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The Diplomats

Tom Jolly is a retired astronautical/electrical engineer who now spends his time writing SF and fantasy, designing board games, and creating obnoxious puzzles. His stories have appeared in Analog SF, Daily Science Fiction, Compelling Science Fiction, and New Myths, with a few collected in a short story collection, "The Witch and the Two Headed Boy" (on Amazon). He lives in Santa Maria, California, with his wife Penny in a place where mountain lions and black bears still visit. You can discover more of his stories at sitcom.com/~tomjollytomjolly2.htm.

This is my first encounter with the Tarak species. They are insectoid, enclosed in a brightly colored exoskeleton, but anatomically arranged much like a human. I watched the video about them without paying much attention. They have two rows of holes--breathing orifices--along the sides of their bodies, and small rows on their heads. Their mouths look like a small machine, reminding me of a tiny paper shredder, so I presume they eat food and process it somewhat like humans do. Their eyes are dark, round orbs, larger than human, and so the light in the room is kept dimmer than I like, and brighter than the Tarak likes. We are still too close in size, shape, and function to be comfortable with each other, but this meeting must be done.
I hear the Tarak's name, but cannot pronounce it with my human mouth and never try. I do not know whether the Tarak is male or female, or neither or both. When I talk on my own communicator to my team, I catch myself calling the Tarak "him." No one has corrected me yet.
We will be together for two weeks. I cannot speak a word of his language, though if I hear it, I can understand a few dozen words. Most important are yes and no. They are the foundation for communication. I don't know what his level of training has been, though there's not much reason for us to talk anyway.
I'm sweating. The Tarak is bundled in something thick, though it's difficult for me to tell if it is part of his body or not. He never removes it. I'm also carrying a bottle of breathing air, since our atmospheres are not so similar that we can share the same air, though I am required to intermittently sample the room's air. It isn't poisonous, but it could not sustain me. We have both made concessions so that we could occupy the same space.
I've met with nine new alien species during my career, most of them much more alien than this one. I survived all my meetings, but you never know. One way or the other, this will be my last meeting. I will retire or I will die. This is my job. I am called a Diplomat. It is a euphemism.
I hold up a hand in greeting. We do not touch. The Tarak has been briefed on greetings, as I have, and he, too, holds up one hand, mimicking my own action. It looks like a knight's gauntlet, with narrow, pointed fingers. When he holds forward his two chitinous hands like a cup, I do the same. I wonder what it means.
Then we sit back and wait.
We have our own toilets and beds for rest, assuming he needs rest, which are connected to the meeting room. He spends much of his time looking at a communicator, chattering at it in his clicking staccato language. I read a book, which he seems curious about, and I let him examine it. He seems amused, I believe, and hands the book back to me making more clicking sounds. There's at least one yes and no in there, so I have no idea what he said. I just nod.
I bring out a game of Go on day two. The Tarak is curious again, and I try to teach the game purely by example. The process is not easy going, and the Tarak eventually goes back to his small communicator. I cannot shake the feeling that he seems disturbed about something, though I know better than to anthropomorphize his actions.
On the third day, the Tarak is wobbly on its feet. He stares at me a lot and says nothing, then retires to his quarters before noon. There are noises that cannot be language. They are horrible to hear.
Sometime during the fourth day, the Tarak dies. This is my first death in ten meetings. I go look at the dead Tarak and mourn his death, but I do not touch him.
I stay in the area for a full two weeks with his corpse in the next room, while whatever Earthly microbes that killed him, borne by my body, continue to eat away at him. The color of his bright carapace fades to gray, like my thoughts. I am glad that I'm breathing through an air bottle, since the sampled smell is overwhelming. The two weeks give his dying biosystem a chance for a counterattack, but I do not succumb.
This is not the first test of compatibility. Specimens and samples have been taken and tested, challenging each other. Early signs were promising. We do not throw away lives on meetings such as this if the outcome of death is inevitable. But our overall biosystems are complex and interact in unexpected ways. And so, here we are.
The lesson has been learned, the purpose of the meeting fulfilled, but I'm in quarantine regardless, and will be for another year. Unlike the other nine species I met, the Tarak will never visit Earth or their colonies, and humans will never step foot on any planet tamed by the Tarak. Our only exchange with their species will be information, sent from afar, so that they can survive the exchange.
After two weeks, I am given my own quarters in isolation and the Tarak's body is incinerated. There is plenty to keep me occupied for the next year and a large window where I can entertain visitors during the rare times that I have them.
I know that our whole meeting was observed anxiously and hopefully by both species. My heart aches for the Tarak, and when I discover that many of them learned to play Go, and I wonder what could have been, I cry.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, December 9th, 2019

Author Comments

It's an interesting question, whether alien biologies will affect one another; I'm generally of the opinion that they won't; even bacteria on Earth, if placed in a new environment, will not thrive, and will succumb to whatever bacteria have already adapted to that niche. But when we meet aliens for the first time, we can't trust this idea, and before we accidentally allow one ecosystem to wipe out another by the simple act of exposure, we will need to test the compatibility. And we will always need volunteers for the dangerous parts, and they will always be there. This story explores that simple idea.

- Tom Jolly
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