Small Realities

Inside the mind of Lance Schonberg

Turn the World Around, Part 12

Chapter 11

So that’s what a Hoon looks like.

With three examples to look at, including my own, I was starting to wonder if humanoid might be the standard model for intelligence in the universe.  Might be better not to speculate, but it seemed limiting in a TV show kind of way.

One Hoon faced the screen while two more stood in the background poking at flashing lights with sausage-fingers.  The projection took up most of one wall on the Shalash bridge, but with everything on it scaled to the Hoon, I couldn’t really tell how big they were.  Each seemed to be about as broad across the shoulders as she/he/it stood tall, built along rhinoceros lines but without the long faces and lacking horns.  Large bone ridges hung over deep set eyes and their heads reminded me of cinder blocks rounded at the corners, or maybe squarish pumpkins.  Tiny ears sat too far forward and, as far as I could tell, they were completely hairless.  Visible flesh, shades of grey marked by spots and swirls in various browns, had a texture like goose pimples and I wondered if it might be natural armor.  They wore clothes straining at the seams, probably designed by the same person who did the uniforms for the first Star Trek movie back in the 70s, and in the same colour palette.

But I couldn’t tell how big they actually were.  If I arbitrarily assigned my son’s height to the one facing me, I’d guess it to be three or four hundred pounds of possibly armor-plated humanoid.  What kind of environment had the Hoon evolved in?  And why would any species in its right mind want to go to war with them?  But then, maybe he only came up to my ankle.

It had been a lot easier to wrap my head around the Shalash, mentally summarizing their appearance with the phrase ‘space elves’.  Pumpkin-headed disco rhinos didn’t quite have the same easy visualization.

The Hoon facing us, apparently Mahyul’s equivalent equal in ambassadorial authority and negotiating power, spat and growled for a long time in what I assumed to be its native language.  Unlike the Shalash on the bridge around me, I didn’t have an implant programmed in Hoon so it might have been a dog fighting with itself for the sense the speech made to me.  It didn’t exactly hurt my ears, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to attend a lecture.

Ambassador Mahyul stood a few feet back from the centre of the screen.  I couldn’t read the tone of her voice or the expression on her face and had a variety of disgusted thoughts with myself over why I should be able to do either effectively.  Hatred or distrust or greeting a long lost cousin, I’d have a hard time trying to read a trained human diplomat.  Well, probably an impossible time, but I managed okay with normal people.  Mahyul’s words I had to take at face value.

“I did not signal to waste your time, Ambassador.  The humans are a fractured people of many nation states.  The government hosting your vessel is not ready to communicate with the government hosting mine.  Without the ability of the Intermediaries to communicate, we accomplish nothing here.  How long will the truce hold without true negotiation?  I ask only that you provide access to a specific wavelength and frequency for your Intermediary.  We will provide the same and I will also make the request of the Asoolianne.  Are you so fond of war, Ambassador?  Shall we not allow the little we were able to agree to?”

The Hoon ambassador leaned toward whatever passed for a camera, blinking rapidly and not speaking for a few seconds.  I started to hear my own heart pounding before its mouth moved.  Grunt, growl, hiss, spit.  It—he? —now sounded like one half of a cat fight involving very large cats.  Why had I thought of a dog before?

“Thank you, Ambassador.  Would you like to join me in contacting the Asoolianne?  It might go easier if we call together.”

Growl, spit, gnashing of teeth.

Mahyul bowed just enough for me to see it as agreement.  “You are likely correct.  We would not want a joint contact to be interpreted as a threatening gesture.  Shall we select a time for our Intermediaries to establish initial communications?”

Hack, cough, growl.

“Thank you, Ambassador.  That will do nicely.”

The wall went blank and I heard words muttered somewhere behind me, words sounding a lot like, “Bloodthirsty savages.”

Chapter 12

The conversation with the Asoolianne—six-limbed creatures who nonetheless looked fairly humanoid if you ignored the antenna, excess eyes, and fluorescent pink skin—ran along the same lines and no smoother.  When it ended, Ambassador Mahyul had established that the first conversation between the Intermediaries would be initiated at the Hoon selected time by the Asoolianne communications conglomerate because the Shalash made the original request.  And the Intermediaries would have to arrange things themselves after that, communicating the details to their hosts.

Balance was essential and not exactly easy with three corners to worry about.  The Intermediaries would have our work cut out for us just talking on a regular basis.

It didn’t occur to me until much later that I shouldn’t have understood even the Shalash half of either conversation.  For me to hear English, Mahyul had to speak it.  At the same time, her implant had to take whatever the other language was and render it into Shalash for her.  Could they translate two different languages at once?  That wouldn’t surprise me, but didn’t fit with Commander Rizuk’s explanation of how the implant worked.  The other aliens could have been translating from English to their native languages.  Had their own Intermediaries been present off screen?  No, that wouldn’t matter.  They’d landed in places where the primary languages weren’t English, or even related.

It also seemed unnecessarily complicated, but maybe I was over-thinking things and the alien computer systems had no problems dealing with multiple languages from multiple species.  That seemed dangerous to me, having tried to read instructions for assembling a barbecue.  Would they trust several different computers built by several different species with so much detail when trying to solve an interstellar war?

It seemed very, very dangerous, and more than a little scary.

Thinking about talking to my counterparts that way scared me a little.  Yes, if we had to use human channels, we’d probably need six translators and have spies from multiple governments analyzing every word.  We’d never get anything done.  It all came down to trust again.  If a small computer implant managed for the Shalash, the ridiculously advanced computers all three species must be using would handle English, Spanish, and Kazhak, I hoped.  We’d be able to talk, at least.

Communication, well, that was something else again.

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