“We will accept nothing less than your unconditional surrender. Resist, and you will be annihilated.”
The series of clicks and snaps, coming from the segmented mouthparts of the looming arthropod at the end of the table, confirms my nagging suspicion that I really don’t want to be here. The massive nonhuman, a creature that resembles nothing more than a chain of glossy, dark gray beads sporting segmented legs, is coiled around what passes for a chair to its species, and looks to me like a cat tower made out of obsidian. The being… reclining there?… clearly is not at ease, shifting its sinuous form around, occasionally rearing up and flaring its legs.
“What did the miserable insect have to say?” This comes in a trilling, musical hiss, like air leaking out of a wet balloon across a harmonica. I glance at the only other being in the room, taking in the small, fine-boned body and great, flaring gossamer wings and head crest. A short, stubby appendage taps against the arm of the elaborately decorated divan in which the creature is ensconced. “Does it offer offense? We are eager to resume our work in eradicating its species.”
I let out the faintest of sighs.
I know I don’t belong here.
It’s a large room, at least twenty meters on a side, with walls of undress metal and a floor of some sort of polymer, shined to a mirror finish. Recessed light panels dot the dark gray ceiling, providing a soft illumination that’s just a bit… off for my sensibilities. It’s a place designed to fulfill a number of different purposes, depending on the circumstances. I can imagine it being used for diplomatic receptions or grand banquets, or as storage for unused furnishings or a makeshift dormitory. Right now, it’s playing host to perhaps the most important negotiation ever to take place.
“The Katronax High Matriarch states that she is willing to accept your surrender,” I say, almost forcing the words past my numb lips. “With the greatest respect for your people,” I add quickly.
The flaring pauses, and the patch of bright blue skin where other species might have eyes pulses and flutters in what I recognize as an irritated gesture. “Inform the miserable insect that it is in no position to make such a demand, and that if it does not immediately offer the sincere apology of its people and a suitable offer of compensation for previous hostilities, we will resume combat operations at once,” the Tabo’ra Supreme Dictator replies.
I swallow. My job here is supposed to be simple. See, I’m not a diplomat, not a political negotiator or conflict mediator. I’m a writer, one who happens to understand more than a hundred different forms of communication, both verbal and nonverbal. It’s a gift, I guess, one that’s helped me disseminate what my critics call “trite pulp” to more than three trillion eager fans. For me, fiction has always been better than fact, and the truth is always better if it’s been given a little… scope.
Today, all that matters to a lot of important people is that among the other languages I can speak and write, I’m fluent in both Katronax and Tabo’ra. Not a common thing. Good for me. So, instead of churning out light reading, I’m supposed to do nothing more than translate the words of two beings who utterly detest everything about the other’s very existence, all to prevent the continuation and escalation of a galactic war that threatens to destroy thousands of worlds. Including the one I call home. No pressure.
“The Supreme Dictator says that… she understands your position, but believes that an apology is in order,” I swallow, “and that some form of compensation is due her people.”
A rattling clatter greets this pronouncement, as the High Matriarch draws herself up in a clear sign of indignation and fury. “The worthless wretch says what?” It’s clearly a rhetorical question, as she doesn’t wait for a reply before continuing. “This disgusting scion of a genetic aberration believes that my people are at fault? That we bear the blame for igniting our conflict? You tell this… Supreme Dictator… that she can go spoil her eggs! I will not authorize the payment of a single universal credit in reparation for war that we did not start! No, she will be the one issuing a most genuine apology! Immediately after she goes and debases herself in full view of her entire species!”
For a second, I can’t do anything but stare up at the thoroughly terrifying sight of the enraged Katronax. I suddenly wish I’d been very good at farming beets back home, like my mother wanted.
“What is the miserable insect’s reply?” asks the Supreme Dictator, her tone calm and aloof, like she’s sitting in her throne room being read the morning’s breakfast menu. “Does it concede responsibility and offer an appropriate compensation?”
A big part of this problem is species-based. Each of the warring cultures doesn’t see the other as being on the same level of existence. They look on the conflict more as an… extermination than a war. Sort of like trying to wipe out pests that are getting in your way, only both side are both exterminators and pests, and they’re using fleets of space warships and weapons of mass destruction. Oh, and they’re both very good at it.
I clear my throat softly. “Supreme Dictator… the High Matriarch expresses her doubts as to her people’s level of culpability, and does not feel that a request for an apology or reparations is appropriate.”
The Supreme Dictator’s strange features twitch. “Then we will resume hostilities at once.” She shifts on her divan, preparing to rise and leave. “I did not expect much to come from this farce. The miserable insects are barely capable of thought, much less reason. The only thing that has protracted this conflict is their sheer numbers. Oh, well, we’ll simply have to divert more asteroids toward their inhabited systems.”
She’ll do it, too. I know that just from the thorough orientation on their shared history that I studied in preparation for this conference. Both sides have unleashed horrible weapons on the other, wiping out entire worlds, killing billions of individuals. Worse, they aren’t discriminate in their targeting. Saturation bombing with interstellar bodies or massed swarms of interplanetary missiles is all well and good, but if your own world happens to be in the middle of it, well, you see the problem.
And I don’t know what I can do about it. I’m not a diplomat, not a seasoned negotiator or arbitrator. The Katronax and the Tabo’ra have been fighting since before humanity reached for the stars. No one living is certain of how, why, or when their conflict started. The most informed experts agree that it must have something to do with their utter inability to understand anything about each other. I mean, they’re so different that the whole multi-millennial war might be the result of a simple translational error when they first made contact. Whatever the cause, neither side seems willing to give it up. It took the interest of half the other spacefaring species in the galaxy to convince them even to talk to each other, and it looks like it’s going to end up exactly the way everyone predicted.
It’s a real shame that these two species are fundamentally incapable of communicating with each other, lacking even the necessary biological mechanisms to understand or replicate the other’s speech or writing. Of course, I feel that way because I’m the only being they could find on short order to translate for them. And then there’s that whole “war that’s destroying the galaxy” thing. I try to imagine what my fate will be if these negotiations fail, whether I’ll be put on trial, or if the esteemed participants of this peace conference will simply decide that I’m of no more use as a translator, and eat me right here. At the very least, for what’s left of human history, I’ll be known as the person who got my homeworld obliterated.
“What is the worthless wretch doing?” the High Matriarch demands. “Is she preparing to leave? Are these foolish negotiations at an end? Can we resume the conflict now?”
Yep, it’s all falling apart. By this time tomorrow, asteroids and missile will be flying, with a greater than ninety percent chance that at least one planet-killing weapon will “accidentally” impact my world. They’ll barely have enough time to condemn me as a traitor before civilization is wiped from the face of the planet.
In the midst of experiencing bleak despair, I futilely wish that I could have stuck to writing. At least with fiction you can write the ending you want, making up whatever you have to for the desired outcome… hold on a minute. A truly desperate, even stupid idea occurs to me. The Katronax and the Tabo’ra are incapable of understanding each other, and that is a shame, but it also presents an opportunity.
“No, High Matriarch,” I say. “In fact, she agrees with you that an apology should be forthcoming. She is performing a ritual abasement as we speak.”
Seriously, Tabo’ra physiology is so different from Katronax that the Supreme Dictator’s effort to rise from her ceremonial divan could mean anything to the High Matriarch.
The High Matriarch goes still, watching as the Tabo’ra shifts and wriggles, extricating herself from a perch meant to hold her delicate form in comfort. “I suppose that is a start,” she says at last.
It’s not much, but I’ll take it. “Supreme Dictator,” I say, shifting to face the Tabo’ra. “The High Matriarch extends her sincerest apologies, and the condolences of her people for the loss of so many of yours.” I lick my lips nervously. “She humbly submits that you accept that as an offer of peace, pointing out that any material reparations her people could present would be worthless to the Tabo’ra.”
It’s a huge gamble I’m taking here, and if there was anybody else in the room, I’d be in more trouble than I can conceive. But if it works…
The Supreme Dictator hesitates. “The miserable insect concedes responsibility? She apologizes for inflicting this war on my innocent species?”
“Indeed,” I say with a nod. “Most sincerely.”
For a very long moment, I don’t even dare to breathe. “Very well. It is true that the Katronax have nothing my people want or need. I am content to accept their recognition of guilt and shame. My forces will not venture beyond our borders, or launch another strike. The miserable insect has the word of the Supreme Dictator of the Tabo’ra Republic.”
Still on tenterhooks, I face the High Matriarch. “High Matriarch, are you willing to accept the Supreme Dictator’s apology as enough? She is afraid that her people are so lacking in ability that they can provide no reparations that you would find suitable.”
The Katronax stays frozen in place for a moment, her legs twitching. Then she lowers slowly back onto her perch. “Very well. I accept her humble apology. I will even forgo the requirement for public debasement. The military forces of the Grand Swarm of Katronax will withdraw to our borders, and make no more attacks against the worthless Tabo’ra.”
All the tension drains out of the room, and I slump in my seat. I don’t know how that worked, but it did. For longer than I’ve been alive, these two species have been locked in a war of mutual annihilation. Their complete inability to understand each other has cost the lives of countless beings, perpetrating an endless, destructive conflict. Now, that very inability has ended the conflict. Sure, it took some monstrous liberties with the truth on my part, but I think I can learn to live with that. I think a lot of people can live with that.
And if anyone complains about it, all just tell them it was a translational error.