative. "That is a significant issue in human psychology. You may research it for an extra credit paper."

"Sources, Learnéd?" The challenge in her tone was unmistakable.

I hedged, having no idea of what to suggest. "It's time you start developing your own sources."

That actually seemed to please her. "Learnéd N'detLeda in Aberrant Psyche published a paper on that recently. I'll ask him."

"Very well."

And on that note, the circle broke up, and the candidates started shuffling for the door.

"Ancestors!" I sighed once she was gone. "Is she one of his candidates?" No wonder she was such a knot in my tail. My opinion of her dropped another notch or two; the last thing this Universe needed was another overbearing un'brapta like him.

Once the last of them were gone, I slumped on the raised dais, too weary even to go to my seat cushion, and sat staring at the instruction circle around me. I was still bemused by how enormous it was. We were stunned by the number of applicants when the Human Studies program was first announced, and the Institute hastily rearranged their course schedule to open up this cavernous dome. Sorting through all the resumes was another monumental headache, as was a hurried printing of more texts. Even then, the number of well qualified candidates would have filled the sixteen circles of seat cushions that rose around me by three times or more.

What was worse, once we actually began the course, it soon became painfully clear how limited our knowledge of the humans was. It's one thing to deal with a crisis calling for cool deliberation and decisive action in the snout of possible interstellar war; confronting a circle of candidates with sharp, inquisitive minds likely to go off on Ancestors know what tangent is something else entirely. But by time we realized how inadequate our preparations were, we were already caught up in the stampede: and when you're caught in a stampede, as everyone knows, all you can do is gallop along and hope for the best.

"Learnéd K'deiTai?" Her shrill voice cut through my fog, leaving me momentarily disoriented.

"Yes...um...?" For the life of me I couldn't remember her name.

She gave me an annoyed look. "T'virDoma," she said, impatiently. "T'virDoma, ab Clas'nch." Your memory seems to be slipping, Learnéd."

"Never mind my memory," I snapped. Impudent t'pithm'ig; why do I put up with her, I wondered. "What can I do for you?"

"I want you to arrange with the 'Dark Grays' to get me temporarily assigned to the embassy on earth." Not so much as an 'if you choose', and the glow in her eyes could only be described as hungry. My opinion of her dropped several more notches; the Arbiters were the last place for her. And as for sending her to the embassy, my Ancestors would disown me for even considering it.

"Why would you want to go there?"

She gave me a predatory grin. "The humans are fascinating, and I plan to make them my career, so I want you to arrange field study."

I shuddered at the thought. "I doubt if the Defenders will make room for a half-trained first season candidate, considering the cost of transportation and supply. And field study comes in the third season."

"That's for average candidates," she said with a dismissive sneer. "I've worked hard at my studies, and you know my grades. I am ready for the challenge."

I admit she was right: she was as brilliant as she was conceited, and her grades were first finger all down the line. "Still, you have a lot of the basics to learn. You should focus on your studies for now."

"I would be ready now except that you've had to dumb down the instruction for all the ordinary candidates. This program really needs an accelerated study circle. It's a shame this is the only course of its kind available."

That finally knotted my tail. "You will forgive me for being blunt, young fem, but if you expect to pursue a career in the Arbiters, you will need to develop a more courteous nature!"

She gave me an amused look. "Why would I want to go into the Arbiters? Diplomatic service is so limited, so stodgy, so bogged down by rules and traditions. There are plenty of mediocre people well suited for that sort of drudge work."

"Thank you," I grumbled.

She ignored my dig. "Actually, I am thinking of diplomatic intelligence. Meeting the humans has opened up a whole new Universe, and there will be plenty of opportunities for someone with drive and ambition. I'm looking forward to matching wits with the humans. That's a career with a future!"

'And how will you fare against Admiral MacKenna?' I wondered as she walked away. The human Admiral ran us ragged with next to nothing for six long years during the Contact Crisis. That would be a confrontation worth seeing.

§

It was no surprise that I felt so weary after putting up with her through a day's classes; my tail was dragging as I headed for our grotto. Mind you, I like teaching, but the endless confrontations with that obnoxious...un'brapta...reminded me too much of all the nonsense my Aide and I put up with in the Arbiters. (I admit she did have a point about that.) Her on-your-snout personality and her condescending nature made it all the worse. She had a gift for irritation which she shared generously, and I was blessed with more than my fair share.

But despite the aggravations, we were doing well in life and building a promising career in academia. When we returned from earth, my Aide and I were deluged with offers from Institutes all around d'enchia; not to mention (at last count) 3,225 offers of egg-bonding. I was already determined to resign from the Arbiters, so the Institute offers came as a welcome opportunity. (I never responded to the others.) So after much discussion, we accepted a position with the leading Institute here in the World Nest, who assured us of their full support in developing our Human Studies program. We were only 'Adjunct Learnéds' of course, based on practical experience at our embassy on earth, but the pay was decent, we were earning a fair amount of recognition in our new field, the work was a steady humdrum routine, and best of all there was no traveling. I even lived close enough to the Institute that I could walk.

Even better—and I bless my Ancestors every day for it—we finally had our own grotto. It wasn't a proper grotto, really; being a section of the outermost ring of the lecture circle which was partitioned to form an enclosed room, rather than a proper independent structure. It was not the largest, and was still mostly undecorated, and on an out-of-the-way side corridor, but it was all ours. My Aide made a start at decorating it with some human objects' d' art we brought back with us, which made it a popular place with the candidates, but aside from paint and furnishings, we didn't have the chance to do much as yet.

My Aide was at his desk, busy with the last exam papers, something he was 'V'memb'Va at, when I came in. "So, how was circle today?" he asked.

"About average."

He considered me skeptically. "You look a bit dragged out."

I turned to him with a weary sigh. "I had another run-in with that young 'v'thorble, Ancestors save me. I think she may be a protégé of N'detLeda."

He made a vulgar noise. "Another one like him? Just what this Universe needs." He'd had his share of run-ins with her, and N'detLeda loomed large in our memories of earth.

"And it gets better. She told me she wants to go into diplomatic intelligence."

He blinked in dismay. "We'll be at war in no time."

"Oh, who knows? With luck, as obnoxious as they both are, they'll kill each other."

"More likely they'll start a purebred strain together. I pity the future."

"Where are the humans' battleships when we need them?"

I grumbled over to my desk, loosened my weskit, flopped comfortably on my belly cushion, and checked my computer station for messages. Aside from the usual trash, there was a note from one of my promising candidates posed a question about human anatomy. After some thought, I sent a message back suggesting some references and posing the matter as an extra credit project. Another note from one of the less hopeful complained about the study load. I almost erased it without bothering to answer, but decided to send him a brief note of encouragement. One can but try. That left only one personal note: from G'cetGian, the Eldest Arbiter.

§

"So, I trust you had a pleasant journey?" G'cetGian asked as I settled awkwardly on a belly cushion by the fountain.

That seemingly harmless comment about wilted my ears. The last time he asked me that, I wound up being tossed in tail first as our replacement Arbiter-To-Humans. I still suffered nightmares half a year after returning from earth, and I'd spit in my Ancestors' eye before I'd go back there again.

"Well, it was only across the nest," I mumbled. I accepted a V'liz bowl, settled uncomfortably, and tried not to look nervous while part of me wondered what in l'cc'vn I was doing here. I was no longer connected with the Arbiters, and if there was any one person on d'enchia I had reason to fear, it was G'cetGian. Yet here I was: sipping V'liz and waiting nervously for the roof to fall on me. I must have been manipulated by him so often over the years that it became a conditioned reflex. My thoughts went off on a tangent as I wondered idly if the humans had a term for it.

He gave me one of those beatific smiles that made him seem so harmless. "And how are you two getting along?"

Back to the battle at hand. "Our course schedule at the Institute keeps us busy, and we have a couple of candidates who might interest you." My Aide and I were retired from the Arbiters, and I had no desire to take up old habits. I hoped he would take the hint.

"That is good to hear, especially about those potential candidates," he said. "But it must seem so dull after your many adventures."

"I can assure you the program is proving quite an adventure itself."

"And I know we can expect the best from our most experienced and illustrious veterans."

Wonderful: he was starting his flattery again. I may be conditioned to respond to his games, but I had also been here long enough to see him coming. "Our experience is proving invaluable in training the new generation. I daresay you can look forward to a steady stream of quality candidates in the future if the program is successful."

"That will be a blessing," he sighed. "Still, I suppose you miss the excitement, don't you?"

"A blood-crazed herd of alien fanatics bent on death and destruction is exciting; I wouldn't want your younger Arbiters to miss out on the adventure."

"Indeed? That sounds most dramatic: I would love to see it myself." He set his bowl aside and reached for the kettle. "More V'liz? Have you tried these sour rolls? I understand they are adapted from a human recipe."

Not good. His hands trembled as he poured without awaiting an answer as I gingerly picked up one of the rolls as if it might explode. One does not refuse the hospitality of the Eldest.

"A side issue came up recently," he went on once we settled in. "The matter is being addressed by our embassy on earth."

"Well, I am pleased to hear the Arbiters are managing without us, now that we are gone."

"Oh, we're getting on, I suppose. Still, I am a bit concerned about U'tdaPagrn, since this is his first real occasion to negotiate substantive issues with the humans."

"U'tdaPagrn is a capable Arbiter," I countered. "Surely he can handle a routine matter."

"True, U'tdaPagrn is a fine fellow, fine fellow indeed." He sipped his V'liz. "But truth be told, he is rather young for such a heavy responsibility. V'koBilen insisted on using him, and assured me a year or two handling minor routine on earth would give him the seasoning he needs. Still, I can't help thinking that a quick look over his shoulder would be a good idea."

"And you plan to send us back there to second-guess him. You know that's poor form. And why drag us into it?" All this talk of earth was getting on my nerves, which made me rather snappish. "We're retired. We have our duties at the Institute. Surely U'tdaPagrn will benefit from handling this 'routine matter'."

"Quite so. He is doing a good job there, but we seem to be losing the feel of the place. He doesn't have anything like your experience, and I fear he may not be picking up on all the subtleties of dealing with the humans. It's not showing in his reports, anyway. This is a chance to take a quick look around, refresh the diplomatic equation."

"I am confident of U'tdaPagrn's ability, and of V'koBilen's judgement concerning him."

"As am I." He eyed me closely. "Still, this is so important that the precaution is just common sense."

"But why us? We are retired after all, and I'm not anxious to jump into that pit of er'trxxda again. Don't you have someone else to send?"

"Oh, we're spread so thin these days..."

"Which is why our work at the Institute training a new generation of potential Arbiters is so important."

"...and I do appreciate your efforts. You do have some promising candidates, from all accounts. Still, we elders must carry the load for a while longer until the new generation hatches, eh?"

"Honestly, Eldest, my Aide and I have done more than our fair share." I was starting to get a bit inflamed, seeing where this was headed. "We don't want to keep others from making their contribution."

"It's just a quick review: a few snout-to-snouts with key people, meet a few prominent humans, play the tourist, then back on the next supply ship. Honestly, if there was someone to fill my place here, I'd go myself." He gave me that dreamy smile. "It'd feel good to get into the field again."

'Right,' I thought. 'And the humans will make sense that fine day.'

§

Long story short, he finally wore me down. It took enough V'liz to leave me jittery, and so many of those human sour rolls that my belly was aching, but he did it. Why do my Ancestors let these things happen to me? It was getting late, nearly dark, by the time I got out of his clutches. I stood on the walk in front of the Arbiters' Circle, and wondered how I let myself get into this mess, and more urgently, how I was going to get out of it. Try as I would, I couldn't think of anything. I gave up: the only thing I could do was let my Aide know what transpired. Perhaps he could come up with a way out of this. I would have to catch him at home, which wouldn't improve his mood, and I could well imagine his reaction. He was absolutely going to bite his own tail over this one—if he didn't bite mine.

§

"I will personally cast myself into the Uttermost Darkness before I'll go back there," my Aide informed me in no uncertain terms. "You must be er'trxxda to let that vr'meol hustle you so!"

That went better than I hoped. I couldn't blame him for being short-tempered: this wasn't the first time G'cetGian hustled me into some miserable adventure, and the memories of the last time were the stuff of nightmares. And it didn't help that I interrupted his dinner with an attractive middle-aged fem. "I'm sorry. You know how manipulative he is."

"And how limp your tail is! What about our candidates? What about the program? Things are still too loose for us to go galloping off at random, especially to earth!"

She watched for a bit, then sighed and discreetly slipped into the kitchen.

"It's just for a short time," I promised him.

"A short time on a planet full of homicidal er'trxxda! We were lucky to get out of there with our ears. We'd be fools to go back there again."

"Ah...well...think of it as an adventure."

He snorted in contempt. "Do you remember the human definition of an adventure? It's when you're having a bad time in a nasty place far from home. If that doesn't describe earth, what would?"

"It's just a quick review: a few snout-to-snouts with key people, meet a few prominent humans, play the tourist, then back on the next supply ship."

"That place is not my idea of a tourists' Paradise."

"We more or less have to go. The Eldest was right about needing to refresh the diplomatic equation..."

"Well I am not going, and that's flat!"

§

A lot of help he turned out to be, but at least he gave me a crumb to throw to G'cetGian. I wasn't surprised to find him at the Arbiters' Circle at this late hour; not with his work load and all the V'liz he consumed. "My Aide flat-out refuses to go, no matter how much I argue with him," I told him. Not that I argued all that diligently; I was so relieved by this turn of events. I only hoped it would work. "I'm sorry, but it looks like we can't help you after all."

G'cetGian gave me a little sigh and that beatific smile. "I can understand his feelings." For a moment, that raised my hope that he would send someone else, but then he said, "However, I suppose that is all for the good. You won't really need your Aide, and it is best for someone to remain here to cover your Human Studies program. More V'liz?"

"Oh...um...well, thank you." He was already pouring as I spoke. I wasn't going to get any sleep that night anyway, so it shouldn't have mattered.

"And I still have a few of those sour rolls left," he added. "They are most curious, don't you agree?"

"I'm sorry to have to do this on such short notice," he said once we were settled in. "But I'm afraid circumstances have forced my hand."

"Not eleven days again?" I groaned.

"No, in fact. The next transport leaves for earth tomorrow." A pause to nibble a roll. "At least you won't be kept in suspense, eh?"

"But without my Aide..."

"Indeed. But he refused to go, so you will have to carry on alone."

"My work at the Institute..."

"And there is still the unanswered question of who sent that mysterious Protocol which got the negotiations started. Perhaps you will have some luck in sniffing out that trail while you're there."

"But...my Aide..."

"...will have his hands full overseeing your program while you're away, so his remaining here is all for the best."

"My Ancestors are plotting against me," I moaned. "Earth must be my personal Uttermost Darkness."

"But look at the bright side," he said with one of his beatific smiles. "You won't have anywhere near as much luggage to worry about this time."

§

Once I escaped his clutches, I stood on the walk in front of the Arbiters' Circle and tried desperately to think of something. At the rate this was going, it looked like I was fated to be the lucky recipient of an all-expense-paid holiday in the er'trxxda-infested cesspool of the Universe, unless I came up with a brilliant idea, fast.

Then I remembered that V'koBilen lived a short distance from there. He was semi-retired since his health took another downward turn, but it was early enough to catch him at home. It wasn't exactly brilliant, but I knew I could count on them, and it was all I had left.

§

V'koBilen was indeed home, preparing for bed in fact. Their home was in an older circle, had a comfortable, lived-in feel, and was decorated with her knitting and with those prints of human art which are so popular these days. He was dressed in a warm sleeping robe, listening to music and enjoying a late snack. He and his Aide greeted me warmly when I arrived, and offered me V'liz and sour rolls, but his mood changed when he heard my litany of woe.

"Your Aide was right: you do have a limp tail when it comes to that conniving M'mendoch," he accused me.

"What?" I muttered in confusion. I only spoke with my Aide a short time ago, and unless he anticipated me and phoned over here... "When did he say that?"

"It's common knowledge all through the Service," V'koBilen said with an exasperated sigh, which left me wondering about my reputation among my former coworkers.

"Now love, don't fault K'deiTai," his Aide said. "We've had our share of run-ins with G'cetGian."

He gave her a guilty look, and nodded. "He tried to twist my tail on that," he told me. "So I can well imagine the pressure he put on you. Fortunately I was able to convince him that I am too old and ill to travel."

"Can you please talk to him? Get him to send someone else?"

"You know as well as I do that you might as well argue with the planet to stop rotating."

"But what am I to do?"

"You could simply refuse, you know."

"I tried that. It didn't work."

He gave me a disgusted look. "Then do like I did: develop a heart condition."

§

It's amazing how useless one's friends can be when dealing with G'cetGian. I cursed him for dragging me into this preposterous fix, V'koBilen and his Aide for not doing something to help, and my Aide for showing no sympathy for the condemned. Most of all, I cursed myself for having such a limp tail. V'koBilen was right: this was my own fault for not standing up to G'cetGian, not that I forgave him.

The local trolleys quit for the night by time I got out of there, so I had to walk—trudge—home, belly aching and jittery. Curse the humans and their blasted sour rolls, too! Honestly, right then I was bitter and frustrated and about used up. My Aide was right too: I do have a limp tail when it comes to that conniving M'mendoch. Why do my Ancestors hate me so? More urgently, what could I do now that my supposed 'friends' covered their tails and left me dangling?

My one remaining hope was that the Institute Elders wouldn't grant me a release, which was not unreasonable since we had a full course schedule and our program was barely getting up to speed. Yes, the more I thought about it, the more confident I was that the Elders would intervene. Of course they would: my responsibility now was to the Institute, not my former employer; our Human Studies was a vital curriculum developed at great expense and labor; we were right in the middle of the course; there were no other qualified instructors available. It was inconceivable that they would release me to go gyrating off at random to other worlds. That was reassuring, and I trudged through the center of the nest toward home with a weary sense of relief.

I should have known better.

*****


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