Mataan sent Melchondo’s crew and her own security detail out, leaving her with those of consequence. Simon saw it that way. Admittedly, so did those forced to leave. Melchondo had influence and authority over events, and as such, the taciturn rat stayed. Simon would’ve liked to leave, take flight, and never stop until he was back in Sol again. Instead, he had no choice but to stand, dumbstruck and guilt-faced beside Mataan as they prepared to speak to the Vuur.
Niala was at Mataan’s other side; the rest a short way back. Snow remained too. The last thing anyone needed was the Wolf going rogue. Even less, losing his obvious tactical expertise. Personally, Simon just wanted him around in case someone tried to tie him up again– short of Lina, anyway.
Mataan stole the room’s attention again, “Dialing in now.”
She pawed the console amid a silence. The room felt near a singularity, tension black-holing it in on itself. Simon sensed it the walls bowing. In. Out. The lights flickering in cheap horror-movie style. Metallic creaked. The bowing doubled. The walls collapsed inward. Exploded out. Again. Almost cartoonishly. His brain and body did the same. Then, in and… pop! Gone. Nothing but a dot of metal obscured by the lensing effect of singularity-space.
He’d give anything for that to happen.
Ramla appeared, smiling the queerest, most foreign smile possible. She and her people were obviously pleasant. But– and Simon couldn’t help but make the assocation– they looked like sentient, walking rocks. Something in the back of his head tickled with an image of Rock Biter from The Neverending Story. How he’d managed to get his hands on such an obscure, centuries old flick, was as much a mystery as to the amount of drugs necessary to concoct it.
All told, he couldn’t shake feeling the Vuur were genuine, benevolent. If history remained consistent that meant one day becoming enslaved on war-torn worlds, species unrecognizable for all their fear and hatred of others.
Ah, Solsian memories.
Ramla repeated her same, sun-praising, prayer-bow; mirrored by three others of her kind. They were all various colors of tanned leather and slate, their clothing subtly metallic, ornamented for the occasion. What it covered, Simon could only wonder. Judging by that scarce bit of info, he guessed they were mammals– or something like them. The clothing they wore, and the slight hint of heat around them suggested climate control for warm blood.
Skull-cracker jaws, almost as intimidating as their armor plating, sat beneath nose-less, large-orbit faces. The terrifying thought of their strength was tempered by the half-darkness surrounding compensating for their light-sensitivity. Their night-vision was, no doubt, excellent. The thought of attempting to face one, alone and in the dark, left him all the more hopeful against ill-intentions.
Thankfully, Ramla was quick to divert his attention. “Ambassador Mataan, I wish to extend a warm welcome to you and your people. It is with the most humble and warm hearts that we hope this meeting marks the beginning of a fruitful and eternal friendship between our peoples.”
She once more sun-praised and bowed. Mataan returned the latter half, then replied with the same pomp and ceremony expected of all diplomats. Finding a way to mirror one’s words without actually using said words was the diplomatic way and all, but even Simon was impressed with the speed and ease Mataan employed her reply.
There was an almost audible blowing of trumpets despite none being present. Indeed, quite the opposite gave it the effect. No-one spoke. No-one moved. A mutual soaking in the profundity of the moment occurred, in which both Simon and Lina squirmed. Then, as if all at once, the ceremony ended and Ramla became more affable.
“Ambassador Mataan, if I may introduce my colleagues,” she half-bowed, gestured to the three Vuur beside her. “Ambassador and First Patriarch Geloof. Curator and Economist Nakato. And Supreme Guardian Zulu.” The trio prayer-bowed in tandem. “Ambassador Geloof and I are responsible for smoothing the transition to galactic partners. Supreme Guardian Zulu is here to ensure any security matters are handled. And Curator Nakato–” she gestured to the smallest, youngest of the assembled Vuur. “– will ensure any trade, cultural or physical, is overseen with the utmost care.”
“We are all pleased to meet you,” Nakato said with a small, feminine voice. “And on behalf of the people of Vursara, I am prepared to offer you the formal but immediate gift of our planetary orbit for continued occupation.”
“That is most generous of you and your people, Curator Nakato,” Mataan said, empirically graceful. Simon felt the roll of Snow’s eyes. Mataan turned grave. “As certain as I am of the historical significance of this moment, I am also certain of a threat we have inadvertently exposed you to.”
The Solsians were on-edge now. If the Vuur mirrored it, they were experts at hiding it. Or, Simon thought, their stone-like statures extended to their personality as well, making them eternal, immovable. A mutual pause and silent response between Mataan and Ramla not only allowed, but requested her to continue with neither fear nor ire.
Simon was calmer now. Oddly at-ease. Mataan too, though only externally. “Ambassadors, it is with the utmost sincerity I admit our discovery of your planet was as incidental as was believed. But it is with the most intense regret that this incident did not go unnoticed by those of our peoples whom feel marginalized for their divisive beliefs.”
A momentary silence.
Then, Ramla lamented quietly, “I see.”
Mataan replied with genuine sorrow and a slight, sad purr. “There is no denying our meeting is overshadowed by this reality. However, I believe it in our best interests, as individuals and representatives of our people, to admit this outright so our relationship might be formed of the strongest bond possible.”
Simon could feel his heartbeat in his throat. It rattled in his teeth, made a temple-vein throb. Then, he felt everyone else’s heart-beats add to it. For a full fifteen seconds, it last in plain, torturous silence.
Ramla again bowed her head. “This is indeed, troubling. Your willingness to reveal this information, however difficult and conflicting, engenders trust. That said, the reality of this… threat changes things. Perhaps it would be best if we meet in person to further discuss the matter.”
A mutual release-valve belched into the room. Mataan swallowed hard, relieved. Had she been capable of it, Simon would’ve expected to see her wiping sweat from her forehead. Instead, she carefully controlled her breath to conceal the obvious hints of pressure-panting.
Hours later, Simon was– in a way– glad for the way things had turned out. In another way, he was hysterical. He found himself standing outside an airlock, freshly showered and dressed, beside a similarly fresh Lina.
Behind him stood Snow, arms crossed, and dressed in kingly shoulder cape and armor. Stylized black-on-red draped over his right shoulder down to calf-height. Among other things, hiding the plaz-pistol at his back. His formal armor was as Kingly as he had a right to: Glassy, jet-black, composite ceramic interwoven at strengths higher than braided steel. Neither ballistics nor energy could pierce the Warrior-King armor. Between the gear and his various belts and pouches, he might as well have been some ancient monarch-conqueror.
Beside him, Niala was a similar picture of royalty. Her Matriarch robes were hewn in the most vibrant colors, of the finest silks, and hemmed in gold-fiber weave. A drapery of beads formed concentric circles, strung in equally multitudinous hues from her mid-neck to just-below her shoulders. The cloak-like effect managed an unquestionable royalty.
Yet to Simon, she still resembled a pack of cheap colored pencils.
It was only then he realized the Vuur might believe him shabbily dressed. Lina too. The pair were to represent the entirety of Humanity, Sol’s most prolific and so-called advanced species, in cheap cotton and polyester. As far as first impressions, humans weren’t doing well. Simon and Lina would only make it worse.
“Just another reason to get home,” he muttered, Galactic politics e’er his kryptonite.
His utterance gave way to the distant sound airlock depressurization. In moments, he would make first, Human contact with an alien species since the Zelphod. The thought terrified him, given how it went so well and all…
He couldn’t help but think of all those anti-Humanists bitching and moaning about their so-called “marginalization–” code for “veiled hatred–” and how they weren’t being properly represented, galactically. Meanwhile Mataan, an evolved feline, was first to make contact. Yet sometime in the future he’d hear about “Human involvement,” Human “guided” contact, while nothing about Mataan’s presence or direction was said.
The truth was, their long held dominance of Earth and Sol had altered Human psychology to a point of apathy. Humans couldn’t give two spits about making history. They’d done it already. They’d never be forgotten. Never die out. All of Human history, from its amoebic origins to its bipedal maturation, had been about establishing a legacy. That was done. The species as a whole could kick back and bask in the universe they’d helped find and form, await their eventual end in its heat-death.
Of them, no Humans were more of this mindset that Lina and her countrymen. The English had been conquerors for thousands of years, inclusively. When the time came that matters were sufficiently tended to, they withdrew to focus on the home-front. They were by no means the only example, merely the most relevant to mind.
He tried to mirror the English aloofness. Evolved life was eager, new. From Melchondo to Niala and Snow, and the Anti-Humanists– Hell, even the Vuur– each was eager to make a mark; to leave an impression of humble nobility. Simon just hoped to get through without making an even greater ass of himself than he eventually would anyhow.
They lined up to received the Vuur as a procession. Mataan led them out. She began by introducing them to Niala. They shook hands one at a time with a slight bow. Beside her, Simon was fought back tears. His eyes were watering. His body worked on instinct to mirror Niala’s movements. He didn’t even recall saying hello, nodding, bowing.
Rotten-egg stink swallowed him, as if billowing in from a chicken coop left in the sun for days. Simon couldn’t help it. The sudden presence was overwhelming, gut-wrenching. Internally, he screamed, wept. Externally, he blinked repeatedly, eyes burning and somehow not leaking.
The horrendous smell outright confirmed two things; Vursara was primarily a sulfuric world. And, the Vuur lacked any olfactory senses. It made perfect sense for a species on a world dominated by such rankness not to evolve a sense for it. Both from evolutionary and social standpoints, there was scientific logic to it. Less time supplying fluids and development to vestigial senses meant more for important ones. Moreover, not smelling one another meant one less barrier to emotional attachment or procreation.
Personally, Simon envied that lack of noses, wished it on himself. However unaware of it he was, the others were right along with him.
Before he knew it, the delegation disappeared down the hall for the control room. Niala and Lina trailed behind with Melchondo between them. Snow and Simon glanced at each other, for once, both on precisely the same page.
Snow winced, “Smell like a sewer.”