They paused in the shadow of the shuttle while Gydanna adjusted her refrigeration suit and Bonton had a brief but earnest difference of opinion with his ceremonial aadar. The braided sash was supposed to rest against his chest and run over his lower shoulders and under his upper, but it appeared to have worked itself diagonally across the upper left despite the fact that it had been straight throughout the descent.
“I think that one in the middle is Cavanaugh,” Malerious Hara Scodd said in a low voice.
“He looks different in person,” Char remarked.
“All of their data broadcasts are enhanced and edited,” Lalliard said. “To make their leaders look younger, larger, more physically impressive, more threatening and sexualised.”
“Threatening and sexualised?” Scodd murmured.
Lalliard shrugged. “It’s a sort of a thing they have.”
“I see,” Scodd clearly lied.
“Stupid thing won’t stay level with my laterals…” Bonton muttered, more or less irrelevantly.
“But they even enhanced the transmissions they sent to us,” Char frowned.
Lalliard’s ears rose eagerly. “Were you intimidated?”
“Not appreciably,” Char said, “although I was concerned about the nutrient imbalance that would have turned his skin that waxy and orange.”
“Where’s that fastening strip gone, I knew I should have let Tedya pack a bunch of spares, now it’s going to slide off every time I turn around…”
“His head-fur looks less like a helmet now,” Scodd confessed, and glanced at Lalliard. “In the last package they sent to us, it looked like he had a silver-plated head like yours.”
“No doubt, as I said, intended to sexualise him,” Lalliard replied breezily. “Did it work?”
“Devastatingly,” the head of Fleet military said dryly. “Why, if I were five hundred years younger, and insane…”
“Can we possibly maintain a little decorum?” Char asked. “As befits the occasion?”
“You mean the occasion of meeting a small group of government leaders in secret before the actual first contact event takes place?” the silver-skulled Blaran asked, all innocence.
“I’m sorry, Captain Char,” Bonton said wretchedly, “I always seem to mess things up.”
“I wasn’t talking about you, Captain Doal,” Char said kindly, although she most certainly had her reservations about allowing the perpetually-befuddled Bonshoon to join the party. She suppressed a tsk and stepped in to help Scodd as the head of Fleet military deftly adjusted Bonton’s aadar. “It’s fine. Nothing to worry about.”
The red thing that had unrolled from the doorway turned out to be a strip of matting. This was, Char knew, something of a diplomatic tradition for humans of the Unified Nations and Sundered Commonwealth of America, and meant the Fleet representatives were being greeted as honoured dignitaries, even celebrities. They were supposed to walk along the matting and greet their hosts at the far end. Even a meeting not taking place in the public eye, Char reflected, seemed to require this level of pomp.
Gydanna straightened with a gentle clank.
“The Weak One is online,” she said, raising a massive suit-clad forearm. Her other gauntlet came up and opened a compartment in the armour. Compartment lid and contents lifted out together in a smooth block, then unfolded in Gydanna’s palm into a small, crouching robot with a large sensor-covered head, and spidery limbs connected to a compact body composed mostly of battery and motors. The head tilted towards Char and blinked a blue-green light at her innocuously.
“We’re calling him N’naba,” Char reminded the aki’Drednanth gently. Of course, n’naba basically meant weak in a dialect of Xidh sufficiently ancient and obscure that the humans were unlikely to translate it readily, but it was the general principle of the thing. They couldn’t present an emissary of the Five Species called ‘The Weak One’.
N’naba, the life-form behind the tiny remote-controlled collection of sensors, transmitters and manipulators that was the giela of N’naba, was a special Fergunakil envoy and generally the first point of contact between the Fergunak and anyone who had been fortunate enough to never meet a Fergunakil before. He had a fundamental psychological imbalance that left him essentially crippled, unable to hunt and unable to function in Fergunakil society. Left to their own devices, the great grey monsters would have killed him when he was little more than a hatchling, but the concerted efforts of the Molren and the aki’Drednanth had resulted in his rehabilitation and accommodation in a special habitat on the Fleet flagship Enna Midzis, where he enjoyed a healthy, if rather hollow existence and all the raw meat he could ever want.
N’naba was unable to compartmentalise lesser sentients as flesh, and had a woeful habit of connecting with them not only as fellow beings, but almost as equals. He related to them on an intellectual level and even considered some of them to be friends. As a result, the other Fergunak called him ‘The Weak One’ and generally held him in low regard at best – at worst, he was considered no more a legitimate life-form than any Molran, Blaran, Bonshoon or even aki’Drednanth.
He still wasn’t nice, but he was the closest thing the Fergunak had to a diplomat.
“N’naba is online,” Gydanna corrected herself affably.
The little giela, after gazing at Char just long enough to be slightly unsettling, turned and clicked its way up onto the broad beige expanse of Gydanna’s shoulder. “Ready, Captain Char,” N’naba reported in his smoothly-modulated synthesised voice. It was similar to the voice produced by the aki’Drednanth’s transcriber, but pitched slightly lower to distinguish the two. “Let’s meet the humans.”
Char glanced around. “Right then,” she said.
They started up the red carpet towards the waiting aliens.
 Or at least the Fergunakil equivalent, which translated roughly as ‘school-mate’ or ‘less-experienced but non-hostile hunt companion’.
 The aki’Drednanth, while classified as lesser creatures, were at least granted the honorific of extremely dangerous lesser creatures.