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Uploaded April 11, 1997

"Forty-Sixth Contact"

James A. Bailey, (c) 1996
2,700 words

I tensed in an immobile stretch as I desperately stifled a yawn. Nine years in the Diplomatic Corps should have inured me to the effects of boring speeches, but the verbal marathon emanating from Earth Councilor Manuel Rodriguez was severely testing my ability to maintain a facade of interest.

Why was the leader of Earth's primary opposition party allowed to run his mouth off at such an important occasion? Simple: President Gachot threw him this political bone in exchange for votes she needed to pass her commerce-reform legislation.

I must admit that the first twenty minutes, though predictable, was somewhat amusing. Rodriguez managed to unmercifully criticize Gachot's administration while he was thanking her for the opportunity to speak. He then took credit for her successful trade policy while simultaneously blaming her for the housing crisis around the Mediterranean, a problem created by his party's stay in office last term. The way he kept twisting the truth, I fully expected to see his body screwed into the rostrum before he finished.

He didn't oblige, though. He merely meandered into meaningless matters for a good hour or so. Unfortunately, that gave my brain an opening to idly wander where I didn't want it to go.

It has been almost two months since my soon-to-be-ex-husband, Frank, and I separated. I still don't understand what happened. Frank carefully explained that it wasn't me, or anything I did. All he could say was that the "spark" was gone. After six years he just wanted... out.

He tried to say that our relationship had become like my assignment -- at the beginning, unbelievably exciting, but later, predictable and uninspiring. I still can't figure out what he meant. Despite the drawbacks of having to occasionally listen to people like Rodriguez, I have one of the most fascinating jobs imaginable.

My mind ran in circles replaying that last conversation for the millionth time until I noticed that Rodriguez finally seemed to be winding down. I perked my ears for his closing statements.

"...and in conclusion, it is my profound pleasure on this seventh anniversary of the opening of relations, to welcome you all to the Satellite of Peace, and to present the delegates for this Forty-Sixth Meeting of Goodwill and Understanding Between the People of Earth and the Beings of...," he paused to look at his notes, "...Kasafratilakamukafrake." He pronounced each syllable carefully and correctly, then broke into a sickeningly self-satisfied grin.

Sure, he had gotten the pronunciation right, but that didn't keep him from sounding like Yosemite Sam swearing at Bugs Bunny in one of those old vids that Frank insists... insisted that I watch along with him.

Another unwelcome intrusion of Frank into my thoughts. I just can't help imagining what I'll tell Frank about this pompous fool, Rodriguez. I always gave Frank a blow-by-blow of these meetings when I got home. This would be the first time since the seventh meeting -- before I met Frank -- that I wouldn't be able to do indulge in that routine.

Rodriguez continued his speech, oblivious to my internal misery. "As the representatives of our beautiful planet Earth, I give you First Ambassador Imbesi Mgawi." To my right a small, thin man, topped with a fluff of white hair contrasting nicely with his chocolate skin, stood to take his bows before the audience. "Second Ambassador Tian Luc." To Mgawi's right, a tall, muscular man of forty delivered a quick bow and sat down again. "And Third Ambassador Catherine Barnett."

I stood and bowed to acknowledge the polite applause, failing once again to gracefully rein in my ceremonial robe and long hair. Imbesi glanced at me in a way that let me know I could expect some gentle ribbing after the meeting. Despite my mild embarrassment, I couldn't keep from smiling back at him. Imbesi is the most engagingly light-hearted person I have ever met. I actually look forward to his "dumb-blond" jokes.

"And now, I have the honor of introducing the representatives of... Kasafratilakamukafrake." Rodriguez gestured to a polyglass partition on his left that divided the room and separated the aliens' methane atmosphere from our "normal" oxygen/nitrogen mix. The three beings stood beyond the clear divide, their massive, jellyfish-like bodies festooned with numerous multicolored limbs and appendages.

"First Ambassador Beta Primary Female Quarziclizimat," Rodriguez said as the first being shimmered acknowledgment of the welcoming applause. "Second Ambassador Gamma Secondary Male Forshparkilitimaktu," more polite applause, "and Third Ambassador Alpha Tertiary Female Spenribitizuclespar...monfor." Oops. He had blown the name, and now the blood was draining from his face.

Rodriguez had been warned that the slightest mispronunciation of an alien name would lead to interstellar war, so he didn't have the option of ignoring his gaffe like politicians are wont to do.

Fortunately, this was only a perverse joke that Ambassador Mgawi played on dignitaries he didn't like, which was most of them. I peeked over at Imbesi and saw his small, satisfied grin. At that moment I was very glad to be on the good side of Imbesi's humor.

Rodriguez's present discomfort was only half of the fun, though; the other shoe would drop after our meeting. Ambassador Mgawi will tell Rodriguez that because of our skillful diplomacy, the Kasafrats had agreed not to decimate Earth. I could barely wait to see Rodriguez lick Imbesi's boots in relief.

Rodriguez showed more backbone than most, however. He stood his ground and tried again. "Third Ambassador Alpha Tertiary Female Spenribitizuclespazmitonifor." He actually got it right this time, but when he looked to Mgawi for reassurance, the ambassador shook his head disapprovingly. Nice touch, that.

The crowd, mercifully unaware of the joke, gave a final round of applause to both groups of ambassadors. The six of us moved to a pair of doors on each side of the partition. We went through into a wood-paneled room with an oak conference table in the middle. Both the room and table were split lengthwise by the ever-present polyglass wall.

The Kasafrats ambulated to their side of the table. The large base of their bodies precluded their use of chairs, but we gladly took the seats on our side. Like I said, they resembled jellyfish, mainly because of their translucent bodies. The clear skin exposed all sorts of unrecognizable organs and body bits inside of their two-and-a-half meter tall frames.

Once you get past seeing the innards of a Kasafrat, you have to deal with the fact that the aliens have way too many appendages. They have eyestalks, feelers, manipulators, locomotors, sensory organs, and who knows what else. Earth's best scientists have yet to understand a tenth of what makes the Kasafratilakamukafrakeans tick.

"Greetings, First Ambassador Imbesi Mgawi, Second Ambassador Tian Luc, and Third Ambassador Catherine Barnett," the alien in the middle said in perfect English originating from some organ or another.

"Greetings also to you, First Ambassador Beta Primary Female Quarziclizimat, Second Ambassador Gamma Secondary Male Forshparkilitimaktu, and Third Ambassador Alpha Tertiary Female Spenribitizuclespazmitonifor," Mgawi said, not overly worrying about pronunciation, but definitely paying attention to the form of address. The Kasafrats were strangely insistent on that point.

"I hope that Omega Septenary Neuter Bariklifatimanitinariktu is doing well," Mgawi continued. It was the Kasafrat Third Ambassador until two meetings ago when it took naternity leave. (I know, I know, but neither paternity nor maternity apply here, do they?)

"Thank you for your concern, First Ambassador Imbesi Mgawi," their Second Ambassador replied. "Omega Septenary Neuter Bariklifatimanitinariktu is in the twelfth period of its gestative regeneration cycle, and its family unit/conglomeration is expecting the fourth stage fertilization receptacle any day now."

"How nice," Mgawi said, clueless as to what the Kasafrat was talking about. The aliens' reproductive methods were more complicated than the instructions for a holovid recorder. In short, the Kasafrats have eight subgenders of female, seventeen subgenders of male, and thirty-seven subgenders of neuter. As for how they actually go about producing baby Kasafrats, I would need a dozen wall charts, a mainframe, and the better part of a week to explain.

I couldn't help wondering how they were able to keep everything straight when I was unable to make a simple bilateral relationship work with Frank. Perhaps I should ask if they have the equivalent of divorce in their society.

"Tell me, First Ambassador Beta Primary Female Quarziclizimat, what did the people of your planet think of our gift of Russian caviar?" Tian Luc asked.

"They were most pleased, Second Ambassador Tian Luc. The caviar makes a most effective deodorizer for our rhyspotic scellum tanks."

"Good, good," Luc responded, almost completely hiding his disappointment. I tried to tell him that the Kasafrats' biology probably couldn't deal with it, but he insisted that no being could resist a fine caviar.

"And our squishy klothomucluides? How did the people of Earth respond to our gift?" their Third Ambassador asked.

I knew that question was coming. "Our young people are most taken with them, Third Ambassador Alpha Tertiary Female Spenribitizuclespazmitonifor," I said. Actually, the squishy things were the latest in a long line of dime-counter novelties that existed for the sole purpose of giving kids a way of grossing out their parents.

"Excellent," Quarziclizimat said. "Since that exchange was so successful, perhaps we can find other items of trade that would benefit our respective worlds. Our artists have been working steadily to produce additional works for your cultural museums."

"That is most gracious of you, First Ambassador Beta Primary Female Quarziclizimat," Mgawi said. "However, we wouldn't want to deprive your world of its art treasures. Humans always feel guilty when they possess the works of others, even when given freely." That's diplomacy! The average human response to Kasafrat art was to toss cookies, much like Earth's president did when presented with the Kasafrat equivalent of the Mona Lisa.

"Since art is of such a personal nature," Mgawi continued, "I propose that we put the art exchange program on hold." We had debated this proposal vigorously with Earth officials. When we gave the Kasafrats recordings of our greatest music, we found out that twelve-tone music causes seizures in the Kasafrat's seventeenth brain, while seventeen-tone music causes seizures in their twelfth brain. Some scientists wanted to send some nineteen-tone music to see what would happen, but our diplomatic staff nixed that idea.

"Yes, perhaps that is best, First Ambassador Imbesi Mgawi," their Second Ambassador said. "What about scientific ventures? Our scientists are about to embark on a most interesting study of quasars using radio-frequency mapping techniques. Would the scientists of Earth care to join us in this challenging endeavor?"

Mgawi, Luc and I looked at each other to see who would handle this one. Tian was the science specialist, so it fell to him. "Well, we really appreciate the generosity of your offer, Second Ambassador Gamma Secondary Male Forshparkilitimaktu, but you see, we've already done a complete radio mapping of the sky. However, we would be more than happy to give this information to your scientists and save them the time."

"Thank you, Second Ambassador Tian Luc. I will inform our scientists of your generous offer." The Second Ambassador's enthusiastic response was belied, however, by the fading of the luxurious blue brain sacs along his third trilateral spinal array.

For a while nobody said anything. We had already burned most of our proposals in the first few minutes of the meeting. The awkward silence made me suddenly uncomfortable, so I tried to come up with something quick.

"I have an idea. We're about to explore the Betelgeuse system, so what if we made the expedition a joint venture?" I hoped to find a small piece of common ground to get this conference going in the right direction.

"Thank you for your consideration, Third Ambassador Catherine Barnett. Unfortunately, even with shielding, red suns cause our tertiary dermal carapace to break out into klivits, so we would not be able to accompany you."

"Oh, I didn't know."

"That is quite all right," the First Ambassador replied.

Another spell of silence fell over the table.

More silence.

A little bit more.

While I racked my brains for another idea, I noticed that Quarziclizimat's second ventral eyestalk was pointed at the ceiling. If I had any nerve, I could have told her not to bother. There were 1,556,462 holes in the ceiling tiles. I calculated the number four meetings ago during a similar lull -- 97 rows by 142, 113 holes per tile.

She finished her own count and returned her attention to the meeting. "There is a great deal that we do not understand about each other," she said, finally breaking the silence. "However, despite the many differences, our species are on friendly terms."

"Yes, that is certainly true," Mgawi responded, relieved to have something positive to say.

"I'm happy that you agree, First Ambassador Imbesi Mgawi. So I know that you will be pleased to hear that we have encountered a new species in what we call the Splerfitibum System."

"Wonderful," Luc said, the scientist in him coming to attention at the news.

"I must say, first contact was quite stimulating," Second Ambassador Gamma Secondary Male Forshparkilitimaktu said as his third left-central forelimb vibrated in excitement. "The Seesfara have almost as many brains as we do. Although they are fluorine breathers, we seem to have much in common."

"We're so happy that you have found somebody so compatible," I said, unsure of where this was leading.

"Thank you, Third Ambassador Catherine Barnett," Quarziclizimat said. "Then I'm sure that you'll understand when we tell you that we would like to discontinue these meetings while we concentrate on establishing relations with the Seesfara."

"I don't understand," Luc said. "Isn't contact with us beneficial anymore?"

"Too some extent, Second Ambassador Tian Luc," their Third Ambassador said. "However, you must admit that the returns have been diminishing with each meeting. We may soon find ourselves unable to justify the expense of traveling so far for the sole purpose of a pleasant chat."

The Kasafrat First Ambassador quickly interjected. "What my junior colleague, Third Ambassador Alpha Tertiary Female Spenribitizuclespazmitonifor, means is that we have learned so much from each other that there is little room left for surprise. I suggest that both of our species could learn much more by expanding our horizons and reaching out to others."

We struggled to comprehend what the Kasafrats were getting at. Another stretch of silence permeated the room until Ambassador Mgawi finally spoke.

"Perhaps you're right. We've heard rumors that an oxy-breathing, quadrupedal species has achieved spaceflight out towards Rigel. Perhaps we should go introduce ourselves to them."

"Excellent," their First Ambassador said. "However, I don't want to leave the impression that we will not continue to communicate. I see no reason for our worlds to lose the closeness that we have achieved."

"Yes, we must certainly keep in touch," Mgawi agreed.

"Good. I'm glad that we will still be friends," Quarziclizimat said. "Now, if you don't mind, we must be going. We scheduled the second contact with the Seesfara for a week from tomorrow, and with the vagaries of hyperspace... well, you know."

"Yes, we know," Luc replied trying to hide his disappointment. "Have a pleasant trip."

"Thank you, Second Ambassador Tian Luc," Quarziclizimat said. "Good-bye and good fortune to you all." They shuffled toward the door that led to their ship in the docking bay.

"Bye," I managed to utter as they disappeared out the door.

We stood around for awhile trying to absorb the implications of what had just happened. Suddenly, Imbesi began laughing.

"What's so funny," Tian asked.

"Well, you know how I would normally go out and tell Rodriguez how we managed to save his fat butt from the frying pan?"

"Yeah, so?" Tian responded.

"Well this time, I get to say that he actually did screw up our interstellar relationship."

Tian liked that idea and joined Imbesi in a hearty laugh.

However, I still had a frown on my face when Imbesi turned to me. "What's wrong, Catherine?"

"I don't know. This was my first diplomatic assignment, but for some reason, I feel like I've been through this before."

"Me too," Tian said. "I have an overwhelming sensation of deja vu."

"Of course you have," Imbesi said. "We've all had this experience at one point or another in our lives."

"But like I said, this was my first assignment, so how could I have been through this before?" I asked.

Imbesi just looked at me with that mischievous little twinkle in his eyes. "My dear, you didn't see it coming two months ago, and now you're oblivious to it again."

He pulled Tian and me into a conspiratorial embrace and whispered, "My friends, humanity has just been dumped."

Now I laughed.

If you'd like to make comments, good or bad, about this story, feel free to e-mail me at jbailey@sff.net, and I'll be sure to file them appropriately. <g>

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