by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Beyond Centauri, Issue #23, January 2009
The guards backed away, cautious, ready to intervene. The diplomat raised his eyebrows, hopeful. Unfortunately, the aliens didn’t stay still for long. The Zi’rai representative launched herself at the Zee’nee, and their fight broke out again. N-jointed arms flailed and mandibles snapped. The four human guards flew into the fray and laboriously re-separated the aliens.
The Zi’rai, with her dramatically striped carapace, strained against the guards. Her brilliant stripes catching the light, the Zi’rai cut an imposing, bellicose figure. It took three guards to hold her. The Zee’nee, however, cowered. His deep purple carapace blended into the shadow cast by the one guard, Crewman Davis, standing over him.
“Take them away,” the diplomat said, lowering his head into his hands. “Three of you guards take the Zi’rai to cellblock gamma and keep a two man watch over her at all times. Crewman Braieden, take the Zee’nee to cellblock alpha. I’ll join you shortly.” The diplomat stumbled over the word “crewman”…it always felt weird to call his one woman guard by that title.
“Commander Dyall, Sir,” Braieden objected, “I already have a good hold on the Zi’rai, sir. Why not send Crewman Davis?”
“Whatever’s easiest.” Then, turning to his Keat translators perched on their stands, the diplomat Dyall added: “Babbette, you follow the Zi’rai; Jude, you go with the Zee’nee. See if you can make more progress on their languages. Everyone dismissed.”
“Yassir,” chimed the Keats.
The guards began with their myrmecoid charges down the hall. Jude, with his gray feathers, and Babbette, with her designer colored feathers — a more recently gengineered Keat — took to the air and flapped after them.
The diplomat, alone now, slid forward, slumping against the negotiation table. He thumped his forehead lightly against the cool surface. Negotiations were not going well. Negotiations were not, he corrected himself, going at all. He’d dealt with intractable delegates, but he’d never before dealt with delegates so deeply committed to their war that they continued it in one on one combat.
For the moment, the situation was under control. The delegates were separated. Warships flanked either side of Dyall’s diplomatic dinghy. The warlike Zi’rai ship was pinned against an asteroid. The Zee’nee ship wasn’t giving any trouble. Still, it was an unhappy status quo.
Maybe Dyall couldn’t get the delegates talking to each other, but he could at least talk to the two of them. Getting a few of his multitudinous questions cleared up would be a real start.
* * *
Standing before the Zee’nee’s cell, Dyall looked upon the many joints, the dull sheen, the smoothness and intricacy of the Zee’nee’s body. It was like a finely tuned, well-oiled machine. Dyall tried not to think of it as a war machine… but after watching the delegates fight, it was hard to think of it any other way.
Looking at such efficiency, Dyall felt clumsy and lumpy in his own body. Even Crewman Davis, standing beside the cell’s door, looked odd, his shape unsuitable to its task, in contrast to the Zee’nee. Some alien races are so efficient, Dyall thought. He wondered if human bodies seemed that way to any of the aliens he’d met. It would have surprised him, partly because he felt so tired.
“Ask the Zee’nee whom it represents,” Dyall commanded Jude.
In response, the gray-feathered Keat screeched an incomprehensible jumble of sounds. Those sounds made more sense in Dyall’s ears when he saw the Zee’nee respond in kind. The exoskeletoned creature looked up, mouth parts moving. His mandibles and smaller mouth parts clacked and clattered in a sound like fireworks exploding: a large boom, a crackle of smaller bursts, a large boom again, and then all the sounds at once.
“Noisy,” Dyall muttered to himself. “What did he say?”
“I represent my Queen, Her Highness who would be deeply offended to know that You Who Promised Diplomacy have instead worked in league with the Zi’rai Queen’s Lowness. Should that You know that Her Highness will not make sacrifices to reclaim my humble self. There are many drones on Her ship, and She will not suffer greatly at my loss.”
The Zee’nee drone watched Jude repeat his speech. As Jude finished, the Zee’nee folded his highly segmented legs around himself. The armored head, with drooping antenna, was held low. Vestigial wings on the back of the Zee’nee’s carapace spasmed fitfully.
“How am I in league with the Zi’rai queen?” Dyall asked, fearful of finding the Zee’nee unwilling to speak. Fortunately for Dyall, the Zee’nee continued to be bound by duty to the queen he no longer expected to see again.
“When that You requested diplomats, my self of a drone was sent. Drones are to deal the Queen’s dealing with drones, but You That Sent has subjected me to the attacks of a warrior.”
Dyall shook his head, trying to understand the Zee’nee through the hobbled sentences Jude kept translating. “If my guards manhandled you, it was only to protect you from the Zi’rai delegate…” But that wasn’t it. The Zee’nee was upset about the Zi’rai. Warriors? Drones? Myrmecoid races tend to be caste based societies. “Did the Zi’rai queen send a member of the wrong caste to be a diplomat?”
The Zee’nee did not respond.
“You and your queen have my sincere apologies for offending you. I am not knowingly in league with the Zi’rai. Whether you believe it or not, I represent a disinterested party.”
For a few antenna twitches the Zee’nee drone’s head remained low. Then he spoke: “Perhaps you do not, truly, understand… I will trust. May my Queen, Her Highness, forgive me if I am wrong. If You That Claim Disinterest are not in league with the Zi’rai Queen’s Lowness, then She has dealt You a great insult. When the diplomacy of a drone is asked for, to send the fury of a warrior is utmost treachery. She has refused Your offer.”
Again, Dyall felt the meaning in the words filtering into his head slowly. “If the Zi’rai queen sent a drone, you would deal with her?”
“With him. Yes.”
“I’ll get this cleared up.”
* * *
Jude accompanied Commander Dyall to see the Zi’rai warrior. As they entered cell block gamma, Dyall and Jude passed the changing of the guard. Crewman Anders relieved Crewman Braieden, who went on her way. Babbette, the colorful Keat was inside, and greeted them.
Now knowing the caste difference between his visitors, Dyall could easily discern the bodily differences. It wasn’t only the Zi’rai’s attitude that bespoke aggression: her entire body was built larger, sharper, more dangerously. Also, she hadn’t the vestigial wings of the Zee’nee drone. Nonetheless… The two creatures were sufficiently similar that Dyall suspected a shared ancestry. Perhaps their races had diverged, but they almost certainly grew together on one world.
“Jude, Babbete… how similar are their languages?”
The Keats conferred briefly and Jude answered: “The languages are similar enough to be two dialects of the same tongue.”
Dyall nodded. He’d thought as much. Swap the one’s dull sheen of purple and the other’s vivid striping for plain old red and black; shrink the aliens down; and what Dyall was dealing with was two warring ant hives in the Amazon Basin. Well, not quite.
The frightening individual in front of Dyall bore as much resemblance to a terran ant as a government soldier, machine gun at his side and shades hiding his eyes, bears to a marmoset. Dyall couldn’t help feeling he’d rather face the marmoset.
The discussion between Dyall and the Zi’rai proceeded badly. All of Dyall’s attempts at diplomatic communion were met with the reply: “I will kill for my Queen!” If Crewmen Anders and Dawson hadn’t restrained her, Dyall was confident the Zi’rai warrior would have proved her words. Probably on his body.
The Zee’nee drone was right. This warrior had not been sent on a diplomatic mission. If Dyall meant to make progress with the Zi’rai, he would have to contact their queen again.
* * *
The Keats accompanied Dyall to the ship’s Fore. Only Babbette was necessary to translate Dyall’s message for the Zi’rai queen, but the Keats liked to stay together when not otherwise employed. They were talkative and chatted incessantly. Dyall enjoyed the cheerful banter, although he never knew what they said. Jude and Babbette compulsively switched between languages, knowing so many.
“How’s the diplomacy going?” Pro-Pilot Lonnie asked, swiveling her chair as Dyall entered the Fore. Crewman Braieden who’d been talking with Lonnie straightened into a salute to her captain.
“At ease,” Dyall said, more to Braieden than Lonnie. The rank of Pro-Pilot placed Lonnie at a level comparable to, albeit different from, Dyall’s.
“Pro-Pilot, Commander,” Braieden said with a nod to each as she excused herself from the Fore.
“So?” Lonnie prompted, returning to her earlier question.
“Well, Carol,” Dyall said, sinking into his own swivel chair. “Apparently the queen of the Zi’rai doesn’t take us seriously.”
“That’s not good.”
“No, it’s not. Would you open a channel to the Zi’rai ship? I need to send a message to her…”
Lonnie turned to the communications controls, and Dyall wrested Babbette’s attention away from her conversation with Jude. While the humans were speaking, the Keats had perched themselves on the arm and back of an unoccupied chair. Babbette memorized Dyall’s message to the Zi’rai quickly, delivered it in the clamorous Zi’rai tongue as soon as the channel opened, and returned to her and Jude’s repartee.
Thus, the Zi’rai queen was warned: the warrior delegate was to be returned on the shuttle that brought her; if she was not replaced with a drone delegate, dire but unspecified consequences would follow.
Fortunately for Dyall, although he would have been able, he was not forced to concoct dire consequences. The Zi’rai queen proved cooperative and the new, drone delegate arrived within the hour.
* * *
Four guards stood behind two seated myrmecoids. Human chairs didn’t suit the insect-like aliens, so they crouched on the floor, segmented limbs folded angularly about them. Although not especially beetle-like, the aliens took on the aspect of ancient Egyptian scarabs brought horrifyingly to life.
Now, progress would be made. “Zi’rai delegate,” Dyall said, “as I have already told the Zee’nee delegate, I represent the Human Expansionist Movement. My government has important outposts and colonies in several neighboring star-systems, thus we hold vigil over the unclaimed systems in this sector of the galaxy as well.” Dyall paused, giving Jude and Babbette a chance to catch up. “The appearance of both your ships in this system baffles us. Where did you come from? Who do you represent? What is your business here?”
The Zi’rai spoke first: “The Majesty of Her Queen of the Zi’rai seeks vengeance for the loss of Her Kindred Queens. You must release the Zee’nee ship to Her.”
“My Queen, Her Highness, could hold claim for similar recompense!” the Zee’nee screeched in response.
“There are more queens?” Dyall asked.
The insects seethed at each other. The Zee’nee was first to respond: “There are no more Queens. Only Her Highness has survived.”
“Tell me what happened.”
The Zi’rai remained silent, but again the Zee’nee complied. “There were quakes. There were calamities. Great collapses of space. Time… Distance… The stars themselves… Everything shook as if to fold in on itself. My Queen, Her Highness, was clever, determined, and saved Us, Her Grateful Children. Her Highness found a rip… She took the ship through.”
The Zee’nee’s antenna drooped and his body lowered. Dyall waited, but nothing more was forthcoming. He turned back to the Zi’rai drone, but Dyall had few hopes of learning much from him. He had to try… “Your ship followed the Zee’nee ship through a rip in space?”
“Such cowards as They planted the seeds of the end of time! They creep away to hide while all others die? No! The Majesty of the Queen of the Zi’rai, one and only remaining monarch, demands vengeance.”
Dyall drew a deep breath. “Okay. What about you?” He turned to the Zee’nee drone. “What does the Zee’nee queen want?”
The Zee’nee did not look up. “My Queen, Her Highness, wishes only quietude in which to rebuild. She is alone now. Let Her Highness weep in peace.”
The dealings proceeded, but no more progress was made. The Zee’nee alone would have been easy to handle: Dyall could hand them the deed to a few asteroids in the Banti’phi asteroid field now. The Zee’nee could rebuild there. But Dyall couldn’t allow the Zi’rai to keep fighting them, and the Zi’rai would settle for nothing less. Dyall dismissed the unmoving delegates, under guard, to their cells.
* * *
Back at the Fore, Dyall settled down to talk with Pro-Pilot Lonnie. She listened sympathetically while he described the situation, but Dyall couldn’t help feeling he’d rather talk to another diplomat. All Carol could do was listen; she couldn’t advise, share similar experiences, or give true commiseration.
“I’d like to tow their ships to opposite sides of the galaxy and leave them there,” Dyall said. “But I suspect the Zi’rai would wage war with everything in their path until they found the Zee’nee again…”
“At least they’re talking to each other,” Carol said.
“Barely. It’s more like…”
“I mean that you were stuck before, and you made it better. You’ll do it again.”
“It’s like they’re talking to me… not to each other… explaining why they can’t talk to each other.” Dyall shook his head and leaned back. He emanated frustration. “Thanks for the confidence, though.” The doors slid open, revealing Crewman Braieden behind them. Dyall greeted her, saying: “Crewman Braieden… what brings you to the Fore?”
“Excuse me Commander,” she replied, “I didn’t mean to interrupt an officer’s conference. I came to speak with the Pro-Pilot, but it can wait.” With a curt bow of the head, Braieden backed out of the Fore.
“What’s that about?” Dyall asked.
“Nothing,” Carol said. “We’re friends.”
“Oh. I’ve only seen her with the other guards.”
“We keep our friendship quiet. It’s hard for her, being the only woman guard.”
“I try to accommodate her… Braieden takes the hardest jobs whenever she can.”
“Actually,” Carol paused, as if deciding whether to proceed. “You shouldn’t… accommodate her. She’s as capable as the other guards.”
“I know that. I just…”
Dyall wanted to defend himself but didn’t trust himself to speak. He thought about Braieden with the other guards. They joked and laughed together. Drinking buddies. Dyall’s own friendship with Carol Lonnie showed him that Braieden’s friendship with her must be very different from her friendships with the other guards. “It must be nice for her to have another woman to talk to,” Dyall said. “And for you.”
Lonnie nodded but said, “she can’t talk to me about current Expansionist policy like you can. But then, I never understand her descriptions of Aikido holds… We all need friends at our own level.”
“That’s true,” Dyall said. “I don’t mind admitting that I’d give a lot to have another diplomat to talk to about now.”
Carol smiled sympathetically and offered to put a message through to Crossroads Station. He knew several diplomats there, but he shuddered at the idea of stilted, time-lagged conversation. There was nothing like a true face to face, in the same room, old-fashioned conversation, but it might be better than nothing. Dyall nearly accepted, when he suddenly realized he didn’t need to. He’d figured out what he had to do.
* * *
Guards accompanied the Zi’rai drone home to his ship. They came with him into the presence of his queen, and Babbette delivered her message: the Expansionists had chosen to deal solely with the Zi’rai. The Zee’nee queen was to be executed, as a sign of good faith. Would the Zi’rai queen please accompany Babbette and the guards back to watch the ceremony? The queen showed reluctance, but the guards insisted. Since her ship was pinned against an asteroid by Dyall’s warships, the Zi’rai queen was left with little choice.
Jude told the same story to the Zee’nee queen.
Now two expectant, myrmecoid monarchs looked at each other across Dyall’s negotiations table. Finally, they were in the same room. “All right,” Dyall said, secure in his knowledge of the ten armed guards surrounding them. (He’d borrowed six from his warships for the occasion.)
Dyall drew a deep breath; Jude and Babbette straightened up to begin translating. Now he would see if a shared station truly meant shared interests. “You’ve both been lied to. There will be no execution.”
The Zi’rai queen reared her sharpest pincers. Guards raised their guns, but Dyall gestured for them to hold fire. He hurried on: “Neither of you will be returned to your ship, until you’ve worked out a settlement.”
“There will be no… settlement,” the Zi’rai queen spat. “Such a false and sororicidal monarch as she must die.”
The Zee’nee queen hissed back an insult, but Jude could not translate it.
“Fine,” Dyall said, “your ships will be turned over to their crews, and each of you will be locked up on charges of homicidal insanity.”
“We have only defended ourselves!” said the Zee’nee queen.
“The Expansionists will not take sides.”
“Without Us, Our Venerable Children will wither and die… there is no life for the Honest Hive without a Highest Queen…”
Dyall shook his head. Listening to such twisted and bizarrely lofty translations made him ache for normal conversation.
“Has not your Vileness an Heiress?” the Zi’rai said, taunting.
The Zi’rai clacked her armored legs upon the floor shifting her weight. “Nor for Us,” she admitted. “Does not matter. There are no strongholds here to conquer…nothing for a New Queen to inherit.”
“Our Worthy Workers build… With more time, We might make Queendoms for many a New Queen.”
A pregnant pause began. Dyall looked at the queens and could read none of their history in their alien faces. But the queens could see it. In each other, they saw their shared past.
* * *
On a world, in another universe, an insect-like species grew, changing, expanding, dividing into many races. The home-world of these races rioted with war. As they could, queens escaped into space and found breathing room of their own.
Among their native star’s asteroid field, the Zi’rai, Zee’nee, and their cousins found a relative peace. One queen per ship. One queen per asteroid. Queens dealing with each other only when need be. Absolute rulers of tiny provinces.
Then the end began. The star system shook with a universe’s dying spasms, and queens raced to get away. Perhaps another star would not be dying? But death was everywhere. Only one Zee’nee ship found a way out: a rip in space. An enraged Zi’rai ship followed.
Two queens, on their separate ships, stewarded the last vestiges of their race. Each found solace in her children… The workers made them proud; their warriors made them secure; and, their drones were a comfort. But none of those understood the pressures of being queen.
Now, these lonely queens were here, on Dyall’s ship. If ever there was a time when two queens needed to deal with each other, it was now.
“We withdraw Our Royal Command. We will forgive the Zee’nee…”
The Zee’nee queen hissed that there was nothing to forgive, but the Zi’rai queen continued unconcerned.
“…if the Worthy Workers of the Zee’nee will…work with Our Own Worthy Workers to build.”
“You mean teach them? As they are trained in nothing but the maintenance of a festering warship?” the Zee’nee jeered, but quickly added: “Our Queendom accepts the offer.”
Dyall sensed the end of his role approaching. For him, it was all paperwork from here: leasing a portion of the Banti’phi asteroid field; signing non-aggression pacts; informing the two queens of relevant Expansionist laws… For the queens, however, negotiations had just begun.
When Dyall left them, they were talking so fast that Jude and Babbette could no longer keep up. Theirs was a new empire in the making. Dyall would have to return and see it some day. Preferably as a tourist.