Day 13. 63 pages, 28,687 words.
Cavanaugh grew still more jocular and informal once they were descending through the spacious, well-lit building. The interior of the upper-floor area was open and well-lit, with galleries leading off at periodic intervals. A broad, gentle sweep of carpeted ramp circled the vaulted space and led towards conference rooms halfway down the structure. There were elevators, the Divine President explained, but hosts and guests couldn’t all fit into a single car – and with heavily-armoured Gydanna in their company, he added delicately, weight might have been an issue.
“My grand-daddy used to work in this building,” Cavanaugh told Char and the other representatives while they strolled along the sweeping curve. He pointed to a framed image on a wall as they passed by. It showed the same building they were currently in, but somewhat different in appearance. Its upper floors were flared outwards with some sort of gleaming chrome balcony arrangement, and a larger neighbouring structure Char had noticed on their approach was conspicuously absent. “It wasn’t the Ethics Building back then, of course, but Lostlake Memorial Consolidated. Which is a fancy-sounding but ultimately meaningless bit of fluffery for what was basically an investment brokering company…”
These words, too, seemed like fancy-sounding but ultimately meaningless fluffery to Char, but she didn’t say so. “The building has some nostalgic qualities for you then, Divine President?”
“I’ll be honest with you,” Cavanaugh said, leaning in and tilting his head up towards hers conspiratorially. “The only part of the building that had sentimental value to me was the Zootie’s on the second floor, and they converted that into a press station when I was twenty-five,” he grinned, then explained, “Zootie’s was a restaurant chain … ah, a place where people could go to eat from a selection of food unique to that chain? There used to be one on every corner when I was a kid, but the one in the old LMC building was special. My grand-daddy used to take me to lunch there.”
“A shame there is no longer a Zootie’s,” Char said, marvelling at how smoothly the sounds came out of her mouth.
“My handlers would haemorrhage if I took you to a Zootie’s,” Cavanaugh laughed. “But for later reference, I think there’s one still open in Swiretown. Sort of a nostalgia thing. Ah,” he chuckled, sounding a bit embarrassed. “I keep doing that, don’t I? Swiretown is an amusement park. A … a place we go for entertainment? Rides and fun things for the young ‘uns, shows for the parents, and a lot of old restaurants and diners, just as they used to be, only ten times more expensive,” he laughed again. “We’ll have to go there once all the official nonsense is over,” he grinned up at her again. “I’m buying.”
“That would be greatly appreciated, Divine President,” Char took a calculated risk on humour. “I seem to have come all this way without bringing any money.”
Cavanaugh, and the rest of the humans, rewarded her with a genuine-sounding laugh. Char had to admit, of course, that she had no way of telling a genuine human laugh from a fake one. Lalliard Malakaar obligingly joined in with a deliberately fraudulent laugh of her own, however, to provide a basis for comparison.
They reached a set of open doors, and Cavanaugh ushered them through.
“I am sorry about the height,” he said, as Char stepped into the conference room. The top of her head wasn’t at risk of hitting the door frame, but it was a close call. Gydanna hunched, overlapped her suit plates a little and turned sideways, but also managed to clear the doorway without undue fuss. Fortunately it was a double door, almost as wide as it was tall. “We have built furniture that I hope will meet your specifications, but we didn’t change the doors.”
“It’s quite alright, Divine President,” Char began.
“Please, Captain, call me Dolan,” Cavanaugh said.
“In that case, please call me Char,” she replied, as it seemed to be the expectation.
“I have to say, I thought we were all going to have sore necks by the time we were done with the formalities,” Cavanaugh went on with another chuckle, showing Char to one of the well-built Molranoid-sized chairs. He rounded the table and took a seat opposite hers. It must have been slightly elevated, because human and Molran were almost eye to eye when he sat down. “You guys are all so … oh, is there a problem?”
Malerious and Bonton had taken up positions on either side of the broad, massive seat the humans had built for Gydanna, clearly preparing to move it to the head of the table from its current location halfway down one side. Gydanna put a hand on Bonton’s upper shoulder to prevent him, and Char gestured as discreetly as she could for the Molran and the Bonshoon to take their seats. Lalliard sat next to Char. Malerious – who had evidently intended to take his place beside the head of the Molran Fleet Council of Captains but had missed his chance in the process of offering to move Gydanna’s chair – gave a brief scowl and moved further down the table.
“It is quite alright, Dolan,” Gydanna said, and eased her armoured bulk into the chair. Everyone in the room visibly tensed in expectation of the furniture collapsing, but it held. “This is impressive craftmanship, given the information at your disposal.”
“Ah, right then, of course, excellent. Well, as I was saying, you’re all so darn big,” Cavanaugh carried on cheerfully. “I mean, all five of the Five Species – you’re all this big, are you? Forgive me, I’m not even sure if all five of your alliance members are accounted for here. I’m only seeing two … maybe three? I see your little robot,” he added, when Char turned towards Gydanna and the giela resting on her arm. “Forgive me – again – I understand you introduced it as … is it another … a sentient machine, perhaps?”
“An avatar of the representative from the fifth species in our union,” Char said a little awkwardly. They had shared a certain amount of information, but only as much as related to the actual face-to-face meetings they would be conducting. Tactical intelligence, by common-sense necessity, was withheld. They had listed each of the representatives by name, rank and species, but Char accepted that this amounted to a lot of strange information to process and – as she’d already noted – Cavanaugh was largely operating without a script in order to create an atmosphere of warmth and sincerity.
As for why they might be withholding the reality behind N’naba’s cute appearance … Char had analysed this within herself and decided it was nothing more than embarrassment. And a certainty that the Fergunak were somehow going to make a travesty out of the whole solemn occasion. Even N’naba, on his best behaviour, would have changed the landscape of the meeting if he’d attended in the flesh. They would have needed to install a tank, for a start.
“It’s probably a bit confusing because we all look the same,” Lalliard spoke up, “obvious cosmetic differences aside. In fact, Dolan – esteemed friends,” she added with exquisite courtesy that Char suspected was as fake as her earlier laugh and only hoped the humans couldn’t tell, “Char and Malerious are Molren, Bonton here is Bonshoon, and I am Blaran. Three separate species. Gydanna is obviously aki’Drednanth, and then there’s N’naba, a communications node for the Fergunak.”
“Ah, see?” Cavanaugh said with satisfaction, turning to his fellow dignitaries as if settling a previously-debated point. “Fur-gunnack. I like that. They sound small. I’m picturing little fuzzy guys for some reason. Little fuzzy guys who wear adorable animal skins and play the drums,” the human made a gesture with his hands above the tabletop, defining a roly-poly creature not much bigger than the giela that was now standing between Gydanna’s gauntlets. The Divine President looked back at the Fleet representatives. “I apologise, is that racist of me?”
“How good do you think humans are at dealing with disappointment?” Malakaar murmured in Xidh.
“I enjoy drums,” N’naba said. “So few of the musical instruments of the Molranoid species maintain acoustic integrity when played through my natural environment. And I am fuzzy,” he continued, “at least on the inside. I can’t wait to meet you in person, Dolan.”
Cavanaugh beamed in pleasure. Char suppressed the urge to hide her face behind all four of her hands.